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~ Previous Chapter ~
The Dragon Moot – at last!
It was a beautiful day for flying. For once the sky was dotted with clouds, small, fluffy puffs that were almost sheep-like in their docile drifting. The sea was so clear they could see beneath to the great reefs, where fish darted away from their shadows. In the distance, the surface sparkled where sunlight played on the rolling waves. So different to the frozen north beyond the barrier.
“The winter is mild,” Reglian murmured, gliding easily alongside Hurricane, “and no doubt feels unnaturally warm to you. I remember the coldness of the mountains and the constant winds over the Cloud Sea. I may be Clan Skystorm by birth, but I confess I prefer the lower altitudes. The air is more soothing down here.”
Hurricane murmured in agreement, double flapping as Reglian slowed.
Lyrai looked ahead as they approached an island, the aim of their two day journey. From his perspective the it didn’t look like much; a fat ended egg, half filled with water in an immense cove. As they drew closer, he changed his mind. On the seaward side, white cliffs rose in jagged spires over water carved arches, which almost sealed the cove in completely, the water of which was a rich turquoise blue. The land above the pebbled beach rose in a series of semi-circular terraces, starting with shingle and rising to soft grass at the top. Each step was broad enough to fit Reglian, nose to tail, twice over or more, and as they descended the cliffs rose uncomfortably high.
Pebbles hissed and clattered when Lyrai slid from Hurricane’s back, staring around the remarkable spot and shielding his face as Rhiddyl skidded clumsily in to land, struggling to find her feet. Reglian touched down behind her with nary a whisper. When he folded his wings and took a step, however, his foot disappeared.
“Wretched place,” the big dragon rumbled, voice echoing off the cliffs as he retrieved his foot from the shingle and scowled. “What fool designated Onalon’s Cove as the Winter Moot place anyway? Onalon was a prosy bore.”
A rippling chuckle was all the warning Lyrai had before a surge of water swamped his knees. The miryhls squawked in dismay, Corin and Mhysra yelped, while Jaymes complained about water in his boots. Shaking out his soggy feet, Lyrai stroked Hurricane’s neck and stared at the cove. They had company.
“To the right ears Onalon’s words were like music,” the dragon in the water said, her distinctly feminine voice a burbling murmur that created ripples with every syllable. She was all smooth, shining scales of pale blue and green, with a webbed crest and black eyes. Her head was the same horse-like shape shared by Reglian and Rhiddyl, but shorter and softer. In fact she was smaller all round, to judge from the serpentine neck and a hint of smooth back visible above the water. “But subtlety was never a Skystorm gift.”
“Ha,” Reglian muttered, walking between the disgruntled miryhls in his human shape. “Subtle is as subtle does, Omarri, and will not save you from being boring. Onalon was a dull drake and this place is dreadful.”
A long tail slapped the waves and the water dragon gurgled with amusement. “It depends where you stand, dear Archivist. Come into the waves, the water is lovely.” With a swish of her tail, she sent a wall of sparkling spray rushing towards them.
Riders and miryhls ducked in preparation for a soaking, but Reglian thrust out his hands dismissively. A brisk wind curled up from the waves, rolling the spray over to patter harmlessly back into the sea.
“Enough, Omarri. You know salt is bad for miryhl feathers. I have no wish to carry them all back to the Archives. We are not just dragons here today, Riverstone.”
“You are such a cucumber,” Omarri grumbled, stirring the water sulkily with her flippers. “Too much time in the Archives, Thunderwing. All that dust has blown the fun right out of you.”
“Omarri kin Riverstone Clan Flowflight,” a chiming voice interrupted her insults. “Where is your Elder?”
Omarri blinked her round eyes and turned towards the slender figure walking over the shingle towards her. She ducked her head meekly. “Elder Goryal,” she greeted. “Elder Ushnarre sends their regrets, but promises to arrive as quickly as they can once their duties are concluded.”
Elder Goryal patted her green nose as though she were a pet, smiling when she nudged playfully back. “I trust all is well in the kelp nurseries.”
“Oh, yes. There was a Seadrake hatching!” Water churned as she rippled her flippers and tail excitedly.
“Now that is good news,” the elder said approvingly, echoed by a chorus of murmurs.
Lyrai turned in confusion and his jaw dropped. What so recently had been empty terraces marching up to the sky were now filled with dragons, big, small, bulky, slender and in all colours imaginable. They reclined along the terraces, tails draped carelessly over the edges, or tucked neatly around their legs. Many met Lyrai’s stare with a curiosity as frank his own, but not all were friendly.
“Do not be alarmed.” A cool breeze washed over Lyrai and ruffled Hurricane’s feathers as Rhiddyl crept around to join them, bending her head to whisper. As much as a thirty-foot dragon could whisper, at least. The dragonets on her shoulders chortled. “No one will harm you here. The Elders would not allow it.”
“Indeed,” Reglian agreed, taking Lyrai’s arm to lead him to where he’d already assembled the others – Rift Riders in front, miryhls behind. He placed Lyrai and Hurricane in the centre, between the girls. “No unauthorised violence is permitted within half a day’s flight of Onalon Cove, on pain of banishment. You are as safe here as anywhere, be it the Cleansed Lands or the cursed ones beyond. As peaceful visitors from beyond the Veil, such protection extends to you throughout our realm, until you have been Met at least.”
“Quite right, Reglian,” Elder Goryal said, following them up the beach. “A timely reminder to those who would be so foolish as to forget it.”
Casting a smile of reassurance at the Riders as they passed, Goryal crunched their way up the shore towards a knot of human-shaped dragons had gathered. With them were several vulardi, an oversized hawk and several huge seabirds. More surprising were the two large mammals, the likes of which Lyrai had never imagined. When standing their heads were level with a man’s chest. One was a plain sandy coloured cat, sleek and powerful, while the other was a beautiful wolf the colour of a stormy sky. Lyrai stared at the amazing creatures, even more fascinating than the dragons for their hint of the familiar.
As Goryal reached the group, six of the dragons stepped out to join him, including both the cat and the wolf. When the seven were neatly arranged, Goryal lifted their hands for silence. “Kin and Clans, elders and dragons, I thank you all for your attendance at this special Moot, called so soon after our last one. Allow me to begin proceedings by presenting these newcomers to you all.” They raised a hand towards the miryhls and Riders, smiled and bowed, a hand across their heart. “As Elder Goryal Clan Starshine, I greet thee, friends from beyond the Veil. Be welcome in the Cleansed Lands.”
The six dragons alongside them bowed, saying in unison, “Clan Starshine greet thee, be welcome.”
A tickle against Lyrai’s ear made him twitch, uncertain whether or not he’d just heard two distinctly different voices inside his head. He eyed the cat and wolf thoughtfully.
As the dragons gathered on the terraces split into groups to discuss the Riders and whether or not to greet them, Reglian took up a murmured commentary. “Although these occasions are often run by Clan Starshine, we dragons are not ruled by them. The other six Clans are divided into four kins, each of which has their own elder looking after them, who are in turn watched over and guided by a Clan elder. So that’s five elders for each Clan, except for Starshine, who have no kin and are all elders.”
Lyrai wasn’t the only one left rubbing his head over this.
“That’s a lot of elders,” Cumulo pointed out.
Reglian grinned at him. “Indeed. At present, we have thirty-seven Elders, although three are not here today. But considering that they are responsible for the care of all dragons, the number is perhaps not so very large.”
“Why is Starshine different?” Lyrai asked, looking at Goryal and their companions, unable to see anything obvious that set them apart.
“They are our smallest Clan,” Reglian explained. “And our most powerful. As dragons age, one of two things will happen. For most, we grow slower and harder, turning ever more stone like before eventually falling into a long sleep of petrifaction. But a select few become smaller, shrinking in size but growing in power. Instead of petrifying, they ascend to a new level of magic, leaving behind all ties of kin and Clan and instead becoming Starshine. Because they are so powerful, ancient and rare, each of them becomes an elder in their own right. No one knows why any one dragon ascends over another, all we know is that age is a factor.”
“How old must they be to become an elder, not just in Starshine, but in any of the however many Clans?” Corin asked, always the curious one, while the dragons continued to mutter amongst themselves, clearly undecided over whether or not they wished to welcome humans into the Cleansed Lands again.
“Old,” answered Rhiddyl with obvious amusement. “And there are seven Clans, Corin, each to honour the Divine Family, the founders and ancestors of all high dragon kin.”
“Father Sun and Mother Sky, who above us always fly. Brother Wind and Sister Storm, from whence our wings are born. Sibling Water and Sibling Stone, combining strength of blood and bone. And over all, watching from afar, keeper of wisdom, Ancestor Star,” Rhiddyl and Reglian murmured together.
“The poetry is poor,” Reglian sniffed. “But humans made it to help remember our ways and it serves well enough for our young when we first learn your various tongues. Without the rhymes our Clans are Sunlord, Highflight, Swiftwing, Skystorm, Flowflight, Stoneheart and Starshine.”
“There is an eighth,” Rhiddyl said slowly. “Of whom we rarely speak. The End Dragon, Shadowheart, Darknight, Ancestor Time, whose Clan is greatest as it gathers us all in the end.” When Reglian frowned at her for speaking out of turn, the young dragon hunched defensively. “If we are educating them, best do it properly.”
“Perhaps,” the older dragon murmured, then smiled as silence descended on the terraces and the first Clan descended in full form. “Ha! I knew Skystorm would not fail us.”
“With two of us standing over here it would look rather strange,” Rhiddyl muttered, cowering when an imposing grey dragon with bright blue eyes glared at her. “Elder Narrawyn assigned me to the Stormwash.”
“She’s proud of you really,” Reglian assured him absently, as the kin Tempestfury elder welcomed the Riders with bad grace. Following her lead, the other Skystorm kin – Lightstorm, Thunderwing and Stormdrake – swiftly followed suit. Elder kin Thunderwing was an even more enormous black and copper version of Reglian. Looking over at the humans, the elder winked a bright copper eye.
Next came Clan Sunlord, all fire and smoke in looks and voice, Clan Highflight followed, with a cooler, more aloof set of Elders. Clan Swiftwing were a little dreamy-eyed and lithe, while Clan Flowflight preferred to stay in the water, but nevertheless said all the correct words. With Starshine having already passed on their greeting, all that remained were the Stonehearts.
They did not look happy. Four of the Clan were big and bulky, earth-toned and stone-faced, while the third was smaller and more lithe, with scales that glimmered like jewels. Their claws glittered in the same way. This dragon had no need for jewellery and Lyrai had no doubt he was looking at Elder kin Jewelwing.
Sensing his scrutiny the dragon glanced his way, with a flash of emerald eyes and diamond-bright teeth.
From a human it might have been called a smile, but they weren’t human and Lyrai wasn’t stupid. At the bottom of his pack, placed there on Hurricane’s insistence, was an emerald scale as big as his hand, ripped from a dragon with eyes just like theirs. Dragons weren’t human, no matter what form they took, and plenty still possessed a predator’s soul. Lyrai took that flash of teeth the way it was intended: he’d been warned. Not that he planned to fight another dragon any time soon.
After much shifting of their bulk, the biggest of the Stonehearts finally bowed. It was curt and perfunctory, the look in their dark eyes dismissive, their expression disgusted. “I, Wharrol, Elder Clan Stoneheart, Meet thee.” The huge green dragon paused, then flexed their wings and raised their chin. “You are not welcome in the Cleansed Lands.”
Before the surprise could race around the cove, the Jewelwing elder sprang forward. “I, Elder Jarvenara kin Jewelwing, do challenge thee, trespassers. You have been rejected and have no rights here. Is there a champion who will serve for my kin and Clan?”
It was happening so fast that the rest of the Clans were scrabbling to keep up. An uproar rippled around the terraces as dragon glanced at dragon, trying to decide if ever such a thing had happened before.
Only Lyrai was unsurprised to see a familiar dragon bound down the terraces and glide across the beach.
“For the dishonour to myself, my kin and my Clan, I, Jarvenerald kin Jewelwing Clan Stoneheart, do challenge Prince Lyrai Henstrati Henrykran, unwelcome trespasser in the Cleansed Lands, to face me in single combat.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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