Short Story: To the Hatchings, Part I

I’ve been using short story writing as a way to elaborate on my world building. The bonus to using short stories for world building is that they also can be shared and enjoyed afterward 🙂 Sometimes my short stories tend to grow into longer stories, and that is the case with this one. I decided to put it up in two parts. Here is Part I! I hope you enjoy it.

To the Hatchings, Part I

by Nikki Bollman

Muri dangled her feet off the edge of the footboard on the back of the rattling wagon. Dust billowed up from the dry dirt road and threatened to invade her eyes and throat. She kept one hand on the kerchief tied across her mouth and nose, the other hand firmly gripping the handrail alongside the door into the covered back of the wagon. A line of wagons stretched behind them along the road that wound through the tall grasses of the plains. Somewhere nearby was the river, but the gentle slopes of the plains covered in waving grass obscured her view of it just as well as the trees of a forest would have.

It had been lucky for Muri to get even this meager space on the traders’ wagon, for it was almost midsummer. Wagons with the trading caravans had been bombarded with young women, girls, and even some hopeful older women, all eager to arrive in the city of Areth in time for the hatchings.

A shadow glided over the road and Muri shielded her eyes to look up to the sky. The dragon who had cast the shadow drifted in lazy spirals above the wagon train. The sun was too bright behind it for Muri to easily make out its color, but she thought it was the deep red one she’d seen dive into the trees of the forest they’d left earlier. If she squinted, she thought she could make out the bottoms of its rider’s boots.

“You all right out there still, miss?” A mop of tangled brown hair poked out the flap of canvas behind her and the boy’s smile shone on his olive-hued face.

“As right as I can be,” Muri said and returned his grin. She wanted to thank him by name, but he was one of two sets of twins in his family, and all four of them were close enough in age that to Muri, an outsider, they may has well have all been identical.

“I’ve tried to get them to wear different colors, each one,” Mrs. Torbin had said when she introduced them, “but the cheeky things kept changing it up on me. It’s a good thing they know who they are, though who knows, I coulda mixed ‘em up as babes and we’d never know the difference.”

Anyway, Muri thought it was one of the younger set of twins, so it would be Ari or Aven. She had done her best to commit each of Mrs. Torbin’s family members’ names to memory, just like the names in her town that she set down in stitches for the record cloths. There were Ari and Aven, the youngest twins, then Marlen and Max, who were the next oldest from them. Cira was the oldest girl, only a few years younger than Muri if she guessed right, and right below her was Damina. The youngest was a girl, too, just old enough to crawl, but most of the time Mrs. Torbin wore her at her side or on her back wrapped in a long woven length of cloth. She was Imir. Then there was Mr. Tobin, his sister Vara, and her daughter Emy.

Muri had decided to travel to Areth for the hatchings after a team of riders came to Dore recruiting. Anyone can try the tests, they said. Any girl or woman, any age. But it was up to them to get there. So Muri had taken another job, after her stitching, tending horses at a local inn. The stablemistress paid well, and sometimes the travelers gave her a little extra besides. Still, after a year she hadn’t quite saved up enough, and had resigned herself to having to wait another year.

Then one day her mother had handed her a small wooden box and its key, dangling from a green loop of ribbon.

“What is it?” Muri asked, already fitting the key in the lock.

“Something for you,” her mother said, a smile playing at her lips.

Muri lifted the lid and found coins nestled in a cloth. She counted. Fifty-five sen, all told. Most were five-sen coins, the largest you would see somewhere like Dore. It was enough to double the money she’d saved that year, and then some.

She’d gaped at her mother. “But Ma, that’s a lot of money.”

“I’ve been saving it for you since you were born. I didn’t know what for, but I knew something would come along.”

Muri almost strangled her mother with her hug.

“Just promise me you’ll visit on your dragon sometimes,” she said.

“If I even get one. I may be back before autumn.”

“You’ll get one.”

Another head popped out of the back flap of the wagon and interrupted Muri’s reminiscence. Ari again. Or Aven.

“Ma says we’re to trade places and let you sit inside awhile.”

“Oh. It’s okay, really.”

The boy, Aven or Ari, shook his head firmly. “Nope. There’s no goin’ back on what Ma says.” He proceeded to scramble out the back of the wagon and perch himself on the foot ledge next to Muri.

“Now go in,” he said with a swat of his hand, “so Ari can come out.”

So he was Aven. When she clambered into the cramped wagon, she noted that Ari wore a green tunic, while Aven’s was blue. At least for today. Ari jumped up from the bench and Muri took his place.

“I thought you might want a rest,” Mrs. Torbin said. She barely looked up from her knitting, but smiled warmly. The baby, Imir, slept in a basket at her feet.

“Thank you,” said Muri. She let herself sink into the bench, which was padded with a soft cushion.

The wagon, though close quarters for eleven people, was much more comfortable on the inside than Muri had expected. Benches ran along each side from front to back, and at the front here was another open door which led to the driver’s platform. Mr. Torbin sat there now with Damina next to him, two long braids flying down her back.

Above the benches ran two long, wide shelves. Muri heard giggling and realized that the shelves must be used as beds. Sure enough, she looked up to see Max and Marlen peering down from the shelf above her. The one across from her was filled with boxes and bags. Emy and Vara sat next to Mrs. Torbin, also knitting. Suddenly Muri felt idle. She clutched her bag in her lap, the smaller one that she hadn’t let them stow atop the wagon. She stared at her lap.

“So you’re gonna take the test, eh?” said Mrs. Torbin.

Muri nodded.

“I did it once,” said Vara.

“You did?” Muri looked up, but Vara was gazing down at her knitting.

“Yeah. But it wasn’t meant for me, I guess.”

From Emy’s silence, Mari guessed she had heard the story before.

“I never tried,” sniffed Mrs. Torbin. “Raising a family’s what I’m meant to do.”

“Some do both,” said Vara.

Again, Mrs. Torbin sniffed. “You can’t do both. Not the same as if you do just one.”

Now Emy piped up. “I heard that the riders have caretakers for their dragons and their children. And they have a great hall where everyone eats together, and they don’t have to cook.”

“Yeah, and that’d be perfect for you,” said one of the twins from the shelf above. Emy stuck out her tongue and jabbed her knitting needle into the next stitch, whipping the yarn around wildly.

“You could always try again,” Muri said to Vara.

“Why? I was already tested. None of the eggs hatched for me.”

“But the dragons lay new eggs every year. That’s why people can try once a year, summer or winter. You could try the new eggs.” Muri knew this because it was how one of the of the riders who’d come to recruit in Dore had become a rider. Rather than travel each year to Areth, she’d simply stayed there as a dragon handler and joined the testing every year until an egg hatched for her. She’d cautioned that her story wasn’t the norm, and that many women tested every year of their lives and died dragonless.

“I didn’t know that,” Vara said, but shook her head. “It’s too late for me anyway.”

Muri noticed Emy’s hands had gone still, and she gazed at her mother with her mouth partway open as if she were about to say something. Then she closed it and went back to knitting.

A silence fell over the wagon and Muri began to wish she were back outside. Mrs. Torbin had remained silent ever since her pronouncement that a woman couldn’t have a family and be a dragon rider. Her needles darted in and out of her knitting and her mouth was set in a thin line. Emy kept glancing up from her knitting to her mother, and Vara’s face was unreadable.

When Ari and Aven poked their heads back in to say it was someone else’s turn on the back, Muri almost jumped at the chance.

***

As evening neared, the wagons in their group pulled up together in a flat spot several wagon lengths from the road. They’d passed by several other groups of wagons already stopped in the last hour. Since they were crossing over the plains now, there weren’t many sheltered spots. The traders made up for this by arranging the wagons in a loose circle.

Mrs. Torbin’s children pulled bundles out of the top shelf of the wagon and tossed them to the ground. They began to unwrap them, and Muri was surprised to see that they were tents.

“We’ll have yours up in a jiff,” said Aven. Or Ari. Both swung at each other with tent poles and laughed.

“I figured you slept in the wagons,” Muri said to Emy, who’d stopped near her to heft a water bucket.

“When it gets colder we will, for warmth, but it’s nice to have some space and privacy while it’s still warm enough,” Emy said. “My ma and I get our own. It’s nice. Want to help me fetch water?” She held up another bucket. Muri took it.

Muri barely had a chance to wonder where they’d get water from when they’d reached a stream bubbling over a stretch of rocky ground.

“We stay here every year,” Emy said when she saw the surprised look on Muri’s face. “Most years it isn’t dried up.”

Overhead, another dragon passed, following the road from above. A few moments later, another followed. To tell the truth, Muri felt a little afraid of the dragons. She’d only gone to the recruiting meeting in Dore because her cousins had begged her to come. They had been put off by descriptions of all the travel, hard work, and fighting training that would be required of dragon riders. Muri, on the other hand, had been hooked by it.

Despite her unfounded fear of the dragons, Muri felt reassured that they were watching the trade route. It meant that she needn’t worry that she hadn’t seen anyone in the company of wagons who looked like they could fight off thieves.

Emy hitched up her skirts and waded out past the sandy waters near the bank of the stream. Muri followed suit, rolling up the special women’s trousers that she’d gotten just for this trip and removing her boots.

They plunged their buckets deep under water and hefted them up. Emy deftly lifted hers atop her head and steadied it with one hand.

“I don’t think I can manage that,” Muri said, feeling weak.

“However you like,” Emy said, then started back to shore.

They replaced their shoes and fixed their clothes. Emy waited and watched as Muri laced up her boots.

“I think I’m going to do the tests this year,” Emy said.

Muri looked up and grinned. “That’s great. We can go together.”

Emy’s eyes widened. “Don’t tell anybody, though. I don’t want them to know.”

“Okay.”

Emy visibly relaxed, then smiled. She hefted her water bucket back atop her head. They began to walk back to camp.

“I knew you would understand,” Emy said.

Muri was too busy trying to find a comfortable way to carry her water bucket to answer. She had to hold it with both hands, but if she held it in front of her, her knees crashed into it with every step she took. Emy heard her grunts and turned.

“Oh, here.” She set down her own bucket and helped Muri get hers up on her head. “You have to use two hands when you’re first starting.”

Muri concentrated on her feet for the rest of the walk back to camp, that and holding her head steady enough that the water didn’t slosh out of the bucket. So she barely noticed when Emy said, “I wonder if I can get my mom to try the tests again.”

“Hnh,” Muri said, hoping that it sounded encouraging enough.

When they returned to camp, the tents were all set up inside the circle of wagons and several cookfires burned near each family’s group of tents.

“Ah, there you are,” cried Mrs. Torbin. She rushed over to Muri and took the bucket of water down form her head.

“Thank you dear, though you shouldn’t have to work, you’ve paid for your passage.”

“It’s fine. I wouldn’t feel right just standing here while everybody worked.”

Mrs. Torbin tutted. “Well, it’s your choice, dear, but I hope it’s nobody here who’s made you feel bad for not working.” She bustled back to the fire with the bucket of water, not saying a word to Emy.

“Sorry,” Muri whispered to Emy, who shrugged and carried her bucket to the wagon.

Cira and Damina worked at preparing dinner under the direction of Mrs. Torbin while Mr. Torbin and the boys tended the horses, the wagon, and the fire.

Reunited with her larger pack, Muri pulled out the small leather packet that contained her stitching project. She knew how to knit like the Torbins did, but stitching was her craft. In her hometown of Dore, they kept records on tapestries, and Muri was one of the stitchers. But the project she’d brought with her was a creation of her own, meant only to keep her hands busy.

Mrs. Torbin nodded approvingly when she saw Muri sit down on one of the stools near the fire and begin to draw needle and thread through her canvas, which was stretched tight over a hoop to keep it flat. The leather wrapping that she used to carry her stitching lay open flat on her lap with her supplies, like extra thread, scissors, and needles, peeking out of pockets. Muri stitched as she chose, changing colors on a whim and building her design out from the circle she’d begun with in the center. Each stitch gradually added to the pattern and it grew as Muri lost herself in in the process.

The sky around them began to turn orange as the sun sank lower in the sky, and just as Muri was thinking of putting away her threads, Mrs. Torbin called out that dinner was ready.

The meal of stew and bread was better than Muri had expected, and Cira and Damina had made plenty. Muri ate what was probably more than her fill and they showed her to her tent after she tried to help clean up and was refused.

The tent was small and cozy, and Muri unpacked her blankets on top of her sleeping mat. Though it seemed as if she’d simply spent the day sitting and riding in the wagon, it must have tired her out, for she fell asleep right away.

***

Muri woke with a start. She must not have been asleep for long, because she could still hear the crackling of the fire and low voices. Then she heard shouts, a scream, and the sound of feet running past her tent. Without thinking, she crawled to the front of the tent and pushed herself halfway through the opening. She was just in time to see a man dodge between two of the wagons and disappear into the night. Another man came running past her tent and stopped near Mr. Torbin’s fire. Mr. Torbin soon joined him.

“Doesn’t seem as if he managed to take anything,” said Mr. Torbin. “We’ve quenched the flames.”

Muri had been asleep longer than she’d thought, and the crackling fire she’d heard wasn’t the camp fires.

“Maybe he didn’t mean to take anything,” said the other man, shaking his head. “He got three wagons before anyone knew.”

“You think he was one of those vandals?” said Mr. Torbin. “Well, it coulda been worse. You can always fix wagons. Glad no one got hurt.”

“But where will we find that much wood or canvas all the way out here?”

Mr. Torbin began to chuckle and clapped the man’s back. “Where? We’re only in the largest trading caravan of the year.”

Muri guessed that if it hadn’t been dark she would have seen the man’s face turn red.

“Right,” he said. “I’ll send someone in the morning to ride the road to find someone who sells them. And we’ll need a dragoncaller now.”

It wasn’t long before dawn and the rest of the camp began to stir. Muri saw the damage when she emerged from her tent.

They  must have caught wind of the intruder fairly quickly, for the burned spots on all the wagons were smaller than Muri had expected. They were on the sides of the wagons that faced out to the plains, and the fire had charred the bottom edge of the canvas where it had been tied down to the wood rails. The boards making up the bottom sides of the wagons had been badly burned, too.

With a pursing of her lips and her hands on her hips, Mrs. Torbin surveyed the damage in silence before she turned to the fire to begin breakfast. The Torbin’s wagon was not one of the ones damaged.

“I’ll get the dragoncaller,” said Marlen, one of the older twins. He dove into the wagon.

Vara saw the question forming on Muri’s lips and answered it before she could ask.

“If we need a dragon and rider, we put up the dragoncaller. They come when they see it.”

When Muri had first heard Mr. Torbin mention a dragoncaller, she’d thought he meant a person. Marlen emerged from the wagon with a bright orange and yellow roll of fabric and a wooden pole. He slid the pole into a fixture at the side of the wagon, then unrolled the flag and tied it to the pole. It fluttered softly in the slight breeze. Muri looked up, but saw no dragons yet.

As they ate breakfast, the whole family was full of theories about the possible motivations of the thief.

“Maybe he wanted to find all our money,” said Ari.

“Maybe he was hungry,” said Aven.

“If he were hungry, why would he burn the wagons?” snorted Marlen.

Vara shook her head silently.

“I think it’s those mages,” Emy said in a low voice.

“What mages?” Muri’s heart beat a little faster, recalling the man’s words about vandals.

“The ones that don’t like the riders,” said Emy.

“They don’t even like regular mages,” said Max. “Cause they’re real mages.”

“The Karume,” said Vara.

The word had an ominous sound, and Muri knew she had heard it before. One of the women at the dragon rider recruiting meeting had asked if they would fight the Karume. The dragon rider who’d answered had given a humorless laugh.

“I don’t know if fight is the right word, since we don’t really know who they are, but yes, riders do investigate and suppress potential threats to the people of Arethia.”

Now Muri asked, “Why would they—the Karume—burn our wagons?”

“They don’t like the dragon riders. So they attack wagons headed to Areth when the hatchings are coming up,” said Emy. “‘Specially ones with girls in ‘em.”

“Now, let’s not go spreading rumors,” said Mrs. Torbin. “We don’t know that for sure.”

A large shadow covered the ground and everyone stopped talking to look up. A dragon had arrived.

As it circled, Muri felt panic well up in her chest and squeezed her bowl and spoon until her knuckles turned white. She had the urge to run, but there was nowhere to go. She relaxed when the dragon landed outside the wagon circle in the grasses that surrounded it.

Mr. Torbin set down his bowl and rose to greet the rider, as did some of the men from around the other fires.

The rider strode into camp with shoulders high and eyes alert. Muri took in everything about her, just as she had at the recruiting meeting.

This rider was fair of skin, as if she were from the northern mountains. Her brown hair was wrapped in a braid at the back of her head and she wore a woolen headband that covered her forehead and her ears despite the heat. Leather boots, worn but in good condition, reached up to her knees, and leather chaps covered her thighs over tight woven pants. She’d removed her jacket and carried it under one arm, revealing a light-colored long-sleeved tunic with a plain knitted vest over it. The riders at the meeting had explained that it was cooler in flight, so they had to dress in layers.

The leaders of the wagon circle conferred quietly with the rider and Muri strained to hear. Around her, the Torbin family began to clean up breakfast. Muri barely noticed as her bowl was taken from her hands.

“We’d best get packing,” said Mrs. Torbin. “Still have to get on the road, even with this whole mess.”

Muri hadn’t been the only one staring, but many of the children had been staring at the dragon, not the rider. Muri went to her tent and rolled up her pack so the boys could take down her tent. Then she edged closer to the men and the rider who were now inspecting the damage to the wagons.

“I’ll send word to the other riders on the route and see about those supplies,” she heard the rider say.

A movement caught Muri’s eye, and she started when she noticed the dragon through the space between the two wagons. It was a sandy brown color, close to the hues of the grasses on the plains. As she watched, it stretched its wings slowly and preened with its snout.

Emy came up beside Muri.

“Let’s go see it,” she said and grabbed her hand.

Fear jolted through Muri’s frame, but she couldn’t find her voice to protest before they were through the wagons.

A lump grew in Muri’s throat as they approached the dragon. She pulled her hand out of emy’s so she would be free to run if she needed to. Her eyes locked to the dragon as they walked, waiting for the moment that it noticed them.

It had stretched out its neck and lain its wings down open at its sides, seeming to catch all of the morning sunlight on its glittering scales. Its limbs were curled up underneath it, th eknuckles of its front feet bulging over short but sturdy claws. A bony ridge poked up along the dragon’s spine and ran all the way down its tail. The frame of its wings was bony, too, and the wingtips had small spikes.

Muri shivered despite the sun shining down on her. Emy marched on and Muri followed. She didn’t want Emy to know she was afraid if she could help it.

Their footsteps rustled the grasses and the dragon’s head shot up faster than Muri thought it should be possible for such a large creature to move. She froze, her feet taking root where she stood. Emy stopped too.

The dragon’s head seemed to tower over them and it looked down its nose.

“Say something,” Emy whispered.

Muri tried to tell Emy to say something, but all that came out was a squeak. The dragon snorted and she jumped and shrieked. Emy jumped too, which made her feel a little better. The dragon lifted its wings up and swished its tail, and Muri could help it no longer; she turned to run.

But when she turned, there was the rider, returning to her dragon. She smiled at Emy and Muri.

“Visiting with Baron, eh? Well, sorry, we’ve got to be off. Good luck at the hatchings.” She climbed aboard Baron and Muri waited to watch them take off.

Before they could watch, though, Aven ran up to them.

“My ma says it’s time to climb on,” he said, then ran back to camp. Emy and Muri had to follow.

She watched the dragon rise into the air as she took her place on the back of the wagon. Her eyes followed it as it winged away back up the trade road, and she bit her lip. Her fear of dragons seemed to overpower her awe of the riders and their lifestyle. She began to wonder if she had made the right choice, for it was surely too late to change it.

***

End of Part I. I’m furiously scribbling on Part II. Watch my blog for it, or sign up for my newsletter in the right sidebar of this site and get an announcement when I publish Part II.

Edited to add: Click here to go to Part II of this story!

“To the Hatchings” copyright © 2015 by Nikki Bollman

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