A time there was when dragons crossed the skies in peace; when humans would watch their easy flight and smile. A time there was when all of dragonkind was benevolent, going about their long, patient lives in societal solitude, rarely interacting with other species, but never at odds with any of them. A time there was…
But all things change, and it only took a mistake here, an accident there, an erroneous belief spoken often enough to make a difference, for the day to come when some nameless human turned on the dragons and slew one of them. On purpose. And that was the time when everything changed.
The dragon had not been expecting an attack, had in fact been sleeping peacefully in a bog, its underside exposed. A perfect target for misplaced anger. The death of the dragon was felt by its kin, and the distrust began that would eventually become an all-out war between the two species.
Certain dragons, mainly those directly related to the murdered one, became dark in their aggression. Using dragon magic and their fire or ice, they set out to destroy any and all humans unfortunate enough to cross their paths. Their gods, once concerned only with things draconic, began encouraging their creatures to seek the death of any being not of dragonkind. Eventually, they even turned on their own.
But not all dragons were satisfied with this condition. Some still longed for the good relationship once known between man and dragon, or at least wondered if it were possible to return to that kind of harmony. Nonetheless, they, too, accepted the human sacrifices offered by frightened rulers and societies – human flesh wasn’t a desired food, but it assured the dragons that they were feared, and would be left alone. More important, it staved off attacks by the dragons who despised any of their kind that dared show mercy to the race of men.
Eventually, only a few dragons remained that people knew about, and of those few, only one or two that lived close enough to human settlements to inspire live offerings. Of that number was one who longed to find a human who might have love for dragonkind, who could be spared – and loved in return.
And then a day was when this wish became a reality.
“So sorry, Zela,” the executioner whispered. He checked the ropes once more, avoiding the girl’s gaze by focusing his own on his task.
“You only do what you must, Bolt. Don’t be sad.”
He tried to smile, but couldn’t. This girl – he’d known her all of her life. She was the most pleasant person he’d ever met. The daughter of a scribe, she was intelligent, witty, and kind most of all. When Bolt wasn’t tying virgins to the Dragonstake, he was a blacksmith, and Zela had often brought him cool water from the town’s public well, especially during the summer afternoons when the heat of the sun augmented that of his forge, making his job’s unpleasant aspects almost unbearable.
But the nobleman whose landholdings included the town, happened on Zela bathing in the stream near her father’s house, and decided he had to have her. Everyone knew this because he had sent a servant with an invitation to come to his castle and be his consort. Zela had shown this to her family, and then sent back a polite refusal. Something like that could never have remained quiet, of course, and within hours the entire town knew of it.
Lord Gravnel, the spurned nobleman, had handled this by naming Zela the next sacrifice for the dragon.
“We’ll miss your singing,” said Bolt, wiping his hands on the front of his sooty tunic. “We’ll miss you, Zela.” He turned away and went down the long flight of stone steps, not wanting to hear her response, if indeed she had one.
Alone, Zela stood straighter and sighed. What a funny thing life was. She smiled, and decided Bolt’s last words had been inspired. Never had she considered the dragon a vile creature. In fact, the volumes of lore in her father’s library had educated her in the history between men and dragons, and she’d concluded that they were wonderful. She had even composed several songs in honor of their race, and now, about to face one, decided to sing as many of them as she could before…well, she would sing.
Taking a deep breath she began, her clear, beautiful voice lifting in a tonal wave of gold, the lyrics in pure Draconic. A harsh language, to be sure, but her pronunciation was somehow delicate despite the gutturals and hisses. The result was magnificent, compelling.
A rustle of trees indicated that something massive was nearing, perhaps drawn by her notes, and she forced herself not to falter, to keep her eyes open, her voice steady. Another moment, a rush of wind, and there. Filling the clearing with silver magnificence, with terrible beauty and undeniable power, the dragon stood. Its eyes, each one as large as a human head, stared down from under a frowning brow on the small creature tied to the rune-inscribed post.
Coming closer, the dragon lowered itself until its head was even with the platform. The human stopped singing and did something no human at that post had done before – she smiled. The dragon made a snuffling noise, but nothing more until, in Draconic, the human asked him to untie her.
“Whyyyy?” He hissed.
“That I may touch you, lovely one.”
“You would touch a dragon?”
“I would, if you will grant me that honor.” Zela put her head to one side, questioning.
The dragon arose and extended one of his taloned feet, using a claw to slice through the ropes. “I grrrrant you thissss, humaaan.”
“Thank you, great dragon.” Her smile grew and she reached out a hand.
Looking as if he really wasn’t sure what was going on, the dragon brought his muzzle closer than it had been to such a creature as this girl without devouring it.
Zela’s hand caressed the curve of one nostril and she sighed. “You are like silk. How splendid you are!”
“How odd yooouu arrre.”
Zela giggled, her hand still tracing the satiny ridge around an opening into which she could have crawled. “Yes, I suppose I am.”
“Yooouuu have a naame?”
“I am Zela.”
The dragon started to nod but stopped when it almost knocked her off the platform. “Yoouu are tooo frrrragille.”
“Indeed I am, sweet dragon. Perhaps that is why I admire your strength so.”
“Aahhh.” He pulled away and stood straight, his head now far above the tree line behind him. “Zzelllaa!” he bellowed, “will yoouuu comme tooo my lllairrr and beee my commmpannion? Will yoouuu ssssing forrr me evvvvrrrry day?”
Zela bowed, the delight in her heart reflected in her expression. “I will, beloved dragon, I will! You honor me more than I can thank you for, and I would be an ungrateful fool to refuse.”
The dragon was silent for a moment or two, his breath loud in his nostril. “Yoouu havve a fammily, Zzelllaaa?”
“My father only, who believes I must be dead by now. He reconciled himself to my loss before I came here.”
“Yoouuu ssshhhhall missss him, but one daay, yoouu ssshhhall sssseee himmm onccce morrre.”
“Thank you.” She put her arms out and up as if to embrace the dragon; he came close again and went to his knees before her. Understanding this gesture as an invitation to climb onto his head, she hitched up her skirts and leaped upward, holding on to one of the scaly projections around his brow. She pulled herself further up until she was sitting between the backsweeping horns. “I am settled,” she declared, leaning sideways toward one ear.
The dragon rose, the movement slow, as he made an obvious effort not to unseat his human cargo. He spread his wings, gave a gentle flap, and they left the ground, heading away in a soft rush of air.
The cave was a wonder to Zela’s eyes, but not a surprise. Her father’s books had prepared her in part for where the dragon had brought her. As various writers had chronicled (before enmity existed between the two races), the lair of the silver dragon was not as treasure-filled as that of some of its more colorful cousins, but gigantic and lovely nonetheless. A nest of sparkling jewels defined one part of the cave, but not much gold, and the man-crafted objects that she could see consisted mainly of well-wrought chests, statues, and curiosities.
A pool of the clearest blue-gray water Zela had ever seen covered the center of the cave. Movement near its further end betrayed the presence of an underground spring, but the closer part was still enough for her to see all the way to its stony bottom.
The walls and arched ceiling were luminescent in glowing yellows, greens, reds and blues. Imbedded here and there in those walls were amethysts and clear crystal, natural treasures that she found more beautiful than those upon which the dragon slept. Several small openings here and there indicated passages further into the mountain – her country had several smallish mountains, or large hills, dotting its otherwise flat landscape, the dragon’s cave being in one of the furthest of these near the border of their northernmost neighbor.
While she was exploring her new home, the dragon settled himself on his glittering bed and watched. There wasn’t that much to see, and she was soon done. Wrapping her arms about herself, she shivered and approached the dragon.
“Arrre yooouuu changing yooourrrr minnd abouut sssstaying withththt me?”
“No, sweet dragon, but I am cold.” She climbed across what to her was a sea of pretty stones and snuggled herself between the dragon’s front legs. “You breathe ice and not fire, yes?”
“Yessss. But I cannn warrrrm yoouuu.”
He was speaking very softly, something Zela suspected was his effort not to deafen her, especially with the echoes of his cave amplifying everything. She asked him about this.
“Yesss. It hasss beenn a lonnnggg, lonnnggg timme ssssince I havvve ssspokenn annyththinggg to a humaaan, but I amm olldd and wissse ennough tooo rememmmberrr how easssily yourrr kinnd ccann be harrmed in thaatt waay.”
“I thank you for that, dear, magnificent dragon. And you have something inside you that produces ice, but also heat.”
“Yoouu know muchchch forrr a huuman.”
Zela nodded, snuggling closer. “I do. My father has many books, and among them are several volumes on dragon-lore.” She stifled a yawn. “Shall I sing for you now?”
“Yesss. I will warrrm yoouuu whillssst you ssssing.”
Moving a large diamond that had been poking her in a very sensitive spot, she got as comfortable as she could, and began another of her songs. This one was a song of praise for the graceful way dragons flew, despite their amazing size and strength. It spoke of the longing the sight of them caused the humans who watched them wing their way across the heavens.
When she was done, the dragon gave a long, soft sigh that held within it a deep rumble of contentment. “Looong havve I drrreammed of finding a huuman whoo would beee my frrriend,” he confessed, plainly moved. But then he said no more, and Zela realized he’d fallen asleep.
Touched that he would trust her enough to drop his guard like that, she crawled up onto his leg (which was so much more comfortable than a bed of jewels, regardless of how pretty they were), and had soon joined the dragon in slumber.
Over the next few weeks, the dragon helped her make a kind of bed from a a huge flag he’d swiped from one of the turrets of Lord Gravnel’s castle and which she folded over, stuffed with soft moss, and tied shut on both ends. She could have chosen a quiet section of wall for her own space, but she preferred nestling next to the dragon. She knew these creatures slept so soundly that they never moved even while dreaming, and so she was in no danger of being crushed.
During this time, the dragon found her a harp. She had never owned one, nor known how to play it, but because she was very musical, and because she wanted more than anything to please the dragon, she learned. To her delight, and that of her new friend and protector, the instrument leant itself to her songs perfectly; in no time, she was composing new ones and regaled the dragon upon the completion of each when he would return to the cave from hunting.
One evening, when the sunset was painting everything orange, red and purple, she sat in the mouth of the cave, the dragon beside her, and asked a question that had been troubling her for some time. “Will you eat any more virgins?”
The dragon snorted.
“Is that a yes?”
“No, ZZZelaa. I was…chucklinnng. Yoouuu havve made meee conntent ennough. I onnly eat cowwzzz now.”
“Ah. Oh, thank you for the lovely fruit, by the way. And the oats – I had a very filling dinner of porridge and berries.” She leaned sideways against his leg, smiling.
“Weee drrraggonzzz havve a grrreat ssssecrrret, ZZZelaa, that I wissshhh to ssshhhare. But firrrst I thhink the time hasss comme to tell yoouuu my namme.” He had asked her on her second day there why she hadn’t asked for it, and her answer, that she knew he’d tell her when he was ready and trusted her more, had pleased him. “I hhavve waittteddd, watchinnggg and learrrning aboutt yoouuu, sssweeett humaaan. As yoouuu prrediccctedd, I amm rrready now. Yoouuu hhavve proven yoourrsself morrre than trrussstworrrthy thusss farrrr, and it isss timme.” He gazed at the fading light on the horizon for a moment, and said, “My namme is Vilzriquathtor-Neri.”
A small frown-line appeared between Zela’s brows. “‘Frozen Spears’?”
He nodded his great head. “Even azzz a wyrmling, I could brrreathe sshhaffftsss of icccce capable of piercccinng trrreees.”
He gave her an indulgent dragon-smile.
“May I call you something less…lengthy?”
“Yesss. I will allow yoouuu tooo call meee Neri.”
“Thank you.” This was a great honor, and she knew it. Dragons were very particular about their names, and rarely – if ever – allowed anyone, even their own kind, to call them by a nickname. She hugged his leg and looked up into the eye she could see from that side, a tear forming in hers.
“Yoouurrr grrratittude iss appreeecciaattedd. Now forrr my sssecrrret.” He stood and left the mouth of the cave. When he was several dragon-paces away, he turned back and folded his wings tightly against his sides. “Yoouu may havve hearrrd rrrumorrrs of thissss ability, but no huuman who hass ssseen it exisssts today.” He took a long, slow breath, and when he was done, shook his great body once – and was gone.
Somewhat, at least. The dragon was gone, but Neri was still there, only he looked instead like a tall, handsome, human male with a powerful physique. He was dressed in pale gray, and his hair, which was pure white, was tied into a ponytail that fell down his back. The color of his eyes was the same pale blue but seemed different somehow from those of a normal human being. “For you, Zela, I take this form. For no one else.”
She was stunned. Yes, she’d read that such a shape-change was within the ability of certain dragons, but as he’d pointed out, no one had ever seen this happen. As a result, few believed it was true, and of those who entertained it as a real possibility, only a handful had made an effort to find records of this from the ancient days of human-dragon friendships. She was also quite taken with the smile he was giving her, and felt herself blush.
“Are you pleased?” he asked, taking a step closer.
“You talk differently.” She was more pleased than she was ready to admit, her diversionary question making this clear to the ancient being watching her.
“Yes. I don’t have to speak through a dragon’s rough throat. Zela, may I be honest with you about something further?”
She nodded, her own throat suddenly dry.
“I…This is most unusual, but…I love you, Zela. I-I’m in love with you. And I really don’t know what to do about it.”
This was not nearly as surprising as his physical transformation, yet she wasn’t sure how to respond. After all, she, too, was in love, but with a dragon, not a human. Then again, he was only making himself look human for her and was still, without question, a dragon. What was either of them to do now? She wasn’t sure, but she was honest. Always had been, too, which was how she’d ended up tied to the Dragonstake in the first place.
“Zela?” He’d stepped a little closer.
“Neri.” She smiled and put out a hand. “I’m not sure how to answer, but I’m overwhelmed that you’ve trusted me like this. That…that you love me.”
“I’ve loved you from the moment I first heard your song, before I even saw you.” He closed the gap between them and took her hand. Holding it against his heart he continued, “You have made my days joyful and my nights peaceful. You have filled the hollows within me left by centuries of loneliness and despair.”
She looked up into his eyes, now at a more reasonable distance from her own, seeking something familiar. Something…ah, well, he was still a dragon after all. “Do you know why I agreed to come and live with you?”
“For the same reason you have transformed yourself. Love.”
“You love me, Zela?”
“I love you with all of my heart.”
He sighed and leaned down, lifting her face with a forefinger under her chin. “My beloved,” he whispered, and touched his lips to hers.
No more was said, nor needed to be spoken, not for a long time. But then, as the final rays of sunlight fled the meadow in front of the cave, they turned, arms around each other, and entered their dragon-home with a joy that would last for the rest of their lives together.
“It won’t be easy, J’nah. Your human side is a hindrance.”
“I know.” The boy stared at his reflection through narrowed eyes and nodded. “But I shall do it.”
Neri smiled, happy that his son was so brave. Only twelve he was, yet already he could breathe ice and so far, had never backed down from a challenge. J’nah was nearly as tall as a human adult, and far stronger than a child of that species should be. He looked human in every way, in fact, except for the white hair, and eyes that were blue near the center, yellow near the outer edge of the iris, and completely lacking the white part. His pupils were round, unlike those of his sister (hers were beautiful and draconic – long, vertical black slits in eyes the color of polished silver). But regardless of his looks, his bravery, and all the other characteristics Neri found so wonderful, shape-changing was going to be difficult if not impossible.
“Show me again, Father.” J’nah squared his shoulders, addressing Neri’s reflection. They were standing by the pool in the middle of the cave, the only place they could live without being discovered, yet remain close to the town.
“Breathe in slowly, my son, until you can take in no more air. Then release it through your nostrils, making certain not to activate your mornegul-rihlilg, and raise your arms up and outward to the side.” The rihlilg was an organ exclusive to dragonkind that in the fire-breathing species allowed the production of flame, while in ice-breathers, it caused the expulsion of freezing air.
Obedient, J’nah followed his father’s instructions.
“Now close your eyes, see your dragon-self, and continue breathing out until you start to feel…different.”
At first nothing happened, other than a frosty curl of breath emanating from the boy’s nostrils. But then, when he’d run out of breath, he began to change. Pale, smooth skin became luminous, silvery, and the outline of delicate scales could be seen rising from under the skin’s surface where his arms were exposed. His fingernails elongated and curved downward, and the ridge of bone above his arched brows began to protrude, the scaly texture thickening more there than elsewhere.
J’nah whispered that he could feel something happening, but that since his eyes were shut, he couldn’t see what it was.
“Never mind that! Keep thinking of your dragon blood, boy!” Neri was amazed – this was the first time his son had begun to shift. He wished to see how far the transformation would go, but was also concerned for the boy’s well-being. “Are you in any pain?”
J’nah shook his head in the negative, and a moment later his tunic began to tear as his chest grew broader, the scales unmistakable.
“Breathe in again!” Neri instructed, barely able to contain his excitement.
His son obeyed, but this time, he was unable to control the exhale, and it came out as a deafening roar accompanied by a huge blast of ice that shot through the entrance of the cave, struck a tree several hundred yards away, and shattered it. And for a brief, but a terrible and marvelous moment, wings exploded from the boy’s back – massive, magnificent silver wings tipped with blue, gem-like protrusions.
In the next moment, all evidence of the transformation had vanished and J’nah collapsed to the floor, human once again, spent, and close to unconscious. His father knelt beside him, placed a hand on the boy’s brow, and lifted one eyelid with a thumb.
“Stop that,” J’nah rasped.
Chuckling, Neri stood and found himself being glared at by his wife. The chuckle faded but the smile did not.
“Beloved,” said Zela, staring down at her exhausted child with a look of concern but addressing Neri, “must you expect so much so soon?”
“He’s strong enough.”
“He’s only twelve. Give him another three or four years of gentler practice.”
“Ah, Zela.” The man/dragon pulled his wife close and gave her a fierce hug. “I would never let any harm come to him – I love him, too, you know.”
She buried her face in his strong chest and sighed. “I know you do. But that was…had either I or his sister been between the cave and that tree, we’d be dead.”
Neri frowned. That hadn’t occurred to him for some reason and his penitence was immediate. “I wasn’t thinking, my love.”
She gave him a quick hug and pulled away. “I forgive you. But be more careful, will you?”
He nodded and watched her walk to the other side of the cave where she picked up a basket and went outside. She was aging. Not much by human standards, but he could see it and it hurt him. As a dragon, he had the gift of a life that would span two thousand years or more. Her lifespan was less than half of one-tenth that long. Already he’d lived fourteen hundred years, but began to wonder how many more centuries of life he would be able to tolerate once she was gone.
Still, he knew he’d regret not a single moment of the time he had with Zela. And then there were the children – they would also outlive their mother by a vast number of decades, perhaps even by several centuries, although certainly not as many as Neri. More sorrow. Unless…He gave his son’s shoulder a gentle shake and asked if he would be all right.
“Of course,” J’nah mumbled, but didn’t try getting up yet.
“Good. I shall be back.” Neri strode off, leaving the cave in search of his daughter. He found her by the cliff that gave out on a breathtaking view across the valley and all the way to a horizon defined by lower hills.
She didn’t turn, but indicated her awareness of his presence behind her by raising a hand.
“Vorel, what are you doing right now?”
Neri laughed and came to stand beside her. “Yes, I can see that.”
“You’ve been working with J’nah again, have you?”
“How can you tell?”
“You’re in human form.”
“Ah.” He said nothing for a while, admiring the view with an enjoyment that never faded, then glanced a the girl beside him. She looked exactly like her mother and nothing like her. The same perfect profile, but her skin had a slight silver cast that was enhanced by a tinge of rosiness on her high cheekbones. Her eyes, completely silver except for the elongated pupils, were larger than her mother’s, but had the same almond shape. Her hair, like Zela’s, was thick and wavy, falling in a foamy wave to her waist. But where his wife’s hair was the color of summer honey, the girl’s was like pure, untouched snow. The blue satin ribbon holding it back made a lovely contrast, and matched the color of her soft cotton gown.
No one would ever mistake her for a common human.
“What would you speak about, Father?” She turned to him and smiled, displaying teeth as white as her hair, straight and strong, only the unusually long canines furthering the alienness of her appearance.
“I…I began thinking about the future today.”
“That isn’t what I meant, girl, and you know it.” He tried to look solemn and failed. “I was thinking specifically about yours.”
“Mine? However do you mean that? And please don’t tell me I have to start learning to shape-shift, too.”
He shrugged. “Well, you will, eventually. But no, not now. I was thinking more along the lines of your future as a, well, one day becoming…” This was much harder than he’d anticipated, but he tried again. “You may not wish to remain alone your whole life. Yes, you’ll have me and your brother, and for a while, your mother as well, but…Vorel, have you ever…”
“Father. Stop. I’m sixteen, and I know exactly what you’re trying to say. To which I have to reply, who knows? I mean, really, Father. What human boy would want me? I have only to smile at him and he’ll run as far and as fast as his legs can carry him.”
“But surely there are others like you.” Her candor was making him uncomfortable, but he couldn’t ignore the importance of talking this out. “I can’t believe I’m the only dragon among the shape-shifters who fell in love with a human and fathered children.”
“Where would they be, then?”
“To quote you, my love, who knows? But I think we should look.”
“Or perhaps I can find a willing human male to be my consort?”
“Ah, I see you’ve been reading again. You’re right – your mate would be called a consort.”
“I’m delighted you’re so pleased with yourself, but I hope you were careful when you went to visit Welan.”
“Of course. You needn’t worry about that.”
Welan, Zela’s father, had learned of his daughter’s fate one year after Vorel’s birth. Labor had been difficult, but Zela was strong, stubborn, and had recovered well. As soon as she could travel, she’d begged Neri to let her visit her father to tell him she was alive and that he had a granddaughter. He’d agreed, but insisted that she tell Welan the truth – about everything.
So it was, then, that Welan the Scribe had experienced the unexpected joy of finding his erstwhile bereaved child alive and well, followed moments later by the shock and delight of meeting his new granddaughter and son-in-law, and then nearly knocked over with disbelief over the true identity of this man. And all in the span of fifteen minutes. Neri suspected the succession of shocks may have nearly killed him. The speechless man had needed to lay down for more than an hour afterward, but upon recovering his wits, had begun asking a lot of questions.
It took very little after that to convince him that Neri was a good husband despite his being a dragon, and because Welan watched little Vorel grow, her odd appearance only bothered him in that it made him fear for her safety, a concern he shared with her parents. Other humans would never be as understanding, he had pointed out when Vorel was about three years old. But J’nah’s birth four years later (despite her rapid recovery, birthing a half-dragon was still a painful and taxing task and Zela had needed the four-year respite) he had given Welan yet more happiness. By that time, he could admit to having reconciled himself to the reality that both children would grow up knowing they had to keep themselves away from human society for their own well-being and safety.
All of that aside, however, the scribe had insisted that the children be at least as well-educated as their mother. He had devised a plan for teaching them with her help, making sure the two youngsters were provided with a goodly supply of reading material every month. Neri would change into dragon-form and fly his family to the town late at night, alighting in a field behind Welan’s cottage where he would shift again into human form. From there, they’d walk to the cottage, spend a pleasant evening together, and leave with armloads of new books and scrolls, having returned the previous batch at the same time.
Vorel laughed suddenly, startling her father. “Can you imagine the look on Lord Gravnel’s ugly face were he to meet you?”
“Why would that cause a laughable facial expression?”
“Oh, Father, think! Mother and Grandfather have told us what a horrible little prig he is. Out of jealousy for you and anger that she survived, he would order his soldiers to arrest you both, and then you’d feel compelled to return to your true form, splintering his castle in the process – ” She burst into infectious giggles. “I doubt we’d have to worry about him trying to take me as a wife after that!”
Neri rolled his eyes. Sometimes his daughter’s thought processes baffled him. Who had said anything about Lord Gravnel? He had, in fact, wondered from time to time over the past seventeen years what that nasty man had done with all the virgins. They would have been found alive, still tied to that stupid Dragonstake, the morning after being offered. Were they being executed instead? Or was the nobleman allowing them to return to their families?
It was probably a good thing Neri didn’t know the answer to that, Gravnel’s solution being much darker and more disgusting than anyone with a good heart like the dragon’s could have imagined.
“Anyway,” Vorel said, patting his hand, “I’m still very young. You’ve told us we’re going to live at least a few hundred years, so what’s the hurry?” She offered him a huge grin, then turned away, staring out at the view once more.
Neri had a feeling she was doing more than sight-seeing. Vorel was a thoughtful girl, her active mind always busy with one thing or another – memorizing spells, solving math problems, associating various ideas with the possible ways to use them. He gave her shoulders a quick squeeze and headed back to the cave. She was right, of course. Her future could be determined later, while the state of her brother…well, that needed tending right away.
As he neared the mouth of the cave, he allowed himself a quick glance at the remains of the tree, shuddered once, and went inside to make sure J’nah was well.
If one dragon existed who wished to see a restoration of relationships with humankind, then one or more would exist somewhere as well. Neri knew this simple fact because it applied to everything in life. No one and nothing was exclusive, solitary. At times it might feel as if one was completely alone in thinking or behaving a certain way, alone in experiencing a thing, but beings that had drawn breath for as long as dragons did, knew better.
He also knew there would be distrust; finding another dragon who felt as he did about humans would not be that difficult. But would this other dragon believe Neri's claim about his relationship with Zela? Probably not - his confession would most likely be viewed as a trick meant to obtain a similar confession that would result in that other dragon's betrayal and ultimate harm. There was no evidence that the overwhelming majority of dragons continued to detest humans. So intensely was this hatred, he knew, these dragons wouldn’t hesitate to destroy any of their own kind who showed the smaller beings mercy and kindness, never mind friendship. And love? Ah, that was the worst offense to man-haters.
The only way to win trust, then, would be for him to bring Zela with him on his quest for a consort for Vorel – J’nah was still much too young for a mate, or even to consider finding one. Time enough for him, and only after he’d achieved the ability to shape-shift. He wouldn’t let himself entertain the notion that the boy would fail.
“And where will we seek such dragons?” asked Zela the next afternoon when Neri broached the subject.
He had returned from hunting a short while earlier, and having cleaned himself in the cave’s pool (eating several cows was a messy business, even for a gargantuan dragon), he’d asked her to join him in the meadow to talk. They were sitting near the tree their son had unintentionally destroyed the day before, Zela having insisted they leave it as it was to remind both of her ferocious loved ones to be more careful.
“I have a few ideas.” He reached down and plucked a meadow flower growing near one foot.
“Will it be far?”
“Yes. You must also prepare yourself for the cold.”
She grinned. “I live with an ice-breathing dragon. I think I can do that.”
“Yes, I know you can, my moxtorn-ternock." This was the most complimentary nickname to give a human, as it meant one who was as tough as a silver-dragon scale. "Now, listen. We shall be traveling far into the northern lands where the mountains are much higher than these.” He waved a hand to indicate their own. “A great deal more snow, too, of course.”
“You sound delighted at the thought.”
Ah, she knew him too well. “I am a Silver, after all. That is our natural terrain.” He handed her the flower and kissed her lightly on top of her head. One day in what for him would be “soon,” those beloved honey-bright strands would begin to fade into weary gray. If only he could…
“And now you look sad. What is it, Neri?”
He could never lie to her. “I was thinking of how short your life is compared with mine.”
“Indeed. But I wouldn’t want to live that long anyway, my love.”
For some reason that surprised him, perhaps because they’d never discussed it before. “No?”
“No. I would get too…tired, I think. And lazy, maybe, if I knew I had that many years ahead.” She shifted closer and snuggled into his embrace. “This way is best and as it should be.”
He wanted to say, “For you, perhaps,” but didn’t wish to sound petulant or selfish. Instead, he murmured an unenthusiastic agreement and kissed her again. A few minutes later he asked if she wouldn’t mind leaving within the week.
“Not at all, but why so soon?”
“The winter will come to our mountain before much longer, and I think we ought to be back before the heaviest weather begins.”
“Ah. Good thinking.”
Every summer, Zela and her children gathered food stores and buried them in the coldest caverns that could be reached by the tunnels off the main cave. During early autumn they pulled out the huge tapestry of thick wool she’d sewn together from ones taken by her husband from neighboring castles.
The way he did this was simple, really. In the spring, the servants living in those strongholds would bring the tapestries outside to be beaten free of dust and moth, and left draped over parapets to air out. Neri would wait until the servants had gone back inside, then swoop down and snatch one of them. Once in a while, he’d hear a pinging sound where an arrow had been shot at him, only to bounce uselessly off his scales. He found this amusing.
But why bring his wife tapestries? So she could make a warm curtain to cover the mouth of the cave and thereby keep herself and their children warm all winter. Once the food was stored, the tapestries hung, and wood enough for cooking fires stocked near the back of the cave, they would be ready for anything the weather would toss at them.
By now, the children were old enough to finish the preparations themselves. It was late summer, but Neri warned his wife that they might not be back until deep winter. That night, they spoke of their plan as the three ate (Neri was still full from all those cows; he might have been the size of a man, but this form and size were only an illusion – his appetite was still that of a massive creature).
“Father, you really don’t have to do this,” said Vorel, wiping her mouth with the same grace as her mother. “I’m sixteen, but…I’m only sixteen. We all know that even though that’s getting toward spinsterhood in human terms, I’m going to live ever so much longer. So…I’m still just a child in that way.”
Neri raised an eyebrow at her. “A very well-developed child, I must say.” He drank some water and shook his head. “I may not be human, but I am nonetheless familiar with the ways of youth. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t be interested if the right young man crossed your path.”
She giggled. “He’d have to be somewhat extraordinary, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would, and that, my dear, is why your mother and I are going traveling. We shall find that extraordinary young man and either bring him back with us, or make arrangements for you to go and meet him where he lives.”
“Sorry, Mother. Didn’t expect to do that.” He looked down, reddening.
Zela rolled her eyes and got up. “Well! If we’re all done eating, let’s clean up and get ready for sleep. We can discuss this further tomorrow. Oh, and Vorel, I’m going to need your help getting prepared.”
“Of course.” The girl bent down and gave her mother a quick hug, already much, much taller than the human who had borne her.
When Neri had begun taking his family to visit Welan, they had worked together to build a kind of litter that could be strapped between his wings and prevent any of them from falling off his back mid-flight. In preparation for their long journey, Zela draped the sides with several thick layers of woolen cloth, made a bed from goose-feathers densely packed into a large sack of soft cotton which she placed on the floor near the back of the litter, and stacked a number of blankets nearby. She filled a hamper with winter clothes and cloaks for herself and Neri, wrapped the wooden hand-holds along the walls inside with cloth, and prepared another hamper for food and water.
This took several days to complete, but by the end of the week, all was ready. After making sure her children knew exactly what to do to survive in their parents’ absence, and having spoken with her father two days before about checking on them from time to time, Zela told Neri to change. The litter had already been brought out into the meadow; as soon as he was his dragon-self, she, Vorel and J’nah lifted the well-stocked litter using the ropes and pulleys they’d devised for the purpose. When it was settled securely between Neri’s shoulder blades and between the front part of his wings, they tied it under his belly, tugging and yanking on the ropes to make sure it wasn’t going to slip sideways or come undone.
“Thaattt feeelzzz rrright,” Neri told them, moving a bit to assure himself that the contraption was as well-attached as it could be.
Since Zela could never accomplish any of this on her own, he would have to stay in dragon-form the whole time they were gone, but neither of them saw this as a problem – she’d lived with him a long time, and happily, before ever learning of his ability to shift, and for the sake of her daughter was content to do it again for a while.
The woman embraced her unusual offspring, promising to be back as soon as they could; she gave them some last-minute instructions, reminding them that if they did have to go to their grandfather for help, they would have to avoid contact with anyone else.
Neri gave them a bit of his own advice and they stroked his nostrils with affection before helping their mother climb up and into the litter.
“I’m all set!” she called, peeking out through the makeshift curtains.
Vorel and J’nah backed away, waving. Neri, giving a nod, flapped his wings once, and they were aloft in an instant. He hovered for a few seconds, staring down at the two tiny figures in the meadow, then turned his gaze northward. And with another powerful stroke of his mighty wings, making a whooshing noise that could be heard for miles, he carried his precious love away into the glorious freezing north to find his brethren.
Wrapped in several cloaks over three layers of clothing, Zela stood between the horns of her dragon husband, her eyes squinting against the snow-brightened sunlight. She had never been anywhere further from her father’s cottage than the small mountain where she currently lived. The sights before her were therefore beyond anything she’d ever imagined, and for a while, she couldn’t speak.
Neri waited, saying nothing, his own eyes taking in the jagged mountain peaks with a joy that verged on hunger. Three days and nights it had taken them to reach this place. Normally, he could have gotten there in a day, but that kind of speed would have made breathing impossible for Zela, even within the confines of the litter.
“What a magnificent place, husband! Is this where you were born?”
“Hatchchched,” he reminded. “Yesss.”
“What do we do now?”
“Wee wait forrr the winnndd to ssshhhiffft.”
“Ah.” He had once told her that a dragon’s sensitive nose could snatch up the scent of another dragon easily, if the wind were blowing in the right direction. So she leaned against one horn, huddled in her cloaks, and waited.
“Therrrre!” said Neri suddenly. “Rrreturrrn tooo the littterrrr.”
She turned with haste, climbing back into her shelter. It was warmer, but not by much. “I’m in!” she called (he’d explained at one point during the first day that she didn’t need to put her head outside to be heard. His hearing was as sharp as his sense of smell – and all his other senses for that matter).
Neri gave one gentle flap that took them off the side of the mountain where they’d stopped, and headed more toward the east. He’d picked up the unmistakable smell of rain. In any other climate, this would not have been remarkable, or necessarily indicative of the presence of another silver dragon. But here, where the only thing coming out of the clouds was snow or sleet, it was a unique aroma, the very one that defined his kin.
They had almost reached the peak of the mountain toward which he’d been flying, when from the clouds appeared neither snow nor sleet, but the only other thing (besides rain) that he would expect to see – another silver dragon. It had apparently been cloud-walking and must have sensed him.
Smaller than Neri, but not by much, this was a fairly old dragon that had seen some difficult days. Here and there, scales had been torn away – a rare thing, indeed. The creature was back-flapping to hold its position blocking Neri from landing on the mountaintop, its eyes glaring at first, but the expression changing to one of uncertainty when it saw the litter. “Whooo arrre youuu, drrragonn? Annd whattt dooo yoou wanntt here?”
“A placccce to rrrresssst. I amm Vilzriquathtor-Neri of Aussir-Gix Verthicha.”
The other dragon gave him an odd look. “Vilzriquathtor-Neri? I knowww ththtatt naamme.”
“Whooo wwoulddd yoouuu beee, ththtenn?”
“I amm Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith.”
Neri took a long, deep breath before answering. When he did, it was through a smile, but only another dragon would recognize his expression as such. “Yoouuu hhavvve chchannggeddd a grrreatt ddeall.”
Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith glance away, seeming to consider something, but then gave a curt nod. “Vverrry welll. Lettt usssss ttalkk.” He turned and flew off, Neri close behind.
They came to rest on a plateau that was more rock and ice than softer snowfall, and stood facing each other. Neri was quite a bit taller, in fact, which hadn’t been as apparent when they were in the air. This didn’t seem to bother the other dragon very much, although the look he was giving Neri wasn’t as challenging now.
“Whyyy arrre yoouu heerrre? Whyyy havve yoouu rrretturrrnedd tooo Aussir-Gix Verthicha?”
This was the name of mountain adjacent to the one on which they sat. It meant White Claw Mountain, and had been Neri’s home for the first two hundred or so years of his life. “I ammm onn a quessstt,” said Neri, not sure how much to reveal. He remembered this dragon rather well. Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith was only about fifty years older, but as a young dragon, had been adept at tormenting the wyrmlings when they would “play.” In dragon terms, that meant participation in some pretty rough sport and serious competition to prepare them for later rites of passage. The older dragons, like this one, would sometimes interfere with these activities, swooping down on better-developed wings and knocking their younger brothers and cousins about. If the result of such behavior was injury or even death, ah well.
But dragons, like people, grew up and matured. “A quessstt, yoouu sssay…I trrrussst itt issss a worrrthy onne.”
Neri told him he believed it was. He then told the other how it was he remembered him, and for the first time, the older dragon folded his wings the rest of the way, indicating trust.
“Ohh, yesssss.” He chuckled. “Whaattt fffooollssss wee werrre!” He cocked his head to one side. “Ifff I’mm nott missstakken, yoouuu grrreww ffassterr tthannn yoouurr nessstllinggs. Annd onne daayy, yoouu hadd ththe temerrrity to warrrn meee annd ththe otthherrrs offf. Weee werrre verrry impressssed.”
Neri laughed. Indeed he had done just that. While smaller than his tormentors, he was bigger than the others of his own age, and he recalled making the decision to try and defend them from the bullies, even if it cost him his life. He’d always had a strong sense of justice – like his father, in fact. “Annddd yoouu leffft usss allonne fforrr a whille.”
Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith nodded, then repeated his first question.
Neri was about to respond, when something occurred that precluded his saying anything while at the same time solving his dilemma of whether or not to say anything at all.
A boy with white hair crested the side of the plateau. He appeared to be about J’nah’s age, but shiny, bluish-silver-scaled wings sprouted from his back and he was in fact using them to help him keep his footing on the slick surface, his eyes cast downward.
The boy stopped, looking up and seeing the strange dragon for the first time. “Father! I – ”
Before Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith could react further, Neri said, “Dooo nnott ffearrr. I, tooo, hhavvve chchillldrrren offf thisss sssorrrt.”
Seeming to recover, the older dragon’s eyes went to the contraption on Neri’s back. “Whattt ddoooo yoouu carrry ththerrre, Vilzriquathtor-Neri?”
“Thhe motthherrr offf my chchillldrrenn.”
From within the litter, Zela had heard everything, and now stepped out. “Greetings to you, Old One,” she said in their tongue and gave a deep bowed.
Cayosin-Gul, looking intrigued, stepped closer as he peered up at the human standing between the horns of the massive dragon. “Are you this dragon’s wife, then?”
She smiled down at him. “I am. And I have two at home who are very much like you.”
While still cautious, both dragon-fathers gave each other grins. Had they been human, they might have patted each other on the back amid exclamations of “congratulations, old man!”
“You must be cold,” said the boy. “I know, because my mother is always complaining about it. She says humans were never meant to live in places like this!” He laughed, but it was a pleasant sound, in no way derisive.
“Yes, I am, Cayosin-Gul. Are there many more like you here?”
“Not that we readily admit, but yes. Several families. As you must know, we have to be very careful.”
“Why? Are there human communities nearby?”
He looked surprised. “Human? Oh, no. Humans are no threat to us. Our danger comes from something much more powerful – other dragons.”
She nodded. “Ah, yes. My husband told me of this. What a terrifying thing…Well!” She shivered, hugging her cloak more closely about her shoulders. “My love, may we meet these others?”
“Yesss, ifff Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith willl grrrannt usss passssagge.”
“I sshhalll. Ffolllloww.” He waited until Zela was back in her enclosure before taking off, Neri and Cayosin-Gul right behind him.
The boy’s ability to fly was quite impressive, Neri thought, giving him renewed hope for his own son. A few minutes later, however, they were spiraling down into a massive cave-opening, and what he saw dispelled all other thoughts.
For the first time in over a millennium, Vilzriquathtor-Neri was among dragonkind.
Vorel leaned against one of the limestone pillars near the pool, arms crossed, shaking her head. Several feet away, her brother was exhaling frosty air and looking like he was about to explode.
“Are you sure you’re doing that right?” she asked. “You’re turning purple.”
He shot her a glare and continued his long inhale, shoulders rising as his lungs reached full capacity.
“J’nah, if you hurt yourself I may not be able to help…oh, my.”
Where a moment ago her brother had stood, there now teetered a medium-sized silver dragon, his balance affected by the suddenness of the transformation. He blew out a slow breath that froze the surface of the pool, then closed his blue and yellow eyes as he took a step back. More solid in his stance, he gave his body a shake, his wings making a leathery rustling.
Vorel giggled. “You look like a strange silver dog when you do that.”
He snorted. “I sshhhalll taakke ththatt asss a commplimmennt.”
Now she laughed, delighted. “You did it, J’nah! Father will be ecstatic! Can you fly, do you think?”
His newly-crested brow furrowed some. “I’mm nnott sssurre.”
“Maybe you should wait until they get back to try it.”
He nodded, sitting back on his haunches while bending his head downward to try and see his reflection in the frozen water. This proved futile, the surface having become milky.
“You’re a very handsome dragon, J’nah.” Vorel straightened from the pillar and approached him, a smile lighting her features. When she was close enough, she put out a hand and stroked his muzzle. “I’m proud of you.”
“Thhannkk yoouu, Vorel.” He stood once more and walked around the pool, getting used to being on four legs. After a moment or two, he announced that he liked how it felt to move that way. But then he stopped walking and closed his eyes.
“What is it?” His sister could feel the onset of uncertainty washing through him, and hoped it wouldn’t turn into fear.
“Ssinnccee I haddnn’t sshhifffted yett, Ffaththerrr hadd nnoo nneed ttooo tteachch mmeee hooww ttooo sshhiffft bback.”
He nodded and thumped down on his haunches.
“Maybe if you do the same thing, only backwards?”
J’nah nodded and closed his eyes again, but more tightly as he muttered the steps he’d taken to transform. After a few minutes, during which his sister stood silent, watching and biting her lip, he arose and exhaled a long, icy breath. Eyes still shut, he began to inhale, folding his wings as tightly against his sides as he could. Little by little he grew smaller, his front legs growing more slender, his back legs straightening…
When he opened his eyes again, he was J’nah the human-form dragon-son once more.
“Oh, thank goodness!” Vorel ran to him and gave him a huge hug. “You scare the icicles out of me!”
“Me, too.” He sounded a bit frightened still, but relieved. “I did it, though.”
“Yes, J’nah, you did it. Please don’t do it again, at least not until they’re back. Please?”
He uttered a shaky laugh. “No need to worry, Vorel. It – it felt wonderful, but I don’t think I was ready. I’d much rather have father here the next time. In case…well, just in case.”
She smiled and released him. “Are you hungry?”
“No.” He frowned. “Maybe a little. I believe I felt hungrier when I was in dragon-form.”
“Well of course you did, silly! You were quite a bit larger!”
“Hmm. True. You know, it also felt very odd when I spoke. Now I understand Father’s speech when he’s himself.” By “himself,” he was referring, of course, to Neri’s true form.
“I suppose I should learn to do that some day.”
“Uh-huh.” J’nah had gone to the edge of the pool, his response faint. “There was another problem, Vorel, and I’m afraid I’ve caused it. Do you think the ice will thaw any time soon? I mean, this is our source of drinking water.”
“What I don’t understand,” she replied, coming to stand beside him, “is how males can be so decisive and strong, so focused and clear-minded in so many ways, yet can’t figure out the simplest things.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Fire, J’nah. Get some wood and build a small fire near the side of the pool to melt the ice.”
He turned, jaw out-thrust, and stared at her through narrowed eyes. He nodded. “Right.”
Vorel controlled an urge to laugh as she watched him head for the pile of wood they’d been collecting and stacking by the back wall. He was a good brother, even if he could be goofy beyond belief at times. She turned away, grinning, and went to gather food for their meal.
It didn’t take long for Zela to realize that she’d never remember all the names. Draconic names tended to be extremely long and complicated, even if the meaning in her human language was much simpler. To avoid embarrassment, she decided to say very little while she was there, and use pronouns whenever possible. Her hostess, having guessed Zela’s dilemma, said she understood. “I experienced the same thing when I first joined the dragon community as Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith’s human wife twenty-five years ago.”
“Does he allow you to call him by a shorter name?” asked Zela, gratefully shedding two of her cloaks. The fire in the hearth was finally warming her nearly-frozen limbs.
“My husband? Of course not!” She looked surprised by the question. “Does yours?”
The woman, who had introduced herself as Chalamar, dragged a chair closer to the fire and gestured for Zela to sit. “That’s different,” she murmured.
“I don’t understand.”
“Only in human society is there a separation of names. Among dragons, the name is a single entity. My husband is Brother-of-the-Ice, which in our tongue is a name and an object connected by two qualifying words. In Draconic, it is a single name. You see?”
Zela nodded. “So if a human had the compound name of, say, Barleyfield, one would never think to call him merely ‘Barley’ or ‘Field’, yes?”
“Exactly. But what do you call your husband?”
“Neri. It does work by itself.” She shrugged.
“And he asked you to call him this?”
Zela smiled. “No, I asked him if I might call him by something shorter than his full name, and that was what he allowed.”
Chalamar looked impressed.
“Would you tell me more about life in this place?” Zela rubbed her hands together, holding them closer to the flames as she spoke.
“There isn’t that much to tell, to be honest. We stay in the cave – we humans and our offspring – while those dragons that have taken a human spouse are free to come and go like the others.”
“That doesn’t…wait. Some of them have no human spouse?”
“Among dragons, even silver ones, there is a long-standing prohibition against such unions. But as with any society, some there are who disagree with the rules, and these have chosen to protect us by providing cover for our presence here.” She adjusted her thick shawl and stretched her feet nearer to the hearth. “All that can be seen by the silver dragons of these mountains are the normal comings-and-goings of others of their kind in and out of a communal cave. They do not need solitude as much as other types of dragons, you see, so several communities of this sort exist – without the human element, of course.”
Zela nodded. “I see. No wonder you don’t leave.”
“Well, that and the extreme cold outside.”
“What of the warmer months?”
“Here, there are no warmer months, my dear. The ice never thaws and the snow always falls.”
“And what of your children? Do they go out?”
“No, not until they’re old enough to leave altogether, and then only if they can travel with a flock.”
“So they all learn to shape-shift, yes?”
“They must, if they wish to leave. Even surrounded by full-blooded dragons, they can be detected in dragon-form. In human form, their wings wouldn’t disguise them and they’d be spotted immediately.”
“They smell different.”
That made sense, Zela thought. It explained, certainly, why a shifted dragon-form human couldn’t venture out alone; despite appearance, the child’s true nature would be detected. How disturbing…
“And what of your own children? You seem very young – do you have any?”
“Two. The oldest is of an age to start seeking a consort, which is why we have come here.”
“Of what age? And by what standard – human or dragon?”
Zela frowned, confused by the question. “Both, I think.”
Chalamar shook her head. “No, my dear. I think perhaps by human traditions, but her dragon half won’t be ready for quite a while yet. Unless, that is, you seek another half-breed to mate with her.”
Finding this description somewhat crude, Zela had to remind herself that this woman had lived among dragons and dragonkin for many more years than she had with one. “Well, yes. That was the hope.”
“Ah. Many of our children mate with full-blooded dragons, you see. But a few there are who seek others like them. They, of course, have no hope of ever leaving here.”
“I see.” The young woman wasn’t sure how to respond anymore, so she tugged her chair a little further toward the flames, gave her hostess a pleasant smile, and continued trying to get warm as she pondered all she’d learned.
Neri, meanwhile, was in deep discussion with several of the draconic members of the community. He was easily bigger, older and more widely-travelled than most of them, and they granted him immediate deference for his age and experience.
Once he and Zela had been introduced, he’d gladly shed the litter, having been assured that when it came time for them to leave, it would be reattached by the humans and their offspring. This enabled him to stretch his wings and flex his spine, both of which had grown stiff during the long journey.
“So there are no other Silvers in your part of the world, then?” one of the younger dragons was asking.
“I haven’t seen any.” Their speech was as guttural and sibilant as ever, but when they spoke among themselves, they didn’t hear it that way.
“Have you had to do battle?” asked another.
“Not recently. When I first left these mountains, it was another story, of course. Back then, the war between men and dragons was still at its height. Many of the Chromatics were about as well, protecting their territories from both man and dragon alike.” Neri was referring to the more colorful species of dragon – red, green, blue. The metallic ones, which ranged from bronze to copper, to silver and gold, were of a different temperament, not as warlike as their Chromatic cousins. And then there were the Contrasts – Blacks and White – both of which were perhaps the most ferocious and aggressive of all dragonkind.
“Ever fought a blue?”
“Twice.” He lifted his right front leg to reveal a long, narrow patch where scales had been torn away, sliced in half by a huge claw. “The second time was nearly my final battle with anything.” He chuckled, but it was a grim sound.
“So tell us, Vilzriquathtor-Neri, why you chose to mate with a human?”
His beautiful blue eyes went out of focus for a moment as he thought back on the moment he first heard Zela’s voice. Then he sighed. “I’d been alone for a very long time. My previous mate had been killed centuries before, and I had ceased to mourn her once a hundred years or so had passed. After her death, I traveled and found the area where we now live. It was rich in foliage, and seemed to have more cows than it needed.”
Several rumbling guffaws greeted that revelation.
“It was a goodly land, and in its northern section was a series of low mountains where I found a cave to my liking. The humans seemed to think I’d take fewer cows if they offered me one of their own from time – young females, in fact, although I still don’t understand their reasoning about that. Never having been mated had no effect on how she tasted. Silly, really.” He gave his neck and shoulders a shake, relaxing them. “But as time went on, I realized how lonely I was. Now one of my beliefs, one that my father gave me when I was still young, was that human and dragon had been made to be together. They were supposed to help one another, befriend each other. As you know, a time there was when we Silvers would be fostered out to human families so we could learn their culture. We’d shift into human form and grow up as children in their households. Well, something in me has always longed for that kind of relationship to be re-established. I thought a great deal about that over the centuries, and thought, too, about how badly I wished I were not alone. I understood loss – when the humans killed my mate, they also destroyed our children.”
“Had they hatched?”
“No. But they were mere weeks away, and we could hear them moving in their shells. So like so many others, I am no stranger to sorrow. I mention this, because the idea of consorting with humans brings with it the recollection that they are very short-lived by comparison. Any friends I might make would only be part of my life for a short time; a mate chosen from among them would die long before either I or the offspring of our union. So I pondered all that, and at some point decided sorrow was sorrow – no matter how often experienced, it would always be what it was and there’d be no way around it.”
“So you sought a human mate?” This was Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith, and he sounded incredulous.
“Sought? No, my friend. I simply knew that if I found one I particularly liked, I would consider taking her as a mate. But I also decided that she’d have to know from the beginning what I was and accept it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even try.”
“How, then, did you find the charming woman-child who is now with you?” asked the oldest member of the group, a silver dragon of twenty-five hundred years.
“She was one of the town’s sacrifices, and was to be my afternoon snack.” Neri laughed, his eyes sparkling. “But before I even got to the Dragonstake, before I saw her at all, I heard her.”
The other dragons gave him confused looks.
“She was singing. Dragonsong. Beautifully. And my friends, it touched my heart more deeply than anyone or anything before had ever done. I knew right then that whoever this human was, I would seek her companionship. You can imagine my delight, then, when she showed no fear at my presence, and…she smiled at me. All my fears, concerns, and wisdom about being with a human, fled far from my mind, and even though she had no idea about it at the time, I was hers.”
Dragons and dragonkin – those who had dragon blood – shared certain traits, abilities, and even viewpoints. Long life, unnatural strength, magic; these were a few characeristics that might or might not manifest among some of their relatives. But the ones shared by all (even those with even a tiny bit of dragon blood), are heightened senses. Dragonkin might have looked human for the most part, but they could hear, see, smell, taste and feel at a far greater level than any non-dragon being.
It was no surprise, then, that both Vorel and J’nah knew someone was approaching the cave long before that individual came within sight or earshot. It started as a pulse, something they felt within the earth, and which they immediately recognized as footsteps. Next, the smell wafted across the valley from the north as whoever it was began to climb the foothills toward their part of the mountain.
Naturally curious, Vorel went to the part of the cliffside closest to the person’s approach and looked down. Her sharp eyes detected movement, and soon she could make out color as well. Whoever it was, he was in brown and green (her sensitive nose told her this was a male, although she couldn’t have said how she could recognize the difference between genders).
“Anything yet?” asked J’nah, coming to stand beside her.
“Look.” She pointed downward.
“Where…ah.” He frowned. “A boy? A man, perhaps?”
“One of those.” She smiled and ruffled his hair, causing several strands to come out of the leather string tying it back at his neck.
He gave her an annoyed look and redid his ponytail. “Wonder what he’s doing out here all alone.”
“Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
“Why? We don’t have to show ourselves.”
She turned to face him, eyebrows raised. “Really, J’nah! Like there’s any way he’s going to miss noticing that gigantic opening in the side of the mountain. It’s not like the cave mouth is hidden or anything.”
He scowled. “Fine. I’m an idiot. But that doesn’t mean he has to find us, does it?”
“What – you’re going to let him wander in, eat our food, make himself at home and probably steal a bunch of Father’s treasure while we hide in a side-tunnel?”
“Come on, little brother – it’s all right. All I have to do is grin, and he’ll run away so fast he won’t even leave a trail.” She made an exaggerated smile and pointed to her canines. “Not to mention our eyes.”
She nodded and stepped back from the edge. “Come on – I’m hungry. Shall I make enough for you, too?”
“What?! You mean you weren’t going to feed me?”
“Gotcha!” She gave him a light smack on the top of the head and ran off.
“Vorel! Ooh! You’re going to get it now!” He tore off after her, laughing.
By the time the stranger found the cave, it was early evening. The siblings had finished lunch hours ago, and Vorel was preparing their supper.
The human entered as J’nah was carrying a bucket of water away from the pool in the center of the cave. He watched out of the corner of his eye as the human stepped inside and paused, blinking in the lower light.
Vorel, meanwhile, gave the intruder a brief glance, turning a spit on which a boar had been skewered.
“He’s here,” J’nah whispered, placing the bucket on the floor beside his sister.
“I know that. What do you think we should do?” She wasn’t whispering, but her voice was pitched softer and lower than normal.
J’nah shrugged. “I don’t know – you’re the older one.”
Lips compressed in annoyance, she ladled some water from the bucket into the small pot sitting on the coals under the boar, sprinkled in some salt from one of the boxes on a small table next to the spit, then tossed in a few herbs. “Stir that,” she said, “while I go take care of this.”
She rolled her eyes, faced the stranger, and stalked away from her meal preparations. When she was a few feet away from the newcomer, she noticed that he wasn’t much older than she. “Who are you?” She crossed her arms. “And what do you want?” She was being rude, but didn’t care at the moment. She knew no other way to deal with the sudden fear tightening her chest.
“My name is Kavin. I’ve traveled from Marclor and have nowhere safe to spend the night.”
“What is Marclor?”
“The country directly to the north of yours. You can see the border on the other side of the valley.” He gestured behind himself with a kind of backward nod.
“So why did you come here?”
“Direct young lady, aren’t you! I left home because my father has six other sons, all of them older than I, and he has nothing left to offer me. So I’m trying to make my own way in the world, perhaps find work.” He shrugged. “But tell me – why do you live in a cave? Is this how most of your citizens live?”
A sticky silence followed, during which Vorel could see him looking around in growing confusion. Finally, he shook his head. “What kind of place is this? It – it’s gigantic, yet there are only two of you…I don’t understand.”
“Since it’s no concern of yours, you don’t need to.”
“I see.” He bit his lower lip. “Look, I really need a safe, warm place to stay. For tonight only. I have no wish to intrude on your life or…is that your husband?”
Vorel choked back a laugh. “Er, no. My little brother.”
“He’s four years younger.”
“Good God! How, I mean, you’re…” He stopped, reddening.
That was all it took. All of Vorel’s exasperation melted, and she almost wished she could come closer, or even ask him to stay. But she knew that as soon as he saw her eyes, he’d probably panic and run. “My – my parents told us not to, um, not to entertain anyone we didn’t know while they were gone.” And we don’t know anyone, she added silently.
“Really? Surely you’re old enough to make your own decisions about such things!”
“No, I’m sixteen. My brother is only twelve and I have to keep him safe.”
“Twelve.” He looked past Vorel and shook his head. “That’s the tallest twelve-year-old I’ve ever seen,” he murmured. And then, as if making up his mind about something he’d been contemplating all along, he walked up to Vorel, stopping only a few inches away.
She looked down quickly. “Please go.”
“For your own sake.”
“You aren’t making sense.”
“Aren’t I?” She hated having to do this – she looked up, allowing him to get the full impact of her dragonkin silvery eyes. And then she smiled.
To her amazement, he only took two steps back. “Wha – what are you?”
“My father is a silver dragon.” Why isn’t he running?
“How is that even possible?”
“He can shape-shift to human form, and in that state he married my human mother. Several weeks later, she found she was with child, and nine month after that, I was born. That’s how. It happened the same way with my brother, in case you need clarification.” She was being rude again, but this time it was because she was angry. How dare he make her feel so uncomfortable! How dare he not flee in terror from her! And…and how dare he be so – so – so attractive!
He came back a step, but only one. “What is your name, beautiful dragon-girl?”
He nodded. “You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. Your…strangeness makes your beauty even greater to my eyes. Please tell me who you are.”
“My name is Vorel.”
Kavin repeated it and smiled. “I’ve never heard a name like it, but it’s beautiful, too. Like you.”
“That’s what it means in the human tongue – beautiful.”
“You were named well, then.”
By this time J’nah, whose ability to hear so well had made him privy to this conversation, gave the spit another turn, then walked quickly to Vorel’s side. “What’s going on?” he demanded, glaring directly into the eyes of the stranger who was about the same height.
“Nothing. I was talking to your sister.” His gaze narrowed as he took in J’nah’s equally exotic appearance, glancing between J’nah’s eyes and his sister’s.
“I see. So you think if you flatter her, she’ll let you stay the night, right?”
“No, I was telling her the truth about how she looks. I can find somewhere else to stay, I’m sure. There must be other caves about, and it isn’t like I haven’t been sleeping out in the open for the past few nights anyway. I was simply hoping for someplace a bit warmer for a change.”
“Your name is Kavin?” J’nah raised an eyebrow.
“How did you know that?”
“I could hear everything you two were saying, that’s how. Dragonkin can do that, you know.”
Kavin shook his head. “Well, I do now.”
Vorel sighed. Something had occurred to her while her brother was speaking. Her parents were off risking everything to find her a consort, and here she was considering this Kavin person as someone with whom she could possibly become attached. How silly of her! “Okay, listen. Kavin. As you noticed, this is a very large cave. You may spend the night over there – ” She waved toward a spot near the woodpile. “It’s far enough from the opening to be warmer than being outside, and far enough from where my brother and I sleep to keep you from getting any, um, any ideas…whatever.” Her silvery skin turned rosy as she said this. “And anyway, my parents wouldn’t want a stranger to get too near their personal…belongings.” Now she was referring to the pile of gems and magnificently-wrought objects that made up Neri’s bed, but didn’t think it would be very wise to get specific about that.
“I promise to leave you both alone.” He readjusted the pack on his back, a lumpy sack made of coarse green cloth. “Something tells me you’re both capable of inflicting considerable harm on anyone you believe to be a threat, so since I wish to live a long, happy life, I’m going to behave myself.”
Brother and sister exchanged a quick glance and a nod.
“Are you hungry, then, Kavin?” Vorel asked.
“In truth?” He chuckled, nodding. “I’m starved.”
“Go find a place to sit by the edge of the pool, then, and I’ll bring you a plate so that you may eat with us.”
With a big grin, Kavin went off to the pool, Vorel went back to the spit, making it there only seconds before the side of the boar closest to the fire turned black, and J’nah went to a large wooden cabinet behind her to fetch the plates.
And thus began an unusual friendship that would have unforeseeable repercussions, but that would last for a very, very long time.
Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith had three sons: Cayosin-Gul, Siyanc-Altiui, and I’gra-Nar. The first two were dragonkin, both the children of Chalamar. The other was a full-blooded dragon, and was the oldest; his mother had been a Silver who had been murdered by a black dragon centuries earlier. Apparently she wouldn’t leave Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith for him, and in the kind of jealous rage common to all unstable individuals regardless of race, the gargantuan black dragon had killed her, taking her life with a single blow.
Other dragonkin and regular offspring existed in this mountain community, but none of their parents seemed too happy at the idea of a liaison with some dragonkin girl living so far to the south. The exception was Neri’s old nemesis, oddly enough, but they’d both grown out of their more foolish attitudes long since, and the older dragon said he’d talk to his sons and see if any of them had an interest.
While he was doing that, Chalamar invited the couple to participate in one of their gatherings at which news of things outside their cave was related by those who had been hunting or traveling.
To make his wife feel less outnumbered, Neri had shifted into human form, and now they sat, Zela leaning back against her husband’s chest, his arms about her, in the vast circle formed by the cave’s denizens. The humans who lived there were far fewer in number than those of draconic origins, but appeared perfectly at ease sitting among their gigantic spouses and in-laws. Accustomed to their lives there, this wasn’t surprising. For Zela, however, the experience was somewhat disconcerting. Neri sensed this right away, and as they took their place in the circle, he’d given her a reassuring hug.
From the reports being given, they learned that winter had begun earlier than expected on the lower slopes, forcing many of the grazing herds into early hibernation. This would cause a problem in terms of food supply, but several of the older dragons volunteered to extend their search for prey into other areas. Some protested, saying they shouldn’t encroach on the territories of other dragons who might also be experiencing shortages, while a different faction insisted that in times of difficulty, all should share whatever there was to be had. The one thing they all agreed upon was that no one would be selfish enough to disturb the animals that had gone to ground, but would wait for the springtime thaw when the beasts emerged again.
In the meantime, they decided by a majority to send several of their elders to speak with the dragons living in softer climates about sharing what they could. In return, the Silvers would provide help in any form needed whenever it was required for a specified time.
Zela knew little about politics, but from what she’d overheard (when she was supposed to be asleep) in her grandfather’s house, she learned enough to realize that dragons and humans had far more in common than she’d ever imagined.
Much later in the day, Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith approached Neri and Zela when they were standing by the community firepit; this had been dug and kept aflame for the benefit of the purely human population. Even with thick robes of animal pelts, most of them had a hard time staying warm. Zela had been loaned one of Chalamar’s, and was finally starting to feel sensations in her fingers and toes again.
The older dragon had shifted, and presented himself as a regal-looking gentleman in fine clothing. He sported a trim white beard and straight white hair that fell loose past his shoulders. Beside him walked another, much younger, individual whose looks left no question as to his identity. Of the four, only Zela couldn’t tell if the young man was a shape-shifted dragon or dragonkin.
Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith bowed to the couple and gestured toward his companion. “Allow me to introduce my oldest son. This is I’gra-Nar. Like so many of us, he retains the inherent knowledge, the collective memory, if you will, of his progenitors. Because of this, he has always been curious about humans and to be honest, is the only one of my boys willing to meet your daughter.” He spoke with no offense in his tone, and his smile was friendly. “And I must tell you in all truth, that no one else among us all seemed inclined to take your offer.”
“We understand,” said Neri. “So you are curious about my dragonkin child?” He had begun addressing the younger dragon.
“I am. I’ve noticed that all the dragonkin offspring here are not only very attractive, but highly intelligent and in possession of the most interesting points of view on life.” I’gra-Nar crossed his arms and shrugged. “Nothing more than a pleasant friendship may come of it, but I believe it’s worth my time to go and meet her.”
This kind of casual arrogance was so typical of the race, that Neri thought nothing of it, was in fact pleased that this full-blood would consider his daughter for any type of relationship at all before even meeting her. “Then perhaps you will travel back with us? We left the children alone, and I do not feel right about staying away much longer.”
I’gra-Nar turned to his father with a shrug. “I have nothing pressing right now, do I? Are there enough to gather food from the more distant sources discussed earlier?”
“Enough and then some.” Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith patted his son’s shoulder. “Go on. You’ve been working very hard and need a break, I think.” His wide smile, mimicked by his eyes, bespoke deep pride and respect. “I expect we’ll know your decision soon enough, yes?”
“Yes. Thank you, Father.” He took a deep breath and backed up several paces, bringing him outside the circle of firelight that defined his family’s living area within the cave. A moment later, he stood in his true form – a silver dragon nearly as large as Neri, his eyes glowing aquamarine, the glorious aroma of fresh rain emanating from his body.
“You’re magnificent!” Zela’s exclamation was instantaneous, involuntary, and genuine.
“Ththaannk yoouu, Zzzeeeellaaahh.” I’gra-Nar bowed his head in appreciation. “I amm honnorrred.”
Chalamar, who had joined them during her step-son’s transformation, put an arm around Zela’s shoulders and gave her a friendly squeeze. “He is beautiful, isn’t he.” This was not a question, and it was obvious she had as much admiration for I’gra-Nar as she did for his father.
Zela leaned into the woman’s embrace and patted one hand. “He is.” She took a deep breath. “Well, I suppose we’ll be leaving now. Thank you for your kind hospitality, Chalamar. Oh!” She pulled away and began undoing the clasp on the fur cloak. “Here’s your - ”
“No, no,” the other woman interrupted. “Keep it. Please – I have many more, and you’ll need it for your journey. Heavens, girl, you were half-frozen when first you arrived!”
Zela smiled and gave her a quick, warm hug, giving her profuse thanks.
“Very good!” Isthasy Di-Wer Xarzith, who had retained his human form through this exchange, gave the couple a nod. “Looks like it’s time to see about reattaching that rig of yours!” He walked off, heading for the area where the litter had been placed, calling on several of the humans and dragonkin to come help him.
Within the hour, Neri and I’gra-Nah were standing on the ledge outside the cave, Zela securely nestled in her litter, the warm furs supplementing her other cloaks and blankets. Good-byes and thank-yous had all been said, and now they were ready to go. Giving the younger dragon a curt nod, Neri flapped his mighty wings and within minutes, the two were soaring side-by-side through the clouds.
Ahead, the future of not only their family awaited, but that of mankind.
Vorel was in a quandary. Kavin had been regaling her and her brother with stories of life outside their small sphere of experience, and to her ears it sounded irresistible and wonderful. As she listened, watching the animated way in which he described things she’d never imagined, sometimes standing and moving about when explaining a particularly exciting incident, she found herself wanting to run off with him. To explore the world. To explore…him.
There was no denying the physical attraction – Kavin was a handsome young man, muscular, tall, a natural athlete. She even wanted to taste him. That thought disturbed her a little, and when the human had gone to sleep, she pulled her brother outside to talk. Within the confines of the cave, Kavan might have heard her despite his meager human hearing.
“Do you like him, J’nah?” She began, but before he could respond she continued, “Because I do, and I’m not sure what to do about it. Our parents will be back with a possible consort for me - ”
“Maybe,” he interrupted, his frown reflecting some alarm at her enthusiasm.
“Yes, yes, maybe. But still. The point is, dear brother, what if I choose to be with Kavin instead of the dragon or dragonkin they bring back? If they do, that is.”
J’nah folded his legs and lowered himself to the ground. When she joined him he said, “Look, Vorel, I understand a little about how you feel, but please remember something. This is the first male you’ve ever met outside of our family, so of course he’s going to seem, I don’t know, desirable, I guess. But what if you run off with him, only find out later that the individual Father and Mother found was a better match?”
She nodded and scowled. Vorel was not an impulsive sort; she always took her time when thinking a thing through. But her body and emotions were being most insistent at the moment, causing her to ignore the saner side of her nature. Still, J’nah’s words not only rang true, but made a great deal of sense. She’d hoped he would be logical, which was why she was confessing her feelings to him in the first place. “I really should,” she said at last. “Doesn’t seem fair, though.” She pulled up a tuft of brown grass and flung it away, irritated.
“I suppose. But you know, if nothing else, we’ve made a good friend, yes?”
“Yes. We have.” Too bad this “good friend” was an attractive male… “I wanted to taste him, J’nah. What do you suppose that means?”
He gaped at her for a moment. “I – I mean – I have no idea, Vorel. That’s weird, that is. Did you mean ‘taste’ like sample his flavor for a possible meal? Silvers don’t eat people, you know. Father says only Chro- ”
“I don’t think it’s that kind of hunger.” In the dark, a human couldn’t have seen her blush, but dragons have dark-vision, something even dragonkin inherit.
She gave a cry of embarrassment and frustration, jumping to her feet. “Shut up, J’nah! This is all new to me, okay?”
“Oh, calm down. It’s new to me, too.”
“Except you have no desire to…to…” She stopped abruptly and stalked back into the cave, mortified, confused.
Behind her, J’nah shook his head and lay back on the ground, enjoying the cold against his back as he stared up at the moon. A moment later he smiled, telling himself how glad he was not to have been born a girl.
As he had during the start of the journey, Neri stopped on a barren mountainside plateau halfway between the the northern mountains and his own. This was for Zela’s sake, and when he explained it to I’gra-Nah, the younger dragon said he’d expected this to be the cause.
Zela emerged from her temporary home to sit comfortably between her husband’s ears, and there, she treated both dragons to some of her songs. Having the fur cloak made it possible for her to be outside for more than a few minutes, a situation both dragons appreciated as they drifted off to sleep, the small, lovely stream of music lulling them, offering a delicious sense of peace.
During the second half of the journey, I’gra-Nah told Neri he could see now why the older dragon had chosen this human as a wife.
“She is quite remarkable,” Neri said, pleased.
“And very beautiful for a human!”
“Indeed she is. But mostly, it’s her heart that I see. Of course, when I’m in human form, I find her most pleasing in other ways as well.” He chuckled, knowing no further explanation was necessary, at the same time making it obvious that his love for this woman was vast and deep.
“I hope I can find happiness like yours. Perhaps with your daughter, but if not, with someone.”
“You’re a good dragon, I’gra-Nah. I expect you’ll find the right mate and be happy in love and in children.”
They said nothing more for the remainder of the flight, having already become easy in each other’s company. The air gradually became warmer the closer they got to Neri’s home mountain, making the last part of the trip more pleasant for Zela. But when they were within twenty miles of home, they ran into a gigantic bank of black clouds. Normally, Neri would fly above such weather, but the dark mass reached so high, he knew his wife would suffocate at the altitude he’d need to reach to get beyond them. So he lowered his head, aiming for the space between the bottom of the thunderheads and the ground. He’d have to be a swifter now, if he wanted to keep Zela from getting drenched.
As soon as they landed, she hurried out, climbing down Neri’s muzzle and dropping to the grass. Her children had emerged from the cave and rushed out to meet her, pulling her back inside without paying much attention to the two gigantic forms standing like earthbound clouds in the meadow.
“Are you well?” asked Vorel, helping her mother remove the layers of cloaks. “Here – your gown is still dry but your hair is soaked.” She threw a thick sheet over the woman’s head and began rubbing her hair.
“Vorel, stop!” Zela was laughing. “I can do this. Go see your father. And…and a new friend.”
A look passed between Vorel and J’nah, who was standing nearby shaking out his mother’s damp cloaks. “Of course. Thank you, Mother.” She shrugged at her brother and headed for the mouth of the cave.
By this time, both Neri and I’gra-Nah had shifted into human form and were standing just inside, Neri gesturing at the interior and explaining something to the tall young man beside him. Vorel took in the newcomer’s appearance with a sense of growing panic. He was beyond doubt the most beautiful person she’d ever seen, and unlike Kavin, was decidedly draconic. This made things somehow worse because now she found herself drawn to him in a way she could never be toward a mere human. Thus the panic – what was she to do now? Talk about unfair!
“Ah! Vorel!” Her father had seen her approach and waved her forward with an impatient gesture.
“Hello, Father.” She kept her tone as neutral as possible, her eyes only on him. “We missed you and mother and are so glad you’re back this soon.”
He smiled, gathering her into a warm embrace. “We missed you, too,” he whispered, then took her by the shoulders and put distance between them, turning her toward the young man as he did. “Vorel, this is I’gra-Nah. He has come back with us to meet you.”
She put her head to one side, eyes narrowed, and gave a discreet sniff. “You…you are not dragonkin.”
“No, full-blooded like your father.”
Vorel was suddenly finding it hard to breathe. “I – I am honored to meet you.” And then she did something that she couldn’t have explained had she tried with all her might. She went down on one knee before him, head bowed, and raised one hand toward him, palm upward, the other over her heart.
I’gra-Nah stared in shock. He’d only seen this kind of respect and submission from female full-blood dragons, never any human or dragonkin. It was clear that her behavior wasn’t practiced, either, but had come to her instinctively. He swallowed hard, his own heart beating faster. Sliding one of his hands under her raised one, he held it lightly in place as he bent and kissed her palm. “Rise, sweet Vorel,” he heard his voice say, a voice that was much softer than he’d ever heard it before. “Your respect is welcome, your heart worthy.”
She got to her feet, still not looking at him directly and not knowing why.
“You may look at me.”
She nodded and raised her glance.
“Y-your eyes are…silver,” he managed, shocked and delighted. “How exquisite you are! Please – will you walk with me?”
She nodded, unable yet to speak, as taken with his aquamarine eyes as he was with her silver ones. Totally overwhelmed she was, by the unmistakable power his entire being exuded, the lingering scent of rain that was somehow separate from the precipitation sheeting down outside. She wanted nothing more right then than to be with this dragon, to be by his side and serve him, to be his companion, his lover.
Neri had walked away and joined his wife by this time – he knew exactly how I’gra-Nah felt, and suspected Zela would be able to explain his daughter’s behavior.
J’nah, having observed all of this in silence, grinned. He might be younger than Vorel, but he knew he’d given her some very wise advice. Perhaps it was about time he perfected his ability to shape-change, too…
The blacksmith’s forge was a place of hot, violent sounds – the hammer clanging forcefully against glowing metal, the roar of the furnace when its flames were force-fed by bellows whooshing air into its maw, the crackle of imperfections as ore was reduced to deadly, molten liquid. And the carpenter’s shop – loud with the grating of saws against long-dead trees that had been chopped into manageable chunks, the crash of the mallet driving wooden pegs into some object being constructed from planks. Even the potter’s workroom assaulted the ears with the non-stop whir of the wheel, its treadle clacking out its rhythm beneath the foot of the claymaker. These were the sounds of everyday life, all of them understandable, taken for granted, and in the end, meaningless by reason of repetition.
Yet somehow the smallest of work-sounds, that of a quill scratching diligently across a page, became ever more irritating as the day wore on. Kavin, teeth on edge, thought he was going to lose his mind if the young scribe across from him didn’t take a break. Didn’t the pimply-faced youth need to stretch, or perhaps stop for some water at least?
The room in which they were working was in the castle. Their employer worked in a room adjacent to this one, under the auspices of Lord Gravnel. Being the youngest of seven boys, Kavin had found himself with little to do when he was growing up, so he’d spent his time with the local monk learning to read and write. His two oldest brothers had no need of this skill, engaged as they were in learning to be soldiers. Their hope was to distinguish themselves on the field of battle some day, and thereby earn titles. The three brothers next in line were fairly well-educated, but mostly in the merchant trades. The one brother between them and Kavin had taken over the duties of the family’s steward; he had a natural understanding of numbers, was practical to a fault, and on his twenty-first birthday had announced that he was going to save the family finances by taking control of them. Kavin thought he was a little insane – this job would keep him at home for the rest of his life, for goodness’ sake!
When Kavin had turned twenty-one himself a year later, his father had suggested he put his literary skills to work as he sought to make a living somewhere. This made sense, and he had been on his way to the towns on the other side of his country’s borders for this very purpose when he’d encountered J’nah and Vorel. After a good night’s sleep, he’d thanked the siblings for their hospitality and promised he’d see them again. He really liked both of them, but while he found Vorel breathtaking in her beauty, he also found her too frightening a creature to consider as anything more than a friend. J’nah, too, intimidated him, but seemed less terrifying somehow than Vorel. Perhaps it was the boy’s extreme youth, or simply his pleasant personality. Either way, Kavan felt he’d found two good friends, and since he knew where they were and how to get there, he planned to visit them again once he’d gotten established in a job.
Well, he had, but Lord Gravnel was impossible. True, Kavin didn’t report to him directly, but he’d overheard the nobleman tell Kavin’s employer that he expected his new hire to prove himself by working long days and accomplishing twice as much as the other youth. Which meant no time to go wandering back into the mountains, or not very soon.
That other youth, the one with the scratchy pen, was named Fleck, a bizarre nickname to be sure – his given name was Arflec, which wasn’t much better, but he preferred the shorter version for some reason.
“Sorry to bother, you, but how, er, how does one get something to drink around here?” Kavin knew his question was idiotic, but it was either say the first thing that came to mind, or throw the first thing that came to hand. At Fleck. Hard.
“Do you mean like ale, or some such?” The younger boy looked outraged.
“Of course not! Heh! No, like water. I’m really thirsty.” He put his own pen down and stood. “We’ve been here for hours without a break, and I need some water, is all.”
“Ah. Well…no. No idea. Sorry.” Scratch, scratch, scratchety-scratch…
“Does…does my pen sound like that, too?”
“Hadn’t noticed, to tell you the truth.”
Kavin’s handwriting was even, smooth, light. He never dug his nib into the paper – or whatever surface he happened to be writing on – so he knew his efforts weren’t noisy like Fleck’s. If they had been, he probably would have stopped writing forever. “I just wondered, because, ha!” He shook his head, avoiding Fleck’s gaze. “The sound of yours is incredibly, it’s maddening. There. I’ve said it.”
“We’re working as apprentice scribes, Kavin. It’s impossible to write without making some kind of sound, you know.”
“Of course, but – but must you dig so hard into the page? Try a lighter touch. The ink lasts longer that way, too.” He wasn’t sure this was the truth, but it sounded reasonable.
Fleck shrugged and started writing again. This, time, though, he went a bit slower, and the friction of the nib was less abrasive. “Is this better?” he asked without looking up.
“Much.” Kavin smiled and sat down again. He could still hear it, but he no longer felt like murdering Fleck. “Thank you.”
Twenty minutes later the door opened; an older man with reddish hair that had begun to gray at the sides entered, carrying an armful of scrolls. “How are you boys doing?” he asked, depositing his crackling, beribboned burden on a low table beneath the room’s one window.
“Very well, Master Welan,” said the younger boy.
“Good, good. And you, Kavin? Have you been able to read His Lordship’s handwriting?”
“I have, Master Welan.” He glanced at the inventory list he’d been charged with copying into the official ledger, not bothering to point out that he’d been doing copy work nearly his whole life and had learned to read almost every version of bad writing there was.
“Excellent. I have a new project for tomorrow morning.” He nodded at the pile of scrolls beside him. “Try and finish up what you’ve been given today by the time the sunlight fails, will you? I’ll not have you going blind from working by candlelight.” He gave them a big smile. “And when you’re done, I’ll take you to the inn for supper. My treat.”
“Thank you, sir!” Kavin, already ravenous, was more than pleased. He and Fleck, as the man’s apprentices, were sharing a room in Welan’s house, a relevant fact because Fleck, in addition to being a loud writer, was also a loud sleeper.
Fleck’s snores were fierce, and only after Kavin had rolled him onto his side several times did the symphony stop long enough for the Marclorian to catch a few hours’ rest. Having gotten plenty himself, Fleck had risen first and eaten most of the breakfast. Still, it was only their first day in their new positions, so Kavin wasn’t that upset about the situation. Not yet. If it continued, however, he’d have to do something drastic. Like maybe stay up all night and hide the food before his room-mate arose in the morning…
The three turned toward the doorway in which stood one of the castle pages, a boy of about twelve dressed in the Gravnel family colors of light blue, gold and green.
“Yes, Hals?” Welan raised an eyebrow.
“You have a visitor, sir. He insists on seeing you immediately – you and the one named Kavin.”
“Does he, indeed! And did this visitor mention his name?”
Hals nodded. “He did, sir. It’s Opsola.” If the page considered this name somewhat strange, he was too well-trained to show it.
Welan looked away, eyes narrowed. A moment later, a slow smile spread across his face, and he started for the door. “Come along, Kavin. I’m not sure why my friend wants to meet you, but he never does anything without good reason. And Fleck, you’re doing well, boy. Keep it up – we’ll be back soon, I expect.”
Kavin, meanwhile, had stood again, stretched a little, then followed his mentor out into the corridor.
As had been pointed out, a dragon’s senses were far better than a human’s. Neri, in his extreme delight with the way his daughter had reacted to I’gra-Nah, had been pushing away a scent that had assaulted his nostrils the moment he’d entered the cave. But now, unable to ignore it any longer, he gave it a name and called his son to him. “Tell me, J’nah – did anything unusual happen while we were gone?”
The boy shrugged. “A few things.”
“Would one of them involve a human?”
“One would, yes.” He began to look uncomfortable. “But another thing that happened was that I shape-shifted.”
“Did you! You’ll have to show me after supper. But getting back to this other matter. A human was in our cave, J’nah. A male human. What was he doing here?”
So J’nah explained, starting with the moment he and Vorel had sensed their guest’s approach from a distance. “His name is Kavin, and he…he didn’t see anything.”
“And Vorel. Right. But it’s really okay! He thought she was beautiful!”
Neri nodded and sat on a nearby stone. “Did he ask why you both look so different?”
“Of course. Kind of. No. Vorel, well, he walked right up to her and, and so she told him. I mean, he couldn’t help but see how different her eyes were, and I’m sure he saw her dragon teeth.”
“Where is he now? You didn’t eat him, did you?”
J’nah looked horrified. “Of course not! Father!”
“You let him go, then?”
The boy gave his father a suspicious look. “Are you saying we should have eaten him?”
“Maybe. He’s a threat, son. People – especially Gravnel – would love to find out where we live, and more important, learn that your mother not only survived, but that she and I have children. I’ve explained all of this to you before.”
“Yes, but he’s different! He’s a friend, Father! Kavin promised to tell no one about us, and I believe him.” He crossed his arms, his expression defiant.
Neri sighed. “Did he tell you where he was going?”
“Into the town to find work. That’s all I know.”
“Thank you, J’nah. Now go help your mother finish the meal. Your sister is…busy.”
J’nah snickered, casting a knowing glance at Vorel and I’gra-Nah who were by the pool; the dragon, still in human form, was sitting on one of the smooth stones on the near side, and she sat at his feet, looking up at him with the same silly expression Zela often gave the boy’s father. “She is that,” he muttered, and went off to do his father’s bidding.
Later that night, Neri flew into the field outside of town, shifted, and entered the market area at daybreak. By mid-day, he’d learned that a stranger had arrived a day or so earlier looking for work. Apparently, he’d been apprenticed almost immediately by Welan the Scribe, who – as everyone knew – worked in the castle for Lord Gravnel.
Disguised as a middle-aged man with bright blue eyes, sandy-colored hair, and a slight build, he made his way to the castle to see about meeting this apprentice. No one to whom he’d spoken had known the young man’s name, but one of them had noticed a slight accent. J’nah had mentioned that this Kavin person claimed to be from Marclor, so that part fit.
Getting into the castle was easy, and finding a page to seek out Welan was no problem. Within a few minutes of the boy trotting off to carry out the sandy-haired man’s request, Neri’s father-in-law came into view from an adjacent corridor. Behind him was a nice-looking young man, nothing in his demeanor indicating an unpleasant personality.
Welan was grinning – Neri had known the scribe would be familiar with what “opsola” meant. It was draconic for “father,” and when spoken through a human throat, sounded like a name and nothing more.
“Master Welan!” Neri straightened from the window seat where he’d been leaning. They were in a main hallway, a veritable thoroughfare for the castle’s occupants. Along both walls were low benches, a table here and there, branched candle-holders, a few actual chairs.
“How good to see you, Opsola! I understand you wished to speak with me and my apprentice, yes?”
“I did and I do. Is there someplace more private where we can talk openly?”
Welan put a finger to his lips, frowned in thought for a moment or two, and finally waved everyone to follow as he headed back the way he and Kavin had come. He brought them to a chamber not unlike the one in which Kavin and Fleck had been working. Once inside, he closed and latched the door. “So! What need have you of me and my apprentice, friend?”
Suppressing a smile, Neri said, “I’ve been told that this young man has traveled here from one of the northern countries. Now as you know, Welan, I have a particular, ah, interest in a certain species of creature…dragons, to be exact. I’ve always believed the rift between them and mankind was the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding, and have made it my life’s work to find a dragon – just one – who would be willing to discuss this with me.” He began pacing, purposely not looking directly at Kavin. “From reports that have been circulating, I understand our town’s dragon might well have a lair somewhere in the mountains. That’s directly across from the borderlands of Marclor.”
“Do you have a point, Opsola?”
“Yes, Welan. My point is that this young man may well have seen this lair, or perhaps the dragon himself.” Now he did look at Kavin, coming to a sudden stop and facing him. “Did you?”
“A dragon, you say? No.”
“Or perhaps…those they call dragonkin? These would be the human hybrid offspring of a dragon.”
“Really!” Kavin nodded. “How interesting! But, no, I…can’t say that I did.”
How clever, thought Neri. His choice of words imply the opposite of the truth, yet he didn’t lie. “I see. Well, this is quite a disappointment.” He stared off, looking thoughtful, a moment later reaching under his cloak. “You know, it’s possible that you did see something but didn’t associate it with what I described. However, if you give it a little more consideration and decide you have more information for me, I’ll be more than happy to thank you – with this.” He held out a leather draw-string bag, its bulges and soft clinking speaking loudly of its contents. “You could afford to buy yourself a house with this, young man.”
Kavin gave the object an almost scornful look. “I’m sure I could. But like I said, I couldn’t possibly say that I saw anything like what you seek, so to take your money would be an act of great dishonesty. But I thank you for offering it.” He smiled. “And now, if I may, I’d like to return to my work. Apparently, I only have until the daylight fades to finish a rather large inventory list.”
“Certainly.” Neri executed a small bow. “Thank you for your time.”
“Sorry I couldn’t help you.” Kavin returned the bow, nodded once at Welan, and went out.
A minute later, Welan went to the door and peered out, making sure Kavin was really gone, then shut the door again and faced his son-in-law. “What on earth was that all about, Neri?”
The dragon grinned. “Looks like I’ve found not only an honest man, but a trustworthy one as well. J’nah was right to put his faith in him.” Then he explained Kavin’s visit to the cave, and how he’d promised to tell no one about the draconic family he’d met there.
“No wonder I liked him so quickly.” Welan grinned. “Well this is good, then. We – more specifically you – need all the human friends you and your family can get. I’ve told you this before, Neri. The world is changing, becoming more polarized. Tolerance is growing on the one side, while intolerance increases on the other. Now is the time to form strong alliances, to gather to one’s self those who will give aid when necessary, support when called upon to do so. Because for all of your size and strength, you still cannot be everywhere at once; your little family isn’t you, my friend.”
Neri nodded, unhappy but unable to contradict his father-in-law. “I know. J’nah is starting the shifting process, but I don’t know how powerful he’ll be. And Vorel…actually, she may not be living here much longer.”
“Sorry. I was going to come see you and bring someone who may well become a member of our family in the near future. His name is I’gra-Nar, he’s a full-blooded silver dragon, and he appears as taken with Vorel as I was with Zela.”
“And does she feel the same?”
“It would seem so. She can’t take her eyes off him.” He shook his head, smiling. “Her innate dragon-sense has caused quite a, er, reaction, one I never thought to see.”
Welan frowned. “How do you mean?”
“She immediately displayed submission, and even though the male dragon in such unions is only considered the female’s consort, she clearly views him as her master.”
“Is that good?”
“If both are happy with the arrangement, it’s the best possible outcome.” He patted the scribe on the shoulder. “I’d best be off now. We’ll come to see you…wait. You have that apprentice now - ”
“Actually, I have two. I can, however, arrange for the other one to be elsewhere when you visit. Kavin, on the other hand, would probably be delighted to see your children again, if what you’ve discovered about him is accurate.”
“Hmm.” Neri thought about this for a moment. “You’re probably right. Very well.” He brightened. “I can explain everything – where I’gra-Nah is from, how we met him, all that – when we visit. Would two nights from now be convenient?”
“It would.” Welan smiled warmly, nodded his farewell, and went out.
A minute later, Neri made his way back outside of the castle, hitched a ride on a passing cart which he abandoned a few miles from the cave. When the farmer was out of view, he shifted into his dragon form and flew home. There were plans to make, and he needed to start preparing his family for the days ahead.
Vorel felt like she was melting. What was it about this dragon that was making her so uncomfortable in her own skin, and yet ecstatic about it at the same time?
“Are you ready?” asked I’gra-Nar. He had one arm around her waist, his beautiful, sculpted lips brushing her right ear.
She nodded. Somehow, it had never occurred to her that so many amazing things could transpire at once. First, there was meeting this dragon and dealing with the inexplicable things his presence was doing to her insides, to her mind and heart. Then there was the happy news that her father had found Kavin and judged him worthy of their friendship. And now this – I’gra-Nar had insisted she was long overdue for the experience, and had seemed beside himself with pleasure about being the one to teach her how it was done.
“All right, sweet Vorel, close your eyes.”
“Now inhale…slowly…keeping your arms at your sides at first.”
He released her by slow degrees, watching her, and took several steps back before saying, “Now raise your arms as if they were wings.”
She did. That was when something incredible occurred. She felt her entire being expand, her blood rushing in an outward spiral around and through her veins, and then a kind of intensely pleasurable explosion in her shoulder-blades. In a wave of happy shock, her eyes flew open and she found herself looking…down. The floor of the cave was suddenly much further away than it should have been.
Turning her head to find I’gra-Nar, she heard the soft rustling she only associated with her father when he was in his natural shape, and realized that the sound was coming from her own movement. She looked down again, this time bending her neck to see her own front, and instead of a pretty blue gown, she saw scales. Gleaming, perfectly-pointed, silver scales. She raised her head and found the magnificent true-form version of I’gra-Nar standing in majesty before her, his wide mouth in a dragon-smile.
“Yesss! Oh, Vorel, yesss!!”
She swallowed hard. “I – I…shshsiffftttedd?!”
At this juncture, speech was going to be rough, she discovered, and for a while could only speak the gutturals and rasps of the draconic tongue with which she’d been raised with harsh gratings. But after a while she adapted, and began to sound like other dragons when in conversation with one another. She flapped her wings a little, afraid to move them too much for fear of finding herself aloft, and took a step closer to I’gra-Nar. “This is right, then?”
“It is, my wonderful Vorel. I never thought I would meet anyone like you, but now that I have, I am in awe. I – I also believe I am…in love.” He ducked his head.
She smiled at his back-curved horns, finding them adorable, not that she’d ever call them that to his face. “Would I be expecting too much, then, to consider the possibility of taking you as my consort?”
His head snapped up. “Would you? Oh, Vorel, I’ve never known another like you – even the full-bloods are not as desirable as you! I’ve met many, and enjoyed many a dalliance, but never with any that display the integrity, good-will, and virtuous nature you have in such vast abundance without even realizing it…I’m babbling.” He chuckled. “Forgive me. You asked a simple question and I carried on at length – my simple answer is yes. I would, in fact, languish without you.”
She came closer still and nuzzled against his throat, her sensitive nostrils inhaling his rain-scent with unabashed delight. “I do believe I am in love also, dear I’gra-Nar.”
As his joyful sigh echoed throughout the cave, Neri and Zela watched the young couple with satisfaction from the other side.
“Looks like we did well, husband.”
He put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her close. “Looks like we did. I am content.”
Zela nodded, but a moment later her expression changed. “But now,” she said, frowning, “I really think you need to go take care of your son, who I have a feeling is outside practicing his own shifting. And if what he showed us before is any indication, there’s a good chance he’ll explode unless you guide him.”
He gave her a suspicious look – was that a gleam of amusement he was detecting in her eyes? “I, er, suppose helping him would indeed be wise.” He looked at his daughter again, who had tucked her head completely under I’gra-Nar’s and was rubbing it gently against his throat. “In the meantime, wife, we’d better see about getting those two their own cave – and quickly!” He contained a laugh, kissed his wife on the head, and went out to the meadow.
If J’nah wasn’t actually going to blow himself up, he was certainly doing an alarming imitation of it. When Neri found the boy, he was at the purple-faced stage, his body swelling in a most bizarre way, but before his father reached him, the shift became complete. Giving himself a full-body shake, he expelled a blast of icy air and rested back on his haunches.
“Very good,” said Neri, relieved. “But I think we should work on the first part a little, don’t you think?”
J’nah nodded, tucking his wings in more tightly. “I’m trying too hard, aren’t I.”
“You are, and if you keep it up, you might rupture something.”
“So how do I shift – blessed showers of snow! Is that Vorel?” He’d turned at the familiar thunder of dragon-tread behind him and stared in shock at the two huge silvers emerging from the mouth of the cave.
“But – but how did she – I mean, she’s never even tried to shift before, as far as I know!”
“Her consort helped her,” said Neri, noticing how beautiful the two of them looked together in the sunlight. “Besides, she’s a bit older than you.”
“So her abilities have been developing even though she’s mainly ignored them until now. That made it very easy for her to shift. She was ready.”
“Huh. Bet she didn’t feel like her head was about to fly off without the rest of her.”
Neri burst out laughing, eliciting a glare from his son. “Is that how you felt?”
“Oh, you can laugh, Father! After all, you don’t have to do anything more than…wait. What, exactly, do you do when you shift? What thoughts do you have? Because honestly, all you ever told me was to picture this, stand a certain way, breathe like that, but never said how you do it.”
“That’s because I don’t have to do much at all. Dragons have a lot of magic in them, a magic that increases with age.” He came to sit beside J’nah, and both continued watching the happy new couple.
“Does that mean you don’t have to think about it?”
“Not much. I simply imagine what shape I wish to take, and I change.”
“Nice. Will I ever be able to do that?”
They sighed in tandem, but then further conversation was swallowed by an involuntary rush of wonder as Vorel stepped away from I’gra-Nar, opened her silver-blue wings that displayed an unusual, lovely opalescence, and with a graceful downward sweep, winged herself into the sky. A moment later, her consort followed, and they sped off across the mountains.
J’nah was speechless, Neri filled with pride, and at the cave’s opening, the relatively tiny figure of Zela looked upward, one hand shading her eyes. Without realizing it, they were wondering at the same time if they’d see those two again any time soon.
Scritchity. Scritch. Scritchscratchscritchscritch…
The scribe forced a friendly smile. “I have a very important job for you!”
Fleck glanced down at the unfinished page, then back at his mentor, this behavior wordlessly demanding, “More important that this?”
“I need some scrolls delivered that are of great importance to His Lordship, and I dare not entrust them to just anybody.” There, thought Welan, that sounds plausible. At this point, and in addition to his need to speak privately with Kavin, he’d say almost anything to get the young apprentice to stop dragging his quill across the parchment. Kavin had been right –
“Of course, Master Welan.” Fleck put his pen down, blew gently on the page to make sure the ink wasn’t going to run, and stood up. He shot a smug look at Kavin, who hadn’t bothered to look up at all and was biting the middle knuckle of his free hand for some reason.
Welan had gone to the other side of the room where he was gathering scrolls from a low shelf. He opened them, laying one upon the other, and then re-rolled the lot, secured it with a deep red ribbon, and sealed it with his ring pressed into the wax he dripped on them at the knot. “Hand me that case, will you?” he said over his shoulder, extending a hand without turning around.
Fleck grabbed the black and silver scroll case on Welan’s desk, and quickly handed it over.
The scribe slid the scrolls inside, capped it, draped another ribbon over the top, sealed it on two sides, and passed it with a flourish to the acne-faced boy. “Stop nowhere along the way, Fleck. This must be put into the hands of Lord Gravnel’s Chief Steward without delay. No one else, you hear me? Not one of the pages, only Steward Bagnor. And I want my case back. I’m trusting you, boy. Don’t let me down.” He looked very grave.
“Yes, Master Welan!” The boy bowed deeply, cast another look – a snide one this time – at his fellow apprentice (who was looking back now), and went out. Welan’s cottage wasn’t that far from the center of the town, but he hurried nonetheless, his entire being overflowing with self-importance.
Welan watched Fleck bustle down the path, Kavin having joined him at the window. As soon as the boy disappeared around the hedge at the end of the property, the two looked at each other in silence for a split second, then burst out laughing.
“My God!” Welan exclaimed, leaning back weakly against the sill and wiping his eyes. “I honestly didn’t think I could keep a straight face!”
Kavin continued to guffaw for a few more moments, then drew in a long, shaky breath. “I had to bite my finger so hard it almost bled!” He grinned and went back to his desk. “By the way, what were those scrolls you gave him?”
“What? Oh, that.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Bagnor has been pestering me for some writings about inventory organization I told him I had. Friend of mine got them from his father’s steward. They’re actually pretty helpful. Hardly state secrets, though.”
Chuckling, Kavin shook his head. “Did you see the look on his face when you told him you couldn’t entrust them to, er, ‘just anybody,’ I think you said? Ha! I thought he was going to burst out of his shirt!”
“Indeed. I have to say, though, that another minute of his infernal scratching and I’d have thrown my inkwell at his head!”
“You did. Of course, you’re normally working in the castle in another room, so I had no idea how bad it was.”
“Hmm.” Kavin stretched. “I told him to try writing more smoothly, and at first he seemed to be doing it well, but then…” He shrugged. “Guess he forgot or something, or couldn’t change his habits that soon.” He picked up his quill and bent over the page, preparing to continue his work.
“Hold on, my boy. There’s another reason I tossed the young boil out like that.”
Kavin frowned. “Is everything all right, sir?”
“Fine. It involves the man who visited us yesterday at the castle.”
“Seemed nice enough – weird name, though.”
“Yes. It means ‘father’.”
“In what tongue?”
Welan hesitated only for a second. “Draconic.”
“Dra…wait, what? But that’s – I mean, only, uh, never mind.” He looked away. “What about him?”
“He’s my son-in-law.”
Kavin turned back, the utter confusion on his face nearly as comical as Fleck’s pomposity. “Then why did you speak to him as if he was merely an acquaintance?”
“He was actually there to see you. Wanted to know if you were really as good a friend as his son said you were.”
Kavin gaped. He gulped. He did a little extra thinking and put a few things together. “He’s a – a – a – ”
“Silver dragons can shape-shift at will. His wife – my daughter – is human, of course, and their two children, J’nah and Vorel, seem to think you’re a wonderful person. Said you spent the night in their cave before coming into town. Apparently my grandchildren were quite impressed with you, Kavin.”
Kavin had gone pale. Before continuing, Welan gently guided him to a chair and told him to please sit. “And before you ask,” said the scribe, going to the other side of the room to scoop a tankard of water from the half-full rain barrel he’d brought in earlier, “I had no idea you’d met them when I took you on. Neri told me at the castle, after you’d gone back to work.” He handed the young man the tankard and told him to drink.
“Yes. That’s Opsola’s real name. Now if you’re wondering how he knew you’d been there, it wasn’t because the kids told him; dragons have extraordinarily acute senses, and we humans smell very…distinct, he tells me. So he knew that way, and of course when he asked them about it, they didn’t lie. Are you feeling any better?”
Kavin nodded and handed back the tankard. “Thank you. Yes. So why did he – you say his actual name is Neri?”
“That’s part of it. The rest is long and difficult to pronounce.”
“Ah. So why did he want to meet me?”
“To make sure you could be trusted, naturally. He was pleased with your responses, and will not kill you.” Welan was only partly serious about that.
“They’ll be here tonight, in fact, so I have to come up with yet another project for your noisy fellow-apprentice. Any ideas?”
In the end, they agreed that a sleeping-draught would be the perfect solution. Once Fleck was snoring at his desk, they carried him to the shed behind Welan’s cottage and tucked him in among the gardening implements and sacks of grain. After the scribe’s family was gone, they would bring him back to his room to sleep off whatever effects of the draught remained.
Shortly after the moon was at its height, Kavin followed Welan outside to the large field beyond his property to witness the arrival of his daughter, son-in-law, and their family. The young man, only a little nervous about this because of Welan’s assertion that Neri would, in fact, kill any human that threatened his wife and children, stared up at the sky, hands clasped tightly behind his back. Thus far, he’d only seen J’nah and Vorel, whose odd yet strangely beautiful appearance had entranced him. He’d never seen a dragon, however, and wasn’t sure what to expect. But then something massive covered the moon for a few seconds, and with an almost violent swoosh of air, that something clarified into the winged, scaled forms of two gigantic creatures that landed with only a minor seismic thud on the turf.
Welan gasped. He started forward, calling out, “J’nah? Is that you, boy?”
The dragon that was somewhat smaller (but impressive, nonetheless) bent its head in acknowledgement, displaying a wide array of teeth as it dragon-grinned. Then, tucking in blue-tipped wings, it inhaled deeply and with no discernible transition, became the young man Kavin had met in the cave several days earlier.
“You’ve done it!” exclaimed the scribe, enveloping J’nah in a tight embrace.
“I have, indeed, Grandfather.” The boy’s words were somewhat muffled by the older man’s shoulder, but the delight in his voice was unmistakable.
With another intake of breath, the larger dragon became a tall, attractive man that Kavin didn’t recognize. He certainly looked nothing like the “Opsola” he’d met the day before. This man had long, pure white hair pulled back in a pony-tail secured with a silver clasp. His features, handsome in the extreme, looked as if they’d been chiseled from ice by a master-sculptor. Eyes the color of light blue sapphires glistened at the group as he smiled, mainly at Kavin. And then a woman stepped from behind him and grasped the man’s hand in one of hers, giving Kavin a curious look as she did so. She was human, looked to be in her late twenties, and was pretty. Kavin frowned. “Where is Vorel?” He’d only muttered it, not really asking anyone in particular, so was surprised when the white-haired man replied.
“She is with her consort, friend Kavin. You and I met yesterday, but I was in a slightly different form. This is my wife, Zela. She is Welan’s daughter, as I’m sure he told you. And my son, J’nah, you’ve also met.”
“I – this is…what an honor it is to meet you and the rest of your family, sir!” Suddenly elated, Kavin bowed at the waist, his grin huge enough to look painful.
“A rare thing it is to meet another human who has no hostility toward dragonkind or their kin,” said Zela. She smiled now, too. “At first we were concerned about your presence in our home, despite J’nah’s assurances that you were a friend. Vorel, too, tried to convince us that you would be loyal, but then my husband failed to tempt you into betraying us and, well, all is as it should be, I think.”
“Right now,” Welan interjected, “I think we should get inside. My other apprentice is currently fast asleep, but that could change – his constitution might be stronger than anticipated, and I’d hate to curtail your visit.”
As they went back toward the cottage, J’nah caught up with Kavin and whispered, “What did he mean by that ‘constitution’ remark?”
“We gave him a sleeping-draught.” Kavin shrugged, grinning.
Once inside, Kavin was treated to a better view of the family in the brighter, more personal light of Welan’s many candles. With their urging, he told them his story – how he came to leave Marclor in search of his future, his life-long curiosity about dragons, his pursuit of literacy that enabled him to become the scribe’s apprentice. In turn, they told him the story of Neri and Zela, and how it was Lord Gravnel who all unwittingly had made their life together possible.
“Wait – does he still sacrifice virgins? I mean, I somehow can’t see you as a maid-munching monster, sir,” Kavin told Neri, “but I feel I have to ask. Besides, there could be other dragons who would enjoy that kind of sacrifice.”
“He does,” said Welan, surprising the young man. “However, no dragon devours them.”
“That’s a relief!”
“It shouldn’t be,” the scribe added, his tone dark. “Gravnel has his executioner retrieve the poor victims the next day – still alive but terrified – and brings them to the castle where he…er, they become servants of a sort, I suppose you could say.”
Neri sat straighter. “You never told me this, Welan. Are you saying he, that they, that…” He cast a worried glance at his wife, as if unsure about finishing his thought aloud.
“Yes. He does and they do. It’s awful. Eventually they get locked away forever, or they disappear. Either way, no one ever sees them again so everyone still believes you’re killing them.”
“Neri, no.” Zela had laid a hand on his arm, her tone firm with warning and command.
“Well I can’t simply allow that disgusting creature to keep hurting young girls in my name, Zela!”
“And what will you do, beloved? Slay him? The King will only send another in his place to rule his lands, and perhaps his replacement will be worse.”
“Or he might be inclined to try and slay you instead of continuing the practice of sacrificing virgins, and that would be…horrible!” This from Kavin, who had leaped to his feet, face flushed.
The dragon family regarded him with raised eyebrows.
“Other than Welan,” Neri said, “we’ve never met another human who felt that passionately about protecting dragons.”
“What would you suggest then, Kavin?” Zela gave him a hopeful look.
“I – I don’t know, but, I – oh, for heaven’s sake! There has to be some way to resolve this!” He began pacing. “Maybe if the families of the girls he’s ruined were told of his evil practices they’d rise against him and force him to stop.”
“Force him. How?” Neri shook his head. “These are merchants, farmers, servants – they have no army with which to stand against Gravnel’s soldiers and would be slaughtered.”
“And if we attacked him as dragons,” J’nah added, “we’d be exposing ourselves to persecution, something Father tells me has been avoided for many, many years, but that could easily be sparked by any open aggression on our part.”
“A rekindling of the Dragon Hunt would force us out of our home. No, friend Kavin, we have to find another way, but find one we will. I promise you this. Remember, we can shape-shift into anything we wish, and with the help of others of our kind, we may well discover a means by which to stop this terrible man.”
Kavin sat again with a sigh. “All right. But if I think of anything that would fit such limitations, may I tell you?”
“Of course! Now that we have formally met, you may feel free to visit us whenever you wish, or have Welan inform us of your thoughts.” Neri’s smile returned and he sat back.
After this, they enjoyed more pleasant concourse, sharing mead, bread, cheese and fruit as they talked about Vorel’s new love and her ability to shift, as well as J’nah’s developing shape-changing skills. They laughed about Fleck and his infuriating writing habits, grew serious about the many ways in which the world seemed to be changing, and talked at length about magic.
At the end of the night, Kavin told them that he’d learned more in those few hours than he had in his entire lifetime. He accompanied the family back to the field shortly before sunrise, waving a farewell as they winged into the sky, rapidly dwindling in his sight to the size of sparrows, then specks, then nothing. On their way into the cottage once more, he and Welan retrieved the still-slumbering Fleck who they installed in his bed next to Kavin’s. Exhausted but happy, the newly-titled Dragonfriend (a designation conferred by Neri, which he translated from the harsher draconic words “Darastrix-thurirl”), slid under his blanket.
He was asleep even before he could finish saying, “Good night, Master Welan.”
More tired himself than he wanted to admit, Welan smiled and retired to his own chamber, deciding that if Fleck had the bad grace to wake him before he’d gotten enough rest, he’d stab the boy in the groin with his own quill. He fell asleep grinning.
Five months had passed since Vorel and I’gra-Nar had chased each other across the sky. Spring had begun making its appearance by this time, and Zela gratefully removed the huge tapestry from over the cave’s opening. J’nah helped her by himself this time, but had no difficulty handling the cloth. Unlike his efforts the years prior, when he’d needed his sister and father to get the task done, he was now fully able to shift. So in dragon form, he pulled gently at the pegs securing it to the top of the opening, using his impressive teeth, strong jaws, and powerful neck muscles to release it. Once on the ground, he returned to his dragonkin shape and helped his mother fold it.
“Looks like we can leave it in the sun for a while,” said Zela, glancing at the cloudless expanse above. “I believe we got the…oh! Oh, J’nah, look!” She pointed upward.
He stared past her finger and saw two specks that looked like they were coming out of the sun. As they grew, he recognized them as dragons, but even his draconic senses were no match for maternal instinct, and he found himself wondering what his mother was so ecstatic about. A few minutes later, he had his answer.
“It’s Vorel and I’gra-Nar!” he shouted unnecessarily.
Beside him, his mother laughed and then ran out to greet the two as they landed with a graceful thump in the field. Her child was home, and nothing mattered beyond that, not the tapestry, not the odd bulge around the smaller dragon’s middle…she stopped short.
As soon as she did, both dragons transformed, and Zela’s suspicions were instantly confirmed. She continued forward and gathered Vorel in a happy, if careful, embrace. “Oh, my daughter, my love, how I’ve missed you!”
She kissed the woman’s cheek, pulled back, and grasped her mother’s hands with joy. “I missed you, too, Mother.”
“When you weren’t busy with other things,” said J’nah who had trotted up to them. He was giving Vorel’s midsection a significant stare.
“Silly boy!” She grinned, one hand caressing the bulge, and turned her head to glance with adoration at her consort.
“Oh, I’gra-Nar, how good to see you, too!” Zela released her daughter and gave the young man a hug. “You seem to have made my daughter very happy!” She wasn’t referring so much to the girl’s impending motherhood as to the glow of sheer delight in her silver eyes.
“And she has made me the happiest dragon alive.” He put an arm around the girl, kissed the top of her head, and added, “Except, perhaps, Neri.”
“Come inside and make yourselves comfortable – I want to hear everything, but we really should wait until Neri gets home from hunting.” Zela practically skipped as she led them back to the cave. She’d never said anything about it, but she had been worrying almost non-stop since Vorel had left. So many things could have happened, especially since her daughter wasn’t a full-blooded dragon. She was far more vulnerable than her consort, but then – perhaps she should have trusted I’gra-Nar’s love for Vorel more, and known he would keep her safe. But they were back! What could possibly be better? And soon – grandchildren!
This last situation became the main topic of conversation after Neri returned and the night’s meal was ended. Neither Zela nor her husband had any knowledge of the way offspring were born when one parent was a dragon and the other dragonkin. Her own children had been born in the normal human way, of course, but with Vorel’s mixed blood, her progeny would be more dragon than human. When Zela asked about this, I’gra-Nar answered for them both.
“We spoke with a female who had some mixed blood in her family. Usually, dragonkin marry within their own kind, and they experience human childbirth. Only once before has a union such as ours been successful in reproducing, and - ” He bit his lip, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Zela, but it – it didn’t end well for the mother. The child survived, though.”
“What?” The woman’s eyes widened in fear. “Vorel, no!”
“It’s all right, mother. They now believe they understand what went wrong, and we won’t…I won’t make the same mistake.”
“What mistake was that?” asked Neri, his scowl a contradiction to his calm tone of voice.
“She tried to have the child in human form,” the girl continued. “Sadly, she couldn’t handle delivering three…oh, dear. Anyway, I’ll shift to dragon-form when my time comes, and that should eliminate any problems. As you know, Father, there is no pain or even danger for a female dragon when she lays her eggs.”
“You won’t have a regular infant-child?” Zela, feeling marginally better, was confused now.
“Yes, but not in the regular manner. And…it looks like I’ll be having more than one. After all, the average clutch for a dragon is five or six.”
“But you aren’t a dragon, Vorel.”
“Yes, mother, but my consort is, and I am in part. After being examined by a well-trained dragon-physician, it was determined that I’m having anywhere from two to four.”
“Very soon, J’nah. That’s why we came back. I want to be home when I have my children.”
And she had four. A few weeks before delivering them, she shifted and remained in that state. Apparently, no one, including all the wisest dragons among them, knew what would happen; what happened, then, was nothing short of amazing.
As a dragon, Vorel laid four pearly-white eggs in the huge nest I’gra-Nar had constructed for her. Two months later, after keeping them warm with her body the entire time, the sound of frantic tapping was heard from within the shells. Instinctively, the girl knew that what was struggling to get out would never succeed without help. With one claw she carefully tapped against each one until cracks appeared. She continued tapping until they broke open. Immediately, four tiny, piercing cries rang out.
I’gra-Nar, Neri, Zela and J’nah peered into the nest and wonder of wonders! There, wailing and kicking inside their shells, were four human-looking newborns.
Vorel immediately shifted and picked them up one at a time, holding each aloft as her mother dried the squirming infant. Then, wrapping each in a clean sheet of satin, she placed them two on each side, next to Vorel who had laid down, tears in her lovely eyes. “Oh, how beautiful you all are!” she whispered, hugging them to her.
Two girls and two boys had been born, all of them healthy. Vorel herself, though exhausted from long months of care and the emotional waves of joy that had engulfed her upon seeing them, couldn’t rest. She happily offered them her milk, two at a time, until the squalling stopped and the babies drifted into the profound sleep of innocence.
I’gra-Nar tucked himself in beside his new family, one arm around his love’s shoulders so she could rest her head on his chest. At that moment, there was not a happier family anywhere in the world.
Kavin loved being godfather to the four beautiful hybrid children. All of them had grown more quickly than regular human infants, but otherwise it appeared – at first – like they were going to look human only. But on their fifth birthdays, everything changed in a way that would affect more than the children themselves. The morning the quartet awoke to the beginning of their fifth year of life, they climbed out of bed, yawned, stretched, and flapped their magnificent wings.
Wings that hadn’t been there before and that no one had even suspected would one day sprout from their shoulder blades.
Kavin had arrived at the cave the night before, bearing gifts wrapped and tucked into the saddlebags of his chestnut mare. Over time, he had risen in the ranks among his fellow scribes. This was partly because Welan had retired three years after Kavin arrived. The old scribe felt confident that the younger man could take over the work he’d done for Gravnel with no problem. He’d been right to a degree, but suspected there was something else behind Kavin’s unhesitating acceptance of the job. Something that had little to do with his confidence in the work, or his enjoyment of it.
Fleck, altogether too serious about himself, his work, and everything else in life, had decided he didn’t like Lord Gravnel’s cruelty, and left to find a place in one of the monasteries. This, too, had helped pave the way for Kavin, since his fellow-apprentice had become diligent and capable, perhaps more so than Kavin in some ways.
Winter was newly behind them when Kavin came up through the hills to celebrate his godchildren’s birthdays that year, but the ground was still hard enough to make his horse’s hooves ring. He’d always liked that sound, but after the events of the following day, it would forever remind him of the moment he realized life could no longer continue as it had. Not for that family, and as their dearest friend and ally, not for him.
The appearance of wings had been shocking, but not the only change the children would experience that day. Once the novelty wore off and everyone had calmed down, Neri had suggested that the children try making the wings disappear. They four had shrugged, closed their eyes, and an instant later, were wingless.
An hour later, one of the boys got a strange look on his face, and said, “Grandfather, my eyes feel…funny.”
Instantly alarmed, Neri had nevertheless managed to sound nonchalant. “In what way?”
The boy blinked a few times, looking down, and then exclaimed, “Oh! How strange!” When he looked up again, his formerly-human eyes had changed to the vertical-slitted, bluish silver eyes of a full-blooded silver dragon. “Why does everything look so…sharp?”
Zela, who had been observing all of this in silence, placed a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Well, it seems you have the ability to make your eyes look like your father’s and grandfather’s. Go look into the pool.”
The child’s siblings, after studying his face for a moment, began blinking furiously, and suddenly they had rushed to the pool and stared at its reflective surface. Then they’d made the wings reappear and began to laugh and clap their hands with delight.
During the next few days, the four experimented with flight. Sometimes the results were amusing, like when poor Vorel was trying to cook lunch and had to keep swatting her dive-bombing offspring out of the way. At other times, their efforts caused a great deal of concern since they didn’t always get it right when they tried to land.
While all of this was going on, Kavin had acknowledged that this new breed of hybrid could bring danger if they were ever discovered. He also realized that the family was growing at a rate that would eventually make hiding them impossible. J’nah had become consort to a hybrid several months earlier; her mother, full-blooded silver, had brought her from Aussir-Gix Verthicha at the urging of her human husband. The girl, had fallen immediately for the tall, handsome youth, and was pregnant with their first child. This one, they’d been informed, would be born in the normal human way. As for Vorel and I’gra-Na, they were already planning on having more themselves.
Kavin suspected J’nah and his mate would end up having a lot more than one, assuming the girl stayed healthy. He’d been correct. In the end, J’nah fathered eight children, Vorel had three more clutches of four each (an unusual number of offspring, he was told, for pure-bloods but perhaps not so strange for a hybrid). With thirty draconic beings, then, even a cave the size of Neri’s eventually became too small.
The other problem, and perhaps the most important, was that with so many of them, it had become impossible to keep their existence a secret. Lord Gravnel had died long before Vorel’s first set of quadruplets were old enough to seek mates, but his son despised all things draconic with as deep a passion as his father. In other ways more reasonable than his father, however, the younger nobleman stopped the offerings of virgins a the Dragonstake. Aware that the girls were not being taken by their local dragon, but rather by his own father, he felt it was foolish to continue an unnecessary practice despised by the people. But then a different situation arose.
Travelers whose routes had taken them through the mountainous areas had seen Neri’s family in varying numbers. Astonished by the appearance of humans with functional dragon wings, dragons the size of large house-cats cavorting with human-looking children, and even several full-sized, gigantic silver dragons sitting peacefully in a meadow seemingly in conversation with humans, the travelers reported these things in the town. They were soon called upon to repeat their news at the palace, and before long, troops were dispatched to investigate.
Kavin, fortunately, knew what was going on and had plenty of time to warn his friends. Welan, suffering from a bad ague, passed away a few days before the search order was given, so on the pretext of attending his former mentor’s funeral, Kavin and the handful of others who had joined a growing circle of dragon-friends in the town, went up the mountain with Welan’s body to see him buried there. It was well-known that the old scribe loved the mountains, although only those closest to him knew the whole reason. It had been deemed reasonable, then, that he had asked to be buried there, so no one questioned the funeral procession into the foothills.
This, of course, gave Kavin the opportunity to let Neri and his family know they had to either hide or leave. At first, they used Zela’s tapestry curtain, onto which they had sewn a vast number of vines and branches, to cover the cave’s mouth, making it appear like nothing more than a natural, vine-covered mountain wall. They would hide inside until the danger was past. Dragon Hunters had been hired at some point during the ensuing months, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before one of them figured out the camouflage.
In the end, the only choice Neri’s family had was to move away. To keep their now vast number from causing immediate detection, they had separated. The ones with more draconic blood than human had gone into the ever-frozen northern mountains, Neri’s original home. Others had found a place north but not quite as far. Still others, the ones more human than draconic, had headed south, while the rest had traveled both east and west.
The family was, indeed, scattered to the four winds. All four generations of them. Neri and Zela, having said their farewells to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the numbers of which had grown exponentially, remained near the cave. Zela was getting old, so Neri built her a warm, comfortable cottage near the tree J’nah had blown up all those years ago. They kept the cave-mouth covered but otherwise intact so he would still have the benefit of sleeping there in his dragon form from time to time.
Kavin himself was getting achy and creaky with years. He had retired as Castle Scribe earlier in the year and was now living in Welan’s cottage full-time. His mentor had left it to him, along with his most treasured scrolls and books. Kavin, for his part, had made sure his godchildren, and later, their offspring, had full access to Welan’s extensive library.
This night, his visitors were Zela and Neri. The dragon had brought his wife in their cart, afraid she had become too frail to ride safely on his back. When they’d arrived, the sun had begun to slide below the horizon, sending up its own tapestry of oranges, reds, purples and yellows to ease the fall of night’s dark blue. The couple had stood outside the door with Kavin to watch the lovely display, one that none of them had ever grown tired of watching.
At last, as the sky began to glitter with stars and planets, they headed inside to enjoy the light supper Kavin had prepared.
“Sorry I don’t have any cows to serve up.” He grinned at his silly old joke, setting the plates of lamb and vegetables before his guests.
“I should think not! What a mess that would make!” Zela giggled, sounding as young as she’d been when Kavin had first met her, despite the pure white hair and gentle lines of age. She had once remarked that the white hair was as close to looking like a dragon as she’d ever get.
After the meal, they sat in silence before the hearth, enjoying peaceful crackle of the flames, the warmth and their sated appetites.
And then Neri cleared his throat. “I hate to speak of things that are unpleasant, friend Kavin, but I must. Zela and I have discussed this and she agrees it must be said.” He sighed, his expression sad. “My beloved will not be with us forever, and you, too, will be gone all too soon.” He stopped, frowning back the gleam of new moisture in his eyes.
Zela, sitting beside him on the cushioned bench, grasped his hand, but said nothing.
He glanced sideways and smiled, gently squeezing her fingers. “When she is gone, I, too, shall leave. I’gra-Na and Vorel have assured me I may live with them once my grieving time is over. And since I’ve been given similar invitations by J’nah and his mate, not to mention almost every other member our vast family – ” He paused to allow fond chuckle. “Well, with all that, it looks like I’ll be kept busy paying calls on everyone, eh?” He tucked Zela’s hand into the crook of his arm and sat back, closing his eyes.
“I will be most sad when these things happen, Neri.” Kavin stood and faced the couple. “You have been my dearest and closest friends. Zela, if you outlive me, be sure to get the library packed up and sent somewhere safe. However, I am already working on that myself, and either way, want to be sure its contents will always be available to your family members. Neri, my God, I wish you would stay, at least until this old man takes his final breath. I don’t want to die alone.”
“Oh, Kavin, you have many friends here!”
“Yes, Neri. Good ones, too. None of them, though, mean more to me than you, Zela…your entire family. Since I never had time to seek another wife after Cresta died, and since we had no other children than the one who died with her during his birthing, and since I no longer have the energy it would take to return to Marclor to seek my brothers, you’re my only family now. So I would love dearly to have you here until the end. Still, I fully understand you wanting to leave this place once your beloved is gone.” He offered Zela an apologetic shrug, and then fell silent.
“You do realize what you’ve done, Kavin, yes?” Neri raised an eyebrow.
What was this? “Have I committed some trespass, my friend?”
“Trespass?” Neri gave him a look of surprise and then burst out laughing. “What a strange man you are sometimes! By the frost, no! What I meant was…Ah, Kavin! Because of you, humans have slowly begun to accept dragonkind over the years since you have been our friend. You’ve done an invaluable service to both man and dragon.”
Kavin nodded, not sure he’d done enough. How did one reach those like Gravnel’s son? Those who refused to let go of the old prejudices and hatred? Of course, this was a problem on the dragon side of the issue as well, only when they decided to attack, the weaker, smaller humans never even had a chance...
Accurately guessing the reason for Kavin’s pensive silence, Neri patted him on the shoulder. “I’ve done what I can among my race. As have those who, like me, have mingled successfully with humans.”
Kavin nodded, and they fell into a companionable silence. There was really nothing more to say right then. Change was coming faster now, a ball of snow picking up both bulk and momentum as it careened down an impossibly steep mountainside. At the bottom when it finally hit – who could tell? Casualties were inevitable, but something new and better could just as plausibly emerge.
Being the human godfather to four beautiful hybrids and a heart-friend to dragonkind and dragonkin had been quite the adventure, and Kavin had enjoyed every moment. He regarded the mixed couple on the bench adjacent to his and smiled. At least for now, for that tiny stretch of time in which they all sat, life was comprehensible – and good.
Tomorrow, he knew, would probably be another story.
The End of Part I (Iuh Ir – Sulta)
Text: Judith A. Colella
Publication Date: 08-29-2012
All Rights Reserved
NOTICE OF COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT The contents of this book is protected by United States Copyright laws and may not, in whole or in part, be reproduced by anyone other than the author. Further, no portion of this work, nor the book in its entirety, may be offered by any third party(ies) in any form, either electronic (such as a PDF document or an ebook) or physical (such as a paperback or included in a hard-copy publication) without the express, written permission by, or contractual agreement with, the author. Its availability on BookRix is an example of the latter availability and may be read, in situ, but not downloaded by any foreign entities nor copied by same.