Durazno and his little company stood in a field of slain warriors. The smell of decay was thick in the air, swarms of flies and ravens circled the field. Tansy had pulled a leaf out of her apron and had it pressed to her nose. Trista had her nose buried in her braid.
“Well, come on. We may as well get it over with.” Durazno sighed, stepping over a decaying body. He was closely followed by Timmons and Mick. Eventually the other five others followed. Durazno let everyone but Timmons get ahead of him. He waited until Tansy was well ahead of him to speak.
“What do you know about Tansy? Have you ever noticed anything…strange? About her?”
Timmons gave him a suspicious look. “She’s always been an odd one. Her mother rarely left the house, she didn’t really have any close friends, the only person that outside the family that ever went in that house was the midwife. She taught Tansy almost everything she knows, they were very close. Then when Tansy was ten, her mother just…died. No one ever really figured out how it happened. There were some whispers going on for a while that Tansy did it. But Tansy turned out to be a very sweet girl, so no one really believed it.” Timmons said.
“Who did she live with after her mother died?” Durazno asked.
“She lived with my wife’s family.” Timmons said.
“Did they ever report anything strange about her?” Durazno drilled him.
“They said that she used combinations of herbs that most people had never even considered. That was all.” Timmons said.
“Thank you.” Durazno said, moving away from him. He walked until he was standing shoulder to shoulder with Tansy. She glanced at him nervously.
“What did you do to that dragon the other night?” He said under his breath, barely avoiding sticking his boot into a rotting man’s ribcage.
“All I did was save your life!” She whispered anxiously, her eyes darting from side to side.
“What. Did. You. Do.” Durazno growled.
“Look, I don’t know! I don’t know what I did!” She cried softly.
“Has it ever happened before?” He said in a low voice.
“Yes.” She breathed, tears welling in her eyes. “It has.”
“How many times?” He whispered.
“Once before this.” She admitted. “Can you just stop, now?”
“Fine, but remember, your secrets will destroy you, Tansy.” He said quietly and walked away.
A few strides later, they reached the tree line. “Stop right there unless you’d like an arrow down your throat.” A voice hissed. Durazno looked up and saw men crouched on the branches, all with arrows nocked.
“Are you Dragonfriend or loyal human?” The first man said.
“Loyal human.” Durazno said.
“Who are you?” The man growled.
“My name is Durazno.” Durazno said.
The man snorted. “Yeah right.” He scoffed. “Prove it.”
“My youngest sister’s name is Castana. She works as a battlefield healer and is lame in her right leg.” Durazno said.
“He’s either the real guy, or a spy that’s been around.” Another man said.
“Get Naranja.” The first speaker ordered to the youngest archer. The boy nodded and leaped to another branch like a squirrel, racing away through the treetops. He returned after a moment with Durazno’s sister.
Naranja looked down at them for a while before finally confirming Durazno’s identity. The archers let them through, and Durazno went to his sister.
“We thought that you might be dead, Durazno.” Naranja whispered in his ear as she hugged him.
“But I’m not.” He said, smiling slightly.
“After the dragon grabbed you and you didn’t come back. Then the girl we sent to look for you never returned, it looked like you were dead.” Naranja said.
“Not dead at all. I did get bitten about a night ago. And I picked up some new recruits. And set a trap for the Dragonfriends.” Durazno said as they walked.
“What?” Naranja asked.
“I captured one and let her hear about a nonexistent secret tunnel. Then I let her escape.” Durazno said.
“Durazno, the royal city was attacked. Ten people were attacked, ten captured.” Naranja said seriously.
“How many dragons?” Durazno whispered.
“Five dragons. Four riders.” Naranja answered.
“How many here?” Durazno growled.
“The two survivors said that there were no dragons involved in this attack. They said that there was a monster. They had a bit of trouble describing it though.” Naranja said. “We got here too late to do anything. Every corpse has its heart ripped out.”
“What kind of monster was this?” Durazno asked.
“Something that might be even worse than the dragons.” Naranja said grimly.
“There is nothing worse than dragons.” Durazno said hotly.
“Every one of those dead were someone’s sons and daughters. They may have had sisters and brothers, children and spouses that will mourn them. There are things just as bad as dragons. What makes the dragons evil to us are the lives they’ve taken, the chances they’ve destroyed. But this monster has done the same thing.” Naranja said.
“You’re right. I’m sorry, I lost my temper for a second.” Durazno apologized. “We need to find this creature and destroy it before it kills again.”
Naranja smiled at him. “There we go. That’s the spirit, brother.”
“How’s Castana?” Durazno asked, changing the subject.
“Oh, she’s been worried about you. And very tired lately. Always seems to be resting her leg. She should cheer up when she sees you.”
Naranja walked him to a tent concealed under a pile of brush. She held the flap open for him and he stepped in. Castana was sitting with her leg propped up on a pile of wood rolling bandages.
She looked up and saw him, shrieking happily. She laughed as he picked her up and swung her around. He set her back in her chair and sat down on the ground beside her.
“I’ve brought you some fresh recruits.” He told her. “And I may have gotten bitten by a dragon. And it may have gotten slightly infected along the way.”
Castana swatted him. “Let me see it then, stupid boy!” Durazno unwrapped the apron and showed her the bite. “What are you talking about? It’s not infected at all.” Castana said.
“I guess Tansy knew what she was doing.” Durazno said to himself.
“Who’s Tansy?” Castana asked.
“Just one of the new recruits. She’s the one that doctored this. She also helped me kill a dragon a night or so ago.” Durazno explained.
“I guess I’ll finally be getting someone who knows what they’re doing.” Castana said with an exaggerated eye roll. They all smiled.
“Sorry Castana, I was actually considering gathering my own unit of soldiers, and she was on my list for that unit.” Durazno said.
“Tansy. Was she the lovely blonde girl or the striking dark haired young woman? Or was she one of the women with a face like a rotting lemon?” Naranja asked.
“The dark haired one.” Durazno said.
“So that’s why he wants to keep her close!” Castana teased. “Who is this girl?”
“Its not like that!” Durazno exclaimed defensively.
“Uh-huh.” Naranja said.
“She’s a very suspicious person!” Durazno said, blushing furiously. Why was it that only his sisters could make him turn red?
“What’s so suspicious about her? That she has a face like a fresh rose, or that she eyes like deep, dark oceans?” Naranja said, raising her eyebrows.
“No. Something happened.” Durazno said quietly. His sisters exchanged a look. “Not what you think! A dragon caught up to us after I got bitten. All the others ran off like sensible people, but not Tansy.” Durazno lowered his voice and leaned closer to his sisters. “She did something. I had my eyes shut when she did it, but when I opened them, I saw the dragon’s corpse flying through the trees. She claims she doesn’t know what she did. I’m not sure I believe her.”
“You think that she might be a witch?” Naranja said seriously.
“No. That just seems…wrong. The magic seemed different. I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but I still remember the witch that helped Castana well. This magic seemed different.” Durazno said.
Naranja nodded thoughtfully. “Keep her close. If she betrays us…kill her immediately.”
“I will. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. She seems like a good person, but you can hardly tell anymore.” Durazno said.
“Who else were you wanting in this unit?” Naranja asked.
“The recruit Sim. The recruit Timmons. The angry looking old lady called Petunia.”
“I’ll tell them to stick with you. I’ll be back in a bit with some food.” Naranja promised. It wasn’t long before she returned with a loaf of stale bread and a basket of berries. She set the food down between them.
“We just received a messenger dove. The king wants us to go back to the capitol as soon as possible. Rest up, because we leave at dawn.”