The House of Darroweight was unique among keeps.
It’s somewhat ironic, but being unique, for a castle, is not all that unique. There are so many palaces and castles and keeps and manors that are one-of-a-kind that it’s not particularly extraordinary to find yet another.
For example, to the far north, the yurt-dwelling nomads of the great steppes send their shamans to be trained in the vast halls of Un-Hurruk, which is built in the preserved body of the Mater Megatherium, the monstrous Mother of Ground Sloths. The building is huge and leathery and owes as much to the art of taxidermy as architecture.
In the Anemone Court, by contrast, to the south and west, the great receiving chamber is built within the basalt hollows of an enormous tidepool, and the courtiers must wade barefoot through starfish and sea urchins to approach the Coral Throne.
Darroweight, being made of winding wood, is not particularly large nor particularly dramatic, but it is unique in that it is the only building in the world made from a draconic tree.
It is well known that for a mortal man to sleep near dragon treasure, with thoughts of greed and the hunger for wealth, will turn him into a dragon, and thus the race of wyrms reproduce themselves, since dragon eggs rarely throw true. This process takes seven days, during which the victim becomes more and more dragonish in thought and appearance, and can be halted and reversed if the treasure is removed, but since the initial stages are marked by a miserly madness, this doesn’t often happen.
The dragon of the Darrowood was so old that it could no longer remember if it had once been a man, or if it had struggled from the shell of a dragon egg many centuries before. It was not particularly ferocious as dragons went—it killed no kings and ate more unwary hunters than princesses. Still, it was a dragon, a nasty, cruel, squeaking beast, crawling with wiggling thumb-sized dragonlice and slinking from the woods to kill cattle and sheep belonging to subsistence farmers who could ill afford to lose either, and eating the occasional farm boy who stayed up to watch his flocks.
Eventually the dragon was slain by a hero, as is the inevitable fate of dragons. The hero in this case was a girl named Little Mouse, and she killed the dragon on her wedding day, with a sword quenched in the tears of a deer, and took no particular joy in it—but her story is long and complicated and will not be repeated here.
The dragon’s treasure was small and wretched, a double handful of copper coins, brass candlesticks, poker chips and bent spoons. The greatest vermilion dragon lounging on a bed of gems and gold could not have loved its hoard more, however. The dragon of the Darrowood had spent most of its waking hours obsessing over its treasure, polishing the spoons, talking to it in muttering, incoherent dragonspeech, and plotting to add to it, and so even this meager pile was saturated with the indefinable malice of dragon treasure.
Little Mouse knew perfectly well that a dragon’s hoard is dangerous, and since she had not killed the pathetic wyrm out of lust for gold, she buried the coins and the spoons and the candlesticks under a tree where it would not tempt anyone, washed the dirt and the blood and the nasty gunk from squished dragonlice off her hands, and went home.
Years passed, and the roots of the tree spread through the disturbed earth, and one fateful spring, the fine, threadlike root hairs touched the cold surface of a copper coin, curled around the handle of a tarnished spoon, and the dragon treasure began to work its evil spell.
It takes seven days for a man to succumb to the dragon fever. It took the tree seventy years. Trees have little experience with greed for anything but dark earth and bright sun, and even that is the mindless greed of growing things. But slowly, slowly, the tree became aware of the treasure, and came first to love and desire it, and then to fear it being taken away. It became aware of other trees as things that might covet its hoard, and insomuch as trees are capable of paranoia, it became so. The sap-shot heart of a tree became the greed-shot heart of a dragon, and the roots caressed the treasure, which was of no use at all to a tree, and desired more.
A thousand years went by, more or less. The dragon tree began to grow, not upright as a tree but low and winding and wyrmlike as a dragon, throwing great loops of trunk outward, circling and winding over itself, forming a protective barrier around the hoard. It grew like a tree that has learned to be a vine, and throttled the trees around it in constricting wooden coils, that their roots might not ever stray close enough to threaten its treasure. It overgrew itself, and sent out suckers that grew into gnarled and winding trunks, so that no sunlight reached the ground around it, so that not even the smallest seed might grow and someday threaten it. Mosses grew over it, thickly, and waves of dragonlice came and settled and starved to death, unable to draw blood from wood, yet attracted mindlessly, by the tree that reeked of dragon.
Eventually it died.
Well, it was dead when humans found it.
It looked dead, anyhow.
At any rate, men came and hewed doors and windows into that great wooden tangle, and cleared the rotten hearts from the endless wooden coils. The trunks were wide enough to lead a horse inside, and the first sons of Darroweight built halls of them, and rooms where the trunks crossed and grew together, and made a bizarre and labyrinthine manor in the depths of the Darrowood.
Green shoots and suckers still shot up occasionally where axes had cut into the trunk and the roots stayed sunken deep into the dirt. Clearing new growth from the windows became one of the standard chores of spring cleaning. It was well known that gardens would not grow within a hundred yards of the manor, and so the keep gardeners planted flowers in pots and urns and grew adept at cultivating the mosses that would grow, and got used to walking a quarter mile or so to the vegetable gardens every day.
The interior wood was polished and oiled until it glowed like honey amber, and the floors were warm and draped with rugs, and in general, the House of the Darroweight was not a cheerless place. And because it was largely a barter economy, it was rare that the lords of Darroweight had reason to enter the treasury carved into the heart of a great knotted burl, and even rarer that they would remove enough coin to clear a space down to the wooden floor. And so nobody ever noticed the fine web of rooty hairs creeping up from the floor and slithering through the coins, as the great hollow dragon tree washed its roots in treasure and dreamed slow and covetous dreams.
(While that was fun, I find that I'm almost more interested in the taxidermy sloth palace. The bit about people turning into dragons must be Narnia on the brain after seeing that movie or something...)