The Tin Road saw two new, unusual travellers following its path.
"Are you sure you're alright there?" one asked. "I mean... you can ride with me if it's easier."
"Don't take pity on me just 'cause I'm blind," was the other's retort. "Besides, that tiny thing of yours couldn't carry us both. Its little spine would snap. I could ride and you could walk, if you want!"
"You know I can't do that, Terezi."
"Suit yourself, Tavros."
The female troll, Terezi, walked with a stick guiding her path. She'd picked it up on her journey. She had lost her eyesight, and dull grey orbs shone from her eyesockets. Tavros, the male troll, rode a bull, though the word can only be applied because the creature was bovine and it was male. It was so small that Tavros' useless legs scraped the ground.
Terezi's stick bumped a milestone. She crouched and ran her finger along its carved message.
"Two more miles to Reinbridge," she announced. "We're going to stop there."
"Isn't that a human town?" Tavros' voice quivered a little. "Don't they like to, uh, peel off your skin and eat it? Or something?"
"That's just a silly rumour," she said, waving her free hand dismissively. "Humans are no worse than we are. Hells, they probably think we do the same sort of thing."
"But they're so freakish! They've got no horns, and this weird skin, and their funny eyes. I don't trust them."
"I trust them. Don't you trust me?"
"Look, a couple of humans came across my hive a couple of years ago. An old explorer guy and his son. They were great guys! Really friendly, and they told me all about the humans. We'll be fine, trust me. I just want to sleep in a bed for once."
Tavros rubbed his forehead. "Well... fine. But if you get yourself into trouble, uh, I'm not helping you."
"Yes you would. You're a pushover."
He said nothing.
Three friends sat around a table in a tavern.
The red-haired one, the squire Dave, was recounting to the others his day's events, gesturing wildly with a rapidly emptying tankard of beer.
"So okay, word from the farmers up north is, there's a dragon living in this forest in the foothills."
"A dragon?" John asked, wide-eyed, the glass of milk in front of him long drained.
"Yeah! As you can imagine, they're pretty scared. So they sent word to the Order, and long story short, my brother's going to take it down tomorrow."
"It must be a young dragon," mused Jade. She had her hands around a mug containing a brew she insisted that the barman try with some leaves she'd brought. She hadn't yet drank from it, nor said much, just quietly enjoyed actually spending an evening with friends.
"Why do you think that?" Dave asked.
"When a dragon first learns to fly, it leaves the nest and settles into the forest. It hunts in there until it's big enough to breathe fire and moves into the mountains."
He didn't ask how she knew. Between her grandfather's adventuring and her own weird experiments he'd stopped being surprised at the facts she could come out with.
"Even a young dragon can be dangerous, though," John added. "Dragon spit is very acidic. We use it to etch things in metal."
"I'm sure your brother will be fine," Jade reassured, though Dave was more concerned that his news wasn't as impressive as he'd first thought.
The sun was getting low by the time the two trolls reached Reinbridge.
"This wasn't a good idea, Terezi! Everyone's staring."
"Just ignore them. They're probably more scared of you than you are of them."
Tavros looked at the onlooking crowd. "I... doubt that."
"Look, I just want t- hey!" Terezi fell to the ground, along with the girl that had collided with her. "Watch where you're going!"
"Sorry! Sorry." Jade stood up, reached out a hand to help, and saw the grey eyes. "Oh, you're... I'm sorry."
Smirking slightly, Terezi took the outstretched hand and pulled Jade to the ground, then got herself up. "Sorry about that," she said insincerely.
Jade stood up again, and dusted herself off, used to the treatment.
"Um," Tavros said. "Could, er, you maybe, uh, see it in your heart to, uh..."
"What is it?" Jade asked politely.
Terezi finished the question. "Do you know where we could find a place to stay the night?"
"Oh!" Jade said. "Yes, I think the Baron's Arms has rooms. Um, down the road, take the third left."
Terezi smiled. "Thanks. Sorry about knocking you down. Twice."
"My fault!" she said cheerfully. "I wasn't looking where I was going."
John and Dave remained sitting at their table.
"It's getting late," John said. "I should probably go soon."
"Stay a bit longer," said Dave. "I don't want to be sat here on my own."
"You could go home too."
"Yeah, and get stuck doing chores for my brother again. No thanks."
"Well, if I don't go home soon, Dad will wonder what happened to me."
The door opened, and a troll girl walked in. The inn grew quiet as people turned to watch her gradually feel her way to the bar.
"Hi," she asked, "could I have a room for the night?"
The barman scowled at her. "We don't like trolls in here. Not even kids."
The girl looked offended. "Why not? What have I done to you?"
"Your kind 've done us too much trouble." There was some nodding and general assent from the people. "We lost a lot in the war."
"But that was years ago! I was still a larva!"
"You're still one of 'em. So you're not allowed in 'ere."
Terezi growled, but she knew when to fold.
"Did you get a room?" Tavros asked as his companion stomped out of the inn.
"Have a guess," she scowled. "They're all scared of us!"
"So what now?"
"If it's like this everywhere, I guess we might as well save the effort and go sleep in the wilderness."
As they walked and rode away, someone called to wait. A boy with red hair caught up to them.
"Hey, look," he said, "if you want a place to spend the night I could probably get you a room up at the castle."
"You'd do that?" Terezi asked. "Why?"
"Well, I've got nothing against trolls and you seem alright and frankly John told me to do it. I'll pull a few strings and get you a room." He adjusted the collar of his tunic in a way he hoped made him look impressive rather than just warm. "Nothing fancy but it's a roof over your head. Interested?"
The trolls were a little taken aback by the offer. "Yeah!" Tavros said, happily. "Thanks!"
"Lead the way," said Terezi.
"Alright, follow me," he said. "Name's David, by the way."
"I don't know," Sir Joseph said, after Dave had approached him about it. "I mean, the Baroness owns the place so she's the one you need to ask. Actually I think she's here now, showing her daughter something. So yeah, go ask her."
"She wouldn't listen to me," Dave said.
"Then tell her you're asking for me. She'll listen to that."
Armed with this permission, he eventually found the baroness, Amelia of Rein, and her daughter Rose. He had to hide a smile at the sight of the daughter; Amelia did not yet know of their relationship. Instead he focused on explaining the situation.
The baroness was not particularly moved. "I see no reason. And there could be trouble." Dave bit back a retort. Was everyone in this town so against trolls? She continued. "I have nothing against trolls myself but there are many who object to their presence. And some are quite heavily armed."
"They'll be gone before anyone notices they're here, I swear," Dave said.
"Are you sure?" the baroness challenged. "I had already heard they were in town even before you approached me."
Rose spoke. "Oh, let them stay, mother. It's only for one night, and they're too young to be any danger to anyone."
"But what if they get hurt?" Amelia asked.
"They made it this far," Rose reasoned, "so they can probably handle themselves. And didn't you tell me trolls are trained to fight from a young age?"
The baroness smiled at her daughter. "You will make a good politician some day. Very well, they can have the room next to the servants' quarters." She gestured to Dave. "But on your head be it if they cause trouble."
Rose smiled faintly. The world seemed to love making her Strider responsible for everything. But he could handle it. As her mother led her away, she slipped a note into his hand. "Give this to the trolls," she whispered.
Tavros' tiny bull was stabled with the knights' horses as Terezi and Dave carried him to the room. It stood opposite Calibur, or Big Cal, Sir Joseph's monstrous horse. The bull cowered into the corner of its stall and tried to look inedible.
The room was sparsely-furnished, and the beds were rough and made of straw, but it was still better than yet another night camping. After Dave left with their thanks, the trolls turned their attentions to the note he had given them.
"So what does it say?" Tavros asked eagerly.
Terezi ran her finger along the note and read it out. "I know why you are here. A suitable companion can be found in the western forest, at the foot of the mountain with twin peaks. Hurry – it is being hunted. Signed, Rose de Rein." She mulled this over. "I wonder if she's telling the truth. I did feel something strange about her."
"How did she know why we're here? We haven't told anyone you're here to become a woman."
"Don't put it that way. Humans are kind of different about that and we don't want anyone to get the wrong idea."
"Oh, okay. How did she know you were here to find a lusus?"
Terezi thought. "I reckon she practices magic. That would explain it." She chuckled. "I wonder if her mother knows."
"So do you want to follow it?"
"Yeah. I say when dawn breaks we get out of here and go to that forest." She lay back on her bed. "I wonder what creature she's found."
"I still don't know what would suit you. I'd like to find out too."
"Better get to sleep, then."
Tavros leaned over and extinguished the candle by his bed. Terezi's, of course, was not lit. "Goodnight."
When the sun's first rays illuminated the crenellated central tower of Reinbridge Castle, the two trolls were already hitching the little bull and preparing to make their leave. Only the servants and squires were up this early. Dave, checking his brother's equipment, saw them go, and smiled. He had a good feeling about today.
The trolls took the western road out of town. A cursory scan of the horizon revealed the two-peaked mountain a few miles away. Full of hope, their journey began.
"Right," Terezi said, "let's talk strategy. How are we going to catch this creature?"
"Uh, right now? We don't even know what it is yet."
"Yeah, but I can't wait. What are we going to do when we find it?"
"Well, uh, if it's a docile beast, I know how to handle those." He looked at the blind girl. "But, uh, if it's the perfect lusus for you don't think it will be."
"So, what? Try not to let it kill us?"
"Pretty much. Just, well, try to make it trust you. Maybe give it food or something? We really need to know what it is."
It was late morning by the time the two reached the forest, coming on for noon. It was a different place to what it had been two weeks ago. Patches in the ground and growth were eaten away by acid. The creatures were generally jumpier and more flighty, even the aggressive ones. Small patches of char on the trees from belches of flame. Highly telltale signs that the trolls would have spotted, if either knew anything about dragons.
They were thus very surprised to find a young one sleeping in a clearing in the heart of the forest.
Unbeknownst to them, at this moment, another arrived at the forest, riding the most terrifying horse in the country. Big Cal slowed to a walk to navigate the dense woods.
"So what do I do?" Terezi asked, standing by the dragon's head. Occasionally a flicker of flame spat out from its nostrils as it snored. It was small, about the size of a small horse or a large pony.
"Uh, it's probably not a good idea to wake it up," Tavros said. "It might think we're a threat. Or lunch."
"Well I can't just sit here!"
"Maybe try to find something to offer it when it does wake up? I don't know much about dragons. I think they're supposed to like shiny things?"
"Do we have anything shiny?"
"Not with us. And I doubt there's anything in this forest."
At the sight of the dragon, Sir Joseph spurred Big Cal into a run. As the trolls came into view, he faltered to a stop.
"What the hells are you two doing here?" He shouted to them.
Tavros was frozen by the confrontation. Terezi spoke up. "We're trying to befriend this dragon." She then added, "it's a troll thing."
"Well don't bother," the knight said, dismounting. "I'm here to kill it and I'm not leaving until I do."
"Don't!" Terezi shouted in shock. "It hasn't done anything wrong, has it?"
"I know the farmers are damn scared. And it's a dragon. If it hasn't done anything wrong yet, it will."
"Not with me around," Terezi said softly, fondly regarding its resting head.
"Yeah, well, I don't trust you either. Trolls killed my parents."
"They died in the war?"
Joseph nodded. "It was bad enough helping you creatures get a place to stay the night. I only did that for my brother. I'm not going to let you stop me doing my duty." He drew his sword. "I'll cut you down if I have to."
Terezi panicked. The knight's armour gave away his position to her as he advanced – slowly enough to give her time to get out of the way, but too fast to give her time to think. She stood her ground, and desperately tried to wake the sleeping dragon. She pushed at its neck, first gently, then more vigorously, before finally giving it a stiff jab behind the ear with her cane. The dragon shrieked in rage, raising its head just in time to evade the knight's first blow. Seeing him, it backed away sharply, with Terezi following, keeping her back to it in an attempt not to attract its ire.
"I gave you your chance!" the knight roared, before advancing again. The dragon and troll again backed away. Far behind Sir Joseph, Tavros desperately assembled his combat lance from its four parts he had attached to his saddle.
They had been backed against the forest. With no other option, Terezi raised her cane and prepared to duel. Her stick was tough, but it would not stand up to a sword blow – all she could do was push at the knight's armour in the hopes of unbalancing him and giving her a chance to escape. It was a desperate move, but she had felt the connection. She would give her life for this creature if she had to.
She only needed a few seconds. Tavros charged from the sideline, knocking the aggressor clean to the ground and a few paces away. "Terezi!" he shouted. "Get out of here!"
Shaking with rage, Sir Joseph got to his feet. "So you want to play too?" he growled, through gritted teeth. He stuck his fingers in his mouth and gave a piercing whistle. Calibur the horse gave a whinny that could wake the dead and chased Tavros and his bull into the forest. The knight himself picked up his sword and charged at the girl and the dragon as fast as his heavy armour would allow.
Calibur was bigger and faster, but the bull's small size gave Tavros the advantage. He ducked and threaded through narrow gaps, forcing the horse to weave around them, buying valuable time.
Terezi held a hand against the dragon's neck. "You have to fly!" she pleaded. It wouldn't move. As the knight got too close for comfort, she clambered onto the creature's back as well as she could. The dragon, shocked, gave its strange shriek and ran across the clearing, easily outpacing the charging knight, and took wing above the trees.
Whatever she'd expected, she hadn't expected it to not try and shake her off. She adjusted her grip and position until she felt she could stay on the flying beast. Without her sight or her cane, she had no idea where she was going, but she knew what she had to do. "We have to save Tavros!" she shouted.
The dragon couldn't understand speech, but it could tell that the boy on the bull was an ally and needed saving. It swooped down to skim the treetops, and found the bull just barely keeping ahead of the evil horse. Wings snapping the branches as it lowered, it spat wad of acidic venom in the horse's path, forcing a diversion as it grabbed the bull gently but firmly in its talons. Tavros screamed. Terezi grabbed his hand and pulled him onto the dragon's back.
"Can it carry us all?" Tavros shouted once he'd gathered his wits.
"I don't think so!" Terezi called back. "We'll have to land as soon as it's safe!"
The dragon, running on its own compass, flew along the mountainside until it found a secluded spot behind a rock formation. The knight wouldn't find them there. Carefully, it set down the bull, before landing itself and allowing the two trolls to dismount.
In one well-practiced motion, the bull helped Tavros mount it from the ground. He smiled to see Terezi caressing the dragon's snout, and it crooning back to her.
"It's always really great to see a troll find their lusus," he commented, to nobody in particular. "Congratulations, Terezi. You are an adult now."
"That sounds rehearsed," she said, not taking her eyes off her new companion.
Tavros laughed. "Yeah, uh, I say that to everyone." He sighed, letting out a lot of built-up tension. "I'll be happy if I never have to deal with another human again."
"Don't think of them so badly," she admonished. "The young ones were really nice. That boy, David, really stuck his neck out for us. I see that now. And the girl..."
"Couldn't have done it without her," Tavros agreed.
"Yeah." She looked out over the landscape. "I owe you a great debt, Rose de Rein. I swear I will repay you." She turned back to Tavros and the two lusus. "Well, shall we be heading home?"
That afternoon, Sir Joseph rode back into Reinbridge Castle, defeated and highly annoyed. Once in his quarters, he began removing the armour, and practically threw it at his squire.
"I hope you're happy," he said as he did this.
Dave looked up. "Hm?"
"Your little friends screwed everything up!"
"Little friends? You mean the trolls?"
"Yes. They got the dragon away. I don't know where it is now."
"Well, at least it's gone, right? Mission accomplished."
If looks could kill, the younger brother would be dead on the floor. "You know what? Just get out of my sight. Go hang out with that witch girl or whatever it is you do."
Quietly, he left the room, doing his best to further aggravate his brother. This would be quite a story for John and Jade.