Dagmar was hiding. The little dragon girl held a hand over her mouth to stifle her excitable laughter as she watched her father ``search'' for her, all over the farm. He knew exactly where she'd be hiding - beneath the oxcart, under a grain sack, like always - but he was a good sport, and always made sure to be completely dumbfounded and let his daughter win their games. She was nearly eight years of age, the first born child of Dagda and Mahra, and full of energy and mischief.
In this world of largely herbivorous races - cervine, equine, bovine and the like - a family of dragons like Dagmar's was unusual in the extreme, and some who knew the ancient lore attributed their very existence to the mortality and lineage of the heathen spirit Nahia. Her name was all but forgotten these days, three centuries or more since her fall. A tiny shrine still existed in the deepest part of the woods, a cairn of sorts, filled with the tiny carved idols of her that her followers used to carry. The shrine was ostensibly beneath the very same ancient oak that Nahia had used as a conduit between the spiritual and physical worlds. And by all accounts, Dagmar and her family resembled those tiny carved likenesses closely. They were short and dexterous, and walked on flat, three-toed feet, unlike most of the local inhabitants of this region with their hooves. Their skin was tough but without fur, aside from on their heads - somewhere between bare skin and scales that was hard to place, and their expressive, fin-like ears and long, highly mobile and prehensile tails set them apart from the locals. Reptiles they most definitely were not; warm blood coursed through their veins like any other, and live offspring they birthed - two attributes the family had taken great pains to prove to ensure their acceptance into this society. And, of course, that they were not carnivorous, as some might've assumed from their appearance.
Dagda was an onion farmer - hardly a noble profession by any stretch of the imagination, but in a world such as this, one cannot be seen to be unhappy with one's lot in life. A feudal caste system held society rigidly in balance, benefiting the wealthy, the noble, and the landowners, while the rest of the populace scraped an existence from the soil around their glittering fortress towns. This particular fortress town was little different, apart from its newness - a couple of miles to the east, Dagda's farm had borne witness to the rise of an impressive castle atop a natural ridge, entirely within the elder dragon's own lifetime. Lord Tuur of Frosthorn was relatively new to the trappings of nobility, and appeared fixated on proving his wealth both to the local villagers, and to other nobles. His taxation was mostly tolerable, although they were increasing, but there were few complaints to be heard at the monthly village markets. Dagmar had only been to one such event that she could remember, the most recent market when it had been held in their very own village for the first time in several years. The young dragon had never seen such a throng of people in one place before, and had spent the morning hiding behind her mother, until Dagda had hoisted her up onto his shoulders to be above the crowd. There, she was able to see the village market in all its glory; stall after stall of farm produce for sale, craftsmen selling their wares, a low, constant roar of voices. And all of it beneath a cacophony of coloured cloth the likes of which Dagmar had never seen.
It was spring, and the evenings were growing longer and brighter and warmer. It was the brief part of the year when evening leisure could happen without many distractions, and the sounds of revelry could be heard in the distance wherever one's ears were swivelled. It was almost like the market was still taking place, if one concentrated.
"Ah HAH! I found ye!'' Dagda suddenly grabbed hold of a muddy ankle, pulling Dagmar out from beneath the oxcart and hoisting her up, a squealing, kicking, laughing bundle of protestation.
"Nay, nay papa! Let go! Let go!'' she squealed.
"Grrrr! I'm gonna eat ye all up!'' he teased, baring his sharp teeth and snapping them playfully at his daughter.
"DAGS!'' came the voice of Mahra from within their low, thatched hut. "DINNER!''
She referred to Dagda and Dagmar together as "Dags'' all the time - they were that inseparable. Father and daughter exchanged a glance, and Dagda rolled his eyes, before tossing Dagmar over his shoulder like a sack of grain and carrying her back to the house across his verdant fields. If Dagda was a typical farmer - broad shouldered, leathery-skinned, with dirt-stained hands - Mahra was a typical housewife of the era. Her silver-stranded auburn hair was tied in a thick braid, and her simple homespun dress was gathered at the waist with a sash of precious silk she had won at the baking competition at the village market. It was worn high on her waist, and she habitually ran a hand over the swell of her heavily pregnant belly.
At once soft and matronly, but with a steely edge to anyone who dared cross her, Mahra was a woman to be admired, and Dagmar most assuredly did. Reaching down the front of her muddy tunic, the little girl pulled out a small bunch of wilted wildflowers she'd picked earlier that day, and presented them to her mother.
"Ooh child, they be so pretty!''
"Just like you, Mama!'' Dagmar chirped back.
Mahra dutifully lifted the wilted bouquet to her face and inhaled deeply, before returning her attention to dinner - a large iron pot bubbled enticingly over the cooking fire in the centre of the hut, and as she went to lift it, Dagda surged to his feet and gently nudged her aside.
"Nay nay, rest easy love.''
With a grunt, Dagda lifted the heavy pot and set it on the ground beside the fire, and Mahra, rolling her eyes at her husband, brought across three rough earthen bowls, and a wooden ladle to serve the bubbling stew of wild yams, shallots, onions, garlic and parsnips. Dagmar watched with hungry eyes, her tummy gurgling with anticipation, until Dagda prodded her in the ribs.
"Close yer mouth lass, it be rude! Make yerself useful an' break up a loaf, would ye?'' he muttered.
Dagmar blushed, and straightened. From a large clay urn under one of their hut's two small windows she produced a crusty loaf of bread, and began to tear it apart, uttering a fierce little growl with each pull. Dagda and Mahra exchanged a glance, watching their first-born daughter rend the loaf asunder as if it had offended her - Mahra couldn't hold back a laugh, and within moments both her and Dagda were in stitches, tears streaming down their faces, while Dagmar glanced back and forth between her parents with a look of utter confusion on her face.
Life was good - as good as it could get for a family in their position. But it was not to last.
Dagda muttered a curse under his breath, the dirt-streaked dragon slouching in resignation as he let his wooden hammer fall from his callused hand to land in a cloud of raised dust at his feet.
The hot sun beat down on the parched soil, eddies of dust picked up by the wind stinging Dagda's eyes. The complex series of irrigation channels and catchments that brought water to his fields during the drier months were mysteriously not functioning; not a drop of water was making it to his smallhold, whilst the farms adjacent his own on all sides were verdant green, as usual.
Not usually given to anger, Dagda felt a surge of rage consume him, and raised his hammer high over his head, bringing it down with a crunch on the wooden valve that should've been regulating the flow of water onto his land. The sun-bleached wood split immediately with a little shower of splinters, and Dagda, his anger spent, lifted his eyes and shaded them from the sun, only to see his neighbour overtly watching him from a distance. Dagda could almost swear he could see the smugness on the bovine's face, for his own fields of leek, turnip and garlic were abuzz with life, while his neighbour suffered.
"Ye'll not hear th'end o' this...'' Dagda muttered to himself with a low growl, baring his teeth and turning his back to walk back across his fields towards the house. Dust kicked up around his feet as he walked, and the withered, dry stalks of his ruined crop rustled as he moved among them.
"Papa? What be so wrong?'' Dagmar's head poked out from behind the bread urn as Dagda stormed into the house, the old farmer sinking with a deep groan into one of the simple chairs beside the sturdy table the family ate around.
"Aye... Nothin, lass. Nothin tae worry ye pretty head about.''
Dagmar frowned, and straightened up to her full diminutive height, her long tail brushing the packed earth floor of the hut behind her. Mahra was in the village with their newborn baby son, and so the hut had been vacant but for Dagmar, who'd outright refused to accompany her mother and the wailing, wrinkly, smelly bundle of gurgling wretchedness that was her baby brother. In her own words.
``Nay, there be somethin troublin' ye, papa. Why will ye not tell me?'' she prodded, clambering up onto the table and sitting in front of her father. Her habitually dirt-streaked face, framed by wild, filthy auburn hair that defied even Mahra's most concerted efforts to tame, stared into that of Dagda. Such was the seriousness of the little girl's expression that after a long moment, Dagda relented, his fin-like ears flattening to his skull.
"Aye, ye've got me, Dagmar. There be no water for the crop. I know not why, but I be thinkin' the worst,'' he sighed, cupping Dagmar's cheek in his thick-fingered, dirt-stained hand. "But we shall be alright, I know it."
But there was no conviction in his reassurance, and Dagmar harrumphed. "Ye need not lie, papa, I be almost a grown woman!''
Dagda couldn't help but smile at Dagmar's words, made all the more touching coming from a girl of only eight summers. She had such a strength of spirit, that even so young Dagda often found himself taking her words to heart. She had a wisdom in her that belied her youth.
"Dagmar... ye know we be th'only ones of our kind west o' the mountains, aye? Well... far as we be knowin, anyhow.''
"Aye papa. An' the other people don't like us overmuch. `Cause we be different?''
"That's the truth of it. Lord Tuur be a fair liege, but a sly and ruthless one. He be a bull of highest noble breeding, they say. Horns as wide as a man's armspan. I saw him once, in the distance - they say he ne'er removes his armor, even tae sleep...''
"That's daft, papa! He'd roast alive in th'summer, surely, like a potato! What could he be afraid of, that he'd never take it off? And surely he must stink tae high heaven!''
Dagda laughed then, leaning back on his chair and visibly relaxing.
"Aye, that be a reassuring thought! But my point be, that we and Lord Tuur be not alike, Dagmar. We have no horns, no hooves, no fur, and long tails... none others from these parts look like us. And as unfair as it be, they treat us different to their own `cause of it.''
Dagmar considered that for a long moment. It was the first time she'd ever heard her father actually say it aloud, although she was no stranger to the way her odd little family was ostracised and sidelined from the largely ungulate population.
"So...'' Dagda continued, his eyes meeting those of his daughter with an almost apologetic expression, "it seems our good neighbours have seen fit tae take more water for themselves, an' leave us none.''
"How will ye fix it, papa? They cannae get away wi' it, aye?'' Dagmar snorted, her brow furrowing in anger.
Dagda bowed his head slightly, and took Dagmar's tiny hands in his own. "I know not, lass. Naught but hard work ahead this summer. I be needin' tae fix th'oxcart, and buy an animal tae haul water right from th'river to the farm.''
"B-but the crops be already dead, nay?''
"That be true. We shall have to find another crop tae plant! Come, we should go now, there may still be seed for sale in town.''
Dagda stood, and took Dagmar's hand, and father and daughter left the farm. Barely half a dozen small coins jingled in Dagda's purse - although one of them was gold - and the older dragon fretted over what he could possibly buy, sow, nurture, harvest, and sell in time to pay his dues to Lord Tuur. The bull was not known for his leniency on those who fell on hard times - even if those hard times were manufactured and unfair. And lately, the dues demanded by the lord had only been climbing. Tuur was attempting to elevate his status as a minor, regional noble, and gain the notice of higher born nobility. As such, Frosthorn had become a fortress over the past decade or so - a wooden palisade around the town proper had turned into a stout stone wall, complete with towers and crenelated battlements, built to take advantage of the town's elevation above the low-lying farmland around it. The glittering ribbon of the river wound its lazy way amongst fields, woodlands and smaller villages around Frosthorn, and a stout stone bridge with an iron portcullis provided the only way in or out of the fortified town. It was high medieval architecture at its best; built to make an impression as much as to be impenetrable.
All of this, as well as the castle that was still unfinished, shrouded in scaffolding and secrecy, was work commissioned at great expense by Lord Tuur since his ascension to lordship barely a decade past. The town of Frosthorn itself - the civilian part of it, at least - remained largely unchanged. Cob and thatch, half-timbered and clay brick buildings arranged haphazardly along narrow, muddy streets as if they'd been dropped from a great height and remained where they had landed.
Animals - beasts of burden, that is; donkeys, oxen, goats, horses and mules - filled the village with a stench that was alarmingly similar to the stench of its intelligent, bipedal inhabitants... who were also largely donkeys, oxen, goats, horses and mules. Dagmar had only been within the walls of Frosthorn a couple of times in her young life, and she recoiled at the thick, earthy reek of so many ungulates, instinctively covering her face with her hands. Dagda nudged her, and shook his head slightly, and Dagmar, her eyes baleful, dropped her hands, forcing herself to breathe shallowly.
"Ych... it stinks, papa!'' she whispered, suddenly very aware that every eye was upon them as they moved.
"Aye, lass, but to them, we be the ones who stink. Remember that. Now... we have a need to visit our lord's home, for he alone may sell us seed. His own law, ye see,'' Dagda could not keep all of the bitterness from his voice at the last.
Dagmar took a deep breath, immediately regretted it, and grasped her father's hand tightly, both dragons holding their tails up above the ground as they made their way through the throngs of hoofed, horned and furred townsfolk, ever upwards towards the very centre of town. As a simple farmer, Dagda was of course not expecting to be allowed anywhere near Tuur's actual residence, high in the castle. A castle that was itself surrounded by a military parade ground, barracks, officials' quarters, counting houses, armory, granaries, warehouses and stables. A veritable hive of status and of a social hierarchy that during Dagda's own childhood had simply not existed. Back then, Frosthorn had been barely a village in its own right, and not marked on any maps. The changes were everywhere, and not all of them were for the better. Taxes had increased to fund the fortifications, as well as to support Lord Tuur's ever-expanding militia.
Everywhere Dagda and Dagmar looked, surly stallions, stags, bulls and jacks in polished leather armour and brandishing spears or swords glared back at them. It wasn't until Dagmar pulled her hand away from her father's with a growl that Dagda realised his grip had been tightening ever since they'd entered the town.
"Sorry lass. All these soldiers...''
"I'll protect ye, papa, don't worry!'' Dagmar grinned.
Dagda paused to stare at his daughter, and shook his head before continuing on. At least one soldier overheard, and elbowed a companion in the ribs. Dagmar made eye contact with him, and winked. Inside though, she was terrified.
"What do you want?'' came a reedy voice from behind Dagda, suddenly.
He turned, to be confronted by a scrawny, bookish looking old goat, his back hunched and his gnarled hand gripping a sheaf of parchments to his chest as though they were gold.
"I... we... need tae purchase a bit o' seed, is all. My crops are failin', an' I cannae get enough water tae bring em back in time,'' Dagda explained. He was careful not to make any accusatory remarks.
Dagmar glanced around. They were right outside the counting houses and officials' quarters. It was a different world... all the people here looked like they'd never worked a day in their lives, at least not the sort of manual work Dagmar was used to seeing people performing. The old goat's arms were stained with ink, as was his linen tunic, and he wore a bronze pin on his shoulder that signified him as being in the direct employ of Tuur.
"Seed? At this time of year?'' the old goat stroked his wispy beard with his free hand, and then turned and hobbled away into the counting house, irritably ushering the two dragons to follow him. "I have barley for two shekels, radishes for one and two-thirds, pumpkins for one and one-half... although those are water-intensive as you well know... hmm no, I wouldn't recommend those. What do you normally grow?''
"I ahh... onions, sir. All varietals. Wild, brown, shallot, the lot. I do have plenty o' seed still, o' course, but it be too late in th'season for a second sowing if I'm tae make me dues on time,'' Dagda explained.
As her father and the old goat quibbled and discussed crops, costs, yields and soils, Dagmar's eyes and mind wandered. She kept a casual hold of her father's tail, but that allowed her a good six feet of free rein. The counting house fascinated her. Row upon row of sturdy, polished wooden desks and hideously uncomfortable looking benches housed equally uncomfortable looking clerks, each and every one of them hunch-backed and ink stained, poring over parchments and counting stacks of copper, silver or gold coins, and dutifully noting down every shekel, every penny. Here and there, a small bell was rung, and a runner would dispatch to the ringer, collect the counted coins or parchments, and disappear...somewhere. Most of the runners were children around Dagmar's age, and she caught the eye of a few, although only one gave her more than a passing glance - enough to earn him a cuff across the cheek and a harsh word from a clerk. The runner, a young, dappled grey colt in a white linen tunic, cast Dagmar a cheeky grin and disappeared like the other runners.
Boredom set in for several minutes, until... that was him again, wasn't it? Dagmar's eyes opened wide, and she let go of Dagda's tail as the colt reappeared, empty-handed and out of breath. Before another bell could ring, he trotted right up to Dagmar, and leaned in close, appearing to sniff her curiously. She curled her lip and made ready to snarl at him, but there was no malice in his actions.
"What're ye doin?!'' she hissed.
"Could ask the same of you! You're Dagmar, aren't you? Your mama's apricot pie won the baking contest last summer fair!''
"H-how'd ye know that?!''
"This is a counting house... the clerks here know EVERYthing about everyone, and we runners just overhear bits and pieces! You look lost, wanna see how it works? Oh, and I'm Cael.''
"I... how what works?''
"The counting house! I saw you watching me before, and you were all agape when I came back. Surely you wanna know where we run to,'' Cael grinned. It was a weird sort of grin - his upper lip and nose wrinkled as he did, so it was a sort of unfamiliar expression that made Dagmar slightly uncomfortable.
"But... I hafta stay wi...''
At that moment a bell rang from up the row of desks, and Cael grabbed hold of Dagmar's wrist, dragging the girl along behind him to the desk of the clerk.
"Hurry boy, no time to lose!'' the clerk snarled, shoving a stack of rolled up, wax-sealed parchments into Cael's outstretched arms.
Cael rolled his eyes, and handed a few parchments to Dagmar, before turning tail and darting off through the warren of desks and clerks and runners - it was all Dagmar could do to keep up with the swish and flick of Cael's tail, as well as making sure not to drop any of the parchments! Ducking and weaving between desks and people, Cael whinnied loudly to announce his presence, with Dagmar a scant few feet behind him, all thoughts of staying with her father lost in the moment of excitement that she knew she'd probably never have a chance to experience again. Cael took a sudden turn, and before them was a stairwell that descended below the floor level of the counting house, a trap door propped open with a wooden pole above it.
"Come on! Keep up!'' Cael prompted, pausing briefly before clattering down the stone steps, his steel-shod hooves striking sparks off the stone as he slid and slithered his way down into a dimly lit, stiflingly hot tunnel. Once in the tunnel, Cael slowed down a little to jog alongside Dagmar.
"Where are we goin?'' she asked, suddenly mindful of how rough her accent and dialect seemed in comparison to the largely educated children of the township.
"To the warehouses, of course! This tunnel goes right beneath Lord Tuur's castle. Some say he's even building a secret escape tunnel that joins this one, and would take him right down to the banks of the river!''
"What's he escapin' from?''
Cael blinked a few times, and snorted. "He's a nobleman! All lords and nobles and princes and kings have escape tunnels. No idea what they're all so scared of.''
"Be it true that Tuur ne'er takes `is armour off? Even tae sleep?''
"How should I know that?! Is that what they say?'' Cael laughed. "That sounds proper daft, Dagmar!''
"An' how'd ye know me name, anyways?!''
"You and your folks are the ONLY dragons in the whole of Frosthorn, clunkmuddle!'' the colt playfully elbowed Dagmar in the ribs, to which she harrumphed and poked out her tongue.
The two of them turned corners, climbed stairs, descended ramps, moved through tunnels both wide and narrow, for what seemed like ages. Finally though, just as Dagmar was about to demand that Cael take her back to her father, they burst out into what was quite simply the largest structure Dagmar had ever seen, let alone been inside of. The warehouse was the hub of taxation, trade, finance, and everything in between for Frosthorn's elite. A cavernous space, its vast roof was held aloft by rows and rows of stone columns, between which sat endless racks, crates, barrels and sacks of goods of all kinds. And in the very centre sat a single, enormous table, groaning beneath the weight of such a mountain of parchments that Dagmar did not at first realise there was indeed a whole team of clerks busily organising them into piles for the dispatch of goods.
"My last trip was just to drop coins into Tuur's private stash over there... this one'll take longer, I hafta talk to the Head of Accounts there. Don't run away, I'll never find you again if you do!'' Cael warned, retrieving his parchments from the dumbfounded little dragon and trotting up to the table.
As he'd spoken, Cael had indicated a small cluster of barrels in one corner of the warehouse, and the glitter of precious metal within them was visible even from this distance. Dagmar's eyes widened. Tuur's private pots of money? Was this where he put all the taxes he squeezed out of the poor people in the villages? Dagmar's palms were sweaty, and she wiped them roughly on her trews. Dagda worked his fingers to the bone every single year to grow enough food to support his family, and to sell to be able to pay his taxes to Lord Tuur. And this year, it certainly looked like he wouldn't be able to pay on time... which would mean he'd be thrown into the debtor's prison beneath the castle.
As such thoughts circulated through Dagmar's mind, she was inching ever closer to the barrels of coins. No one seemed to have noticed her. Runners came and went, but Cael was still standing in front of the clerks' table, in a line of runners whose tasks appeared to be taking a lot longer.
Up close, the coins in the barrels glittered with a light seemingly of their own. Coins mostly of silver, copper and pewter, but with the occasional glint of gold, they seemed to call to Dagmar. There were so many of them, surely Tuur wouldn't notice if a mere handful were to go missing, especially if it were to be put towards her family's taxes again? The jingle of metal as Dagmar's hand plunged into the nearest barrel was so loud that she gasped, furtively glancing around, before grabbing what she could and running for the shelter of the nearest rack of wine barrels. Squatting in the shadow of the barrels, Dagmar swallowed heavily, trying her hardest to calm her breathing and slow her heart, which hammered in fear in her chest. What had she done? She opened her hand slowly, and gazed upon her prize - half a dozen coins, no more. But three of them were gold. In her tiny hand, Dagmar held more wealth than her family had ever known.
Eventually, she stood up again, slipping the coins into a tiny pouch on the inside of her trews that her mother had sewn in for her, ostensibly as a place to keep pretty stones and the like. But it worked perfectly as a little coin pouch, and her rope belt held it tightly closed. Slowly, she began to walk back towards the centre of the warehouse, to where Cael was standing staring at her, an expression of displeasure on his face.
"I thought I told you not to run off?!'' he demanded as she approached.
"I did no such thing, ye dolt! I were only explorin. This place be huge! I...''
"STOP! Thief. Dragon,'' came a low, rumbling voice from behind and significantly above Dagmar. The final word dripped with contempt.
Dagmar glanced left, then right. Then turned around. He seemed to melt out of the shadows like a ghost. Surely there was no other way a beast of such enormity could be so silent, or hide so easily in plain sight. Lord Tuur was a mountain of a bull, to say the very least. There was no doubt as to his identity. His voice carried such a weight of command, and his polished burgundy leather armour was edged with gold. The tips of his horns were likewise gold-plated, and even his steel codpiece - itself obscenely oversized - bore elaborate inlaid patterns of gold. If she hadn't been so paralysed with fear, Dagmar might've laughed at this man's overt attempt to emphasise his masculinity.
"Do you know what I do to thieves?'' Tuur rumbled, towering over Dagmar and scowling down at her.
Cael backed slowly away, his eyes wide with fear. Dagmar turned to glare at him. "Where'd ye think ye're goin, Cael?!'' she hissed.
"Away from you, that's for sure!'' he replied, before turning and bolting back to the tunnel and the relative safety of the counting house.
Dagmar squealed aloud as an enormous, rough hand gripped her, first by the hair, and then by the tail, flipping her over in mid-air. Tuur hoisted the girl up and shook her, his free hand held below her, until three gold and a couple of copper coins jingled out of her into his palm. Dagmar hung there, limp in his grip, and sniffled.
"Do you know who I am? And what I do to thieves?'' the bull repeated, lifting Dagmar over his head until her upside-down face was inches from his own. His breath was hot and foetid, and Dagmar winced.
"I cut off their hands...'' Tuur continued. "For I am the Lord of this place and thieves must be made examples of. What explanation do you offer for your pilfery, girl?''
Dagmar felt a moment of defiance, anger fluttering in her chest that this man should be so wealthy on the backs of the farmers beyond his glittering fortress, while those ordinary folk struggled to even feed themselves. But the anger was short-lived, and she fell limp in his grip once more. Tuur grunted, a sneer on his glistening muzzle, and gestured to a guardsman hovering a few paces behind him. The guardsman stepped forward, and Tuur took great delight in simply letting go of Dagmar, letting the girl drop to the stone floor in a crumpled heap at his hooves to be apprehended.
Dagda was beside himself with fear and worry. In the bustle of the counting house, he'd let himself become too absorbed in his negotiations to have kept track of Dagmar. He'd purchased the seed necessary to re-sow a small portion of his land; enough to pay his dues, at the very least. The old goat they'd met outside the counting house had turned out to be a kindly sort, if cantankerous. Upon noticing Dagmar's disappearance, he promised Dagda he would dispatch a runner to his farm with the seed, so that he could focus on finding his daughter.
"A word of advice, Dagda?''
"She's likely to have attached herself to one o' the runners - you'll likely find her in one o' Lord Tuur's warehouses, or the tunnels between them and the counting houses.''
"Jus' how many be there?''
"More'n I can tell you. All are guarded, however, and a girl like yours will stand out easy enough. You'll find her, I'm sure. And if she comes back here, I'll send her home with the seed.''
"Thankye. Ye've been too kind...'' Dagda muttered, his eyes darting furtively up to the goat's face, before he turned tail and hurried back out into the streets of Frosthorn to begin his search.
But where to begin? For a simple farmer, and one largely ostracised from this society to boot, Dadga had not the foggiest idea where to even start looking for Dagmar. He wanted to reason with himself that she couldn't have gone far, but he honestly did not know how long he'd been lax in his attention.
Just as Dagda was about to go back into the counting house and ask more of the old goat, a wheezing, very breathless young colt came bolting towards him, and skidded to a halt in a little shower of sparks before him.
"Slow down there, boy! What does ye want?'' Dagda muttered. "Hurry, I cannae spare ye any time, I must find me daughter!''
The colt snorted breathlessly, and his ears pricked forward as he looked up at the dragon. "Your daughter? She's your daughter? Of course she is, you're a dragon... I'm Cael... Dagmar followed me to Lord Tuur's distribution warehouse. I... sir, she's in trouble.''
Dagda's heart stopped. "What sorta trouble? Speak, boy! What befalls me daughter?!''
Cael shrunk slightly from Dagda's anger, although he knew as well as any that it was anger borne of fear. Turning tail, Cael trotted back whence he'd come, beckoning for Dagda to follow. "Best you come with me, sir, I'll explain as we go...''
Dagda and Cael had barely covered any distance when two guardsmen, a tall, lanky young pronghorn and a grizzled, grey-muzzled stallion stopped them in their tracks. Dagda bristled, but swallowed a hasty demand to be left alone when the stallion rested a heavy hand on the pommel of his gladius.
"You would be Dagda, yes?'' the stallion rumbled, spitting out the dragon's name as if it tasted foul. "Lord Tuur... requests... your presence. Immediately. Come with us.''
Colour drained from Dagda's face, and he stared at Cael. The colt flattened his ears, and glanced up at the guardsmen. The pronghorn rested a hand on Dagda's shoulder, and propelled him off along the narrow, neatly-paved streets. Not to be left out, Cael followed closely, snorting defiantly at the old stallion when he was told to be on his way. "Not a chance. I'm a witness!''
"A witness tae WHAT?!'' Dagda snapped.
"Quiet, peasant!'' the stallion rumbled.
Cael swallowed heavily, flattening his ears and dodging a heavy hand as it swung his way. The colt felt responsible for the trouble Dagmar was in - if he hadn't caught her eye and made her follow him, she'd be on her way back to her farm by now. The colt trotted alongside Dagda as closely as he could, the four of them making their way ever closer to the towering edifice of Lord Tuur's fortified castle. The ground sloped ever upward, until a stout stone wall appeared across the smooth-paved street, a pointed, gothic arch allowing a glimpse through into yet another layer of Frosthorn. Dagda, if he weren't so worried, would've perhaps been awestruck by the sheer size of the warehouse district they emerged into. A vast open square, with the castle doors at one end, was ringed with enormous warehouses. Carts, oxen and horses filled the square, each either collecting or offloading cargo from one warehouse to another. Dagda's eye briefly was drawn to one edge of the square, to where a line of hunched, filthy, wretched figures stood, their ankles and wrists bound in iron manacles. Bile rose in his throat, and he forced himself to look away. Now was not the time for moral outrage.
The two guardsmen led Dagda and Cael to one of the warehouses, which looked much the same as any other save for its sheer size.
And there, standing with his enormous arms crossed over his chest, a tiny, crumpled heap of dragon at his feet, stood Lord Tuur. The bull's face wore a scowl of derision, and Dagmar sobbed as she looked up to see her father being escorted into the warehouse.
"Da! I did nae mean it! It were only a couple a coins!'' she whimpered.
"Silence!'' Tuur's voice, a threatening rumble, cut through Dagmar's words. "Dagda, your daughter is a thief.''
"Be this true? Oh Dagmar, what have ye done?!''
"Sir?'' Cael piped up from behind Dagda, "My lord? It was my fault. I led her here.''
"But it was not your hand that stole from me, boy. What you did was foolish, there be no way to trust a dragon, but the fault be entirely hers,'' Tuur snarled, nudging Dagmar with an enormous hoof. "What have you to say, Dagmar?''
The tiny girl sniffled, and wiped her nose on her sleeve. "I be sorry! But ye... ye has so many coins, and we has none... and Da's crop be failin', an' I thought... ye might nay miss jus' a couple a coins so me Da can pay ye `is dues an' not go tae jail...''
Tuur's eyes gleamed, and he stared at Dagda, the few tiny coins Dagmar had pilfered jingling in his hand as the bull considered their predicament.
"Very well. Your intentions were good, but thievery cannot go unpunished,'' Tuur rumbled. "Consider these coins a loan, Dagda. Three pieces of gold. I believe that be what, thirty silver shekels?'' An accountant standing behind Tuur nodded his agreement. "I expect your loan to be paid back with interest, as well as the dues you owe me, not a day later than usual. Seventy shekels, Dagda.''
The colour drained from Dagda's face, and he fell to his knees. There was no way he'd ever be able to pay that back. Not in ten years, let alone in barely a few months, with his fields starved of water. Cael's heart hammered in his chest. He knew Tuur better than most of the runners, and had an inkling what was coming next.
"And if you cannot pay, Dagda?'' The bull reached down and grabbed a handful of Dagmar's hair, hauling the girl to her feet with a squeal, his voice dropping to a menacing whisper. "I shall take her as tribute instead. Go. Get back to your farm, peasant. Seventy silver shekels, or your daughter. It's up to you.''
With that, Tuur dropped Dagmar to the ground once again, and stormed out of the warehouse, the coins falling with a jingle beside the tiny dragon girl.
Dagda rushed forward and gathered Dagmar up in his arms, holding her tight and gritting his teeth.
"What'll we do, Papa?''
"I know not, lass, I know not...''