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Bow and Heartstrings

Chapter Text

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.

“No.”

“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.

Chapter Text

“Back up,” Levi growled, the irony making Erwin momentarily speechless. He had just been bodily relocated by this dragon, his stomach still nauseated from the short, dizzying flight. At least he knew they were not far away from the village, a reassurance that helped him ignore the request.

“You’re injured.” He said, crouching down by him in the damp soil. Levi snorted at the obviousness of Erwin’s remark, his eyes shutting as the movement caused him pain. They flew back open as Erwin took off his cloak and draped it over him, for decency as much as warmth, though he wasn’t sure it was completely necessary. Snowflakes were beginning to dust the man’s black hair, but the ones that landed on his skin melted right away. The heat he had been putting off in his dragon form was still lingering. Erwin shivered, worried it wouldn’t last long.

“Can you stand?” He asked gently, and Levi stared at him warily a moment, his eyes shiny with pain, before he began to try lifting himself off the ground. Erwin put his hand out to steady him but was rebuffed weakly. He withdrew his efforts to help but stayed close as Levi steadied himself in the dirt. There was already blood soaking through Erwin’s cloak, and there was a dangerous sway in his posture that made Erwin want to reach out and hold him up. “Where did you take us?”

Levi took another moment to answer, his breath shallow and labored. He only pointed out a direction and said, “Hermina.”

“We need to get you to an alchemist,” Erwin said, seeing a look of panic flash across Levi’s face and making a guess at its origin. “I can have my troop’s alchemist treat you privately, they aren’t a soldier in the garrison.” Levi made a face that could only be described as a kind of snarl, but he didn’t look wholly opposed to the idea. Since Levi himself had sought the castle out, though not exactly in the way Erwin had suggested, he thought there was a good chance this was his way of offering to help them find the Lemryans. Erwin was sorry that he had gotten hurt realizing that there was a real threat in the village, and that he wouldn’t be able to defend his territory alone, before his troop could find the elves who had already attacked Mikasa and move against them.

“Can you walk?” Erwin asked, the snow picking up to a steady slant of white around the clearing. His question was met with a glare as Levi took a step that was extraordinarily careful nonetheless. He favored the side with the ankle wound, as he limped past Erwin just out of arm’s reach, if he were to fall. Erwin stepped closer, receiving another angry glower, which he decided to ignore. There were sweat beads on Levi’s neck, but he could see the shivers beginning to wrack his body as the snow melting on him refroze again. Levi accepted him staying just beyond his shoulder, as he set a slow pace out of the clearing, hugging Erwin’s cloak to him.

By the time Erwin spotted a road through the dense trees, nearly an hour had passed, though he guessed they hadn’t actually covered much ground in that time. Around halfway, Levi fell over a twist of roots concealed beneath the frozen, rotting detritus and pine needles that carpeted the forest floor, grimacing darkly as his injuries were strained. He began leaning heavily on Erwin’s side in order to stay upright after that, his pride forgotten in favor of the safer, quicker pace they were able to set together. Erwin hesitated at the tree line long enough for Levi to notice where they were, his lolling head lifting off Erwin’s arm when he pointed.

“My house…is down that road. Close.” He said, and when Erwin didn’t move he felt him stiffen and pull back. “What?”

“Who did this to you? Could they be at your house?”

“Gone.” Levi said, and then elaborated. “Dead.”

Erwin felt the rest of the dragon’s energy go into pulling himself up from Erwin’s side as they staggered out into the open. Luckily, the snow was falling heavily enough that it obscured the few villagers' shapes they could make out farther down the road, and no one noticed them when Levi stumbled again and had to put even more weight on him than before, which is to say not much at all, since he was so small to begin with. Levi was practically drowning in Erwin’s cloak, the snowy green hood hanging down well over his eyes. As they climbed up onto the porch, Erwin thought he heard shouting somewhere in the distance.

“Take your shoes off,” Levi grumbled. He traded Erwin’s shoulder for the door, propping himself up as Erwin unlaced his boots, which were leaving an unsightly puddle of snowmelt and mud on the wooden floors. Levi made an unhappy sound with his tongue just before his knees began to give way under him, his energy spent. Erwin caught him as he slid from the door, shutting it behind them and frowning when he noticed no temperature change, only a respite from the wind. He half carried an agitated Levi to the couch and lied him down gently, pulling a blanket over him before searching the room for firewood, which he eventually found lined up neatly against the house outside. Before he went back inside he noticed the faint glow of torches down the road and voices audible over the wind. The garrison and his scouts were probably searching for him. He felt a stab of concern over what Levi’s abduction would have looked like. Their hunt for the elves might be stalled in favor of a hunt for the dragon. Even in a village this far north dragons were still feared and misunderstood, and Levi’s actions would be interpreted as an attack, whether he was visibly injured or not. He contemplated leaving to find his troop, but he risked being detained and questioned by the garrison, not to mention potentially exposing Levi to the garrison’s awareness. He needed to make sure Levi would survive, before that happened, if they wanted to find the Lemryans who had likely attacked him.

He built up a fire in the hearth and then carefully unwrapped Levi from the blanket and his cloak, the dragon drifting in and out of consciousness as Erwin cleaned the wound on his chest with some clean cloths and rubbing alcohol he found in a cabinet in the kitchen. The jagged laceration had mostly stopped bleeding, but there were places where the blood had crystalized strangely, and his skin look darkened. Erwin was worried the blades that cut him might have been poisoned. There was fever heat coming off of him, different, Erwin thought than the typical warmth that a dragon naturally produced. The side of him that had been lying against the ground when he shifted Erwin could now see was also covered with bruises, especially concentrated around his hip. He feared there was internal bleeding or broken bones that would need more attention than Erwin knew how to provide.

Once the wounds were as clean as he could get them, he bandaged them with gauze and tape that he was also able to fish out of some cupboards. He covered the ankle wound too, which was deep but already healing cleanly. Outside, the snow was still falling, obscuring the surrounding village outside the windows and the mountains towering above it. If he left now, he would be able return to Levi before nightfall, and possibly get to the castle unseen in the weather. Levi’s breathing looked fairly steady for now, but he risked the dragon’s condition worsening if he didn’t get to Hanji soon.

He decided to leave his cloak with Levi, worrying it would make him more noticeable even without the blood stains, and after feeding the fire a few more logs he went quietly back out the front door, thankful he had put on woolen robes that morning. The way back was longer on foot than on horseback, the climb up the mountain growing more and more treacherous with ice. But he eventually saw the castle loom up in the distance, candles lighting the windows below the parapets visible long before he reached it, beacons guiding him through the snow. As he drew closer he saw garrison soldiers on the walls. His increasing worry about being away from the sick dragon for too long helped his mind focus on moving past them unseen. The thoughts that had been wavering at the back of his mind since Levi came to the castle also became abruptly clearer now that he was sneaking around the Elidan stronghold like a criminal. Levi had lived in the village since he was a child, but he had chosen to trust to a stranger with his life when it was in danger. Was it simply because he was an archer of Historia? And if so, had he chosen Erwin randomly over Nanaba or the others?

These questions nagged at him as he hurried to the west tower, where the infirmary and alchemy labs were. To get inside he needed to get past the lone guard stationed by the western gate and the guards on the walls. He unlatched the small hip bow from his belt, measuring the distance he’d need the close-range bow to cover by sight. He aimed a single arrow at one of the glass windows where a candle burned and held his breath as it cut through the cold wind. It hit the glass with a loud pop, the candle inside extinguishing as the guards turned to investigate at the sound of glass shattering. He ran across the yard, panting outside the infirmary moments later. His hand was lingering over the door handle when it suddenly wrenched open.

“And we’ll need to get raw lamb meat if there’s—” Hanji stopped mid-sentence, as Erwin met Moblit’s surprised eyes over the stack of books and scrolls piled in his arms. They turned around from him to face the door they had just pulled open, finding Erwin standing in the hallway.

“Erwin!” They exclaimed, a look of relief immediately turning to curiosity as Erwin put a finger to his lips and gestured back inside. “How did you get here? Where did it take you? Could you breathe alright at the elevation you were flying? We lost sight of you almost immediately because of the fog—” Moblit dumped the contents of his arms back onto a table as Hanji rained questions down on him. Mikasa was sitting up in the bed, looking distinctly startled.

“Commander? You smell like—”

“Like our new dragon friend undoubtedly!” Hanji said, “Your clothes look intact, so this blood must be his.” Erwin nodded, feeling anxious to get back down to the lower village as soon as possible. He gave Hanji and the others a brief explanation of what had happened that morning, leaving out any information that could directly identify Levi to Moblit, who he didn’t know well enough yet to trust fully.

“You want us to treat him.” Moblit concluded, as he finished talking.

“I promised him it would only be the archer’s alchemist who sees him.” Erwin said, looking at Hanji, who was already putting things in a bag to take with them. Moblit looked unhurt by his exclusion, nodding like he understood, which made Erwin’s trust in him grow enough that he almost considered asking him to come anyway, in case there was something he could do to help.

“Moblit should stay with Mikasa then, in case commander Braus decides to tell his soldiers about her. After you were taken this morning some of the garrison framed it as an attack by Lemrya’s magical forces, putting more emphasis on magical than Lemrya.” Hanji said, their glasses catching the candle light. “Prejudiced bastards. Most of the people up here think it’s impossible for Lemryans to get this far north, so they’ll believe dragons are scary and dangerous before they face the reality that Elida is at war.”

“But the dragon was the one who was attacked.” Mikasa said, frowning darkly.

“Some people won’t believe that if they don’t want to.” Moblit replied. “Even if Erwin tells them himself they may not listen. In fact, if he shows back up unharmed it might even draw suspicion. The Archers of Historia are unfamiliar to people here.”

“Let Mike and Nanaba know I’m safe and have them alternate staying up here with Moblit. We need to make sure Mikasa is safe until she’s healed.” Erwin said, addressing both alchemists. “Until I can return, Lynne, Henning, and Gelgar should keep scouting the village and the forests for signs of the elves who attacked Mikasa. There could be a raid on the villagers now that they’ve failed to get to both dragons and any attack will be more difficult to deter with a distracted garrison.” Moblit nodded seriously. Hanji pulled their cloak tightly over their shoulders and strapped a long bow over their back, a staid look on their face before they preceded Erwin outside. Erwin waited in the infirmary for Hanji to get horses from the stable. They returned quickly and relieved the guard at the gate, signaling for Erwin to meet them there.

Erwin was relieved to see smoke still wafting from the chimney of Levi’s house when they finally made it back down the snowy roads what seemed like an impossibly long time later. Hanji’s glasses fogged up when they stepped inside the house, the room and Levi just as Erwin had left them, but markedly warmer. Erwin kneeled down on the rug beside the couch, the disturbance making Levi’s eyes flutter open. Erwin saw his nervousness as his gaze shifted over to Hanji.

“It’s ok Levi, they’re a friend.” Erwin said, “They’re an alchemist and they are going to help you, even though you almost roasted them when you came to the castle.” Levi looked back at Erwin, alarmed by what he had just said and looking even more confused when Hanji chuckled.

“I won’t hold it against you, Levi, especially since Mikasa is healing so quickly. Her wounds weren’t serious at all thanks to you.” Hanji said, “Is it ok if I take a seat next to Erwin?” There was a pause before they settled down next to them at Levi’s nod, spilling their tools and medicines out over the table and sifting through them thoughtfully.

“Based on what Erwin’s told me, I think the blades that cut you had traces of gelumweed on them, a dragon poison that grows in cold regions. It’s slowing down the blood flow around your wounds. If you hadn’t gotten out of the cold, eventually the capillaries in your extremities would have also started to constrict and you’d have essentially frozen to death.” Levi flinched when Hanji reached up to remove the bandages. His angry eyes found Erwin’s as they worked off the tape, the skin beneath it darker than before. “If you stay warm enough to prevent the effects of the gelumweed, without antibiotics the bacteria from the infections already caused by the poison will enter the bloodstream and lead to septicemia.”

“Do you mind with the grim possibilities here?”

“I’m just explaining what could happen. You usually enjoy knowing about the worst possible outcomes.” Hanji nudged him in the ribs as they pulled a mortar and several vials of various, unfamiliar liquid contents toward them. “Take this and place that end all the way in the fire.” They said, handing Erwin a metal instrument that tapered on one side.

“You’re cauterizing the wound?” Erwin asked, surprised when Levi managed an apathetic shrug.

“He won’t feel it like you or me,” Hanji reassured him. “It wouldn’t even be noticeable if he was in his dragon form.” Levi balked as Hanji pressed a small vial up to his lips. They frowned and then followed Levi’s gaze to Erwin. Some shuffling occurred so that Erwin could take the vial and they could take the cauterizing tool. Levi drank the honey-colored liquid when Erwin offered it to him, making a face when he swallowed.

“Dragons are so specific about who they decide to trust.” Hanji mumbled into the flames. Erwin gave them a look. “Sorry! I’m not offended at all. It’s fascinating! We thought he had killed you this morning.”

“I didn’t.” Levi said weakly.

“Thanks for that.” Erwin said, trying to keep Levi distracted and keep his eyes from shutting, which they appeared dangerously close to doing. He was still sweating, his face ghostly pale. Hanji pulled the cauterizing tool out of the fireplace, the tip glowing in a blue-orange gradient.

“You’ll need to burn out as much of the infection as you can before cauterizing the deeper section of the wound that cuts down into his ribcage, where the damage is the most severe.” Hanji instructed, returning the tool to Erwin, who accepted it reluctantly. “It’s likely some of his ribs are cracked on the right-side, but there’s no indication of additional internal damage there or around his hip. This laceration is our biggest problem. I’ll help make sure you don’t cause any more harm than has already been done.” And they did, leaning so close to his hand they were practically inhaling the wisps of smoke caused by the cauterization, a byproduct that startled Erwin at first. Levi watched them blearily, his head falling back on the arm of the couch when he either got too bored or too exhausted for the procedure to hold any more interest. When they finished cauterizing, Erwin gave Levi another vial of medicine at Hanji’s instruction, this one colorless and with the immediate effect of lulling Levi into a sort of half-sleep. His shoulder and chest were inflamed and decently charred, but clearly doing better now that the infection was mostly gone. Levi seemed ok with Hanji rebandaging him, applying the salve they had prepared over the wounds.

Erwin got up off the floor and went outside to get more logs for the fire now that Levi was settled and receiving Hanji’s careful, consummate attention. When he had gathered a significant pyramid on the floor next to the fireplace, he climbed the narrow staircase beyond the living room to search for more blankets, feeling guilty for intruding farther into Levi’s home. Luckily, there was a closet right at the top of the stairs, so he didn’t need to go far. There was a dark hallway the continued on either side, but he didn’t spend much time looking down it, grabbing two thick flannel blankets from a neat pile on a shelf above some sheets and towels. When he sat them on the back of the couch, Hanji glanced up at him, their cheeks flushed from the heat of the fire and their brown hair sticking up at untamed angles in the back. He probably looked somewhat similar. It was getting dark outside by now and Erwin suddenly realized that he hadn’t eaten anything all day.

“You’re going to need food,” Hanji said, as if reading his mind. They had stood up and collected what remained on the low table in front of the couch back into their bag, tiptoeing past the couch and following Erwin into the kitchen where they could still see Levi but were far enough away not to disturb him too much if they talked. “And I’ll need to prepare more of the gelumweed antidote and antibiotics. Dragon healing is not my specialty, so I’m not sure how long it will take for him to fully recover. The library in the castle is pretty sparse, but I’ll see if there are any books that might tell us more about the effects of gelumweed. If not, I can ask around to the other alchemists Moblit knows.” They stopped as if wanting to say more but were waiting for Erwin to ask the right questions first, or waiting to see if he would ask them. He appreciated them for this.

“Is it safe for me to stay here?” Erwin said, deciding that was the best place to begin. He made it deliberately vague, not sure if he was asking for his sake, for Levi’s, or for the realm, Elida. He had vowed long ago to protect the queen’s people and learn about the threats to Elida. His troop had always been better at the learning, the trying desperately to understand—magic, Lemrya, mountain and inland village peoples—than the fighting, but they were good at that too, when they needed to be. Hanji had helped found an organization for the protection of magical creatures in human society, something Lemrya would never accept and that Erwin was promoting more and more adamantly in the queen’s court. Lemrya only used magic in their armies, as a means to an end. Erwin knew it was more than that, and he knew before Hanji replied what they thought he should do. What he had already made up his mind to do.

“It’s more than safe, Erwin. Dragons are creatures born looking at something that you and I cannot see. Looking for something. He wants to fight for something, or for someone.” Hanji said. There was a pause. “You met him before he came to the castle.”

Erwin nodded. He had told Hanji on the way here about seeing Levi fly over the roof when Mikasa chased the elf who had attacked her in the tavern, and about the interview he and Nanaba had conducted. Hanji told him there was no doubt Levi’s choice to go to him had been the opposite of arbitrary. An action that bold, even born of desperation, had been intentional and meaningful.

“That was enough for him. It really is fascinating to see.” They said. Erwin looked over at the couch, expecting Levi to be pulled beneath the veil of physical exhaustion by now. Instead, he had shifted a little onto his side and was staring into the fire, his eyelids heavy with sleep but not quite ready to let go of consciousness. He looked troubled, but also resigned to some inescapable heaviness. Erwin wanted nothing more than to lighten the weariness he saw on Levi’s face, rub away the deep crease in the middle of his forehead.

“He can join the archers, when he’s better.” Erwin said. “Until then, I will stay here with him.” Hanji gave him a small, knowing smile, with just the right level of acknowledgment to make him feel like he had made a choice. They both knew this was a greater, unexplainable thing born of magic rather than reason. It coursed through all life in Elida and Lemrya, arriving at nexuses like Levi. It was drawing him in, not for the first time. Avoiding it was like trying to avoid glancing at wild flowers blooming along a river or breathing in the cold air rushing down from the mountains when the stifling summer heat finally breaks. Erwin’s heart felt light and broken, watching Levi on the couch, and he knew that if this dragon wanted to fight for him Erwin would let him. Let Levi protect him like he intended to protect Levi, from whatever forces were hunting him. He hoped uselessly that they would never have to fight again. For the next several days at least, they thankfully wouldn’t need to.

“I’ll come back in the morning,” Hanji said, bundling back up to leave. Erwin thanked them, looking again at Levi and hoping he would be alright until then. He seemed to huddle down farther into the couch when the door was opened and snow rushed inside.

The next few days passed quietly, which was both strange and welcome. Erwin sat Hanji’s grey longbow beside the door, thankful that they had left it but glad he had no need of it. Levi slept more often than not, his high body temperature frightening Erwin at times, when he thought his fever wasn’t breaking or was returning at intervals. Hanji brought them food and medicine, mostly in the evenings, and assured him that the fever had indeed broken. His body temperature would actually speed his healing beyond the rate of a human.

“Lynne and Gelgar found two dead Lemryans down at the river with their throats torn out. One of them was an elf.” Hanji reported the first morning they returned to check on Levi. They didn’t need to tell him that the Lemryans had been Levi’s assailants. There was no sign of an attack by Lemrya for now, but the deaths made Erwin certain it would come, sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, Erwin read through the dragon healing tomes that Hanji had brought him, insisting that everything in them they had already memorized. There were no other books about dragons that they could find in the village, so Erwin’s knowledge about Levi’s species was confined to wing anatomy and variations and what he knew from training Mikasa. He spent a good deal of time sitting in a chair by the fire, munching rice crackers while he read, watching for any sign that the effects of the poison in Levi’s body were returning. Levi sighed pointedly when he tried to offer him food, drinking only a bitter black tea that Erwin found in his kitchen and refusing anything else. If he didn’t eat soon, Erwin would need to consult Hanji on the issue. He didn’t know how long Levi could go without food and there was nothing in the books that talked about a dragon’s diet. Mikasa ate the same thing the rest of the troop ate, possibly with a little more fruit if she could get it. He thought he remembered her saying her favorite food was cranberries.

It was the evening on the third day since he had been hurt that they were finally able to make some progress. Hanji hadn’t stopped by yet, but Erwin thought they’d arrive soon, since the snow had stopped long enough for the sun to peer out blearily from behind a blanket of clouds. Erwin pretended to be engrossed in the process of steeping tea, as Levi pulled himself up from the couch and limped to the bathroom in the back of the house. When Erwin had tried to help with this the first time, he had gotten an elbow in the ribs. It had a surprising amount of force behind it and Erwin had let him be since then. He needed the wall to rest against a few times on the way that time, but he was already beyond that now.

“Stop watching me like I’m going to trip over the rug and die. Do you need to watch me take a shit too?” Levi said, his tone scathing. Erwin resisted the urge to smile, not wanting to make Levi think he was mocking him.

When he came out of the bathroom, he made his way over to the kitchen instead of the couch. Erwin pushed the tea in his hands across the table toward him. He sighed, almost imperceptibly, as he eased onto a chair and wrapped his fingers around it. There was a plate of rice crackers and apple slices—the closest thing Levi had to cranberries—that Erwin had also sat out. Levi pulled it to him and put one of the wedges of apple up to his lips.

“I’m sorry about your face,” he said after he had cleared most of the plate. Erwin reached up to his cheek reflexively, where the small cut he had gotten from a pine branch on Levi’s descent into the forest had scabbed over.

“I think you did more damage to my back,” Erwin said, smiling gently when Levi frowned at him, clearly concerned. “It makes me feel old.” Levi narrowed his eyes.

“How old are you?” He asked.

“Thirty-eight last month,” Erwin replied, relieved that Levi finally felt well enough to talk. “What about you?”

“Upper thirties, I think. Maybe a little older.” Levi said. It surprised Erwin, the fact that he didn’t know his birthday, but also because he looked fairly young. Even though his blond hair disguised it, he had already found a few white hairs, his genes skipping straight past grey. Levi’s hair was black. There wasn’t any hint of his age in it, even where it was shaved.

“Were you born in Hermina?” Erwin asked. Levi nodded, lifting his tea to his mouth by the rim, instead of the handle.

“As far as I know.”

“I was born in Karanese. My father was a teacher at the alchemy school there.”

“Did he teach you anything about dragons?”

“Just what every Elidan knows. He specialized in elven lore.” He took another sip of his tea, the crease between his eyebrows deepening.

“How’s the girl?” He asked.

“Mikasa’s good, from what Hanji has told me. Healing quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s back to normal soon. Thank you, for protecting her. I’m sorry that garrison soldier attacked you.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“I had my troop send for the garrison. He was under my command.” Erwin shifted against the counter, trying to read Levi’s expression, which had settled somewhere between blank and displeased.

“Do you live alone?” Erwin asked, when the silence had stretched. Levi looked at him like he was trying to figure out if he was an idiot or not. It was true that the house was small and tidy. He noticed that Levi’s notoriety or unapproachability kept other villagers from coming around outside, too. But there was a spare bedroom upstairs, where Erwin had considered sleeping instead of the floor by the fireplace. Beyond that was what he guessed was the room Levi usually slept in, judging from the wear of dresser knobs and the few floor scuffs he saw when he went to find Levi some clean clothes. All the rooms were startlingly neat and sterile, almost no evidence that someone lived in them at all save a few simple but tasteful candle holders and some books. The kitchen had a decent store of rice, dried herbs and meat, and some fruit. Nevertheless, he wanted to be sure he wasn’t intruding too heavily on Levi’s life, something or someone he hadn’t had the chance to encounter.

“There’s no one.” He said, and then paused, following his train of thought. “You can sleep upstairs, if you’re staying.”

“I don’t want to go back until I know you and Mikasa will be safe if I do. Is that ok?” Levi nodded.

“You’ve already made a mess.” He said, sliding the plate back across the counter. Erwin followed his gaze to the sink, which had a single plate propped up in the basin. There was a mug from earlier drying upside down beside it on the counter. Erwin frowned, noticing the tiredness creeping around Levi’s eyes. He made a mental note to clean more conscionably, as Levi slid off the chair with some effort and made his way back to the fire and the couch. He looked up at the sound of a horse approaching outside as Erwin went to the door to let Hanji in.

Chapter Text

Hanji had scoured every library in Hermina for books about dragons, but it turned out one of the biggest collections of dragon-related books in the village was sitting in the home of a dragon. Erwin had dislodged a book from its bookend on a shelf he had bumped into when he first carried Levi into the house, noticing the misaligned book when he came down the stairs. The books were all of widely varying sizes and colors, but they all shared the stiffness of age and blank spines, which is what kept Erwin from realizing what they contained. When he went to replace the book, one of the pages crumpled against the back of the shelf. He removed the whole book and let it fall open to the dislodged page, seeing a diagram of a dragon drawn as if the artist had been looking down at it while it was flying. It was not unlike some of the diagrams he had seen in the anatomy books. In fact, the book turned out to be another anatomy book. Anatomy for the Dragon Healer or the Curious Mind. There was another book by the same author right beside it that looked partially like a travel memoir and partially like a contemplation on dragon origins. Erwin spent the next several minutes flipping through every book on the shelf, marking the ones that interested him by sliding them out a little farther than the others. The one he finally pulled down to read before he went to bed was called Dragon Heartstrings: Dragon Allegiances throughout History. It was written by an Elidan woman who fell in love with the dragon that helped her found an orphanage for magical creatures many years ago in the inland village where the queen resided. Erwin wondered if it still existed. Her story was anomalous among many of the others she wrote about, as was her wife. It seemed like a dragon’s allegiance was as fickle as human desires, though perhaps more physically bound into a dragon’s being than a human’s whim. There had been dragons brainwashed into desiring someone else’s desires, and dragons who desired nothing more than destruction, or riches, or power. They had been taken advantage of in war.

The following morning, the darkening of the frostbite caused by the gelumweed around Levi’s wounds had mostly gone, pink scar tissue forming where the infection had been burned out. Levi woke early in the morning, when the sun was still hovering behind the mountains, turning the gloomy sky a dull yellow and pink. Snow continued to fall, ominously inching its way up the porch and blanketing the frozen sheets that still hung on the laundry line outside in icy crystals. Erwin came downstairs feeling a little more well-rested after sleeping on a bed, which was a good thing, since Hanji had helped arrange a meeting with Mike and Nanaba later that evening to go over a scouting strategy for the village. They were going to meet in the western forest, where Levi had flown down into.

Levi was already in the kitchen when Erwin reached the bottom of the stairs, the pissed-off look he was growing accustomed to fixed on Levi’s face like a spiritual’s mask as he went through the parcels of food Hanji had brought them.

“Is this all the freak alchemist brings?” He said, holding up a roll of rice crackers. “I have eggs.” He shuffled through a cabinet and produced a small beige carton that Erwin hadn’t noticed. Hanji was admittedly a questionable choice for a food supplier, their lanky body partial evidence of their irregular eating habits. Sometimes Erwin would come into a lab and find them nearly collapsed from hunger because they had forgotten to eat.

“Good morning. Hanji is getting us what they can.” Erwin said, rubbing the stiffness out of his shoulders and piling a few logs into the embers that still glowed in the hearth. Levi snorted. “Maybe I can get something when I go out later. How do you feel?”

“Like an elven princess.”

“Good.” Erwin said, hoping he wasn’t pushing himself too hard to return to self-sufficiency. He had seen archers who had been shot with poisoned arrows before, and they always took weeks to get back to normal, longer if they didn’t commit to letting themselves heal. Dragon or not, he needed time and rest. Erwin walked over and took the pan and the eggs from him, glad when he didn’t protest.

“They’re good with cinnamon.” He said, sitting down.

“Eggs?”

“It’s by stove.” When Erwin looked he found a jar of it and sprinkled it interestedly into the pan with the eggs.

“Do you want tea?” He asked, without needing to look to know that he nodded before setting the kettle on the stove beside the pan. The kitchen began to smell like cinnamon and the earthy fragrance of Levi’s tea was not unpleasant. They both relaxed, Erwin mostly because Levi did. When the eggs were done he sat down in the chair opposite to him, and they ate in silence, Levi’s appetite having clearly returned. Erwin was only halfway done with his eggs when Levi reached for the package of rice crackers, despite what he had said earlier. When Erwin was done eating Levi pulled his plate over and stacked it on top of his own, carrying them over to the sink. Erwin allowed him this bit of autonomy, figuring it wasn’t terribly exerting to clean dishes, normally. Levi was painstakingly thorough with it, though, and when the kitchen was fully cleaned he looked significantly wearier than he had before.

“I need to take a bath,” He said when he finished, leaning with his back against the counter and his arms folded over his chest. Something in the way that he said it made Erwin feel like it was nonnegotiable.

“Do you need help?” Levi looked at the stairs and grunted in a way that Erwin took to mean that he did, at least with getting there. “You need to make sure you don’t reopen any of your wounds.” Erwin cautioned, for his own sake as much as Levi’s. Levi nodded, pushing off the counter.

On the stairs, Erwin put his arm around Levi’s back to keep the strain off his ribs. He was breathing heavily when they reached the top, the muscles in his back shuddering. They walked carefully down the hallway toward his room. Erwin hesitated to leave him alone by the dresser while he went to draw the bath, but Levi motioned for him to let go, grabbing him lightly by the sleeve just as he pulled away.

“Hot.” He said. Erwin assumed he was referring to the bath water.

When Erwin came out of the bathroom, he found Levi still propped against the dresser. He had drawn a line through the thin layer of dust on it and was scowling at the grime he was inadvertently rubbing away with the side of the arm that was supporting him.

“Filthy.” he said.

“I can clean it while you’re bathing,” Erwin suggested, not sure what he would do if Levi insisted on dusting before he took a bath. His stomach reacted pleasantly to the way Levi looked at him, when he made the offer.

Levi made it into the bathroom without his help, unwrapping Erwin’s cloak from his body slowly and handing it over to him. A gesture that he made almost reverentially. Erwin took it and turned to leave him alone, but as soon as he did he caught sight of Levi’s back. He had noticed the dark patches when he saw him shift in the forest but had mistaken them for dirt or bruises. He realized now that his bones were darker on his back than everywhere else. His shoulders and spine were black beneath his skin, as if his wings were folded up somewhere in the anatomy there. There was a faint, healing laceration across the left side, and he recalled that his left wing had been the one that was damaged.

“Hey pervert, the attention is flattering but your cloak needs it more than I do. I’ve been bleeding on it for four days. Wash it.” Levi said, lowering himself gently into the tub. Erwin shut the door, sufficiently scolded and wondering why his cheeks were warm with embarrassment instead of annoyance.

While Levi was in the bath, he rummaged through the dresser in his room to find him clean clothes, looking for something loose and warm. He settled on a pair of woolen pants and a green shirt, which he sat on the bed before he went around dusting every surface in the house he could find. After that was done, he wrapped up his cloak in the blankets on the couch and put them in the bathroom downstairs, which along with a toilet and sink, had a washing basin. By then enough time had passed for Erwin to worry Levi might have drowned in the bath, but the worry didn’t really solidify until he knocked on the door and there was no answer.

“Levi?” He called through the door, repeating it when it was met again with silence. There was more silence, and then Erwin was opening the door. He saw Levi slumped against the inside of the tub, one arm stuck out over the edge keeping his head from sliding completely underwater. Erwin could tell he was unconscious, a fear that was confirmed when he knelt by the tub and gently pulled Levi’s deadweight up from under his arms. His skin was hot, steam rolling off of it in eddies through the cold air. Levi’s head lolled back onto Erwin’s shoulder, his wet hair sticking to his face and getting Erwin’s shirt wet. His eyes fluttered open, glassy with heat, before immediately closing again. Panic welled up in Erwin’s chest, worried again that his fever had returned. He lifted the rest of Levi’s body all the way out of the water. Despite his height, he was surprisingly heavy, his compact body densely muscled. He gasped in pain at the sudden movement and Erwin stilled, looking to see if any of his wounds were bleeding. He didn’t see any blood, but the new scar tissue was bright red from the heat of the water. He rested their joint weight against the sink and unlatched the window beside it. When he pushed it open, a rush of snow blew inside, the tiny glittering ice sharp and surprising in his lungs. He could feel Levi’s reaction against him, the intake of breath followed by his shoulders tensing.

“Levi.” Erwin said, partially a question. “Are you alright?”

“Why is the fucking window open.” He panted, his eyes still closed.

“You passed out in the bath.” Erwin said.

“Oh.” Levi said, and after a pause. “Thanks for saving me.” Erwin snorted, almost laughing with relief. Levi shifted against him, perhaps thinking he was laughing at him. Erwin gave his shoulder a light squeeze and left him sitting on the floor by the window while he went to get the clothes he’d laid out. When he came back Levi was more fully conscious, taking the shirt Erwin handed him and shrugging it over his damp hair, which was already drying in the cold. He stood up using Erwin as a prop and pulled on the pants, edging away from the window. He let go of Erwin, seeming determined to get out of the bathroom to his bed, where he promptly collapsed and curled onto his side.

“We need to find the Lemryans hiding in Hermina.” He murmured into the pillows before Erwin could leave him to rest, “They’re not going to stop looking for the girl.”

It was approaching dusk when a soft thunk against the wood of the front door made Erwin look up from his book. Levi had come downstairs a little after midday seeking food, and now he was huddled down in the couch watching the fire drowsily. He blinked at the signal and the sound of horses’ hooves on the road outside.

“Your friends are here.” He said, without looking up. Erwin got up to put on his boots, strapping his quiver to the belts across his back. Hanji had snuck him his longbow too, the blond wooden limbs strung with a light-colored string flecked with turquoise. Their old, well-worn grey one had been left for Levi, if he wanted it. He slung his bow over his shoulder beside the quiver and then draped a nondescript brown cloak over it.

“I’ll be back awhile after sundown.” Erwin said, noticing Levi had looked over at him. “Make sure you eat something before you go to sleep. There’s rice crackers on the table.” Levi gave him a look.

The cold hit him as soon as he opened the door, but the snow had stopped falling a few hours earlier and didn’t look like it would start again that night. The small bolt that had been fired into Levi’s door was fletched in Nanaba’s gold feathers, but she was nowhere to be seen. Her and Mike would scout the forest a little, while he came on foot. He crunched over the snow, which was piled knee high and melting at the bottom against the warm ground. Erwin entered the forest where he and Levi had come out, on an empty stretch of the road where only a couple houses sat well away from the tree line, small farms nestled outside the heart of the lower village. When he found Mike and Nanaba it was past the clearing where Levi had fallen to the south.

“Erwin!” Mike exclaimed, when he appeared where they had hobbled their horses, in a dell where the trees thinned around a few rocky outcroppings. “I was beginning to think Hanji had been lying to us about you being holed up with that dragon, no injuries to speak of after it swooped you up like a gods-damn field mouse.” He gave him a clap on the back and Erwin smiled at his friend, meeting Nanaba’s serious grey-blue eyes behind him.

“It’s good to see that you’re safe.” She said.

“It’s good to see you, too.” Erwin said. Greetings soon aside, Nanaba started in on an updated report on their scouting and progress finding the Lemryan elves. Erwin was relieved they hadn’t pressed for details about when he would be returning or about Levi, plans for which he was still working through and that largely depended on their new possible ally.

“Hermina’s garrison only has about 90 soldiers. With the Archers of Historia, that brings us up to 97 or 98 depending on if you or Hanji are unable to scout at any given time. Commander Braus is most concerned about protecting the people, and an ostensible threat to him right now, is the dragon that took you. He’s being pressured by some of his younger soldiers. They’re a stubborn group and resent our authority, but they’re still taking Hanji’s orders for now. They’d rather the garrison’s energy go into hunting down the magical creatures residing in Hermina—elves, dragons, nymphs, the spirituals and their muses. The mountain forests are probably home to a fair few esoterics too. The garrison discovered a fox spirit in the lower village two days ago and ran him out of Hermina. None of our troop found out until last night, when a hawk arrived with a message pleading that his family be guaranteed safety in exchange for his indefinite exile. In any case, it’s not safe for Levi to reveal himself anytime soon.” Erwin grimaced, recognizing the effects fear had on paranoid soldiers allowed to exercise too much power. Commander Braus was troubled by the unrest that Lemrya was instigating and the danger that posed to the villagers, making him forget that Hermina’s magical creatures were not enemies, but some of the people he was tasked to protect. “We have the garrison scouting in pairs along a number of routes throughout the upper and lower village. Our troop has been scouting the forests and the fields in the valley since most of Hermina’s garrison is relatively unexperienced in combat, but it takes time to cover so much ground and we don’t have the numbers.”

“If the garrison is running out villagers, the Archers of Historia need to be seen resisting those efforts. We need to be with the garrison as much as possible, to provide combat support and to make sure they aren’t making rash decisions out of fear or intolerance. The garrison also needs to stay focused on Lemrya, so if Lynne can be spared to teach a few lessons in Lemrya’s common fighting styles it will help build respect for her that we can use to keep the garrison from disallowing our presence, while making them stronger soldiers.” Erwin rolled out a scouting map over a rock and explained the structure he wanted to try to utilize to cover the whole village and surrounding farms and wilderness with small parties still able to execute focused searches in the key areas of Hermina that had come up in interviews. It involved the garrison scouting outside the populated village but ensured there would also be an archer within a few minutes’ radius away on horseback. His troop would have to be constantly moving throughout the day, switching from pair to pair of garrison soldiers. It would demand that they learn the layout of the village by heart. Nanaba and Mike studied the map closely, but with no sign of apprehension over its demands. Erwin had also laid out a corner of the lower village for him to scout, figuring Levi would only get better from here and that a short absence on his part everyday wouldn’t be a problem. He also secretly hoped Levi would be well enough and want to join him soon, if Lemrya didn’t attack before then.

“So, about the dragon you’re living with—” Mike began, when it was clear they had exhausted all the plans that could be made before simply trying the new formation out. He stopped when one of the horses made a low whicker to the right of them by the trees. All of them turned to look, and upon seeing both horses shuffling nervously with their ears pricked in the same direction, they loaded their bows and retreated to the tree line. Nanaba and Mike mounted their horses, where they’d have better vantage and more speed, and reined between Erwin and the rocky dell.

The wyvern came at them on the ground over the lip of forest, its leathery wings tucked against its side and flapping open only as an aid help it run quicker. It looked more like a dog than a dragon, with small ears on the sides of its angular head. Its long snout was equipped with predatory mammal’s teeth rather than the rows of needle-sharp teeth of a dragon. Mike and Nanaba pulled immediately off to one side, arcing in a semi-circle around it to draw it away from Erwin. It was momentarily drawn in by them, lashing out with a huge clawed foot at Mike’s horse. The horse reared angrily, and Mike loosed an arrow that fell shy of the creature’s flank when it dodged. Nanaba came around from its other side and shot off two arrows, one that caught it’s hindleg before the wyvern scrabbled out onto the rocks where the horses could follow less easily. It was at an equal distance from Erwin now, who stared down the shaft of his arrows as it drew nearer, the muscles in his arms taunt and steady. He was aware that in order to kill a creature born of magic he would need to hit both its brain and its heart, that if he missed one, it wouldn’t be enough to slow the wyvern down. That it would reach him in a few strides and tear him apart. He let out his breath slowly and then released the bowstring.

Only one of the arrows landed. It cut through its cheek under its eye, lodging into the wyvern’s skull. The other one was deflected by its roughly padded foot, which managed a lucky swipe at the oncoming barrage. It whined at the pain in its head, its teeth bared in an ugly snarl. Erwin knocked another arrow and fled behind a rock as the wyvern stumbled toward him in a blind rage. By that time, Mike and Nanaba had regrouped and were on their way around the rocks along the trees. Erwin saw both of their bows drawn, and the creature must have sensed they were the bigger threat because it turned away from Erwin and charged after his archers instead. Erwin saw Mike and Nanaba fire at precisely the same instant, Mike’s arrow burying itself in the wyvern’s chest and Nanaba’s in its skull above Erwin’s. It went down with a whine, stumbling onto its knees before collapsing onto the forest floor where it remained, unmoving. They lowered their bows, as Mike rode up to it, his horse snorting grumpily as it sniffed the dead wyvern. Erwin came out from behind the rock and started over to them. He got halfway when Nanaba shouted at him.

“Commander!” She yelled, her expression quickly changed to fear just as Erwin heard something moving in the trees behind him. He swiveled with his bow already drawn and aimed. Before he could loose at the massive wyvern that had leaped toward him, it was intercepted midair by a black dragon. For a moment, Erwin’s mind jumped to Levi, but he quickly recognized Mikasa’s familiar shape, though her coloring was invisible in the low light. She had grabbed the wyvern by the throat, her teeth dripping with its blood as she shredded out its jugular on the rocks behind him. When it was dead, she let out a high-pitched screech that could probably be heard back in the village. He prayed Levi didn’t hear it, in case he decided to try to come see what the fuss had been about. In a heartbeat, Mikasa had already shifted. Erwin looked away out of habit as she ran to the backpack she had dropped in her dragon form and that she always carried when scouting and pulled her robes out. She was dressed in seconds, her hair a little mussed, but otherwise looking perfectly orderly and healthy.

“Are you alright?” She asked, hurrying over to them.

“Did Hanji or Moblit say it was safe for you to shift?” He asked, searching her face worriedly for any sign of weariness. She nodded hurriedly.

“I was cleared by Hanji this morning. I saw Mike and Nanaba leaving and thought they might be going to meet you.” She said. “Why are there wyverns here?”

“Probably because Levi isn’t scaring them away. They pose a danger to the villagers, being this close.” Nanaba said.

“Most people probably don’t realize he keeps them safer by being out here.” Mike added. Erwin nodded, glad his friends recognized this fact. Wyverns were like common pests of the magical variety, like coyotes or particularly vicious raccoons. They didn’t shift like dragons and weren’t controllable by sentient armies, which made this unlikely to be a strategy employed by Lemrya. They simply weren’t worth the trouble to try to tame or control.

“Can you fill in for him until he’s healed?” Erwin asked, looking at Mikasa. “Levi isn’t going to be shifting for at least a few more days and you’re strong enough. I should say thank you.” She looked startled by the praise but drew herself up a little straighter and assented with a nod.

“Has he told you exactly what he wants with you? Or how he plans to help us? Hanji tried to tell us about dragon allegiances, but I’m not sure I understand it.” Mike asked. Nanaba shot him a look.

“We trust that you believe in his intentions.” She said, but Erwin could see both of them were a little rustled after the wyverns’ appearance, which was translating into uncertainty about Levi. After all, they must have thought he had possibly been killed by Levi, at first, and only Nanaba had met him, just briefly.

“I don’t completely understand it either, truthfully.” Erwin admitted. “But he was injured badly by Lemrya and wants to keep them out of Hermina. With his claim to this area and as a dragon with past experience in combat, he would be an invaluable asset to us if he chooses, which Hanji believes he will. It’s true none of us know him well—” Erwin omitted that he had pulled him out of the bathtub that morning. “—but from what I can tell he would make a faithful archer.”

“I want to meet him.” Mikasa said, and then looked a little embarrassed by her own boldness when they all looked at her. “If that’s alright.” Erwin smiled at her.

“I’ll ask him.” He said. “But he probably wants to meet you too. The north of Elida is the most heavily dragon-populated region in the realm. I believe he also thinks Lemrya is here to claim territory as much as they are to recruit for their armies, like Hanji guessed. They might even be trafficking dragons.” The thought made his skin crawl. “He wants you to be safe.” Nanaba stepped closer to Mikasa, perhaps subconsciously.

“I looked into his record with the garrison after we spoke with him a week ago. He hasn’t had a run in with Hermina’s soldiers since he was a teenager. The last charge was for the robbery and assault of a noble in a local tavern for which he was imprisoned briefly in the castle. Since then, there’s no evidence that would suggest he’s been a danger to anyone in the village. I would welcome him, if he chooses to join us.” Nanaba said. Mike also looked mollified.

It was with that that they returned to the village, the three archers splitting off with Erwin when they were well within a safe distance from civilization. There was no snow, and a thin sliver of moon was shining into the valley. There was enough light in the darkness to see that the sheets on the clothesline outside of Levi’s house had been taken down when he came around the bend in the road. Erwin didn’t know whether it was funny or concerning to imagine Levi traipsing through the snow to retrieve them, in his current state. When he opened the door he saw the sheets drying along with his cloak over the fire and Levi awake still, sitting on the floor against the table in front of it. There was a mug in his hand, and in the dim light it would be nearly impossible to know that he had been poisoned and mortally wounded in a sword fight only four days ago. He certainly wasn’t human, but Erwin wondered if his resilience wasn’t remarkable among dragons too.

“Welcome home.” Levi said. Erwin scoffed at the sarcasm in his voice as he got out of his heavy clothing, un-belting the weapons from both his lower and upper-body. “How is it out there?”

“Shouldn’t you already know, since you also ventured out?” Erwin teased. Levi just shrugged.

“It’s my house. I took a lovely evening stroll to the back garden.” Erwin laughed a little, which seemed to startle or offend Levi, he couldn’t tell which. He took a seat across from him on the rug, leaning back against the foot of a chair and angling his body toward the heat of the fire.

“There were two wyverns that appeared in the western forest.” He said. Levi stopped drinking his tea and looked over at him. “No one was hurt.” He added, seeing Levi’s face and interpreting his expression as worry.

“If you could be killed by a wyvern, I would be disappointed.”

“Would you?”

“Yes.”

“It was actually Mike and Nanaba who killed one. Mikasa took care of the other one.” Erwin said. Levi nodded, like it didn’t really matter to him who had actually killed them. “She’s going to keep an eye on the forests, while you’re recovering.”

“It’s nearly done healing,” He tapped the spot under his collarbone. “She won’t need to be out there long. She’s basically a child. I can’t imagine why you make her fight.” Levi said.

“I don’t make her.” Erwin said, deeply concerned that Levi thought he did.

“She’s too young to believe enough in what you’re doing.”

“Hanji doesn’t think she’s made any allegiances or bonds, no. Her family was killed when she was nine and she passed around a number of orphanages until she found us. Most of them have enforced magical intolerance and I imagine she didn’t stay in any of them for long. There’s no evidence she ever tried to suppress the dragon part of her like some children in those situations.” Levi made a face. “She’s safer with us and she’s one of the best fighters I’ve ever seen. She has freedom as an archer and she’ll never be feared or judged by her own. The Archers of Historia vow to serve Elida for life, but that doesn’t mean they’re morally bound to make decisions that only benefit the realm. You can both live and serve.”

“Good.” Levi said. “I’m glad you don’t make her do anything. I was worried, when I saw you on the roof with your bow and her down on the ground. I thought I would be defending her from you until I saw the elves. There haven’t been juvenile dragons in these mountains since I was a kid. All the adults I usually just run off.” Erwin sighed.

“She actually has the same last surname as you.” He said. Levi frowned, but didn’t make a comment about that.

“Did you eat?” Erwin asked, preceded by a yawn and a nawing in his stomach.

“No. I had to clean your shit. When are you going to get out of my house?”

“Maybe when the dragon-claw mark on my back is gone.” Erwin said, getting up to get them both something. “You have plans to explain that, at some point?”

“You read the book, you know how it works. I’m not going to explain it.” He said. He guessed the linens in his roomed would be tidied when he went upstairs to sleep.

Erwin got out some rice to boil and chopped up a few vegetables and fish. He came back over to couch, when it was all cooking on the stove, and leaned onto the pillows. Levi didn’t turn around to look at him.

“If you want to join the Archer of Historia, you can make your vows to me. If you do, we’ll both be able to come out of hiding sooner. I’ll assess your archery skills, but training won’t be a priority since you can already fight soundly in other ways.”

Levi nodded, and Erwin took that as confirmation that was what he wanted. He let out a small breath.

“It isn’t me then.”

“It’s you, Erwin. But I’ll join your freak archers.”

Chapter Text

There was a dream. The first indication that Erwin was gradually becoming more troubled by the situation in Hermina. His body was picking up on small disturbances, sending warnings to his brain before he consciously noticed them. His back was on the rug beside the couch. His head on a pillow that was starting to smell familiar—different, in some important way, to the eternally unfamiliar, wild smell of the forest where he had been sleeping less than one week past.

In the dream, he was near Lemrya, standing in the deep sands that lined the strait on the Elidan shore. His mind conjured up the thin strip of land across the ocean, the faintest green line against the bright water, where the sun burned down on everything. A shadow passed over him; he looked upward and shielded his eyes to see what was drifting over the dunes. It was a dragon. It’s long reptilian wings and curved neck entrancing and terrifying against the cloudless sky. The shadow got larger slowly and then smaller, arcing back and forth over the dunes in a long, invisible current of air, almost too small to see when it got to the end and circled back. When the dragon dropped low enough that Erwin could count the hard scales on its belly, he realized with a rush of panic that he couldn’t move. The only parts of his body he could control were his neck and head. The dragon was steadily descending, and Erwin watched it fall with a growing sense of dread as he saw how massive and forbidding the creature was up close. Its neck was lined with long spines, and its stomach glowed yellow with the fire it carried in its gut, as if it had swallowed the sun. The heat was oppressive, and Erwin felt just how exposed he was out on the dune at midday. His feet and legs remained immobile in the sand, no matter how much he willed them to move.

There was a moment just before the dragon landed that Erwin felt the terror of its piercing red eyes on him. Its wings made rippling sounds and sent whirlwinds of sand into the air as it fell. It came down right on top of him, its giant clawed foot pinning him to the sand. He screamed as the side of his body exploded with pain. When he looked he saw the dragon’s claw where his arm should have been. He was drenched in his own blood, unbearably hot on his skin. The sand had turned dark red where his arm had been as his blood soaked into it. When he looked at the dragon, it threw its head back and bellowed at the empty sky.

He woke up sweating, with Levi’s eyes inches from his. There was a moment where Erwin still felt like he was dreaming, the strangeness in the way Levi was leaning over him, his worried face blocking out the light streaming through the windows. “Get up, there’s someone at the door!” He realized that Levi was crouching down on the floor so whoever was outside wouldn’t be able to notice that someone was in the house.

“Is it Hanji?” Erwin asked dumbly, still vaguely disoriented. That was quickly changing, as he brought his right hand up and rubbed his stiff neck. This simple movement produced a distinct sense of gleeful relief in him.

“It’s not Hanji. It’s a bunch of teenagers.” Levi said, frantically. “I’m going to go jump out the upstairs window.”

“What?” There was a forceful rap on the door. Levi looked up, the crease in his brow deeper than ever. There was a cowlick at the front of his head that made his overall impression clash oddly with the possible seriousness of the situation.

“Levi Ackerman, Hermina’s garrison requests that you open your door and submit to questioning on orders of commander Braus.”

“Don’t move. Wait for me to come and get you—” Levi began.

“Levi.” Erwin started, alarmed by how panicked he seemed. “You need to answer the door. The only way to convince them you aren’t their enemy is to tell them, while they’re still knocking politely on your door. They don’t know anything. If they did, they’d already be kicking it down.” Levi studied him for a moment, looking back over his shoulder when they hammered at the door again, louder than before.

“But who the fuck are they?” Levi asked, in a half-whisper.

“Nanaba said some younger kids in the garrison were hunting down magical creatures in the village.” Erwin said. “They’re probably here for the same reason we were.”

“To check in on a criminal.” Levi said, blankly. There was both dawning realization and self-hate in his eyes, which still hovered very close to Erwin’s face. He let out a small, harried breath. “Ok.”

Levi stood up and went to the door. Erwin saw him look at the two bows propped against the floor before he opened it. He scooted closer to the fire, up against the warm stone where he wouldn’t be seen right away if the soldiers somehow managed to push inside past Levi, though he strongly doubted it.

“Levi Ackerman?” Came a man’s voice, not a teenager’s, but still belonging to a soldier who was plainly young and lacking experience.

“Yes?” Levi said. Erwin was stunned by how seamlessly Levi’s tone took on an irritated and uninterested quality. He hoped they didn’t notice how gaunt and sleep-deprived Levi looked. His bandages were all hidden beneath his shirt, at least.

“Your name was found in a private registrar of people in Hermina with connections to magical beings, and under orders of the garrison commander, who’s power is sanctioned by Elida’s queen, we have been sent to request you divulge any related or pertinent knowledge to us—”

“I don’t have any pertinent knowledge.”

A different soldier said, “We still ask that you cooperate for questioning.” Followed by a silence, as though Levi was waiting for the questions.

“Do you know of any magical creatures residing in Hermina?” The original soldier asked.

“No.” Levi answered. There was another pause while his answer was recorded.

“Are you yourself a being of magical origin?”

“No.”

“Have you been in recent contact with magic, by accident or intent?”

“No.”

“Are you aware that there is an imminent threat of attack to Hermina by Lemrya’s army?”

“What does that have to do with magic?”

“Everything, Mr. Ackerman. Lemrya’s strength is in how it has harnessed magic to fight Elida. It is not unlikely that the magical creatures living in Hermina could be spies for the Lemrya. Now, please. Stop lying so that we don’t have to arrest you.” The other soldier who had spoken before, said. Erwin tensed, but luckily or unluckily Levi didn’t get the chance to respond. Someone fired an arrow into the door, and this time, it didn’t belong to one of Erwin’s scouts.

Erwin heard garrison soldiers begin shouting commands, the one who had just spoken insisting Levi was honor-bound to shelter them inside as Levi slammed the door in his face. There was the sound of arrows whizzing by outside and several more sinking into the exterior of the house.

“What happened?” Erwin asked, grabbing his dry cloak from above the mantle.

“Lemrya.” Levi sneered. “I saw that woman who attacked your archer in the alleyway across the road. She has a crossbow.” Erwin bit his lip. The garrison archers didn’t have the skills to match someone who was leading this kind of operation. How long had the elf been right outside Levi’s house?

The door handle started rattling, and then it burst open a second later after more shouting. A wide-eyed red-haired boy scurried inside along with three other garrison soldiers.

“Levi, do not shift.” Erwin whispered to him. He looked extremely annoyed, but Erwin didn’t have time to worry about what he was thinking in that moment. If he shifted while he was still injured, he could die.

“What—” The red-head was looking at Erwin, who was searching for a way to get to his bow. Another bolt flew inside through the door, clipping one of the soldiers on the shoulder before lodging itself in the floorboards. “You—you’re a dragon!” The soldier looked at Levi, ignoring the soldier who was clutching her shoulder. Blood seeped over her hand and her eyes were wide with fear. One of the other soldiers had the sense to shut the smashed-in door, which gave Erwin enough of an opportunity to move past it and grab his weapon.

“Levi, can you get the cotton bandages?” Erwin asked, receiving a frightened look from all three of the other soldiers. Levi took a step and the red-haired soldier pulled out the sword at his hip. He stopped and looked straight at Erwin.

“How many are going to need bandaging?” Levi asked dryly.

“I am arresting you for collusion with Lemrya and assault on Elidan soldiers.” The soldier yelled, as if he was too afraid to be speak quietly.

“Levi Ackerman is an Archer of Historia under my command.” The soldier turned and looked at him like he was insane, which given the circumstances was understandable, but unfortunately very inconvenient.

“He abducted you!” The soldier screamed. “We thought you were dead!” They stared at each other wearily for a moment and then the door exploded into splinters. A Lemryan soldier was standing on the porch. A moment later he was drowning in his own blood. Levi let go of the arrow shaft that he had plunged into the enemy’s throat. He had gotten to the soldier before the red-head or any of them had time to blink, but now the young garrison soldier looked wildly confused and Erwin could see that there were a couple more Lemryans on the road outside.

“Erwin, we need to move.” Levi said, scanning the street. There were two nasty-looking soldiers in brown and red uniforms coming toward them on foot and Erwin didn’t see the elf, which meant she could attack unseen. The body of a garrison soldier was lying in the snow with a crossbow bolt protruding from his chest.

“One of you stay behind and look after her wound,” Erwin gestured to the woman who had been hit by the arrow. “The others should follow me, if you’re willing.” They all nodded, including the one who still looked interested in arresting Levi. There was a brief, tense couple of seconds where he looked from the corpse beneath Levi to the two attackers outside before assenting.

Erwin knocked an arrow and took a cautionary shot at the Lemryan woman who was closest to them. She dodged it, but the arrow had done its job in driving her away from the side of him that Levi and the others were standing on. The quarrelsome one surprised him again by diving off the porch to meet her with his broadsword just as Hanji came galloping around the corner on a horse. The reins flopped uselessly across the horse’s withers as they drew their bow and fired off three arrows. The man took all three into his shield, looking baffled when two of them sliced through the thick metal right into his thigh. He went down on one knee, which sent the woman fleeing into an alleyway. Behind them, Erwin saw Henning on their heels and then Moblit, who was approaching with much more caution, a short, curved sword in his hand.

“Don’t!” Erwin shouted at the garrison soldiers who looked ready to chase the woman. “Let her go.” He didn’t want them to be drawn into a trap like Mikasa had been. When he turned his attention back to the man, he was flat on his back and Levi was standing over him holding an arrow that was covered with blood. He yanked the one arrow that hadn’t made it all the way through the shield out of the metal and handed it to Hanji along with the bloodied one when they reined up beside him.

“Commander, there have been a number of attacks throughout the village in the last hour.” Henning said. His horse trotted over to where Erwin was standing. He noticed there was significant number of arrows missing from the archer’s sheath.

“How is the garrison?” Erwin inquired.

“3 dead, so far. The enemy doesn’t have large numbers, and they don’t appear to be on the offensive.” Henning was efficiently concealing his shock at finding Erwin alive, but he could see the many questions forming in the archer’s mind by his expression. He seemed to realize he’d have to be patient. “They seem to be looking for someone.” He said, glancing at Levi. Erwin felt his heartbeat quicken slightly.

“You mean that kid died because these bastards were trying to find me?” Levi said, snarling at the corpse at his feet. Moblit had dismounted and crouched down to the soldier lying on the snow to confirm what they already knew.

“It’s most likely they’re not searching for you alone.” Hanji said, leaving the garrison soldiers nearby to wonder at their meaning.

“Hanji. Sir. My team discovered commander Smith with Levi Ackerman, a suspect in our investigation of the magical creatures residing in the village. I think he has just proved that he is in fact the dragon that was thought to have killed the commander—”

“Has he?” Hanji feigned a baffled look at Levi.

“—I also think there’s reason to have commander Smith kept under suspicion until the Lemryans are destroyed. With your permission, I would like to have them both arrested.” He concluded, ignoring their skeptical interjection with an impressive amount of self-conviction. The soldiers behind him looked distinctly uncomfortable.

“Forster, I must decline to grant you permission on that account.” Hanji replied, “You can take it up with commander Braus when we get back to the castle. Are you still able to fight?” Forster looked at them defiantly but nodded sharply after some consideration. Hanji’s glasses flashed in the sunlight as they looked over to Erwin.

“You’ll provide support to the soldiers in the rest of the lower village, until we’ve cleaned out the invading forces.” Erwin instructed the garrison. “Myself and my archers will support you. We can discuss your concerns when the present threat to Hermina is taken care of.” He opened his mouth like he was going to protest, but then thought better of it. Henning went over to them and began giving them further instructions about how to proceed. Erwin crossed the yard to where Levi and Hanji were standing just as Moblit reemerged from Levi’s house with the two soldiers Erwin had ordered to remain there. The woman’s arm was bandaged, and she gaped at the dead Lemryans lying on the porch and in the street.

“This cut is deep. She won’t be able to hold her sword for a while.” Moblit said when they approached. He stared at Levi with a glimmer of fascination in his eyes. “I’d like to take her back to the castle, along with the dead soldier. Pardon me—are you too cold?”

“I’m fine.” Levi said.

“It’s just that dragons tend to exhibit dark coloring on the face and the extremities when they are cold. You’re showing some of that coloring now. You’re also not wearing winter clothing. It can be very dangerous for a dragon to—” Levi looked at Erwin for an explanation.

“Levi, this is Moblit Berner, the garrison alchemist. Hanji and I trust him. You have time to put on warmer clothes, if you want to go with us.” Erwin was worried it would be too much for him too soon, but he didn’t want them staying there for now.

“I’ll go change.” He said, turning around to go back up the stairs of the porch and through his ruined front door. By the time he returned Moblit had already left with the woman and a sledge pulling the dead soldier behind his horse. Henning was waiting to take the others east, where they were planning to join a larger group that was fighting near a church, the spire of which could be seen from the street they stood on. He and Hanji discussed the best place to put Levi, until they had to face commander Braus, and ultimately decided that he would be safest if he stayed with them, so they could both protect him if need be. Erwin intended to make him ride Hanji’s horse, at least, so he wouldn’t over-exert himself.

Erwin was surprised when Levi didn’t resist the suggestion. He rubbed the horse’s black nose gently before mounting. He had more clothes on than Erwin was used to, wearing a full set of dark blue winter robes with a hood. He did look healthier today, too. Hanji’s old grey bow was strung over his chest like he always wore it that way. Anyone who saw him would probably just assume he was an Elidan soldier out of uniform. He felt strangely removed from him, their short relationship too brittle in the face of the long lives they had lived apart suddenly. He was glad that there was the possibility of a shared future between them now.

“Where’s Mikasa?” He asked Hanji. The two of them already had a good rapport. Erwin could see how well Levi would fit in with his troop, seeing both of them just ahead of him on the road.

“Ah! Have you already met her?” Hanji exclaimed, looking up at him from the ground. “She was going on about wanting to talk to you—"

“No, I haven’t met her.”

“You will soon.” Henning called back at them. “Gelgar and Nanaba tried to keep her in the castle when the first reports came in of the attacks. She—um—snuck out.” The garrison soldiers were too close to mention that she had probably shifted and flown over the castle walls. She was smart enough that she wouldn’t be in her dragon form now though. Erwin caught up to Levi’s other side.

“Can a dragon’s allegiance be expressed as an over-attraction to fights?” Erwin asked, half to himself. Levi snorted, which didn’t comfort him.

They rode at least a mile before there were any more signs of fighting. Villagers were lingering on their doorsteps, watching them go by nervously. It was a cold day, but the sun was out, and the snow was melting. The roads were slushy with runoff. When they reached the church, a garrison soldier on horseback met them just behind the building and explained what was happening, his cheeks flushed pink in the cold. Erwin’s whole troop was there. They had scared off a handful of Lemryan soldiers and killed one. They had the last two elves pinned down in the church, but they were holding a hostage. It was Mikasa. Henning had been right. Levi was going to meet her sooner than they thought.

“Hey!” Nanaba rounded the corner of the building and rode up to them with Mike and Lynne behind her. “Is this… him?”

“Erwin, what do you want us to do?” Levi asked him, dismounting the horse. “We’re wasting time.” His grey eyes were narrowed and focused in a way that Erwin hadn’t seen before.

“Nanaba, Lynne. This is Levi Ackerman. He’s helping us.” Erwin introduced him.

“I thought you said he was an archer—” Forster began. He was cut off by Hanji.

“Floch!” Hanji turned on their heels and got up a little closer to his face than must have been comfortable. “Take your soldiers and help the garrison surround the church. Don’t let anyone in or out. This is a very important job and we’re counting on your support.” He glowered at them but turned and marched off with the others, so it was just the archers left in the cobbled alleyway.

“Nice to meet you, Levi.” Mike said, leaning forward in his saddle and sniffing.

“We hear you’re just as charmed by Erwin as the rest of Historia’s archers.” Lynne said. Her horse bounced restlessly and pawed the ground, causing her ponytail to swing cutely.

“You knew he was alive?” Henning said, looking amazed and offended.

“I told her on the way over,” Nanaba confessed, looking embarrassed. “I was worried you or Levi would be targeted by one of the attacks.”

“We believe that Levi is still being targeted, so stay aware of the possibility we could be drawing more of their soldiers to us.” Erwin said. “I apologize to those of you I didn’t inform about mine and Levi’s situation and will give you a better account of the last few days when this is settled. Levi’s right, we’re wasting time. We need to get Mikasa out and capture the elves who took her.”

“They didn’t take her.” Mike said. “She went inside on my command to make sure the church spire wasn’t harboring any enemy archers. The attack came from the east. The elves were already inside when Nanaba and I got here.”

“What were they doing inside?” Hanji asked, vocalizing Erwin’s thoughts. Mike and Nanaba shrugged, both of them clearly having exhausted their guesses and instead turned their attention solely onto getting her out. He intended to do the same for now.

“They know I’m here.” Levi said. The other archers looked at him.

“You’re right.” Hanji said. “An elf will be able to locate you with rather high precision at this distance.”

“I’ll draw them away from the girl, while you free her. She’s not an idiot, right? So, she’s being kept from shifting. I could be too, so you’ll need to be fast.” He was looking at Erwin as he spoke, and he explained the plan he was proposing as if there wasn’t anything at all to discuss. He was just simply relaying their only option. As much as Erwin hated it, the plan seemed like the most obvious way to distract the elves and get Mikasa out of their reach, before they eventually came for Levi too. Erwin agreed and then it was immediately in motion.

He went with Levi to the front of the church, where two wide flights of stone steps led up to a pair of old wooden doors, which lingered out of the sun’s reach this time of day and were dark with the dampness of melting snow. They were waiting for a golden fletched arrow to fly from the roof of the church, once everyone was positioned inside. There was a hatch leading to the rafters and church attic on the spire, where the others would get inside and locate Mikasa. Erwin going in with Levi was a measure he insisted on taking for Levi’s safety as well as a back-up for finding Mikasa, in case the easiest way to retrieve her turned out to be fighting the elves head-on. It was also possible the elves would move her with them, when Levi went in the front doors to meet them. Erwin wanted to stay with him either way.

A few garrison soldiers lingered around them, far enough away that they could speak quietly and not be overhead. Levi looked calm, even bored—somehow—as they waited.

“Are you alright?” Erwin asked him anyway. He was rubbing Hanji’s horse, whose reins he was still holding onto. The archers’ horses were trained to stay nearby if they got loose or weren’t hobbled properly, but he had neglected to tell Levi this.

“Fine.” Levi said, looking at him oddly, as if it had been a trick question. “Those soldiers are staring at me like I’m going eat them.” He nodded at two of the ones who had been in Levi’s house earlier that morning. They pretended to be cleaning their weapons when they noticed Erwin and Levi looking at them. Erwin laughed gently.

“They saw you kill two Lemryans.” Erwin said. Levi shrugged, as if to agree Erwin’s explanation for the stares was probably right. “Do you still want to stay with us after all this?”

“I want to follow whatever sacred path the non-human part of me is telling me you’re on. I want to get this kid out of that church.” Levi said. “Four-eyes could be worse, but I’m not sure about the one with the mustache.”

“We can go back and fix the door to your house after Mikasa is safe. You can organize anything you want kept there.” Levi nodded, a small, tired look of relief on face. Erwin wanted to close this chapter properly, before they embarked on the next. It could be a while though, before they made sure Hermina was safe again, and he hoped they wouldn’t be forced to leave too soon. Especially when Levi was still healing. He needed to talk with commander Braus before Floch Forster did.

“I’m surprised you still want to stay with me, after I tried to carry you to my house, but crashed into the damn forest.”

“Then I had to rescue you from your bathtub.” Levi elbowed him. Hard.

Erwin understood that humans made certain bonds too, ones that they couldn’t completely control or understand. It was still surprising to him that everything about Levi felt unexplainably comfortable and normal, even though to most people he must have come off as violent and impolite and strange.

“My balls are going to freeze off if your archers don’t hurry the fuck up.”

Levi’s elegant words heralded the golden arrow that soared over their heads a mere heartbeat later. Erwin took a slow, even breath and followed after Levi.

The first thing they noticed was that the doors were unlocked. Erwin pushed in one and Levi the other, since they weren’t trying to be particularly stealthy. Nevertheless, it still made Erwin cringe as the doors squealed on their damp hinges and then banged loudly as they shut behind them. The narthex, where they had come in, was separated from the main body of the church by another smaller set of doors. It was empty and dim, the only light coming in from three skinny windows behind columns on the eastern and western walls. The ceiling was high and slanted; from the building’s exterior Erwin had been unable to gauge just how big of a structure it must be. It might even be the second tallest building in the village, followed only by Hermina castle.

His long bow was loaded with two arrows. If the elves were beyond the next doors, in the aisle or the nave, he would essentially be able to shoot as if he was in an archery range. It was a huge advantage if they weren’t expecting them to come in through the front of the church. But it bothered him that they would be holed up here without a plan. Levi glanced at him, looking for approval to go ahead. Erwin nodded.

The second indication that the church had been entered by an uninvited presence was the lighted candles and pall of incense. Religion was an old relic of the Elidan kingdom, supported by a wealthy and powerful few who preached quietly—now that Elida’s petty internal disputes had dissolved in the face of a common enemy. All the churches that Erwin knew of burned incense on rare occasions, the sour smell settling over whole villages until the winds came and drove it out. He hadn’t smelled incense nor seen the glow of candlelight from within when they were outside. It made him weary. He distrusted those who were heavily involved with the church, not only because they were powerful but because their beliefs sat in staunch opposition to magic. Their feuds were mostly with the spirituals. It was strange that elves should be in their place of worship.

“Erwin.” He looked for what Levi was nodding toward, a figure lying just below the stairs to the altar. The sun was coming through the crystalized windows, making the light inside disorienting with the added candlelight. Erwin couldn’t tell for sure that it was Mikasa until she spoke.

“Hello?” She called.

“Mikasa?” Erwin called back, his voice echoing down the nave in a way that made the hair on his neck stand up. Levi and Erwin went side-by-side down the aisle at a trot, slowing only to check the transepts that branched off to the sides. Erwin kept his bow taunt in his hands until they reached her.

“It’s the necklace.” Mikasa said, lifting her chin to reveal a thin chain that hung around her neck. There was a small, engraved pendant hanging from it. She looked pained, the collar of her robes damp with sweat. “Please, take it off.” Levi made a careful grab for the necklace, his hand stopping just before it reached her neck.

“Where are they?” Erwin asked gently, catching movement above them out of the corner of his eye. He realized with a stab of panic that he hadn’t noticed any of his archers in the rafters. Nanaba and Mike were supposed to be above the aisles, but he hadn’t seen them. Was it because of the light that he simply hadn’t been able to see them? He squinted into the sunlight, his heartbeat rapid in his ears.

“I can’t touch it, Erwin.” Levi said.

“Levi—” When Erwin reached for the necklace he had to partially let go of his bow. It was in that moment that the elves fell from the vaulted ceiling, appearing as if they were made from the broken pieces sunlight that fell through the windows. The taller one landed behind Levi, choking him with a chain that bore the same pendant as the one Mikasa was wearing. The other one drove his knee into Erwin’s diagram and an elbow into his spine. His strength was incredible, and Erwin doubled over, unable to breathe, as Levi wrestled hysterically with the other elf. Erwin saw the elf’s glassy eyes go wide in surprise or fear as Levi struggled in his grasp. He watched helplessly as the one who had attacked him slid an arrow from the sheath at Erwin’s hip and plunged it into the Levi’s shoulder where his wound was. Levi screamed.

Erwin somehow managed to find his feet. He loaded two arrows into his bow faster than either of their attackers could blink and fired pointblank into the back of the blond one nearest to him. He loaded another and fired at the elf who had a hold of Levi, but the elf dodged just in time for it to careen into the wall behind them. Before he could knock another arrow onto his bowstring the church was suddenly engulfed in light. Above the altar another figure was descending both slower and faster than the elves had appeared. Erwin couldn’t see their face behind the mask they wore, but he committed the spiritual’s tall, genderless body and neatly cropped blonde hair to memory. The church disappeared around them in sickening whirl and then they were transported somewhere outside of Hermina.

Chapter Text

“Do you think they’re alive?” A voice said, light and musical, in the back of Erwin’s mind. His eyelids felt heavy and his thoughts were slow, as if they were flowing down a dried riverbed. It was an effort to move his arms, and he started when he realized they were bound in metal. They prickled painfully as he moved them up toward his face and the blood began to refill them.

“Well, that one’s moving.” Another voice said, harsher and more human. Erwin found a sack draped over his head and blinked as he pulled it off and light flooded his eyes. It was dim, the only light source a torch sitting in a wall sconce to his right, but it sent a bolt of pain through his temples. He winced, trying to pull himself up into a sitting position.

“Are you alright?” The first voice said. Erwin tried to focus on where he was, locate the child’s voice. He could feel his thoughts catching up to his fear, and he felt sure there was something he had forgotten about. Was it this child? Why was she here with him? He squinted into the darkness and saw a metal structure across reddish dirt, there were pale hands clutching the bars and blue eyes sparkling in a dirty face.

“Are you alright, sir?” The girl asked Erwin again.

“What are you going to do if he isn’t?” Erwin searched for the source of the second voice, realizing that there was another child beside the cage. A girl with long brown hair and hollow eyes was chained by one wrist to the wall just beyond the reach of the other girl. The spot where the metal touched skin on her arm was angry and red from where she had fought to be free of the cuff that bound it. She looked annoyed when she saw that he was looking at her.

“Good morning.” She said, as Erwin at last shifted into a more comfortable sitting position, with his chained hands throbbing in his lap. He tugged at them and winced as the binds cut into his skin. He saw where they had been attached to the stone wall at his back and had to force down the panic that rose in his chest.

“You don’t know that it’s morning,” The girl in the metal cage said to the other girl.

“Whatever. Shut up, he’s staring at us.” She replied.

“Hello,” The girl said to Erwin. “Do you feel alright? I know you’re probably confused and scared. Your friend is over there—” She said. Suddenly Erwin’s mind flooded with memories of the last several days. He looked around for Levi and spotted him lying in a small heap not two meters away. His arms and legs were bound by the same metal cuffs that he wore and his head was covered like Erwin’s had been. Erwin tried to move toward him, but his chains caught before he could get close enough to touch him. He noticed with another stab of panic that the necklace he had seen around Mikasa’s neck in the Church of Light was hanging around Levi’s neck now.

Surely that kind of amulet wasn’t that common. Mikasa must be free now, Erwin thought, hoping desperately that she was not here with them. He looked around again, trying to see if there were any other bodies lying in the cave. It was a wide hollowed out bubble in the rock, with cold dirt lining the bottom, almost perfectly circular except for a passage far to his right and a jagged split in the ceiling. He saw the two girls looking them apprehensively. Especially the dark-haired one.

“Levi,” Erwin said, turning back to him. He shouted his name again as loud as he dared when Levi didn’t respond. The third time he called to him a jolt passed through Levi’s body as if he had been struck by lightning. Erwin’s heart raced as Levi writhed in pain, pulling at the necklace around his neck and raking his nails across his own skin.

“Levi, stop!” Erwin said, reaching out toward him. “Calm down. The spiritual in the church put that necklace on you, but we’ll get it off. You need to focus on getting your blindfold off first.”

“What the hell—Erwin, I can’t feel my legs,” Levi gasped, but his hands moved up to his eyes and began working the sack off.

“It’s because you’ve been in one position for too long,” Erwin said as Levi at last got the sack off and threw it across the cave. His face was dirty and there was a line across his jaw that was crusted with blood, as if the necklace had cut him when it was put on. He ground his teeth together as he shifted his legs out in front of him, massaging them at Erwin’s suggestion. He snarled when he pulled his right pant leg up on one side and revealed a thick, rusty cuff binding an ankle that had turned every shade of black, blue, and green. He pulled up the other one to reveal a similarly gory situation on the left.

“It’ll go away in a few days.” The girl chained to the wall said. “My arm looked like that at first. If nothing’s broken, you should be fine.” Levi looked up at her.

“You can’t get your skinny wrist through there?” Levi asked, wincing at he felt around his ankle. The girl glared back at him.

“Do you know why you’re here?” Erwin asked, his head clearer now. He recognized the blonde girl in the cage as an elf, and his guess about who they were was confirmed when she answered his question.

“Our village was destroyed by Lemrya’s forces,” the elf girl said. The other girl looked angry, her eyebrows furrowed in distrust.

“What are your names?” Erwin asked gently.

“Why?” The brown-haired one said.

“Armin.” The elf said. The other girl looked at her for a long moment and then gave a weak sigh.

“Eren,” she said. “You’re Archers of Christa, right?”

“I am,” Erwin said. “My name is Erwin Smith.”

“Who are you?” Eren asked.

“Levi.” Levi said, a disinterested grimace set around his mouth and eyes.

“Levi is a dragon,” Erwin said, ignoring the look Levi shot him. “We’re going to get you out of here.”

“Is that so?” Eren looked unconvinced, but Erwin thought he saw a glimmer in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. Both of them acted unsurprised about the dragon part, which meant that the elf girl had already known and told the other one.

“We’ve tried every way we can think of to get out,” Armin said, looking slightly embarrassed, as if she was supposed to have known how to break out of a locked cage. “They took us up into the mountains from our village in the midlands. It’s been almost a month…” Erwin saw her eyes glistening wetly in the torchlight and felt a surge of anger toward the Lemryans who had taken them. An elf would be more valuable to them than a human child, so she had probably suffered more from their attempts to convert her to their side. It was amazing that neither of them had relented after so long.

“Have you seen our captors?” Erwin asked.

“Yeah, at least we think,” Eren said. “There were twelve of them that came with us up the mountains, but I think I heard others right before they brought us into these caves. They were talking about a nearby village—”

“Hermina.” Levi said. “That’s where they found us.”

“Hermina? No wonder there are so many dragons here.” Armin said, and continued when she saw Erwin open his mouth to speak. “They pass by all the time. There aren’t any that are close anymore.” Erwin sagged a little with the relief that Mikasa was probably not being kept here too.

“How did you get caught?” Eren asked.

“The Lemryans were attacking the village. They captured an Archer of Christa, and a spiritual appeared when we tried to save her. She transported us here.” Erwin explained. The elf’s face darkened, and she let go of the bars of her cage, her face shrouded behind the pall of some terrible memory. Eren’s face was flushed with anger.

“That’s the woman who talks to Armin about joining Lemrya. If she even is a woman—she’s like seven feet tall and has these creepy blank eyes,” Eren supplied. “Her muse is the sand dunes of south Elida, and I think they give her a lot of power. I heard some of the others talking about her. I don’t think they even like her, but Lemrya doesn’t have many spirituals on their side. Armin said they’re usually pacifists.” Erwin flexed his right hand, remembering the dream he had that morning, the way the sand had held him down and sucked up his blood. He fought back the urge to shudder.

“Is there a blonde elf woman among the Lemryans who took you?” Erwin asked.

“Uh, yeah, I think so,” Eren said, but Armin was the one who continued.

“Annie.” Armin said, obviously wanting to redirect the conversation as much as Erwin. “She’s a midland elf, like me. Her family is old and wealthy. If they hadn’t gone over to the Lemryans, our town probably wouldn’t have been destroyed. I used to see her at the elven festivals.” Eren sneered.

“How can you just betray people like that?” She said, her tone full of disgust.

“I think she’s scared…” Armin said, looking slightly embarrassed again.

“She tried to take an archer.” Levi said thinly.

“Why?” Armin asked.

“The archer was a dragon.” Levi responded.

“Oh,” Armin said. “They took a lot of the elves in my village with them south when they came. They say it’s because the elves are stronger and smarter than humans, but really, it’s just because people are still scared of us. I think it’s the same for the dragons.” Levi nodded, his expression dark. Erwin saw sweat beading on his forehead.

“So why’d they take you?” Levi asked the other girl, Eren. She gave him a withering stare.

“I didn’t want them to take me by myself. I asked the Lemryans to bring Eren with us or told them I would do everything it took to resist them.” Armin said. Erwin was wondering what lengths this girl had been willing to go to resist the military might of the Lemryans, when Levi asked the next question that came to his mind.

“What makes you so valuable to them?” Levi asked. Both of them were silent; Armin’s eyes darted to the floor and then over to Eren, who was still glaring at them. “You can’t tell us? You kids look weaker than a shit-faced Elidan sentry. I doubt it’s a secret worth keeping—”

“We’re stronger than we look.” Eren said. Erwin almost believed her, the way her eyes bore into theirs like she was looking both at them and past them, at some enemy at their back. Her shoulder bones poked at the brown robes that hung off her malnourished body and her feet were bare and muddy, but there was something forceful about her that made Erwin recognize her strength, or at least believe it was in there somewhere. Armin’s blue robes looked like they were hand-made, patterned with elven symbols, and they had been ripped in places. She looked better fed, but somehow weaker physically. Her eyes were the same as Eren’s though, bright with emotion and intelligence.

“We believe you,” Erwin said. He felt Levi look over at him. “And we could use your help getting out of here. There’s an amulet around Levi’s neck that stops him from turning into a dragon—”

“An ice crystal. They’re rare. They only grow in caves in patches of gelumweed.” Armin said, staring at the necklace curiously. “The crystal needs to be corrupted by magic or pried out and smashed if you want to destroy it.”

“Can’t someone just take it off of him?” Erwin asked.

“Only the person who put it on can take it off, otherwise it’ll just cut into his skin. And even if you could take it off of Levi, he would still feel the effects if it’s not taken far enough away.” Armin informed them.

Erwin thought about what she said, turning over the possibilities in his mind. If only they could get word to Hanji and the archers about where they were. They couldn’t be far from the village, if the same Lemryans who attacked the village had captured Eren and Armin. None of them could reach Levi to try prying out the stone, and on top of that he wondered if Levi would even be able to walk if they somehow got out of their binds. Suddenly, Eren stood up and raised her chained arm in the air. Erwin didn’t have time to say anything before she slammed it into the stone cave wall. He saw blood drip from her arm into the red dirt.

“Eren!” Armin shouted, shifting to the side of her cage nearest to the human girl. She looked horrified as Eren did it again, harder.

“We have a chance now.” Eren said through gritted teeth, “Levi’s right. I should be able to slip my wrist through here. If I can just bend the metal a little bit—” She threw her weight into the wall again.

“You’re breaking your wrist!” Armin said, wincing with every bang of metal on stone. But a moment later the sound stopped, and Eren grabbed the cuff on her wrist and yanked it over the bloody mess of her hand. She laughed, staring down at the cuff as if she couldn’t believe it no longer held her.

“We can get out of here…” She said and then she turned to Levi. “You’re going to get us away from here.” He blinked, still rubbing at his legs, and then nodded once. Eren tried to sort of run over to him, hobbling from a combination of pain, hunger, and exhaustion. Levi tilted his head back as Eren started trying to pry the crystal from its setting.

“You don’t have time, Eren. If there are guards nearby, they will have heard you banging your wrist against the wall. You need to go to Hermina and find the Archers of Christa.” Erwin said urgently, stunned by her will.

“I can try to corrupt the crystal while you go, Eren.” Armin said. Erwin looked at her.

“You can do magic?” He asked.

“Not really, but I’ve read books about it.” She said. “I can try.” At that moment, a voice echoed distantly in the tunnel to Erwin’s right. Erwin and Armin looked at Levi and Eren.

“Kid,” Levi said, as Eren put the amulet up to her teeth and tried biting at it. Her hand was bleeding freely. “Go find the archers, or you’ll get yourself killed.” When she didn’t stop Levi did something with his good arm that sent Eren tumbling backwards. She looked at him angrily and then clambered to her feet. The voices grew louder. Two of them—male. She looked at Erwin.

“Go down the mountain toward the valley. The forest leads to the village. Find Hermina Castle in the east and ask to speak to Hanji Zoe or any archer of Christa. Tell them Erwin Smith sent you and do not speak to Hermina’s garrison without first talking to an archer. And make them look at your hand or you’ll get an infection before long.” He said. Eren nodded, her expression serious, betraying no indication that she was in pain.

“I’ll be back.” She said, looking over her shoulder at Armin as she disappeared down the tunnel. Erwin prayed that she had the luck and the sensibility to get around Lemryan guards and possibly a forest full of soldiers.

Almost no sooner than Eren vanished from sight did the two guards they heard in the tunnel emerge in the torchlight. Erwin recognized both of them from the courtyard when they had tried to capture Mikasa the first time. One was heavily built and the other was tall and scared looking. They looked from Erwin and Levi to Armin, their eyes eventually landing on the bloody chains lying in the dirt on the other side of her cage.

“Armin, where is Eren?” The bigger, blond one asked. His voice was rough, as though he was only half or quarter elven-born. The other one looked back at Erwin and Levi with wide, frightened eyes.

“She got free.” Armin said plainly. “Her shackles must have been secured wrong last time you put them on.” Erwin marveled at her calm. She seemed to know these guards well enough to get under their skin in the right way to buy Eren some time. The blond one’s jaw tightened and the tall one went over to the chains, inspecting them with a look of dread on his face.

“They’ve been smashed in,” He said, looking at his partner. “Armin, you shouldn’t lie to us. We’ll have to tell Yelena—”

“So that she can torture me again?”

“She’s not supposed to hurt you—” The tall one said.

“She killed my parents!” Armin shouted. The Lemryan guards shifted uncomfortably. “None of you like her, anyway. She scares you.”

“At least she’s on our side.” He said. “You would be safe from her if you joined us.” There was something desperate in the way he said this that made it seem clearly false. They were panicking, and the way they kept glancing nervously at him and Levi made Erwin think the spiritual was not supposed to have captured them. At least not both of them.

“Hey, bastards, I would be less worried about your caged teenager and more worried about the dragon whose legs you’ve broken. Do plan to continue ignoring us until we smash in our chains too or you going to tell us what you plan to do with us?” Levi growled at them. They looked at him with unreadable expressions.

“We haven’t been permitted to speak with you. Our commander will come to see you soon.” The blond one said, looking at Erwin instead of Levi. Levi scoffed. “We should leave, Bertholdt. Eren won’t get far, but she’s dumb enough to think she can.”

“Wait!” Armin called to them as they turned to exit to cavern, but they ignored her. Erwin heard shouting somewhere in the tunnels soon after they disappeared from sight. He backed up to the wall he was chained to and let out his breath, scooting as close as he could to Levi where he was sprawled out in the dirt, breathing heavily and sweating now that he wasn’t trying to hide how much pain he was in. Armin had nestled herself in the corner of her cage with her legs crossed. Her eyes were closed, and she was humming lightly. Erwin assumed she was trying to affect the crystal.

“Are you alright?” Erwin whispered to Levi. His eyes had closed too, but he opened them at the sound of Erwin’s voice.

“Hm, my legs aren’t broken.” He said, “I’m just bruised. It’ll heal.”

“Good.” Erwin said, trying to convince himself that’s all it was. He wasn’t entirely sure his own wrist wasn’t minorly fractured.

“Can Eren make it to the village?”

“I want to believe that she can. It’s probably up to chance, though.”

“Armin is right, there aren’t any dragons nearby. Mikasa got out somehow, or they’re keeping her someone farther away than the village.” Levi spoke quietly, his eyes shifting over periodically to Armin. Erwin nodded thoughtfully.

“Hanji and the other archers will have driven out the rest of their troops by now, if Eren’s telling the truth and there’s only a couple dozen soldiers here or less. I think we were right too though; their goal wasn’t to take the village. They’re here to make people suspicious of magical beings, cut them off from their communities, and then recruit them.” Erwin said, sifting through his thoughts aloud. “We need to stop them getting through the mountains. If this many made it, with prisoners, there will be more.”

“I shouldn’t have taken you away from your archers.” Levi said.

“You were attacked,” Erwin said. “If anything, we should have been protecting you before they could find you.”

“The garrison soldiers you were with thought they saw their commander get killed.”

“I don’t blame you for the garrisons’ prejudice. It was already there when you came.” Erwin said, thinking it was true. “But you’re right, you complicated things. There was an esoteric that Floch and his friends forced out of the village. I’m not sure if there were any others, but I’m worried he’ll be intercepted before he can make it south of the mountains.”

“An esoteric?”

“A fox spirit.” He said. Levi nodded.

“When Eren gets back we’ll go find it.”

“Ok.” Levi met Erwin’s eyes for a moment, and then sighed, turning his neck. The necklace jangled lightly. Erwin saw Armin open her eyes to look at them briefly, her expression blank, before closing them again.

By morning, or what Erwin assumed was morning, Eren hadn’t returned and the crystal amulet was still intact. Erwin’s wrists throbbed incessantly, and his stomach felt hollowed out. Levi got worse overnight. He was curled in a ball in the dirt now, shivering in bouts until he exhausted himself and fell asleep.

“Could you try to conjure something?” Erwin asked Armin, who was puffy eyed with lack of sleep and looking more and more desperate. “Something to help one of us get free and smash the crystal?”

“I can’t conjure anything. I’ve only ever done low level transfiguration.” She said, her sharp tone betraying her frustration. “I’m sorry, Erwin. I don’t think it’s going to work. I’ve tried everything I can think of.” Erwin tried not to let his disappointment show. He knew she was doing everything she could, and it frustrated him that he hadn’t thought of anything else to try yet.

“What about the Lemryan’s commander. What can you tell me about them?” Erwin asked. He could tell Armin saw through the attempt to make her feel more useful and was annoyed by it, but she answered him anyway.

“He’s a human. Not very bright, but he seems to enjoy hurting people. Which makes him good at what he does.” She said. Erwin heard Levi let out some kind of a snort or a scoff and saw that he was awake again. Erwin opened his mouth to ask how he was feeling, but Levi cut him off.

“There’s someone coming.” He said. “I can hear their footsteps.”

All three of them turned to look at the tunnel, holding their breath as the sound grew closer. It was someone running, their footfalls erratic, stopping occasionally as if they were trying to find something. Then, all at once Lynne and Henning were in the cavern, their longbows loaded and pointed out in front of them until they saw Erwin and dropped them to their sides.

“Erwin! Thank the gods!” Lynne said, running over to them. She started fiddling with the shackles around his wrists, fumbling a key out of her robes. “You have to stop getting abducted by—”

“You need to help Levi first. He’s injured worse than I am, and he’s being kept from turning into a dragon by the crystal around his neck.” Erwin’s voice was urgent. “Are the others here?”

“Fine,” She said, moving over to Levi. Henning was standing by the tunnel, guarding them from anyone who might had pursued them. Both of them shot curious glances at the caged elf on the opposite side of the cavern. “Our archers are all here, they’re just slower than us. Mikasa told everyone about the necklace—”

“Don’t try to take it off!” Armin shouted. Lynne looked up at her in surprise, dropping the amulet like it was a venomous creature.

“What! Why!” She shouted, turning her attention to the metal cuffs instead, grunting as she twisted the key in the rusted keyholes. “Is she a prisoner?” She asked Erwin in a whisper. Erwin didn’t get the chance to respond. A troop of five or six soldiers suddenly flooded the cavern from the crack in the ceiling above them. Lynne jumped to her feet and started firing off arrows beside Henning; several thudded into the nearest soldier at once as Levi and Erwin backed up against the wall.

“Lynne, keys!” Erwin yelled. She loosed four arrows out in an arc, and then tossed them to him before meeting a soldier hand-to-hand. Erwin was free a few seconds later and found himself immediately bowled to the ground, fighting to threw off a Lemryan she-elf. An arrow suddenly bit through the front of her shoulder and she reeled to the side in pain. He threw her weight off of him and stumbled over to Levi.

“Hanji’s here.” Levi said, as Erwin unlocked the cuffs around his ankles. He heard them behind him just as Levi spoke, along with Mike.

“Eren!” He heard Armin’s voice over the chaos too and looked over to her, just as the last of Levi’s chains fell to the dirt. Eren weaved through the fighting to get to Armin, her hand wrapped in bandages. Erwin threw her the key ring.

“Fuck,” Levi muttered, grabbing onto Erwin. “I can’t even stand.” The necklace swung against his chest, glinting in the torchlight.

“We need to get that thing off of you.” Erwin said, “Do you think you might be able to fly?”

Levi snorted, but he didn’t look like the idea was completely insane. Erwin looked across the cavern to Eren and Armin. Eren was tearing viciously at the eyes of massive Lemryan soldier she had jumped on. He looked overwhelmed as her attacks rammed into every part of his torso and tore apart his face. Armin’s eyes were wide with fear as she carefully undid the lock on the metal cage that held her. When it was open, Eren’s opponent was on the ground, immobilized. Armin ran over to them, grabbing at the ice crystal and cupping it in her hands. She started humming again, but this time Erwin thought he heard words mixed in. It seemed like an impossibly long time before anything happened, but when Armin stopped, he could tell it had worked by the look on her face. She let go of the crystal and Levi was immediately able to remove it. He dropped it onto the cave floor, looking at it with disgust.

“Let’s go,” Erwin said. He called to Hanji, who looked up at him from the mouth of the tunnel and smiled, blood streaked over their glasses. All the soldiers were either dead or incapacitated now, but he heard more down the tunnel. Eren came over to help Erwin support Levi, as they cautiously retreated out of the caverns. The archers thinned out the Lemryans as they went, but they knew the cave system better than the archers and kept disappearing and reappearing. By the time Erwin saw sunlight, he felt like he was about to collapse. Eren, who must have run through the forest all night and was just barely Levi’s height, was somehow the one who kept them moving.

“We need to get down the mountain, now.” Hanji said to Erwin when they were at last outside, in a forest clearing. The sky was blue above the tree branches and full of lazy white clouds. The few uninjured Lemryans who pursued them stopped at the cave entrance, as if they knew they were unequal to the archers of Christa out in the open. “The garrison wouldn’t come with us, but they’ll help us defend Hermina if any of their soldiers pursue us.” Erwin nodded, deeply thankful for Hanji’s skill leading the archers. “I’ll send Nanaba to help you carry Levi.”

“Wait,” Levi said, breathlessly. “I can…” He pushed Eren and Erwin off of him, and they both backed away a few steps. Erwin wanted to protest, but he also knew this would be the quickest way for him to get to safety, if he was able to shift.

There was a lightning strike that descended from the empty sky, a breathtaking flash of fire in the cold sunlight. Erwin nearly fell backward with the force of it. He thought he heard a scream, somewhere in the crack that came with it. He only realized that it was Levi who had screamed when the dragon turned and stumbled to its side, a tall, blonde woman clinging to his back. A dagger was sticking up beneath his scales. Levi spread his wings and shook her off violently. She landed on the ground with a sickening thud.

The only ones still in the clearing were Armin, Eren, and Erwin. The archers had fled to the tree line to at the appearance of the dragon, beginning their own retreat as more Lemryans suddenly found the courage to leave the caves. Erwin watched as the woman got to her feet and started toward Armin, who was frozen to the spot where she was standing.

“Armin!” Eren shouted. It was drowned out by a sudden explosion of fire. The spiritual stopped, disappearing as quickly as she had emerged. Levi bellowed a screech that made Erwin’s bones seem to shake. He watched as Levi turned in circles, his wings send wind screaming through the trees as he searched for the spiritual. Then suddenly he stopped, and Erwin saw Eren and Armin beneath him, far to close. Levi stared at them, nostrils pumping smoke into the air. Something passed between the girls and Levi, something Erwin was too far away now to hear. Then suddenly Levi was lowering his wing, and both other them were climbing onto him, tiny on his massive, spiny back. Erwin looked back at the tree line and saw Hanji through the trees fighting off a soldier. Just as the soldier fell, they looked up at him and at the same moment dragon claws hauled him back into the sky.