This is part three of a three part story. If you haven’t read the first two parts, here are the links:
And now, here is the story…
To the Hatchings, Part III
by Nikki Bollman
Although the innkeeper had given Vara a map of covered walkways to use to get to the dragon dwell, the first stretch of their route was not covered. They trudged along under their hoods on the path on the wrong side of the valley. Streams of water ran down the path and sloshed around their feet as if they were walking upstream in a creek. Fat drops of water pounded on their cloaks. Muri glanced over from time to time to gauge their progress and she noticed more dragons perched along the mountaintop. She wondered if they were there because they were getting closer to the dragon dwell, or if it was because of the attack yesterday.
“That’s the wrong way,” Muri said when they came to the first section of the route that would give them shelter from the rain. It wasn’t a walkway, it was a cave. Vara stepped inside and pulled the map out of her sleeve.
“Look here,” she said. The section she pointed to showed a line that followed the pathway they were already on. “Tana told me this is the way. It looks like the cave splits from the path, but it’s really parallel. It’ll connect to that bridge up there.”
They went into the cave and Vara was right; the cave did climb up the mountain, and it was warmly lit by small mage lights that hung hear the ceiling. The rest of the climb was fairly comfortable, and faster than the day before, either because of the rain or because they were on the other side of the valley, away from the crowds, for half of the climb. Once they had crossed the covered causeway back across the valley, they were almost to the dragon dwell. Here they joined a path still crowded with people. The rain hadn’t doused the spirits of the seekers.
Muri shivered at the sight of the dragon sentinels perched above them all. She had a sudden urge to turn back, to run back to the inn, spend a night by the fire, stitching, until the rain let up and she could start back home. Maybe the trip was enough. Maybe that was all she had needed. She forced herself to stay in the line as it curved up toward a dragon coiled on the rocks only slightly above the path. They were almost there. That dragon was watching the gates to the dragon dwell.
The rain had let up a bit. It came down steadily but not so heavily as before. They rounded the bend. Muri was careful to stay on the outside edge of the path, as far from the watching dragon as she could be. It seemed to follow her with its eyes, and she avoided looking.
There was a hush over the crowded line as they came around the corner toward the gates. Ahead of them, Muri saw the reason for the hush. A huge, flat space, so different from the cramped mountainside path they’d been on, opened before them. Emy’s hands flew to her mouth and covered a smile. Vara was smiling too. Muri felt her heart pounding in her chest. The whole space was filled with dragons. Most were adult dragons, as large as the one they’d just passed, but juveniles were scattered about as well.
A young girl in rider garb ushered Muri, Emy, and Vara into a group along with others in line with them, making a group of ten potential riders. She put up a hand to the rest of the women in line and they stopped. She led the group of ten a little ways through the gates, into the open space.
“Welcome to the arena,” she said, sweeping her arm to encompass the whole space before them. “I’m Cadia, and I’ll be your guide through the caves. And here comes Torun.”
One of the juvenile dragons drifted down from his perch on the rocks above and landed in a somersault and tumble before them. He sprung to his feet and shook himself dry while Cadia laughed. Muri wiped droplets of water from her face
“Don’t let him fool you,” Cadia said. “He can land gracefully, he just chooses not to.” Her eyes went distant for a moment, and then she rolled them. “He wants you to know that he said it’s more fun that way.”
Muri kept her eyes locked on the young dragon, who now nuzzled at his rider’s hair as she spoke about the arena. Maybe it was because he was smaller, or maybe it was his more youthful behavior, but she felt a little more at ease being near him than she had the dragon by the gate. Maybe she was just growing accustomed to the dragons. She hoped so.
Cadia led the group around the edges of the arena. Muri saw that there were other groups of ten ahead and behind them, each being led by a dragon and rider pair. After each group completed their tour, they disappeared into the cavern entrance near where they’d entered the arena.
Despite the rain, the arena had the same festive mood as the streets of Lower Areth had the day before. Dragons frolicked through the rain, sometimes causing splashes of water or mud to spatter onto the nearby people. Others watched safe from the rain from windows in the great hall or on covered balconies outside their living quarters. Dancers and petty mages flitted about the crowds hoping for a coin, and musicians played under awnings at the edges of the arena. Even some vendors had set up booths close to the entrance, with canvas awnings rigged to protect them and their wares.
Muri kept her eyes on the dragons in the air and tried to ignore the presence of Torun, Cadia’s dragon, right behind her. She felt tense and a slight edge of panic, but by the time they’d rounded the arena and approached the gates again, she’s begun to feel more at ease around the dragons. She no longer flinched every time one took off or landed, and she was beginning to appreciate the grace in their forms as they flew overhead.
“That’s the end of the tour,” said Cadia as they passed the row of vendors near the entrance. Some vendors huddled under their canvas tents while others stood in front of them, holding out items and imploring the women to look. “Time to enter the caves.”
An old woman, hunched over and cloaked in a heavy brown fabric, had approached the edge of the path and held her hands out cupped together. In them lay a necklace. Its pendant was similar to the one that Muri had seen in Lower Areth, a pewter dragon curled in a circle. This one was coiled around a dull but beautiful rock, the color of a red rose.
One of the girls in their group, a city dweller, Muri guessed from her clean cream cloak and shiny boots, stopped and said “Oooh” over the necklace. Her friend, in a red cloak, stopped too. The rest of the group continued forward behind Cadia, but Muri kept glancing back as the two girls spoke with the old woman. She saw the money and the necklace change hands, and then the girls trotted to catch up with the group Behind them, the old woman’s face was visible inside her hood for a moment, bearing a wide, gap-toothed grin.
Muri frowned and watched her a moment longer. A scrap of stringy hair was visible on the woman’s shoulder as she turned away. Now Muri was certain. It wasn’t an old woman at all. She had recognized the man from Lower Areth who’d been selling the necklaces. It seemed odd to her that he would disguise himself in order to sell the same necklaces up here.
They gathered at the opening to the hatchery cave now. The group before theirs had just gone in. They’d come full circle from the entrance to the arena, and crossed in front of the hopeful eyes of the women still waiting in line out on the mountain path.
Cadia led them down the sloping hall that led into the hatchery caves. Two halves of a metal gate stood open to either side, and a dragon and rider stood on each side of the opening. Muri barely pulled in her shoulders passing them, so focused was she on listening to the chatter of the girls behind her.
“She said it was good luck to wear it to the testing,” said the first girl, the one in white who’d purchased the thing.
“Maybe it’s magic,” said the other.
The first girl snorted. “It’s not. You know you can’t bind magic.”
“But look, it’s glowing.”
At this, Muri stopped and spun around to see the necklace. The two girls almost crashed into her. They let out surprised squeals. Cadia’s dragon, Torun, leaned his head over their shoulders and touched his nose to the necklace.
They’d come to a section of the hallway that was dimly lit by a series of yellow mage lights. In the dim light, the stone on the necklace had begun to glow a dark, dusky red.
“What’s going on back there?” Cadia had stopped the rest of the group and stalked back towards them. Torun met Muri’s gaze and she started, but his eyes looked kind. She turned to face Cadia.
She just stopped. We almost tripped over her,” said the second girl, the one in the red cloak. The other girl looked nervous and clutched at her necklace, covering the glowing stone with her hand.
“The old woman who sold her that necklace,” Muri pointed. “She wasn’t an old woman. It was a man, and he was selling them in Lower Areth, too. I recognized him.”
“So?” said the second girl. “Anyone’s free to sell anywhere they want, if they pay the proper frees.” She laughed and looked to her friend. “I swear, I don’t know why they let just anyone come—“
“It is true,” said Cadia apologetically. “Whether it’s a man or a woman, she can sell here.”
“But it’s started to glow. Something’s wrong.”
The girl’s hand fell from her necklace under Cadia’s glare. The red light was even brighter now.
“I’ll need to confiscate that,” Cadia said and held out her hand. “We’ve been told not to let anything into these caves, even a little good luck charm.” She looked to her dragon. “Torun, tell them to send a runner. Now we can’t go on til it’s removed.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” said the first girl. “I thought it was just jewelry.” She placed the necklace into Cadia’s hand.
“It’s these blasted attacks.” Cadia shook her head.
While they waited, another group approached behind them and Cadia told them to go around. The necklace grew brighter and brighter in her hands. She frowned at it. The rest of the group moved back to stand near Cadia and Torun, and Muri explained to Emy and Vara what had happened in hushed tones.
Soon the necklace had grown brighter than the lights in the cavern hall, and everyone seemed to be mesmerized by it.
“It is very pretty,” Cadia said.
It grew even brighter and the red light bathed their faces. Torun huffed through his snout and Muri jumped. She hadn’t realized that he was right behind her. Her sense of unease about the necklace deepened. The light didn’t seem pretty to her. It felt menacing. She was seized by an urge to grab it and dash it to the ground, but she resisted. She shuffled her feet and checked the passage for signs of the runner.
“Shouldn’t the runner be here by now?” asked the girl in the red cloak. “We could have walked back ourselves in the time we’ve been waiting.”
“I don’t know.” Cadia frowned. “They must be busy up there.”
The red light brightened once more, glowing through Cadia’s fingers, and Muri could resist no more. She stepped forward, snatched the necklace from Cadia’s hands, and ran up the hall in the direction of the entrance. She threw the it as hard as she could.
It burst into red flames as it sailed through the air. The fire shot out of the stone and filled the cavern with crimson light. Muri felt a touch of heat, and then the fire went dark. By the time the necklace clattered to the ground, whatever had set the flames aglow had been spent.
“How did you know it would do that?” Emy asked as Muri returned to the wide-eyed group.
“I didn’t. I just didn’t like it. Something felt wrong.”
Muri squealed and jumped as Torun lowered his head and nudged her shoulder.
“He wants to be sure you’re okay,” said Cadia.
“I think so,” said Muri, rubbing a hand on her shoulder where the dragon had touched. She smiled weakly.
A young girl came running around the bend, her the slapping of her feet on stone echoing around the hall.
“I’m sorry. We had lots of calls.”
Cadia went with the runner to the now dead object. They spoke in low voices before the runner set off with the now dead necklace. Cadia returned to the group.
“We can go now, but each of you should expect to be interviewed when you leave the caves. Let’s go.”
In whispers, Muri told Emy and Vara how she had recognized the man from Lower Areth. She had just finished her story when Cadia stopped ahead of them. Emy looked ready to ask a question, but Muri put a finger to her lips and pointed ahead. The worry on Emy’s face dissolved into joy when she saw where they were. They had reached the hatching caves.
The first thing Muri noticed was the sound of the rain. Then the gray light of the cavern instead of the yellow mage lights of the hall. As she came fully into the cave, she saw that it was open on one side, with a lattice gate closing it off. Nobody spoke, and they padded in on quiet feet. A dusty white dragon stood over a large depression filled with sand in the center of the cave. It was edged with large rocks. A nest. A woman with short-cropped white hair stood, hands folded next to the dragon. Her smile looked tired.
The group followed Cadia to the edges of the nest and lined up across from the woman in a semi-circle. Despite her efforts, Muri ended up standing next to Torun at the end of the line. She had begun to feel slightly more at ease around him, though. She breathed in and out slowly, maintaining her calm. The white dragon across from them didn’t seem too bad, either.
It didn’t look like there were very many eggs in the nest. The nest itself appeared as if it could fit many more. Muri looked around at the other girls. She could tell by their expressions who had been to the hatchings before and who, like her, never had.
“My name is Maira,” said the white-haired rider. “And this is Lyrie,” she said. She put a hand on the white dragon’s shoulder. “She and I are the one of the cave mother pairs.”
Maira began to explain the testing process. Each of them would put their hands on an egg for at least a minute, then move to the next egg. If it was a match, it would hatch at their touch. Muri snuck a sideways glance at Emy and Vara. What if neither of them hatched an egg? After Muri had dragged them here. By now, Muri herself didn’t expect to hatch an egg. She’d seen how many people had gone up the mountain before them, and only four eggs had hatched so far. She noticed that Emy clutched her mother’s hand as they listened to Maira.
Muri wondered how they were all going to fit in the space around the clutch of eggs. The nest was big enough, but all of the eggs were grouped together in the middled of the space. It didn’t look like any feet had disturbed the sand, either, and there surely had been a group here before them.
“These eggs will not be part of the hatching this season. They were laid to recently,” said Maira, as if she could hear Muri’s doubts. “We will go into the next cavern, where we have placed the rest of the eggs for the duration of the tests.”
Maira led them past the nest and to an opening in the cavern wall that Muri hadn’t noticed before. Cadia followed behind the group with Torun. The next cavern was airy and lit by the same gray outside light. In the dim rainy light, rows of eggs shone, each on its own pedestal. The pedestals were made of wood and had a piece of leather that stretched across a top frame, so that it dipped like a hammock, holding the egg securely in its place.
Each egg appeared polished to a shine, their mottled combinations of colors unique.
“You will walk through the rows and place both hands on an egg until I ring the bell. When the bell rings, you’ll move to the next egg, until you’ve tested them all. We’ll begin here.” She gestured to the egg in the corner closest to them, and the girl in the red cloak stepped forward right away. She held her hands on the first egg while the rest of them waited. Nothing happened. Maira rang the bell and she moved to the second egg. Her friend, the one in the white cloak who’d bought the necklace, moved to the first egg.
Muri waited so that she was the very last. The bell rang after Emy took her turn, and Muri stepped up to the first egg. She took a deep breath, then placed both hands on the egg. The surface felt smooth and cool. She wondered how many hands before hers had touched this same egg, hoping for it to warm and crack open.
The bell rang and everybody shifted to the next egg. They continued like this through the rows. Nobody spoke. Only the sound of their soft footsteps and the bell could be heard.
The first girl reached the last egg. When the bell rang, she stepped away looking disappointed.
“There’s always next year,” she said.
The rest of them already had their hands on their next egg. Muri could feel the stare of the girl who’d finished. She itched for the next bell to ring.
“Oh! Something’s happening!” came a cry from the last row. It was the girl in the white cloak who’d been second in line. She stood at the very last egg.
“Keep your hands there, dear,” Maira said to the girl, who looked frantic but happy all at once. She grinned and danced in place in front of the egg.
Maira examined it, placed her hands on the shell and looked it up and down. Finally, she smiled and nodded at the girl.
“Pick it up, bring it this way.” Maira led the girl to a small sandy nest across the room that Muri hadn’t noticed before. As they walked away, Maira rang the bell once more and the rest of them shifted to the next egg. She handed the bell to Cadia. The bell continued to ring amid the sounds of the egg hatching, the small crackling sounds, the girl alternately laughing and cooing, and Maira helping her along.
Muri spared a glance for the girl’s friend and saw her watching the hatching. Her arms were crossed, lips drawn together in a pout, and her eyes were narrowed. Muri nudged Emy at the next change and tipped her head toward the girl. Emy followed her gaze, then turned back to Muri with wide eyes.
“Looks like someone won’t be friends after this,” Emy whispered. It was barely audible, but when Muri stole one more glance at the girl in red, she saw those eyes trained on her. Muri stared back, lifed her chin, then turned back to her egg, which remained cool under her hands.
They were in the last row now, and the girls who had gone before them lined up on the wall as they finished. There were still five of them testing. The bell rang, and now there were four. Muri figured it was too much to hope that two eggs would hatch in one group. Not when there had only been four dragons hatched in the day before. Five now, with theirs. They would finish the tests and go hom.
Between the hatching and the low hum of conversation between the girls who had finished their testing, the cavern grew louder. The bell rang again and they shifted. Only Vara, Emy and Muri were left. At first Muri thought Emy was crying as they waited for the next bell. Then she heard the words emerging out of the sounds.
“I can’t believe it, oh, it’s warm. I think I see a crack, oh my, somebody please help me.” A stream of words crowded out of her as she looked back and forth between Vara and Muri.
“It’s hatching?” Muri said too loudly, then covered her mouth.
Maira leapt up from the next.
“Another one?” She rushed over to Emy’s side and hastily checked the egg. “Yes, another hatching!” She beamed at Cadia. “Two in your group, Cadia, what are the odds? Come dear, hold the egg.” Maira whisked Emy away and Cadia rang the next bell.
Vara joined the others on the wall. Muri was the last one left. She placed her hands on the last egg and waited. She twisted and craned her neck to see Emy sitting at the nest, cradling her egg and smiling down at it. The bell rang again and nothing had happened with Muri’s egg. She joined Vara smiling.
“I guess this wasn’t my time,” Muri said to Vara.
“Or mine,” said Vara, but she beamed, watching her daughter engrossed in the hatching.
“Time to go,” Cadia said. “You can meet your friends in the nursery in a few hours.” She led the remaining group through a door opposite the one they’d entered, and they emerged into another passage. The passage split and Cadia took them on the one that sloped upward. It led back out into the open space of the arena. The heavy rain had cleared, and now only a gray sky remained to remind them of the day’s storm.
A runner approached Cadia right away and whispered something to her. Cadia nodded, then turned to her group.
“Normally, here’s where I let you go, but because of our…incident earlier, I have to bring you all to the great hall for an interview with the mage and dragon guards.”
“What about my daughter?” Vara asked. “How will I know where to find her after?”
“Don’t worry. It’ll be taken care of,” said Cadia.
The interviews were short, and Muri was distracted by the view from the windows in the upper floor of the Great Hall. She could see the long lines of people still snaking down the mountain, and thought that the testing would still go on for another few days.
The interviewers said that the old woman had disappeared, and said that Muri had to stay in Areth while they searched for her. When they left the great hall, Cadia was ready to show her to her guest quarters in the dragon dwell.
“I put you together with Vara. I figured you wouldn’t mind, since you traveled together.”
Muri smiled, relieved, because she hadn’t been sure how she was going to find Vara after the interview.
“Any word from Emy?” Muri asked Vara when she found her sitting on one of the two beds in the small room.
“Not yet. They said tomorrow I’ll get to see her. And there’s a ceremony for all of them once the hatchings are over. Will you stay for the ceremony?”
Vara smoothed her hands on the blanket on the bed.
“Look at this room. So much space for just two people,” she said.
Muri flopped down on the other bed. The room held the two beds, a small round table with two chairs, a fireplace, and a small basin for water.
“They apologized for it,” Vara said.
“They apologized for the size of the room when they brought me here. Said that the riders’ quarters I’d live in with Emy were much larger, nicer.”
“You’ll live here with Emy?”
“Yes.” She laughed, shaking her head. “I just can’t believe our luck. After all these years dreaming…Well. It was like I got stuck dreaming. But what are the chances? So lucky.”
“It is lucky,” said Muri. “But it wasn’t all luck. You had to choose first. You chose to try.”
Vara was quiet for a few moments, and Muri began to unpack her things. She put her clothes and other things into the trunk at the foot of her bed. She threw her pouch of stitching up near the pillow.
“That egg would have been there for her, waiting. Waiting for us to try,” Vara said.
“That’s what they say.”
“What if we never tried? Would the egg just sit there forever?”
“I don’t know.”
Muri propped up her pillows and sat cross-legged on the bed in front of her stitching. Vara dug in her pack to find her knitting, and the two fell into a comfortable silence, putting stitches together, each in their own way, one after another.
Another five days passed before the hatchings were finally finished. All told, nine eggs hatched in this hatching. The dragon guard never did find the man with the necklaces, though they did keep insisting on looking for an old woman, no matter what Muri said. They let Muri stay in her room until the dragon welcoming ceremony.
Somehow all of the riders and their dragons fit into the great hall to welcome the new riders and their baby dragons. The long tables that Muri had grown accustomed to taking her meals at had been removed, but the benches and chairs remained. They’d been rearranged to face the raised platform at one end of the room that usually held the food tables and some eating tables. The dragon handlers had added more chairs and benches, and Muri had helped.
Now all of the benches and chairs were filled with people, and more stood to the sides. Behind them, the dragons filled their more cavernous portion of the great hall. They rested on shelves that jutted out from the taller walls. Shelves also extended around the whole upper wall of the great hall, so that dragons ringed the whole space. Their wings sounded like paper as they shifted on their perches.
Muri had a seat near the back and almost didn’t mind the feeling of having so many dragons right behind her. In the last few days of helping the handlers, she’d learned to recognize a dragon’s smile from its eyes, and she’d found that they smiled a lot.
The crowd hushed as the new riders filed onto the stage, each holding their tiny dragon. Each rider was outfitted in rider garb, tunic, leggings, boots. They each also wore a shining necklace and a band circled their brows to mark the special occasion. Each rider’s garb matched her dragon’s colors, as was the tradition. Emy’s dragon was silvery blue, so Emy wore deep blue leggings and a tunic of heathered grays.
A silver-haired rider walked out onto the stage after the new riders and the crowd fell silent. Muri assumed she must be the rider in charge of them all. Her deep purple garb almost exactly matched the kin of the dragon that was perched on the ledge directly above the stage. The woman’s glance up at the dragon before she began speaking confirmed Muri’s guess that they were paired.
She made a speech welcoming the new riders and then two others came on stage to speak, too, one representing the palace and the other representing the mages. When they were done, the same rider came out again and the true ceremony began. One by one, each rider and dragon stepped forward.
To each rider, she asked, “What name have you chosen for your dragon?”
Each rider answered to thunderous applause, then stepped back into line.
When it was Emy’s turn, she came forward and said, “Lorna.” Her eyes searched the crowd for her mother and Muri, and her smile grew when she found them. Muri tried to clap harder than anybody else.
The next day Muri stopped at Emy’s quarters before she left. Emy saw the pack on her shoulders when she opened the door and she frowned.
“So you’re leaving?” She whispered because the baby dragon was asleep on the rug in front of the empty hearth.
Muri only nodded.
“You could stay and work as a handler. Or a caretaker,” Emy said.
“Not yet,” said Muri. “I think it’s time I get home. But I’m going to come to the testing again next year, if I save enough to pay for my passage.”
Emy’s expression brightened. “Maybe you can ride with the Torbins again. You can tell them that I did it. Became a rider.”
Muri smiled. “I’ll do that.”
She hugged Emy and Vara and they said their farewells.
The path down the mountain was clear now that the hatchings were over. The summer day smelled crisp and fresh as Muri began her hike down the valley. Dragons soared above and Muri admired their colors from below. She smiled at the feeling of safety that now came with their presence. As she approached the first bridge, she slowed. Instead of continuing down the same path, she stepped onto the bridge. The boards felt firm beneath her feet.
She paused in the middle of the bridge and turned back toward the dragon dwell, the palace, and the mage keep. She leaned on the rail and contemplated the buildings, the occasional dragon flying high above the dwell. Then, with a smile, she continued on her way.
“To the Hatchings” copyright © 2015 by Nikki Bollman