It had been hours since the zucco had been chased away by the big black dragon. Dick slowly uncurled from his hiding spot in the ruins of their wagon. His mother had thrown him clear of it, and he’d caught hold of the slats of the bridge and held on until the whole thing stopped falling -
Dick froze in place until the horrible swooping sensation of the fall had faded enough for him to move again. The wagon had provided cover from the zucco, but he couldn’t stay there forever. He had to get out and find the others. They had to be hurt or they would have found him by now.
Bright splotches of color dotted the floor of the ravine. The long half of the ruined bridge lay draped across the dirt. The short half swung in the breeze.
The little flutters caused by the wind were the only movement.
Dick moved slowly through the wreckage. He stopped when he got to his parents. They had been flung away from the wagon by the fall.
No one else was moving.
Dick curled up in a little ball by his dad. A small, choked sound worked its way out of his mouth. He clapped a hand over it instantly. The zucco could still come back.
And if it did . . . Dick had seen a lot of dead things as their caravan travelled from place to place. He knew what animals did to bodies.
The soil of the ravine floor was loose. Sandy. He didn’t have any good tools, but he could at least try.
He scooped up two handfuls of dirts in his small hands and determinedly poured them . . . down. He couldn’t think any more specifically than that. He just had to keep moving, keep working, and not think.
The little choked noises kept trying to come, and his breathing felt kind of funny, but Dick just reached for more dirt.
The zucco safely taken care of, Bruce flew back to the ravine. He’d need to get a good look at the bridge so he could give the nearest prince a better idea of how to fix it.
Seeing the remnants of the caravan below made him growl. They had been on his territory and thus under his protection. He should have stopped this.
The brooding thoughts were interrupted by a scrap of movement. He peered down.
A little boy was moving slowly around two larger bodies. One of them was slowly being covered by a thin stream of dark earth.
There were two stone cairns, slowly built with his own juvenile claws, covering the bodies of his parents. Alfred had been with him the whole time, but he had still felt alone.
He couldn’t just leave the boy there. He couldn’t. He could - he could help him with the burial. His claws could dig up masses of dirt far quicker, or he could carry down some of the readily available stones and build a cairn for the caravan. Yes. He should do that.
There was just enough room for his to fly down, so he dove down beside the boy.
There was nothing to say. He knew that. Nothing could possibly help.
The boy had jumped away at the sound of his landing, but he hadn’t screamed. A second later, he had moved back, arms stretched back protectively around his parents’ bodies. His eyes were wide, and his whole body was shaking, but he didn’t move.
“I won’t bother them,” he said gently. “I’ll help if you want.”
The boy had jumped again when he spoke, but then he nodded slowly.
“I can get stones if you like,” he offered, and the boy nodded again.
He worked more slowly than he needed to. The boy needed time to say goodbye, and he needed - something. He wasn’t sure what. He couldn’t leave the boy in the ravine, that much was obvious, but he didn’t want to leave him somewhere else either. His instincts were telling him it was important to keep the boy with him, but he wasn’t yet sure why.
The boy’s parents got a grave together. The rest, he gathered gently in his claws and laid out for a larger one.
As the hours wore on, the boy’s eyes jumped warily to the top of the ravine. Eventually, he realized what was going on.
“The Zucco’s gone,” he assured the boy. “I took care of it.”
The boy’s shoulders relaxed a bit as he got back to work.
There was blood on the boy’s hands from scrapes, and he was concerned at the way the boy still hadn’t spoken. He kept surreptitiously breathing on him, but although it fixed the scrapes, he still didn’t talk.
When the work was done, the boy looked around in bewilderment.
Obviously, he hadn’t worked out what to do next. That was fine. He had a plan now. “Why don’t you come back with me?” he suggested. “We can come back tomorrow for anything you need.”
The boy only hesitated briefly before nodding.
The anxiety in his chest calmed. Good. He couldn’t fix this, but he could help.
Anything that wanted to hurt the boy now was going to have to get through him.
For the record, Jason had known stealing from a dragon was a bad idea, but he’d been out of good options. He hadn’t been able to turn anything else up for days, and if he stayed out in this cold much longer, he wasn’t going to live to feel the spring’s thaw.
He’d been smart about it too. He’d done it at night with the tools he needed to break one of the little ornaments off all ready. No one had been expecting the dragon for another week.
So it hadn’t been as stupid as it could have been, and it was just his rotten luck that this had been the one year the dragon had decided to come early.
He hadn’t even realized the dragon was coming until a sudden gust of wind had come straight down, and he had looked up to see leathery wings settling into place after one last flap.
He gulped as he backed away. Maybe the dragon wouldn’t see him -
The dragon’s head turned towards him. The enormous eyes glowed gold in the dark. “Hello, there.”
The sound that came out of Jason’s mouth was absolutely not a squeak. “Hi. I was just, just taking a look at your new perch there, it’s very nice, so I’ll just leave you to it - “ He’d been backing away as he spoke, but he’d misjudged in the dark. His back hit a stone wall, and the copper figurine tumbled out of his cold numbed fingers. It bounced across the cobblestones before coming to a stop right in front of the dragon. The moonlight glinted off it.
He was dead.
Jason bolted. Maybe, maybe the dragon wouldn’t realize what it was? He’d never seen the ornaments before, it would at least take him a second, surely -
A large scaly tail whipped around and curled around him, cutting off his retreat.
So this was it. Jason Todd, killed by dragon.
. . . Which was admittedly more impressive than dying in a miserable, frozen little huddle, but it also sounded at least potentially more painful.
Not like he was going to get a choice in the matter.
“I’m sorry!” he blurted out. Maybe the dragon would at least kill him quickly? “I only took the one, the others are still there, I swear!”
The dragon blinked at him and then looked down at the little figurine. “What do you - Oh. That?” He glanced down at the perch. “Those are new.”
He hadn’t even noticed. He had stopped Jason for some other reason, maybe just because he’d been stupid enough to run, and now he was going to die because he hadn’t been able to keep his mouth shut.
Stopping the boy had been impulsive, Bruce admitted, but he’d just looked so cold. His teeth had been chattering even as he sped through his nervous explanation, and there was a faint blue tinge to his skin that even the warmth of his tail hadn’t entirely gotten rid of. And he was so thin.
There was so much food back at the cave. He had a hard time judging warmth himself, but Dick certainly never shivered like that.
Someone obviously wasn’t taking care of him properly.
But - Well, he had to check. “And what do your parents think about you going out at night to steal from dragons?” Personally, Bruce was rather impressed at the audacity.
The boy tensed, but he shrugged and answered the question. “Dad got hung for thievin’. Mom . . . Mom got real sick.”
There was more to that story, but Bruce understood. Far too well.
Alfred had given several long lectures about how Bruce couldn’t start stealing people just because he’d found Dick. Bruce understood that, but taking the boy with him wouldn’t be stealing. There was no one left to claim him for their family-hoard. And if he left him out here, he would die.
Besides. Dick would love a brother, and Alfred had been talking about how important it was for children to socialize with their own kind. Maybe this would cut down on some of Dick’s nerve wracking trips out of the cave. Everyone won.
He did have business in the city, but he was early for it. He could just come back.
He curled his tail tighter around the boy, so he could gently lift him closer to his claws. “What’s your name?”
“Jason,” the boy said warily. “And you can’t eat someone once you know their name, that’s just not right.”
“I’m not going to eat you.” Breathe on him, yes. He needed to make sure Jason was safe and healthy. “I’m going to take you home.”
Tim’s wrists ached. He knew he should stop moving them, but with the cold metal pressing into them, it was hard to stop himself, especially when he coughed and they automatically jerked.
The grey, watery dawn had finally come around again. That was something. It should warm up a little soon, possibly even enough that his shivering underneath the cloak wouldn’t be visible.
Nothing, however, was going to make the fact he could hardly breathe through the congestion any easier to conceal.
Tim slowly forced himself to his feet. The chains had just enough slack to allow him to sit against the wall and try to sleep at night, but the effort was useless. He hadn’t slept more than a handful of hours since he’d come up with this plan.
The effort of standing pulled loose a few more bone rattling coughs. Tim was losing hope that the illness would pass before the dragon arrived.
Maybe, he thought desperately, just maybe, it could work in their favor. Jason had been a street kid when he’d been claimed, so surely he hadn’t been in the best of health, and Dick had just survived a zucco attack. Maybe the dragon liked claiming those who were a bit worse for wear, like a collector who took pride in restoring old pieces to their former glory.
Equally possibly, he would see Tim’s state and grow offended that they were trying to give him damaged goods. Tim wasn’t sure what they’d do then.
The leather of the satchel Stephanie had brought him pressed against his knees. He could just feel the four corners of the book she’d slipped into it.
Maybe his illness was irrelevant. There had been a dragon to the south several hundred years ago that had collected beautiful people and had them killed and preserved to look at the height of their beauty forever. Another dragon had collected bones, and so had ripped the flesh off his still living victims so that -
Tim tore his mind away from the book and steadied his breathing. Jason and Dick were still alive.
Which didn’t mean they were happy or that the dragon might not arrive, decide him unsuitable, and then make a snack out of him just so as not to have wasted the trip.
For the city, he reminded himself. For the people. This was his duty. He wouldn’t shirk it now.
Not that he could if he wanted to. The chains made sure of that.
Please let the dragon not think he was damaged goods.
If his mother had still been alive, she’d have been sensible enough not to keep him out here until the dragon arrived. Although if his mother had still been alive, they might not have been in this situation in the first place. She could have found a way to squeeze gold out of ash.
But his mother was dead, and it was too late for anything else now. This would work. This would be fine.
That was about the time it started to rain.
Tim wasn’t sure how long it had been raining when he gave up and just curled up in a miserable little ball. There was nothing to shelter him from the rain, so all he could do was duck his head and hunch his shoulders as the icy water slid down his back.
Shockingly, this did his cough no favors. And judging by the way everything was getting a little foggy, Tim was coming to the slow conclusion that he might have developed a fever.
You’d think a fever would at least do him the favor of keeping him warm.
He noticed it vaguely when the guards started shouting, but he couldn’t muster up the energy to try and figure out what was going on. The wind picked up suddenly, but it died down just as quickly, so he didn’t much care. He couldn’t muster up the energy for much of anything until the rain abruptly stopped falling on him. He could still hear it, but none of it was hitting him.
He stared forward blankly for a second before daring to look upward.
A large black wing was being held protectively overhead.
A warm breath blew over him, and he soaked in the heat gratefully. The warmth lingered as it settled into him. It might be his imagination, but it seemed like he could breathe a tiny bit better, and his thoughts were definitely clearer.
He turned to look at the dragon properly, but the dragon’s head had already risen to address the guards.
“What is going on here?”
He didn’t sound happy.
The guards agreed with his assessment. “The - the - the boy,” one of them stammered out.
“I can see there’s a boy,” the dragon snapped. “I don’t see any possible justification for punishing him like this.” The wing lowered protectively.
“It’s not a punishment,” one of the older guards hurried to explain. “We’ve sent a runner to Prince Drake, if you’ll just wait for him he can explain everything - “
“I’m not inclined to wait.”
The dragon was just growing angrier. Tim couldn’t risk him deciding to take it out on someone else.
“Basilisk,” he said. Then, drawing in a breath so he could speak louder and praying it wouldn’t set off a coughing fit, he said, “There’s a basilisk.”
The dragon turned back to him immediately. His voice was noticeably gentler when he spoke. “So this is some plan to deal with it that’s gone horribly wrong?”
Sort of. “We can’t kill it,” he explained. “Need you to. But we couldn’t afford the tribute. Tried - “ It was important that the dragon understand that, but jagged coughs ripped out of him before he could explain further.
“It’s alright,” the dragon said. More warm breaths washed over Tim until the coughs eased. “It’s alright. I’ll take care of it.”
Tim relaxed into the stone wall. “Good. Thank you.”
“But how did that lead to you out here?”
“Couldn’t pay with gold,” Tim reminded him. “But there were - rumors.” He coughed again, but the fit was much briefer this time. “Rumors you hoarded kids.” A specific type of child, although two weren’t really enough to be a definite pattern. Tim was just glad he fit the profile so they didn’t have to find out.
But he’d said something wrong. The dragon was growing angry again. “So they ripped you away from your family as a sacrifice.” His head swung around to glare at the guards.
“It was his idea!” one of them yelped. “We swear! Prince Drake will tell you!”
“I volunteered,” Tim confirmed. “My father . . . agreed.” That shouldn’t hurt. It was ridiculous to propose a plan and then be hurt when his father didn’t oppose it for once. It was a sign of respect, not an eagerness to get rid of Tim. He knew that.
“He agreed.” There was something truly terrible in the dragon’s voice now, and it took all of Tim’s courage not to cringe into the stone. This could go so badly, and it would be all his fault if it did. This was his plan. He had to make it work. “The chains don’t exactly support the ‘volunteer’ story.”
Tim’s head ducked a bit in shame. If he’d just proven to his father that he was brave enough for this . . . “I did,” he insisted. “They were just afraid I’d change my mind.”
The dragon growled.
“Prince - Prince Drake is almost here,” one of the guards reported. He pointed a shaky finger down the stairs to where a hastily put together entourage is quickly approaching.
“Good,” the dragon growled. “Get the boy loose from those chains. The prince and I are going to have a talk.”
Despite what Alfred kept insinuating, Bruce fully understood that he couldn’t just steal people from their family-hoard.
He remembered all too well the feeling that had come when Talia had told him what had happened to their egg. He wouldn’t inflict that on anyone else.
It was tempting sometimes, he admitted, but he was not without self-control. Getting explicitly offered a child was pushing said self-control, but he could have held on. He could have.
If not for the prince himself.
He finally arrived with his entourage in tow and a speech all prepared. A lot of flowery apologies. A repeated explanation of the situation.
About the only thing of value he got out of it was the boy’s name. Timothy. Or, more likely, Tim.
What he did not get was a satisfactory explanation as to how the prince could have even considered going along with Tim’s plan - or, worse, how he could have driven to such a further extreme.
Protecting territory was necessary. Giving up gold-hoard for it was admirable. Giving up book-hoard, food-hoard, animal-hoard, even - But family-hoard?
If you were willing to give up family-hoard, you didn’t deserve it.
If the prince’s eyes had stayed locked on his son as he spoke, Bruce might have had it in him to fly away. If he had been unable to look, even. But instead he shot him periodic apologetic looks during his speech, and with each weak expression of emotion, Bruce’s rage grew.
He knew what it was to properly value a family-hoard. He knew how to treasure young.
Tim was his.
Stephanie admitted two weeks into her journey that maybe she hadn’t fully thought through her plan. It had all seemed so simple when she was storming out of the city, but now . . .
Well, there hadn’t been a warrior in the city that could take out the basilisk, but the dragon had done it with ease. She didn’t like what that said about her odds against the dragon if it caught her.
But she couldn’t just abandon Tim. Even if it was . . . too late . . . she could at least do the proper funeral rites.
Of course, she’d have to get his body a fair distance away from the dragon to do that, so that would mean carrying -
Stephanie pulled her mind firmly away from such thoughts. Tim would be fine. She would be fine. Everything would be just fine.
She kicked a rock for emphasis. It bounced across the packed dirt road before coming to a rest at the bottom of the hill she had just crested.
Specifically, it came to a rest against a man’s boot.
A rather unsavory looking man.
Stephanie leaned down and grabbed another rock.
Bruce landed beside the unconscious man with a thump. He touched one claw gently to the man’s bleeding face. “Impressive.”
The girl yelped something that could have been an agreement. Then something bounced against his snout.
Bruce looked down at the ground. A rock had just fallen next to his foot. He looked back at the girl. “Did you just throw a rock at me?”
The girl lowered her arm. “ . . . Reflex?”
Bruce snorted a laugh and peered at her more closely. “Are you hurt?”
“Nope. I’m good.” Her voice was still a bit concerningly high. Bruce breathed on her a bit just in case.
“What are you doing traveling out here alone?”
The girl crossed her arms. “I can travel alone if I want to.”
“You can,” Bruce agreed. It was brave to the point of recklessness, but she could. “But seeing as even most seasoned warriors don’t, I assumed you must be doing so to some purpose.”
She bit her lip. “I’m looking for someone.”
Brave and loyal then. Dick would like her -
Bruce stopped that thought before it could get out of control. Remember what Alfred would say, he told himself firmly. “Who are you looking for?”
“I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than to help me,” she hedged.
“Finding people is important,” he said firmly. His eyes caught on the symbol embroidered on her dress. A maid’s uniform, likely, but that wasn’t the important part. “You’re from Tim’s city!” Which was not the actual name, and he would have to explain -
But no. Red had rushed to her face, and she had taken a wary step back.
“You’re looking for Tim.”
The girl jutted her chin out. “And if I am?” Her voice shook a little despite her best efforts.
This was perfect. He’d heard Tim talking about a girl named Stephanie. It must be this one. He could bring her back to the cave, and the others could talk her into staying. Even Alfred couldn’t object to this one.
“Then I am happy to say that I know exactly where he is. May I offer you a ride?”
This, Bruce thought smugly when Stephanie gave a hesitant nod, was an excellent plan.