The village in the sway between the mountains was the largest in the region for many miles, its buildings erected from ancient pine trees that had by now planted even older roots into the black dirt on which they sat. They were heaped alongside the mountainside and seeped down into the valley, where Erwin and his troop crept forward like shadows in the tall grasses. Snow was drifting down in slow, fat flakes. The mountain peaks lurked behind grey clouds, where the snow would be falling quicker and the darkness of night would be deeper. There were warm lights in the village, fire-glow in the throats of chimneys and in sconces on the walls of the garrisoned castle they were steadily approaching.
“Halt,” a voice said when they were close. A hooded figure appeared before them on the path that led to the gates, a hand held out in front of her.
“I am commander Erwin Smith of the Archers of Historia. We have come on orders of the queen.” He pulled back the hood of his robe and let her see his face, watching her eyes fall to the blue sigil stitched onto his chest. They were mistrusting and dark with fatigue.
“Your scouts have not been this way for some time.” She said, stepping aside nonetheless. There were two other garrison soldiers posted beyond the gate, wearing identical looks of suspicion as Erwin and his companions rode past. He kept his hood off, his troop doing the same.
“Smells like elves,” Mike said beside him.
“Really?” Hanji asked, looking around them with wide-eyed interest, as if they might appear at any moment. But they saw no one but the few garrison soldiers as they moved deeper into the castle, its courtyards eerily empty and overrun with creeping plants that thrived in the cold, rough ground.
“Archers of Historia, welcome to Hermina,” commander Braus greeted them when they were led into the great hall. A table had been set out and filled with modest dishes of meat, potatoes, and bread. “We are grateful you have come to the village. I received a hawk yesterday that warned of the forces said to be gathering in the northern mountains and was uncertain we had the strength or knowledge to defend against them.”
“It is my hope that we can help defend Hermina from Lemrya’s attack, if it’s true that they are planning one. I thank you for the kind welcome.” Erwin addressed him. “My troop—Hanji, Mike, Nanaba, Henning, Gelgar, Lynne, and Mikasa—are well seasoned. We’ve been ranging in the south since the spring. If an attack is being coordinated, there will be spies in the village and with your permission I would have them use the castle as a base. We should investigate the village as soon as possible.”
“Yes, very well. I would appreciate it if they were to work with the garrison, as well. My soldiers are wary of outsiders.”
“Of course.” Erwin reassured him.
“Is there an alchemist’s study in the castle?” Hanji asked from Erwin’s side.
“Yes, I can introduce you to our alchemist after you’ve all eaten. It must have been a tiring journey through the valley.” Erwin felt Hanji’s impatience, but moved to sit down, signaling to the others that they could do the same. The other tired archers descended on the meal gratefully.
“You look a little young to be an Archer of Historia,” commander Braus directed the comment to Mikasa, who glanced at Erwin briefly before speaking.
“I am still in training.”
“She is very skilled. Her dragon abilities have been particularly valuable to us.” Erwin elaborated.
“A dragon?” commander Braus raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Dragons are quite valuable indeed. There are dragons in these areas, more than I would think are elsewhere, but there’s one in the village who keeps the ones who pass through on the move.”
“A garrison soldier?” Erwin asked.
“No. We don’t know who they are. Fear or reverence—or both—tend to crop up around dragons, and it’s no different with this one. I have soldiers who want us to hunt this one down, and I’ve considered it in rough times, when the omens were bad. But I think it’s best we let them be, lest we invite others to claim their territory. As far as I’m concerned they’re peaceful enough.” Hanji and Mike shot Erwin a pointed look as Nanaba shifted imperceptibly forward in her chair between Mikasa and the commander. Not that she could protect her better than Mikasa herself could if a garrison soldier were to suddenly burst through the huge wooden doors and attack her. Mikasa’s best line of defense had always been Mikasa. Commander Braus seemed to notice the change in the archers’ mood.
“Your dragon will be safe here. You will face no threat from me child, and I will not tell any of my soldiers what you are.” Erwin had been betting on this when he told the commander about her, hoping that revealing her inclusion in the Archers of Historia would make it seem normal. Hanji’s work for the integration of magical creatures in human life was rubbing off on him. And it was easier here, in Hermina, where the mountains seemed to be alive with magic. Unfortunately, that magic was no doubt a part of Lemrya’s forces now, another reason to keep a watchful eye on their trainee.
They finished in the great hall and were taken to their sleeping chambers by a yawning garrison soldier. Hanji had gone with commander Braus to meet the local alchemist, and Erwin dismissed everyone except Mike and Mikasa to get some sleep.
“Shouldn’t you have kept Gelgar awake instead if we’re going to a tavern?” Mike asked, as they made their way out of the castle on foot. The snow had stopped, and the purple outline of the mountains on either side of them rose up against the night sky.
“We may learn something useful about Lemrya’s presence in the mountains. Or about the dragon in Hermina.” Erwin reiterated to his friend. “You haven’t noticed another dragon since we arrived?”
“Not since this morning, when there was one flying above us for a while. But that one was heading south.” Mikasa said. The three archers entered the tavern tucked in the fat belly of a tall, crooked building along the main road that Erwin had noticed was busy when they entered the village. In addition to carrying only one long bow between them, they had left their emblemed cloaks in the castle, hoping not to draw too much attention to themselves. Erwin welcomed the warmth that hit his face as they stepped inside. Several patrons turned to stare, but quickly lost interest, as they settled around a table by a foggy port window. Mike got warm apple mead for himself and Erwin and a tea for Mikasa.
“They’re not here.” Mikasa said, as he sat down. Erwin nodded, knowing she was talking about the dragon. He had been hoping she might pick up their scent. They sat there until even Mike’s mustache was drooping from sleepiness in spite of the mead, listening to villagers talk about the potato harvest and which goat shepherds would return from the valley with the snows. The closest they got to anything useful was a woman’s railing of a bent-over old man who claimed he had heard an elf singing in a forest cavern beyond his house. They would look for cave systems that the Lemryans might be using in the morning. Just as they were about to leave, a woman entered the tavern. Her nose was long, her blonde hair pulled back behind her ears and skin that was just smooth and glassy enough not to be human, which Erwin noticed the moment the throwing dagger she held left her hand and sliced through the air toward Mikasa. But the young dragon’s reflexes were quicker than hers and his. In a moment, she was up from her seat and lunging toward the elf with remarkable fearlessness for a fourteen-year-old, her small hip bow releasing two arrows straight toward the woman’s eyes. The elf dodged and planted herself to intercept Mikasa as Erwin drew back his long bow. The elf met his eyes as he loosed, fleeing back out the door just as the arrowhead sunk shivering into the opposite wall. The three of them were moving by then, following her out the door. The tavern proprietor was wide-eyed, caught frozen wiping a glass dry as some of his customers yelled out in fear. Mike lobbed him a silver coin.
Outside, Erwin spotted Mikasa running flat out down the road, turning abruptly into an alley when the blonde elf did.
“That girl’s going to get herself killed,” Mike said as he loaded his own hip bow with two arrows. As if in answer to his fears, there was a flash of lighting that cracked down from the sky in a thin blast and the high-pitched roar of Mikasa in her dragon form sounded not far away.
“Go get the others,” Erwin ordered Mike, gesturing in the direction of the castle as he ran toward the alley and ignored the look of protest he knew would be on Mike’s face. Thankfully, he heard the retreat of the archer’s footsteps just as he rounded the corner that Mikasa had disappeared behind. He felt vulnerable on the ground and started looking for ways he might scale the buildings around him and get onto a roof for a vantage point. The alley twisted downward randomly, following the natural sway of the mountain. Erwin listened for the sound of the dragon somewhere in front of him, quickening as he saw the glow of fire and smelled smoke in the wind coming up from the valley. His heart lurched painfully when he heard a scream of pain from Mikasa. Erwin slung his bow over his shoulders, climbing the old, knotted vines that hugged the nearest house. Once he was on the roof he started moving faster. Then there was another flash of lightening.
It was surprisingly close to him, and the heat forced him to shut his eyes to the burst of light that exploded with a hollow crack. It was another dragon, small but fast, coming from the direction he had just come. It lunged past him in a blur. Erwin caught only a momentary glimpse of its thin scaled neck, partially covered by sharp horns, before it was airborne. It went southeast, toward Mikasa’s scream.
He chased it, covering the last bit of ground to where he found his trainee. He ducked behind a chimney when he reached the small, rocky courtyard, letting one arrow loose into the shoulder of an elf below him and cursing as the other veered into the dirt beside him. There were three elves, including the woman. The other two were men, one stout and blonde, the other—the one he had loosed his arrows at—was taller and thinner with darker hair. The other blond elves barely noticed their companion had been hit, their attention on the mysterious dragon in front of them. Mikasa was bent over the ground behind it, her breath coming in ragged puffs of smoke from her mouth and nostrils. They were the same shade of black in the dark, but Mikasa was slightly bigger and in the daylight, a clearly bronze, reddish sheen that was especially concentrated on the scales near her neck could be seen on her. Erwin could tell she was struggling to stand, and when the other dragon breathed an angry fire-filled screech at the elves he saw blood welling from a gash along her stomach. It looked like her wing had been torn too.
The elves were holding swords that made almost pleasant, musical sounds as they were swung. They pleasantness stopped there, though. From where he crouched, Erwin could see small teeth etched along one side of the blades, for rending dragon scales. He had arrowheads that looked similar. The dragon that wasn’t Mikasa was growling at the elves, the black skin on its nose raised in a snarl that showed its hundreds of teeth. The elves looked hesitant and Erwin took advantage of their hesitation by raining several arrows down on them at once, at least one biting through the armor on the woman’s arm. The one he had shot earlier had already removed the arrow and was searching for him on the rooftops. Both elves would be completely healed in under an hour, the darker haired one showing no signs that the arrow wound hurt him.
“Erwin!” He heard Hanji call his name from somewhere behind him, and then he heard the thunder of horse hooves as his soldiers and a few garrison soldiers flooded the streets around the courtyard. He scrambled backward on the roof and peered over the edge, finding Hanji turning their horse back and forth as they searched for him.
“Hanji! Mikasa is injured just beyond there,” He shouted down to them. They looked up and he pointed down the eastward road where they stood. “There are three elves and another dragon. Get to her, but be careful. I’ll send Mike, Nanaba, and the garrison to meet the elves on the ground. Tell Henning, Gelgar, and Lynne to get on the rooves to the west.”
“Another dragon?” Hanji yelled up to him, both fear and excitement visible on their face even in the dark. Erwin nodded. “Friend or foe?” They asked.
“Foe until we know for sure, but I don’t think it’s helping the elves.” He said. They nudged their horse into a canter, and shouted orders to the soldiers around them. Erwin spotted Mike a little farther behind and called down before returning to the chimney where he could assist them down in the courtyard with his bow.
The unknown dragon backed up toward Mikasa now that Erwin’s troops and the other soldiers had joined the fray, its face relaxed and clearly sentient, betraying a careful consideration of how to proceed. Hanji emerged on the far side of the courtyard with soldiers behind them. They crept forward cautiously, speaking to themselves in an incoherent jumble of reassurance for Mikasa and inquiry directed at the other dragon. It fixed them with its oppressive black eyes. The elves were still giving it a wide berth, preoccupied with the soldiers now creeping in on them, so Erwin started when the dragon suddenly snarled in pain. It lifted its wings over its body and twisted into the air, spewing fire down onto the ground where a garrison soldier held a sword that gleamed with blood. The soldier had gotten behind it unnoticed and sliced into the dragon’s ankle, where there was a shining red gash. Erwin pressed himself into the roof as the dragon flew over him, its terrifying speed sending it up into the clouds where he watched for a moment as the silhouette vanished.
“Fall back to Hanji and Mikasa,” Erwin shouted down into the courtyard, noticing the beginning of the elves retreat in the defensive way they held the bulky dragon swords. He saw an arrow fly from the west, where his other archers must have been, plunging through the shield of the blonde male elf and clipping him in the shoulder. He said something in the melodic elven language and then all three of them scattered, disappearing down separate roads and alleys that converged on the courtyard. He yelled down again for some of the soldiers to follow, himself descending back down to the ground.
“She’ll be fine if we get her back to the infirmary,” Hanji informed him as he approached them and Mikasa, who had shifted back to her human form. The stomach wound had followed her into this form, a red smear already staining the blanket Hanji had given her, but he could only guess how the wing tear might heal. “She’ll need a few days to recover, and I wouldn’t advise having her shift again for a while.” Erwin nodded.
“Take her back with you,” He said crouching down next to them and fixing Mikasa with what he hoped was a lightly reproving look that was probably lost beneath his concern.
“I’m sorry,” She said in a ragged breath.
“What you did was brave,” He said, meeting the determined, loyal look in her eyes. “But next time we encounter potential enemies, you should wait for a superior’s signal before making the decision to retaliate.” She nodded soberly.
“The dragon,” She said after a pause, “I think he’s the one commander Braus talked about. This is where he lives.”
“Commander!” Erwin turned at Nanaba’s voice. “We’ve lost the elves. Would you like us to conduct a search?”
“Yes.” He said, getting to his feet as Mike lifted Mikasa from the ground, Hanji hovering over her like a protective parent. “Coordinate with the garrison squad leaders and conduct inquiries with the locals in the morning. Report back once you have a sense of where information like this tends to gather. I’ll join you when I can.”
When they returned to the castle, Erwin went with Hanji to the infirmary where he met the garrison’s resident alchemist. He turned out to be an elf, a quiet man, with mousey brown hair. He wore a white alchemy robe and Hanji already seemed to trust him. He worked quickly on Mikasa’s wounds, making changes to this or that salve promptly at Hanji’s request.
“Moblit is an excellent physical archetype of the hinterland elves near the Rose,” Hanji said as they settled onto a stool with a cup of tea now that Mikasa was asleep in bed, fully bandaged. “The ones that attacked you were likely from the desert areas near Lemrya, past Maria’s southern tributaries. You can tell by ear shape.”
“So, you don’t know who these elves were?” Erwin asked him.
“I’m sorry, but no.” Moblit replied, looking truly sorry he couldn’t be of more help.
“He thinks that the elves were actually searching for Mikasa. It could be what brought Lemrya’s forces this far north. They could be actively seeking out dragons to recruit for their armies. There are more in the mountains, where there are fewer human settlements.” Hanji supplied.
“Elves can sense dragons,” Moblit said, earning a “Mm.” of confirmation from Hanji who was now leafing through an old book on dragon identification that sat at the top of a dusty pile of books on the alchemist’s desk. “There is a kind of feeling they put off, almost like a smell in the way we can detect it. We have to be fairly close, and if it isn’t very strong it can be difficult to notice.”
“Have you ever sensed the dragon who lives here in Hermina?” Erwin asked.
“Um, yes, I think so but it’s difficult for an elf to tell much from just sensing them.” Moblit said. “There has been a dragon in the lower village for several years, but I don’t think I’ve ever come into direct contact with them. They have almost certainly laid territorial claims to the area. Sometimes I notice when others pass through, but they never stay very long. And I’m not sure I could identify them directly unless I was very close.”
“I was going to take him out with me tomorrow anyway if Nanaba can’t turn anything up,” Hanji said. Moblit looked only vaguely uncomfortable with the proposition, the tips of his ears turning scarlet.
In the morning, Erwin worked with commander Braus to reorganize Hermina’s small garrison to cover a wider range of scouting over the mountainside and the forested regions that hugged much of the village’s outskirts. He entrusted the rest of the day’s work to his troop, who worked efficiently through prominent village officials, tradesmen, farmers, and the Hermina newspaper, introducing themselves and gathering information about residents and their lives. The Archers of Historia were sometimes believed to be simply a story from old legends in villages that were more remote from the inlands like Hermina, which would give them the respect of some and the suspicion of others. Luckily, a troop had passed through Hermina several years ago and Nanaba reported that most people seemed to be aware of the encroachments of Lemrya and willing to assist them in any way they could. It helped that some of them had seen the dragon lighting and heard rumors about the previous night’s incidents, frightening them into accepting the extra defense.
“There’s someone in the lower village who several locals spoke about.” Nanaba reported to Erwin, as they rode out of the castle later in the evening. There was a cold breeze coming off the mountain, wispy snow clouds were moving quickly and swirling low in the blue sky. “I’m not sure he has any connection to Lemrya or the dragon, but he has a history with the garrison soldiers too. He grew up here as an orphan, disappeared for a few years after he was thought to be involved in a thieving ring, and then came back and settled down. Probably not enough to be completely outside of Hermina’s underground, though. He might know something about the elves that attacked Mikasa.”
“Do you know his name?” Erwin asked.
“Levi Ackerman. It’s unlikely he has any relation to Mikasa.” She said, adding the last part in response to Erwin’s quizzical frown. They were heading down the mountain to scout across the other side of the shallow tendril of the Rose. It ran leisurely with cold mountain runoff. Beyond it, only a scattered few dark pinewood and stone houses sat butting up to their grain fields. They startled a fox out of the weeds, making Erwin’s horse toss its white mane grumpily, but otherwise saw nothing out of place.
They reentered the village north of the main road just as the sun crested the sky and began its descent, heading toward the area where the man Nanaba had mentioned lived. They found the house at the corner of a quiet, but well-traveled road that Erwin guessed led out somewhere up the mountain. Laundry swayed on a line in a small patch of dry grass beside the house, where they left their horses to nibble at whatever they could find as they climbed the steps to the small veranda. The door opened several seconds after they knocked, the man who opened it short and irritated looking, the eyes that met Erwin’s dark and tired. He braced the door open with his shoulder, blocking their entrance with his small body.
“Good evening, Mr. Ackerman.” Nanaba said, “I’m Nanaba, and this is Erwin Smith. We are Archers of Historia, sent by the queen to help ward off attacks on Hermina perpetrated by Lemrya. Would you mind if we spoke with you for a moment?”
“Levi.” He said, looking unmoved by Nanaba’s introduction.
“Levi, several villagers have suggested you might be able to help us find three elves who attacked one of our archers yesterday.” Erwin explained, “The archer who was attacked is a dragon. We believe it is possible the elves are here to recruit dragons for Lemrya. Anything you might know could help us prevent that and remove their presence from this region, so it doesn’t become another front in the war.” Levi looked at him with an expression that was unreadable, a scowl that might just as well have been his neutral face. He considered what Erwin had said for a moment before speaking.
“I don’t know where the singing bastards take their vacations.” He said, “But if what you said is true, then they won’t go far from your dragon.”
“Did you know about the attack last night? There was an unfamiliar dragon who showed up and who appears to have defended our own. They could be in similar danger.” Erwin said.
“Could you tell us about your past run-ins with the garrison?” Nanaba asked. He looked at her blankly.
“Will it help?” Levi asked.
“Probably not,” Erwin answered honestly, not wanting to appear overly suspicious or threatening. He could tell there was something Levi wasn’t telling them, in addition to the fact that he hadn’t denied the reasoning that had led to them seeking him out. And there was a sort of annoyed exhaustion in his expression that suggested to Erwin he wouldn’t shut the door on them now but might if they pressed him too much.
“The garrison is under my command for the time being. If you happen to learn where Lemrya’s elves are hiding, I would gratefully receive that information at the castle. You would be welcome through the gates, regardless of past grievances.” Erwin informed him, knowing the chances were slim that this man would seek them out, but making the offer even still. They needed to find out as much as they could about the underbelly of Hermina, where a past thief might know a present spy. He nodded, disappearing inside before Erwin and Nanaba had a chance to descend the steps as they took their leave.
The late fall was still stubbornly holding winter at bay, the fickle sunlight had been slowly warming the village all day, making the ride back to the castle pleasant even as they surveyed several seedier streets in the lower village around where Levi lived. The children there were dirtier and wilder than those in the upper village, but they still looked well fed and mischievous, not like the war orphans plaguing some of the other villages Erwin had been to in the south. He checked in on Mikasa briefly when they returned, finding Hanji drooling by her bedside, asleep with their glasses sliding into the book they had been reading. The sun filtered in through a tall, grimy window, making the stuffy infirmary more agreeable. The young dragon was burrowed down into the sheets and tried to rise when he entered. He left soon after so that her reluctance to appear weak in front of him didn’t slow her healing.
Erwin had doubted the weather would stay like this for long, and his hunch was confirmed the next morning. The sky was bloated with heavy, grey snow clouds that threatened to give way at any moment. He stood in the yard outside the castle’s central keep with commander Braus, his squad, and a handful of garrison soldiers as they prepared to ride out to a cavern that villagers typically avoided and thus where elves could potentially find shelter. His breath was visible in the cold air.
“Is that blood?” Henning asked, stepping back from the girth he had been cinching. Erwin looked for what he was talking about, searching the archer and then the horse for a wound before he saw the two drops of red dripping off the seat of his saddle. The horse flicked its tail irritably as another drop landed on its haunches and smeared into its fur.
“It’s raining blood?” Hanji asked, with more interest than doubt in their tone, turning to look up at the sky as they stretched their palm out. Erwin looked up too, noticing that a slightly darker shadow was moving just beyond the low hanging clouds. “Is that a—”
“Dragon!” A garrison soldier shouted from the gates. He pointed the spear he was carrying toward the gloomy sky defensively, as everyone’s heads turned up to watch the clouds churn, a dark wing poking momentarily through the veil. Erwin saw another shower of blood rain down onto the guard who had yelled out, a horrified look passing over his face as the dragon suddenly came into full view. It was the same one they had seen before, Erwin was sure, recognizing its slight, armored build and black horns. But something was wrong. It came down at a sharp angle and screeched as the air ripped through a partially crumpled wing. It hit the ground awkwardly, sending the guard fleeing in fear as it stumbled back into the air momentarily before falling again and leaving a smear of red in the dry grass. Erwin could see a gash along its wing, running a deep cleft over its shoulder onto its chest. The horses had scattered around them, running blindly away from the huge, menacing creature.
“Secure the keep and get the archers on the walls. Get out of the range of its fire!” He heard commander Braus shout somewhere behind him.
“Woohoo! That was close!” Hanji said from across the courtyard. They had been dragged away by their frightened horse and reigned around a stone pillar just as the dragon sent a weak spray of flames into the air near their head. Mike and Nanaba were by his side, ignoring Braus and looking to Erwin for commands that he didn’t have the chance to give. The dragon closed the distance between them in a single beat of its uninjured wing, its talons closing around Erwin’s waist before he could move. Then the castle was receding dizzily beneath him, his stomach still somewhere on the ground even when he could only see the grey clouds that they were hurtling through. There was a sharp pain against his spine, for the short time they were airborne, dipping unevenly through cold air, and then a pine branch cut across his face and for one terrifying moment the pressure released, and he felt himself fall.
It was short, the fog obscuring how close they were to the ground. He closed his eyes as he rolled over wet grass, feeling the air rush out of his lungs as the earth shivered with the impact of the dragon falling beyond him. When he opened them, he saw the disturbed fog dissipating around him, shrugging off into the dark trees surrounding the clearing where they’d come down. He took a shaking breath, drawing air into his bruised lungs, feeling the damp in the grass already seeping through his cloak and making him shiver. He got to his feet slowly, sure he would notice an injury that his shock was suppressing, but no pain came, apart from the dull ache in his lungs and back. He stilled when he was all the way on his feet, his heartbeat rapid in his ears, and looked around the clearing. The dragon was on its side, breathing heavily, its body cradled in the black soil that had been freed in its hard fall. There were swirling plumes of fire that came from its nostrils with each exhale, glowing brighter as one huge black eye shifted over to Erwin. It made a weak struggle to get to its feet, and then collapsed again writhing in pain. The grass was red with its blood.
Erwin began to approach it cautiously, considering the human mind within the creature’s black-plated skull even as he balked at the heat rolling off of its skin. It growled as he got closer, but almost immediately began to shift, reducing to a comparably tiny form at the center of the huge flattened area where the dragon had landed. The man panted with the effort of the change, and he could see more blood welling up from the wound on his chest. Erwin recognized Levi—the man he and Nanaba had met the day before in the lower village—curled up on the ground, his body rigid with pain and his hair matted down over his eyes with sweat. There was an older, but still new wound across the side of his ankle, where a garrison solider had cut him two nights ago.