Short Story: To the Hatchings, Part II

This is part two of a three-part story. Originally I thought it was going to be a two-part story, but it just kept going! So there is more to enjoy. If you haven’t read the first part, go here: To the Hatchings, Part I

To the Hatchings, Part II

by Nikki Bollman

The wagons reached Lower Areth three days after the attack. Lower Areth was the city at the base of the mountains. It was not part of the true city of Areth, but an outgrowth of it. They rolled in on their newly repaired wagons. The long line of wagons threaded first between the tents in encampments of the Onami people, a few sparse farms, then houses and shops stacked neatly together. Muri was grateful there had been no more attacks on their wagons.

Muri had not known what to expect of Areth, but she was not prepared for the bombardment of sounds, sights, and smells that met them as they reached the lower city. A festive air overtook them as they entered the city. Streamers and flowers hung from the awnings of buildings, on posts, woven around horses’ bridles, anywhere they could be tied. People danced in the streets, cheered the wagons as they went by, and performers followed the wagons, alternately performing and then demanding payment for those performances. Artisans had lain out cloths in front of them, or set up tables, and held out their wares toward the passing wagons and people who walked beside them.

Muri hoisted herself to a standing position on her platform behind the wagon to get more distance from the crowd. She clutched the handle to steady herself and stared at the bustling crowds in the street.

A man with long stringy hair and a painted face bounded up to her with his hands outstretched. On them lay a pewter pendant in the likeness of a dragon. It was curled in a circle, its nose resting on the tip of its tail.

“A pretty dragon for the little miss. It’s good luck at the hatching, if you wear a dragon.” His grin revealed several missing teeth. Muri shook her head. The man cackled and danced away to the next wagon.

A loud pop made Muri jump. Streamers shot into the air and rained down before her. She heard another pop and traced the sound and streamers to a group of young girls giggling at the side of the road. A girl a little older than the others held a paper tube and gripped a string that dangled from it. The loud pop sounded again and the streamers flew into the air. The rest of the little girls danced under the streamers.

Emy climbed out of the wagon onto the platform next to her.

“Exciting, isn’t it?” said Emy.

Now that she was not alone on the back of the wagon, Muri relaxed. She nodded.

“I didn’t know it would be like this,” she said.

“Only in Lower Areth. They celebrate for weeks for the summer hatchings. I hear it’s a smaller celebration for the winter ones, because of the cold.”

“Why only Lower Areth? Doesn’t Areth celebrate?”

“It’s not really so easy to gather like this on the road there. You’ll see.”

They reached the end of the road where there was a large open field for the wagons to pull into.  Buildings surrounded it on three sides, and small market stalls were scattered around the edges. On the fourth side, a steep cliff rose up, broken by a gap too narrow for the wagons, but wide enough for a person to fit through. Wagons lined up and traders busily unloaded them. Atop the cliff, two dragons loomed over the scene, their riders sitting on nearby rocks.

The Torbins’ wagon drew to a halt three rows back from the entrance and children began to pour out.

“I’ve got to help unload stuff,” Emy said. “But I’m sure I’ll see you up there.” She jumped to the ground and Muri followed.

“You mean I just…go?” She turned to face the mountain and gazed up at the dragons.

“This is as far as the wagons go.” Emy shrugged.

Mrs. Torbin emerged from the wagon and smiled at Muri.

“Well, we made it. Another trip to Areth, and we got you here. D’you want someone to guide you to the gate?”

“I’ll do it,” Emy said.

Mrs. Torbin frowned. “I was thinkin’ one of the boys,” she said. “Wouldn’t do for a young woman to go alone, much less two.”

“But it’s Areth,” Muri said. “The riders go alone all the time, and they’re women.” She felt a little reckless arguing with her host, but really she wasn’t her host anymore.

“Marlen and Max can go. I need Emy to help, and the boys’ll be back soon.”

Muri saw Emy’s look of disappointment.

“I want Emy to take me. And she’s going to be tested, too, so I may as well wait until she’s done. I can help with the unpacking.”

Emy stared at Muri openmouthed and indignant, then at Mrs. Torbin, who’d pursed her lips and was eyeing Muri. She slowly nodded.

“It’s your right,” she said to Emy. “But I do expect you to do your part on the wagon before you go. If Muri helps you, that’s her business.” She turned to supervise the rest of the familiy.

“I thought I told you not to tell,” Emy hissed.

“You weren’t going to do it, were you?”

“I would have. Maybe.”

“What about your mom?” asked Muri.

Emy glanced to the front of the wagon where Vara was brushing down the horses.

“I told her I wanted to, but she said it’s better to stay with family, where we’re sure of a meal and shelter.”

“But you can just come back if you don’t get a dragon.”

“We can’t. It’ll take days to go up and through the hatchings, and the wagon won’t wait for us.”

“So if you come with me,” Muri began.

“Then I’m leaving the wagon for good.”

“We need you Emy,” called Aven from down the line of wagons.

The Torbin family was unloading from the other wagons in their group, and Muri frowned. “What about our wagon?” she said.

“This all belongs to Mr. Torbin,” Emy said. “He pays the other families to be drivers.”

Muri wondered why she had never noticed that the Torbins’ wagon didn’t have much room for goods, and she thought it was lucky that the other families were small enough to leave room for goods in those wagons, too.

The entire field was alive with traders unloading their wagons as the city of Lower Areth had been with revelers. As they piled boxes and crates and bags on the ground next to the wagons, Muri wondered how the items would make it up the mountain if the wagons left as Emy had said. She got her answer as the first row of wagons finished unloading. Men and women with mules had begun to stream out of the opening in the rock face and now roamed the rows of traders and goods. In addition to the mules, small burly dragons appeared over the cliff and landed scattered throughout the wagons. They were not the same dragons that the riders had. Pack dragons, Muri remembered from the description of Areth the riders had given.

The traders, wagoneers and Arethian alike, talked and discussed, bartered and bargained until they made a deal, then loaded their goods on a pack dragon, mule, or on their own backs. The activity began in the row of wagons closest to the gate, then gradually shifted to the next row.

The Torbins’ unloading slowed as they got down to the last few crates. Emy was in the back of the last wagon relaying crates out to the waiting hands of the others. Mrs. Torbin stood next to it, hands on her hips.

“You’d best let us finish up and go tell your Ma about your decision,” Mrs. Torbin said to Emy in a low voice.

Muri saw the shadow pass over Emy’s face. She wanted to tell Emy that she didn’t have to do it. She felt bad that she had forced Emy into it by telling Mrs. Torbin. She looked around for Vara. Maybe she could talk to her and explain.

Vara was still by the front wagon. She happened to look up just then, and she smiled. Muri began to walk that way, and at that moment, a movement above caught both their eyes. One of the watch dragons above the city entrance had taken off and flew above the wagons and Lower Areth. It meandered around, dipping and climbing.

Muri shivered and broke her gaze from it. She looked down to find Vara still watching. Vara’s eyes followed the dragon as it rolled and rollicked through the air. One hand gripped her skirts and the other twitched at her side as she followed the dragon’s movements. Finally, she broke her gaze from the flying dragon and gave a brief glance to the city gate. Then she pursed her lips and looked to the ground, dusting her hands on her skirts.

In that moment Muri changed plans. She knew what had to happen.

“Ms. Vara?” Muri said. She looked behind her to see that Emy was just jumping down from the wagon.

Vara smiled. “Yes?”

For a moment, Muri froze. What would she say? And how to say it?

Emy was striding toward them now, staring at her feet and wringing her hands.

Muri grabbed Vara’s hand and dragged her between the wagons, hoping to buy a little time.

“Vara, you should go to the hatching. You know you need to, and you’ll regret it all your life if you don’t.”

Vara laughed without mirth. “I can’t do that.” She shook her head. “My chance is over. I have Emy now. We need a home, family. She needs it.”

“She needs you,” Muri said. She gripped Vara’s hand as she tried to walk back out from between the wagons. “My ma taught me that you have to do what’s right for you, take care of yourself, before you can take care of others. She did it for me, left my da so she could care for me right. He wasn’t nice, and, well…”

Something passed through Vara’s eyes as Muri shared that last, personal detail, and then Emy appeared at the end of the wagons. She frowned when she saw Muri, but still she approached, hands gripping her skirt in front of her.

Vara’s eyes narrowed when she saw the state her daughter was in, and she turned to Muri. A small “ah” escaped her parted lips. She hadn’t known of Emy’s plans.

Ma, I—“ Emy started, but Vara put up a hand.

“Emy, what would you think of going to the hatching? Together?”

Emy’s eyes flew up from the ground and her mouth opened for a few moments without any words coming out. “But what will we do after? If neither of us gets chosen, I mean.”

Vara spread her hands out, palms up. “We can figure something out. Catch up to them, or find work here. We’ll decide together.”

Emy ran to her mother and caught her in a hug. Muri smiled and snuck away to get her packs.

***

The path up the mountain wound and twisted, branched, off, connected, and bridged. It skirted the sides of the valley that enclosed the city of Areth. Human structures seemed to grow out of the mountain rocks beside the paths, sprouting out, up, and in, so that the city climbed just as the path did. Overhead, dragons transported the luckier inhabitants of Areth much more quickly to the top of the mountain than the lines of women who trudged steadily upward toward the dragon dwell.

Vara had pointed it out, the leftmost of the three enormous buildings that presided over the city at the top of the valley. In the center, the palace, the mage academy on the right, and on the left, the dragon dwell.

“It looks so much smaller than the others,” Muri said.

“That’s just the great hall that you see,” said Vara. “The arena is bigger, but it’s just an open space.”

Muri tried to imagine an open space, being now surrounded by buildings and so many other people on the path.

“I can’t believe we’re actually doing this,” said Emy, bouncing as she walked.

Muri grinned back at her and sucked in a deep breath of the clear mountain air. Already, the buildings of the market square, on the flat floor of the valley, looked small. Though it was hard to tell, Muri thought that they’d come almost halfway up the valley. They could have been further if they could walk faster, but they were caught up in the crowd of women headed to the hatchery, just like them. Hundreds of others joined them on the path, adding to the already busy trade road. At each bridge they passed, grumbling traders crossed to the other side of the valley to reach the path there, where there were less people ascending.

Adding to the congestion, vendors of all kinds had opened up stalls along the route. Some sold food for the travelers, others souvenirs, and many stood outside open doors proclaiming open lodging.

Mrs. Torbin had provisioned them with plenty of food and water, so Muri, Emy, and Vara were able to press on.

“I wish we could ride up,” Emy said as she watched another dragon glide over them and land near the dragon dwell.

Muri tried to smile convincingly in agreement, but every time a dragon passed overhead, her heart beat a little faster. Soon, she would be at the dragon dwell, and she would have to face the dragons despite her fear. She wasn’t sure she could do it.

The news first began to trickle back in quiet murmurs, then grew to excited chatter. Muri tugged the sleeve of a woman in front of her.

“What is it?” she asked.

“The first dragon has hatched!”

From the dragon dwell above there sounded a chorus of trumpeting tones. The dragons welcomed a new member to their ranks.

The pace on the path seemed to pick up a little at the sound of the dragons’ celebration. When they had gone just over midway, Muri, Emy, and Vara stopped at the side of the path to rest and to eat some of the food in their packs. Since they had begun the journey midday after unloading the wagons, the sun was already descending in the sky.

“We won’t make it to the top by nightfall at this pace,” said Vara. “Even if we did, there are too many before us to get into the caves.”

Muri felt a surge of relief flood through her. She wouldn’t have to face the dragons today. Not yet. She studied Emy’s disappointed expression as she chewed her bread. What would her new friend think of her? Afraid of dragons, when she had come this far to be a dragon rider.

“Were will we sleep?” Emy said. They all looked around. Only narrow paths and craggy cliffs surrounded them. They had tents packed, but there was nowhere to pitch them. Emy looked to her mother.

“There are flat places, if you know the way up. But it’s not as safe as paying for a room. But then it’s a matter of finding an inn that isn’t full.”

“What did you do when you came?” Muri asked.

“I camped. I wish I’d have paid for a room, but I didn’t have the money. The innkeepers know they can charge extra during the hatchings, and people will still pay.”

Muri was glad that she had planned to save extra money when she’d first resolved to take this trip. Her mother had helped her calculate the barest costs, and then they had doubled that again in their plans.

“Do we have enough now?” Emy asked quietly.

“Oh yes. I’ve been saving for us, for when the day came to leave the wagon.”

Emy’s mouth remained parted open as she stared at her mother following this statement. Muri felt even surer now that convincing them to come had been right.

They finished their food and continued on their climb up the sloping path. At intervals, bridges from the other side of the valley connected to their path. Though they all looked sturdy enough, constructed of stone and strong timbers, Muri’s stomach lurched when she imagined crossing one.

If I lived here, I wouldn’t have to use them, because I’d have a dragon. Then her stomach lurched once more at that thought, and she smiled to herself at the absurdity of the two fears.

As they climbed higher, it they began to inquire at inns along the way, but each one was full. Men and women, sometimes children, sat at the bridges holding signs that advertised rooms and meals in inns across the valley. Muri gulped when Vara suggested staying at one of them, thinking about the bridge. But she was right, they’d kept going up long enough and there was no guarantee they’d find an inn with space for them higher up.

Luckily, the next bridge they came to looked solid to Muri, and it was built of stone. Muri held her breath and squinted her eyes so that they were barely open as they crossed. They made it across and took a room in the first inn they found, just steps from the bridge.

I only have to cross it one more time, Muri thought as she left the bridge.

They paid for beds in a room with three other women. The beds were stacked in bunks like on the wagon. Although Muri was tempted to climb into her bunk and fall right into slumber, she took Vara’s invitation to join them for supper in the common room of the inn.

They sat at the end of a long table on sturdy benches. Though there were only windows on one side of the room, facing the valley, the inn seemed to attempt to make up for the darkness with its brightly colored walls and furniture. Muri stared past Emy at a wrought iron dragon against the orange wall. It coiled in a circle like the one on the necklace the vendor had tried to sell her.

Outside, the faint sound of trumpeting could be heard, and a buzz rippled through the dining room. Another baby dragon had hatched.

“Here you go, misses,” said a young boy. He set down a platter in front of each of them. “Enjoy.”

Muri dug into her stew, the hot food delicious in the cooling summer evening. More people began to stream into the inn as the sun set, the hatchery done testing for riders for the day.

After dinner, Muri and Emy returned to their room and prepared their beds. Vara had remained in the common room chatting with the innkeeper. Muri crawled up to the top bunk, glad to be sleeping on a mattress instead of the ground for the first time in a few nights.

Below her, Emy let out a deep sigh.

“I still can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” she said. “I don’t know what you said to my ma, but thank you.”

“Oh, I didn’t—“

“Yes you did. I saw you. And I don’t care what it was. We needed this. So thank you.”

The door opened and one of the other women sharing the room padded in softly. Muri rolled over. Through the window across the room, she could see a slice of sky with stars. She stared at them and thought about her own mother until she fell asleep.

***

Muri woke to gray light in the window and the deep breathing of the others still asleep. For awhile she lay listening. Muffled clinks and clatters told her that the cook was already preparing breakfast.

The bunks were sturdily built, so Muri was glad she could climb down without shaking the frame and waking Emy. She dug in her pack and produced her stitching case, then pulled on her boots and tunic and went to the common room.

“Coffee?” she asked the cook over the counter. The cook nodded, poured, and handed her the mug.

A couple of other travelers were awake already, too, and sat in chairs near the hearth that crackled with orange flames. Muri at first thought it odd that a fire should be burning in the middle of the summer, until she saw the rain droplets spattered on the window glass. It would be a cold climb today.

She took a seat on the bench at the long table and spread her case out before her, carefully selecting two strands of thread. She pinched her fingers and ran them down the length of thread, then threaded it through her needle. It was a grayish blue, like the sky today. She reveled in the quiet stillness of morning, smiling at the few stolen moments just for her stitching. Adding one stitch at a time, one after another, let her clear her thoughts and prepare for the day to come.

They would make it to the top today for sure, and with any luck, they’d be among that day’s group through the hatching caves, too. Muri took a deep breath, thinking about being so close to a dragon. Dragons. She tried not to think about it, feeling as though each moment spent worrying would increase her fear. Her needle punched through her fabric as she recalled how close she’d been to the dragon in camp.

She was holding her stitching at arm’s length in front of her to see how it was coming out when the front door to the inn crashed open. A young woman strode in. She threw off the hood of her riding cloak and it droplets of water showered the ground. She crossed to the counter and asked to see the innkeeper. The cook disappeared through a doorway and returned moments later with the innkeeper behind her.

“There’s been another one. Another attack,” said the woman. She spoke in a low voice, but did not whisper.

“Where? What did they do this time?”

“Some kind of magic. Not Arethian. In Lower Areth, a camp of some on their way to the hatchings.”

“They got away again?”

The woman nodded. “We’ve yet to see an attack in Areth proper. There won’t be, if we can help it.”

“Thank you. I’ll inform my guests to take extra care today,” said the innkeeper.

The woman put her hood back up and raised her eyebrows after a glance at the window. “If they even want to go today.”

The innkeeper laughed. “They will,” she said. “They’ll think to get ahead of all the others who are staying inside because of the weather.”

The woman grinned. As she turned she caught Muri staring at her. Muri was too surprised to even duck her head in time. The woman dipped her chin in Muri’s direction, then strode out the door back into the gray dawn.

Footsteps creaked on the stairs and Emy and Vara appeared through the door.

“Oooh, nice dragon,” Emy said. “I wondered where you were.”

“I woke up early, couldn’t fall back asleep,” she said.

Emy had caught sight of the view outside the window. “In this weather? I could sleep all day.”

The rain had picked up and now sounded out a dull spatter outside the front windows.

The cook called that breakfast was ready, and the handful of people in the common room shuffled to the counter. As they ate, the common room filled with more sleepy-eyed people. A few women finished their breakfasts early and banged open the door to set out on the path up the mountain.

“Ugh,” said Emy, grimacing as a draft of cool, wet air brushed over them. “How can they be ready already? I don’t want to go out in that at all.”

Muri was about to tell them about the attack when the innkeeper came out from behind her counter and cleared her throat.

“We’ve had a message from the riders,” she began. “There was another attack in Lower Areth last night. Areth proper is still untouched, and the riders mean to keep it that way. Even still, they wished for all travelers to be cautioned as they begin this morning.”

Vara looked grim. “Maybe we should stay here another day,” she murmured.

But Emy’s back straightened. “No. Those people, whoever they are, are not going to stop me. Even in the rain.” She spun on the bench and leaped up. “I’m ready for the hatching.” She stomped off to the stairs.

Vara smiled and shrugged. “And you?”

“I’m ready,” Muri said.

In the time it took them to prepare, the sky outside darkened and occasional thunder sounded in the distance.

“I’m glad I didn’t leave my cloak in the wagon,” Emy said, pulling the garment over her head and the pack on her back.

Muri pulled on her own cloak and turned to face her. She laughed when she saw Emy.

“What? I like my cloak. If I have to be in the rain, at least I can have a little color to cheer me up.”

“It kind of reminds me of the common room here.”

Emy’s cloak looked like an apprentice weaver’s scrap sample, with every color woven in seemingly at random, the contrasting threads crisscrossing each other in jarring combinations. She stood in stark contrast to the brown wood of the bunks around them.

“I didn’t even know they could make dye in those colors,” Muri said.

“We got it in a little village in Lithea, and I happen to like it,” Emy said. She lifted her chin and spun, causing the cloak to fly out around her. Muri put a hand to her mouth to stifle her laugh. She brushed her hands over the front of her deep green cloak and followed Emy out the door of their room.

When they came down to the common room, Vara was speaking with the innkeeper at the desk. She had a wrinkled piece of paper spread before her, and the innkeeper drew on it with a charcoal pencil as she talked.

“Good news,” Vara said. Lightning flickered outside.

“Good, because we need it,” said Emy. The accompanying thunder boomed on her last word and she jumped, then glowered.

Muri watched the window in case she could glimpse more lightning.

“Tana just told me how to get there using mostly covered walkways.” Vara held up the paper and they saw a map.

Emy’s scowl transformed to a grin and she clapped her hands. “Thank you so much,” she said to Tana.

They turned from the counter and Vara folded up the map and tucked it inside her cloak.

“Well, what do you think? Ready?” Vara asked.

Muri and Emy turned toward the door, their thumbs hooked around the straps of their packs near their shoulders.

Lightning flickered again, longer this time, and thunder crashed almost immediately after. Muri shrugged her shoulders and Emy hugged her cloak tighter around her.

“Let’s go,” said Emy. “Get it over with anyway.”

Vara and Muri exchanged smiles while Emy led the way into the pouring rain.

“To the Hatchings” copyright © 2015 by Nikki Bollman

Edited to add: Part III of this story is now published! Click here to go read it.

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