Authors: Kristian Alva
Tags: #fantasy, #epic fantasy
Tallin sat dumbfounded. Was Starclaw offering Duskeye the dragon
’s equivalent of
The whole conversation was surreal.
’s breath quickened. "
Please, sister, I beg of you
—are there nesting females here?"
Starclaw spoke, her tone serious. "
Yes, there are survivors, hiding among these mountains. I have smelled them on the breeze. They hunt at night, when the moon is dark in the sky. They are still fearful, but they venture out more often from their hiding places, now that the dragon hunters have stopped raiding their nests and slaughtering their young."
Duskeye bowed his head, prostrating himself before the older female. "
… help me. Tell me where they are."
A look of insulted shock crossed her face. "
I cannot say! You know that I cannot say! What a grave sin it would be for me to disclose their secret caves, after all they have suffered! You cannot comprehend how much fear remains in their hearts."
She snorted and turned her face away from him. "
I think you are very disagreeable and foolish!"
Duskeye lowered his gaze, chastised. He knew that Starclaw was desperately trying to help him, without breaking any of their complex rules of civility.
Starclaw went on, speaking carefully. "
These females sought my counsel in deepest confidence, and I shall not betray their trust! It is your job to find a willing female. You must find her; you must tempt her. Only a worthy male shall discover and woo his mate. These are the rules
—you are old enough to know them."
’s breath grew husky.
Are the females receptive? Are they ready to mate?
"Bah! Why do you ask such ignorant questions?"
Starclaw snapped at him angrily with her jaws, barely nicking his neck.
"Forgive me, sister! I meant no insult."
Duskeye closed his eyes and bowed his head again. His breath remained labored and thick, but he remained on the ground before the older female, listening respectfully to everything she said. This time, he did not move or interrupt.
Starclaw growled, her voice hard. "
Ignorant young fool! What do you see when you look at me? You see nothing more than a crippled old wretch, covered with scars. I am so ugly and faded now, but I was beautiful once. I was the most beautiful emerald dragon in a thousand years, and I rejected hundreds of suitors more handsome than you!"
Starclaw howled, crying into the heavens. Her voice was filled with anguish. Duskeye froze, not even daring to breathe. She arched her back and roared, so loudly that the trees shook. A short distance away, Marron abandoned his chopping and ran to his mother
’s side. She embraced her frightened son and whispered words of comfort in his ear.
Tallin felt enormous tension, as if a wire was about to snap.
A deep silence settled over the forest, and Starclaw began to weep. Chua reached out his hand and touched her side gently. He whispered something and Starclaw nodded. When she spoke again, her voice was barely a whisper.
"Our nesting time is a private matter. Those female mysteries cannot be shared with males. Do not ask me again."
Her tone concealed a layer of desperation
—she knew that her kin were on the brink of extinction, and she recognized that terrible reality.
"Tamper your eagerness. Do not fly off half-crazed, like a first-year hatchling. No female desires a male who is too eager with his affections."
She sniffed and continued. "W
ait for your blood to cool. Then chew bloodroot; it grows wild along the riverbank. It shall give you strength and vigor. Rub numbweed on your wounded leg; it will mask your limp during the breeding dance
—females favor a male without injuries. You will not have any competition for your mating gift, or your dance."
"Entice her with your trumpet-call and earn the right to dance before her. If you try hard enough, perhaps she will accept you, despite that cloudy eye and all those scars of yours. You are old enough to be a grandsire, Duskeye, but your body is flawed. If there were but five other males to choose from, you wouldn’t have a chance! As it stands, you may be accepted, or you may not. Either way, you will need to work doubly hard to impress her. Do you understand me?"
said Duskeye, nodding quietly.
… find those females, Duskeye. And may the Sun Lion grant you luck, for the future of dragonkind may depend on you."
Tallin and Duskeye spent the night at the Elder Willow, sleeping under the stars. Tallin slept restlessly and awoke early the next morning to find Duskeye pacing back and forth. It was obvious that he hadn
’t slept much. Starclaw lay nearby, listening to the younger dragon’s anxious shuffling with amusement.
After packing his rucksack with food and supplies, Tallin bid everyone farewell. He accepted a crushing embrace from Marron, who almost lifted him off the ground, and then a motherly kiss on the cheek from Pinda. Tallin felt uncomfortable with all the attention, but he allowed them to fuss over him anyway.
Chua called Tallin over and recited a quick prayer, marking his forehead with scented oil from a little tin. “Accept this blessing, my friend. May Baghra light your way and Golka protect you.”
“Thank you, Chua. I’ll send a messenger bird when I reach Highport; it shouldn’t take more than a fortnight for me to arrive, even if I get stuck on a slow ship.”
“Use a falcon or a crow, if you can. Hawks from the north are rather unreliable. They’re too easily distracted by an easy meal, and if they find a carcass along the way, your message will be lost.”
Duskeye sat at the edge of the tree line, staring silently off into the distance as he waited for Tallin to ready his things. On the horizon, a rumbling cell of gray clouds gathered momentum.
’s rain coming,"
“We should try and beat the storm,” said Tallin. He felt uneasy about this journey, as if the weather was a sign of some dark foreboding.
They departed immediately, both of them aware that it would be their last flight together for the foreseeable future. As they flew into the sky, the clouds darkened behind them and the wind blew fiercely at their backs.
The Orvasse River drew into view a short while later, and Duskeye slowed. The normally blue water had turned murky, and the air was cold. Duskeye flew along the riverbank until they spotted a village with a small dock.
“Stop down there, Duskeye. This is where we part ways, but only for a little while.” The dragon swooped down and landed near the water, where the marshy reeds were tall. Tallin climbed down from the saddle. The dragon stepped past his rider, pulling up a stalk of bloodroot growing on the bank. He grimaced as he chewed the bitter plant.
"This tastes dreadful."
“Sometimes you’ve got to suffer unpleasant things in order to impress a woman. I don’t need to be a dragon to understand that.”
Duskeye snorted. He wasn’t in the mood for jokes. "
The storm is worsening. I can fly you farther north, so you can avoid it before it hits."
“I appreciate the offer, but that won’t be necessary. I can handle a little rain. There are boats for hire all along the river, and I’ll make my own way.”
They were silent for a moment, watching the clouds grow darker. A clap of thunder sounded in the distance, and a single drop of rain fell from the sky, dropping onto Duskeye’s nose. His expression was expectant. Tallin could see he was anxious. What can I say to him?
Starclaw had given Duskeye a measure of hope, but also much uncertainty. The old she-dragon was right—Duskeye lacked the beauty and vigor of a younger male. Even if Duskeye was successful in finding a female, would she view him as a prospective mate or would she only see his faults?
Would she look at Duskeye, and see only his scars?
Tallin felt worried and defeated. There were so few male dragons left. What options did they have? Nydeired and Orshek were barely out of adolescence. Although they were technically old enough to mate, neither had any experience with females. To an older she-dragon, the two of them would be nothing more than immature pests.
But there were two other males, Tallin reminded himself. Poth and Blacktooth—the two black dragons that lived beyond the mortal lands, in the land of the elves.
Poth was out of the question—he was old beyond reckoning, and well past the age of mating.
Blacktooth was another story. He was attractive and healthy. Blacktooth would have a better chance with any of the females, and Tallin and Duskeye both knew it. But Blacktooth was far away—living in the land of the faerie.
Tallin began to second-guess himself. Every year that passed without new hatchlings was another year that the dragon race came nearer to extinction. I owe it to the dragons to set my grudges aside, he thought. What if Duskeye finds a nesting female, only to be rejected? Do I dare risk it? The future of all dragonkin is at stake!
Tallin looked at Duskeye sadly. “As much as I dislike the idea, I must notify Fëanor that nesting she-dragons have been discovered. Blacktooth is a healthy male, and this information is too important to keep secret.”
Duskeye’s face fell, and he turned away in deep distress. He gazed sadly into the distance. "
Blacktooth is as arrogant and haughty as his rider."
“I know that. Please understand my position—this issue impacts all of us,” Tallin implored. “With no other males to choose from, these females could go unmated, and their unfertilized eggs will be lost.”
Please give me a chance,
said Duskeye quietly. "
I know that I
’m not as handsome as the others, but just let me prove my worth. If I fail, then you may contact Blacktooth, or any of the others if you wish."
’s heartfelt plea moved him deeply, and Tallin reached out to touch his wing. The dragon was trembling—with eagerness or fear, he knew not which.
Tallin wished that he had a touch of the Sight, so that he could perceive a glimpse of the future. “All right—you shall have your chance. If you don’t succeed, you must notify me immediately, so I can contact the males.”
"I give you my word,"
said Duskeye, giving his rider a lick of thanks. They said their goodbyes quickly, and Duskeye bounded back toward the forest, his mind already somewhere else.
The wind picked up even more, and lightning flashed in the sky. The rain began to fall in earnest. It was soon a steady downpour, and Tallin
’s clothes were soaked through. The storm worsened as Duskeye flew away, leaving Tallin on the muddy riverbank to find passage on his own.
He jogged toward the little village, ducking inside the general store while the rain poured outside. He was lucky enough to find a ship leaving for Morholt that evening, and he offered the captain a few coppers to ride along. The captain agreed; there was plenty of room in the ship’s hold for another person. Tallin and the captain walked together toward the dock, where a small crew waited with the ship. The boat was a clipper, used for running freight up and down the river. He was thankful that the journey would be swift.
Once the ship left shore, the storm turned into a squall, and the captain remained on deck with his crew to keep the boat on course. The boat pitched and swayed on the wide river. He tried to lie still, but his stomach churned.
he thought, holding his stomach. I
’m no good for this kind of travel. I would have done better on horseback.
Tallin remained awake, feeling the tug of his dragon stone at the very edge of his consciousness. He sensed a constant buzz from Duskeye’s nervous energy. Duskeye was already searching for the females. He closed his eyes and forced himself to relax, eventually falling asleep in the early hours of the morning.
The next day, the ship arrived in Morholt. The weather was still bad, and the water was dark and choppy. Since the captain made a stop, Tallin decided to visit the capital city. The whole world seemed gray when he stepped off the boat. Cold drizzle soaked through his wool cloak.
Morholt’s vast city wall rose up on the horizon. The road into the capital city buzzed with travelers, people of every class and occupation streaming back and forth from the countryside.
The city of Morholt was rather ugly, but the countryside surrounding it was quite nice. Picturesque fields of wildflowers grew outward in every direction, their petals buttery and white as far as the eye could see. Cattle grazed lazily outside the walls, and there were sheep, too, a bit farther off in the distance.
The harvest fair would be coming soon, and preparations were already being made for the multitudes who would come here to enjoy the event. The harvest fair was a grand festival, with days of celebration, music, dancing, and feasting. The fair also boasted the largest jousting tournament in the kingdom, complete with prizes. The winner took home a purse of gold coins, so there were always hundreds of competitors, and it was a great show.