The tall turrets and spires of Shield shone like onyx in the dying light of the day. Steve's knees sagged and he fell, wheezing and panting for breath. The forest's ground, covered with a thick mantle of wet and rotting leaves, felt slimy and cold beneath his fingers. Pain lashed from Steve's wrist up his arm when he tried to push himself to his feet. He screamed and curled on himself, cradling his wrist in a useless attempt to ease the pain.
Tears of frustration and exhaustion welled in Steve's eyes. He rolled onto his back and looked up at the castle. If he concentrated, he could feel the strength of its magic beckoning him.
Steve's body refused to move. Inside his head, his mother's voice berated him, trying to talk reason into him, cajoling him to activate the charm that would take him home … except that there was nobody home waiting for him.
The charm pulsed against the clammy skin of Steve's chest—its reddish light becoming brighter as the darkness of the night crept closer. If he took it off, he'd be back in Brook. Shield and the Claiming nothing but a distant dream to tell his children, if he ever had any. The town's people wouldn't even laugh at him—not like they had when Steve walked to Shield's sorcerer and asked for his right to Claim. Sickly Steve with legs like twigs that could barely hold his skinny frame wanting to claim a dragon. Their loud, merry laughter had followed him to the edge of the village. He'd heard them making bets on how soon he'd be back with his tail between his legs.
No! Steve wouldn't give up. He'd climb the mountain and reach Shield even if it killed him. Death would be better than a life filled with regrets and might-have-been's. He would become an Avenger.
He forced himself up, ignoring the pain in his wrist and the burning in his lungs. The magic of Shield called to him like a siren song filled with promises of better days. The castle seemed like a mirage, faraway and unreachable, but Steve didn't despair. Instead he concentrated on making it to the next tree. And then to the one that followed. And the one after that. He stumbled and fell, scraping his hands and knees, but he rose again, refusing to give up when his dream was just one tree away.
By the time Steve made it to Shield, the moon shone bright in the cloudless night sky, giving an eerie gleam to the black stones of the castle's walls. The moat surrounding the castle was wider than Brook's puny lake. The moonlight danced over the surface of the water, bathing the lower walls of the castle in silver light. A huge barbican rose from the depths of the moat like a small island. All of Brook would have fitted perfectly within its bailey. Farther away, Shield's main fortress rose, imposing and breathtaking, everything Steve had ever dreamed and yet so much more.
"Assemble!" Steve screamed at the top of his lungs, clutching the charm with his muddy hands. He waited, eyes riveted on the faraway parapets, hoping to catch a glimpse of movement.
Steve screamed the watchword again and again with mounting despair. Shield's sorcerer had promised. He'd sworn that if the Claimers made it to the castle and called out the word, Shield would welcome them, claiming them back in return.
"What's this raucous?" a man said from behind Steve. "Who're you and what're you doing here this late?"
Steve spun around and grasped the charm around his neck even tighter. Feigning a confidence he didn't feel he said, "I've come to stake my Claim."
"Did you now?"
The man stepped closer, studying Steve with a doubtful expression. His skin was as black as the night sky and he was taller than any man Steve had ever seen. The dark grey cloak of his uniform floated in the wind. Even in the pale light, Steve recognized the golden dragon-shaped clip holding the cloak in place—the badge of the Avengers.
"Yes, I did," Steve said, raising his chin and trying to make himself look taller than he was. "Shield's sorcerer said that if I made it—"
"You're too late," the man interrupted him. "The Claiming is over."
Steve gasped and staggered back as if slapped. His heart lurched and twisted inside his chest. "Shield's sorcerer promised. He promised," Steve cried. The sheer force of will that had carried him so far abandoned him. His vision wavered and when blackness came to take him, Steve let it.
He opened his eyes carefully, trying to not call attention to himself. The prettiest woman Steve had ever met sat on his bed. She smiled down at him when she saw that he'd awoken. Steve smiled back, tentatively, feeling awkward and clumsy even though he hadn't moved yet.
"Hello, child," the woman said, brushing the back of her fingers against Steve's forehead as if to check for a fever. "My name is Peggy. What's yours?"
"S-Steve," he stammered and flushed with embarrassment, all too aware of how stupid and young it made him sound.
"Who told you how to get here, kid?" A man asked, his voice sharp and accusatory.
Steve jumped in surprise, looking around the room to see who else was there. He could barely make out the tall figure of a man hiding in the shadows beneath the fireplace. Other than him and Peggy the room was empty, but far from easing Steve's dread it made him even more wary. The room was windowless and conspicuously bare. The bed the only piece of furniture Steve could see. There were no chairs or shelves, not even a small table. If it weren't for the fireplace and the sheer size of the place, Steve would have thought he was in a cell.
"Dragons' maker, Rick, can you try and be any less welcoming? Steve is just a child, not an enemy," Peggy said to the man, before she turned to Steve and added sotto-voice, "Don't mind him. His mother didn't bother to teach him manners, probably knew a lost cause when she saw one."
"Hilarious," Rick said. "Now, answer my question," he ordered in a tone that brooked no arguments. "Who told you to find this place?"
"Nobody," Steve said, fighting the urge to hide beneath the covers. He wasn't a child anymore, no matter what Peggy and Rick thought. "One of Shield's sorcerers came to my town like they do every year and—"
"Which town?" Rick interrupted him, stepping forward. The light of the fireplace made him look taller than before, but try as he might, Steve couldn't make out his features.
"Brook, down by the Grey River," Steve answered.
The man stalked to the door and threw it open. Two men, armed with crossbows, were standing guard on the other side of the doorway. "One of you," Rick commanded, "find out who we sent to recruit in Brook and get them here." He shut the door before turning back to Steve. "You better hope your story pans out, kid."
Rick's face was hard and wrinkled. His hair was almost gone, and what little still remained was completely white. The shadows hid his eyes, giving his face a sinister gleam that had Steve shrinking back into the bed even as he spoke up defiantly, "I'm not lying."
"We'll find out soon enough." Rick's mouth curled in a hard and unforgiving line, as if he was looking forward to catching Steve in a lie.
Steve's bravado faltered and he hid his small frame beneath the blankets. He traced his charm with trembling fingers, eying the adults in the room with trepidation, afraid they would rip it off and send him back.
"Don't worry, child," Peggy said with a kind smile. "Everything is going to be all right."
"Speak for yourself," Rick mumbled, not bothering to lower his voice.
Peggy didn't dignify his words with an answer, but she threw Rick a scorching glare, which would have had Steve whimpering in fear if it'd been directed at him. Rick ignored it, and for a moment Steve thought he wasn't that clever a man.
The silence in the room grew heavy. Steve's skin prickled with pent-up tension while he waited. He forced himself to remain still, fighting off the urge to fidget, lest he call Rick's attention back to him. More than once he heard heavy footsteps beyond the door, but they passed by and faded in the distance without slowing down. The door's creak as it finally opened was a welcome change.
The guards moved aside and a young man stepped in. "It's you!" Steve said, recognizing the short silhouette at once. It was the Shield sorcerer, the one who'd given him the amulet.
The man turned to Steve and frowned. His eyes darted quickly around the room, taking everything in. He straightened himself and his face smoothed out, effectively masking his thoughts and emotions.
"I see you made it," he said in an even voice. "Congratulations," he continued in the same flat tone, as if he didn't care a jot.
"Did you tell this kid how to find Shield, Phil?" Rick asked, pinning the sorcerer with an accusing glare.
"Tell him?" Phil repeated, still perfectly poised. "No, of course not, that'd be against regulations. He asked to participate and I gave him the amulet, as I did every other kid who asked. Personally, I thought he wouldn't make it, but I've been wrong before. The ways of the Claim are a mystery. If one of the dragons guided him here, then it's not my place to question their choice."
"That's the point," Rick said, pacing back and forth. "A dragon didn't claim him. There are no unclaimed dragons left … and yet, here he is."
"I didn't know that was possible," Phil said, gazing at Steve with a new interest. His voice didn't rise, but the way his eyes bore into Steve reminded Steve of a snake coiled to attack at the slightest provocation.
Steve didn't need to understand what they were talking about to know that he was in some kind of trouble. There were too many grown-ups in the room, all looking grim and angry. He peeked at the closed door nervously and swallowed quietly when he remembered the guards and their crossbows. Nobody knew where he was, and even if anybody did, they wouldn't bother to come for him.
"That's because it isn't possible," Peggy said and stood up. "If he made it here, then a dragon called him. It's the only way to find Shield."
"We've been over this before," Rick said. "All I know is that this kid has found the castle a day after the Claiming ceremony was over. All dragons and future Avengers are accounted for. He isn't one of them. For all we know, he could be a spy for Hydra."
"Don't be ridiculous, Rick," Peggy said and rolled her eyes. "If the Red Skull had found a way to break through the castle's defenses, they would've attacked by now. Besides, the child wasn't brought here by magic; you heard the doctor: a sprained ankle, a broken wrist, too many cuts and bruises to count, not to mention that he was half-starved and practically dehydrated."
"Then how did he make it?" Rick asked.
"I just kept going," Steve said in a quiet voice, ignoring the way all adults turned to stare at him. "I saw the castle in the distance, and I kept going. Quitting wasn't an option. I was willing to die trying if that was what it took. There's nothing left in Brook for me. Becoming Avenger, coming here, that was all I had left. So I kept going. That's how I made it."
"Hush, child," Peggy said, taking Steve's hand among hers and giving him a squeeze. "We'll find out what's going on."
"It's not that easy," Rick snarled. "Six eggs were laid. Six dragons were born. Six children have claimed them. There's no seventh dragon."
"What about…," Peggy said and trailed off with a gasp. Her eyes widened and she became rigid.
"What about what?" Rick prompted.
"The Stark egg," she said in a whisper, as if afraid of her own daring. "It's not accounted for."
Phil gasped, too, his eyes falling on Steve's. For the fraction of a second, Steve could read the surprise in his face, even if the sorcerer hid it away just as fast.
Rick huffed out a snort and shook his head dismissively. "The Stark line? Really? Stark hasn't produced a living dragon for over six decades. What does it—Wait a moment, you don't think that it worked this time, do you?"
"It's the only explanation," Peggy said, and when her eyes found Steve's they were bright with hope.
Rick turned to Phil, "Keep an eye on the child! Don't let him leave, and make sure nothing happens to him," he ordered before he hurried out of the room.
Peggy took the time to tuck a loose strand of Steve's hair behind his ear and kissed him on the forehead. "Rest, Steve. You might need your strength soon enough," she said before she, too, left the room, closing the door behind her.
Steve touched the spot of skin she had kissed and blushed, his stomach twisting with an odd feeling he didn't recognize and wasn't sure if he liked or not. He caught Phil watching him and tried to hide his discomfort. "Do you think they'll find my dragon?" he asked, timidly.
"We'll see," Phil answered, watching Steve doubtfully, "A Stark's Avenger, it figures. Well, if history got it right, you're in for it. You won't have an easier time riding a Stark than you did finding this place, kid. Starks are too intelligent and strong-willed."
"Isn't that a good thing?" Steve asked, confused.
"Not in dragons it isn't," Phil said. "Give me an Agent every time, obedient to a fault. They do as they're told without questioning their rider. Best breed there is."
Steve didn't know what to say so he remained quiet. Deep down he thought it wouldn't be bad, having a clever dragon as a companion. Besides, if the adults were right, it was his dragon who had brought him here. For that, Steve was willing to forgive all and any faults. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what his dragon would look like, what it'd be like to ride it.
'Steve, the Avenger'—it had a nice ring to it, he thought. Down in Brook no one would believe it. He would help Shield protect the kingdom against invaders. He and his dragon would be the bravest and cleverest of them all, fighting for Erdath, defeating those stupid enough who dared attack it. Maybe one day he'd even fly down to Brook. He'd be wearing the Avenger's uniform, of course: the cape with its golden dragon-shaped pin, the leather gauntlets and the shield. Everyone would stare at him in awe. Even the children who constantly teased him for being weak and sick would gape at him in wonder. Then, he'd take his dragon high into the sky and they would fly back to Shield and a life filled with adventures.