“Fold down your wings,” per Grogan said. He was huddled up almost in the shape of an egg, his words gruff and hard to hear against the wind. His gnarled old feet, missing the third claw on the left side, were barely visible beneath the curve of his chest. His scales lay taut against his aged sides, flattened down for warmth, less open to the wind. Yawning, he said, “It might be nightfall before Grystina calls. You need to conserve your energy for battle. You’re supposed to be presenting a measure of pride not hopping about like a giddy wearling. It will not look well if you fall off this mountain before you have the chance to raise your claws against G’vard.”
“I can’t settle,” said Gabrial, letting the wind lift his wings to their maximum. His underwings, which were the colour of blue ice water, glinted in the frost-cooled sun. Across the valley, where the snow-capped mountains were arranged in a wave as blunt and uneven as per Grogan’s teeth, G’vard would be waiting with his second, per Gorst. All that stood between them was a strip of fine cloud and this deep pool of air. Far below, safe in her birthing cave, the matrial dragon, Grystina, was curled around her hatching eggs. As soon as they broke she would call for a guardian to protect her young, a dragon to be her companion for life, a dragon that would have the right to call itself ‘father’.
Gabrial was nine Ki:meran turns old, half the age of his powerful opponent. He was also a blue, technically a minor in dragon years, a turn or so away from the first blush of green that would earn him the status of roamer, a dragon free to fly where he chose. But the Wearle had known guardian blues before. Most notably Gabrial’s father, Garon, who had never quite lost the blue tints on his underwings and had always been classified by that colour. When he thought about his father, Gabrial’s wings did lower. Garon had been among the first Wearle of dragons to visit this planet, an expedition whose fate was still shrouded in mystery. For some reason, as yet undetermined, contact with them had ended abruptly. On the dragons’ homeworld of Ki:mera, the Elders had consulted and decided to send a second, larger party to investigate. Among the sixty that arrived on Erth were mappers, healers, roamers, three Elders, two representatives of the intelligent class of dragons known as De:allus, and an entire wyng of fighting dragons called the Veng. The new Wearle immediately colonised a mountain range close to the open sea, just as their predecessors had. Three phases of the moon had passed, but they had found no trace of the missing dragons. And while the search for them was the highest priority that Gabrial and his companions faced, all other rituals were being observed – including the raising of young.
“Your impatience will be your undoing,” sighed Grogan. He belched and a curl of smoke rose from one nostril. “The whole Wearle expects you to lose this contest. If you’re happy to prove them right from the outset, then flap away and be done with it.”
“I’m not intending to lose,” said Gabrial, clawing slivers of grey shale loose from the ground on which he was perched. Such was the heat pouring off his body that most of the snow around him had melted, paring back the crisp white surface to its wet grey underbelly. “Why are you here if you believe that I will?”
Per Grogan belched again. “Tradition demands you have a second for a fight like this. Someone has to see to it you don’t make a fool of yourself. Rightly or wrongly, I promised your father I would watch over you until your scales turned green – a reckless statement I might yet have cause to regret. What will be the most damaging, I wonder, following you to this dangerous new world or the prospect of ridicule if this one-sided ‘contest’ does not go well.”
“At least I put myself forward,” growled Gabrial, spitting orange-tipped embers around his feet. He watched a pair of roamers set down on a peak due east of him. Once Grystina gave her call, this entire ring of mountains would be filled with dragons, keen to observe the battle for her.
“And for that you have my respect,” said Grogan, tipping his grey head forward a little, “but don’t let this brief flirtation with glory puddle your brain. You’re only here because the more eligible young dragons know what the outcome would be if they fought G’vard. They applaud you while blowing a snort of relief.”
Gabrial barrelled his chest. “I courted Grystina and she did not reject me, therefore I have to fight for her. My father would be proud of me.”
“Your father was impetuous,” Grogan sighed, his scales clattering quietly as the wind got under them, “a quality you seem to have inherited in plenty. But even he would accept it takes more than raw courage to defeat an opponent as powerful as this. G’vard will put your tail in a knot if you try to blaze your way past him. Stick to the tactics we devised and you’ll hopefully survive with your wings unclipped. An honourable defeat is no shame, believe me. Put up a good display and the Elders might give you a wyng to command. Think of it as a training exercise, practice for the battle you really want to win.”
Gabrial tightened his eye ridges slightly. “What do you mean?”
“Some matches are more appropriate than others,” muttered Grogan, looking across the valley for signs of movement. “We both know your second heart beats for another.”
Gabrial gulped and ingested a wisp of smoke, passing it out through the spiracles that lined the sides of his neck. He stared into the open sky as if mesmerised by a drifting cloud. His soft blue eyes, yet to develop their jewelled state, barely moved as he thought about what Grogan had said. Three females had come to Erth with this Wearle. One was Grystina. Another was the ageing queen, Gossana, a dragon so fearsome even the Veng avoided her. And then there was Grendel, the youngest of the three, whose primary role was to assist Grystina throughout her laying cycle and beyond. Whenever Gabrial thought about Grendel, the scales around his snout turned a deep shade of green. He couldn’t hide the change in his colouring now.
Without looking at his charge, per Grogan said, “I have seen the admiration you have for Grendel – and the regard she reserves for you.”
“Really?” Gabrial said, slipping forward as his feet danced on the wet rocks. “You’ve spoken to her? She—?”
Before he could go on, a screech wound up from the pit of the valley, clawing at every fissure of rock along its way.
“That’s Grystina. She’s ready. Prepare yourself,” said Grogan.
“Yes,” said Gabrial, snapping to attention. It was true that his second heart ached for Grendel, but his primary heart was in control now, pumping great waves of energy through his body, heating his blood till the veins began to swell. He punched out his wings to steady himself, sending a snow cloud sideways over Grogan. By the time the flakes had settled, per Grogan had raised himself and the mountain tops were rumbling to the roars of dragons eager to see a fight. One roar carried above all others. It came from a distant peak directly opposite Gabrial’s perch.
“That’s G’vard,” Grogan said. “He lays claim to Grystina and demands you stand down. You must answer him.”
Gabrial knew this and was ready. For two days, since the Elders had accepted his challenge, he’d been training his throat to deliver the most powerful response it was capable of. Unlatching the bones at the base of his jaw, he clicked his mouth wide and called up a bellow which drove aside a wide cone of air and coloured the world every shade of orange. His fire reached into the valley in a jet half as long again as his body. There was a little more squeal to it than he would have liked and per Grogan was visibly displeased by the energy wasted in making a sound of such magnitude, but the effect was just what Gabrial had wanted. All around the mountain tops the air was popping with similar bursts of colour. The watching dragons were becoming excited. Perhaps the battle for Grystina would not be as one-sided as the odds suggested?
G’vard called again, strength and purpose pouring out of his lungs.
“Now you’ve angered him,” sighed Grogan. “That’s not a good start. And it won’t impress the Elders either.” He swivelled his eyes toward the peak of the mountain the dragons called Skytouch where the silhouettes of the Prime dragon, Galarhade, and the other two Elders had appeared. “This is not a fight to the death, remember? Produce a flame like that in battle and Galarhade will kill you if G’vard doesn’t. All you’re aiming to do is take a scale, not turn him to ash. Are you clear about the rules?”
Gabrial nodded. “I can flame and claw, but not stab or bite. Eyes and hearts must always be avoided.”
“Good. What else?”
“None whatsoever,” said Grogan. “Any movements through time, no matter how minor, will be seen as cheating. You’ll be back in Ki:mera before you can scrape your last meal off your teeth if Galarhade detects a change in the continuum. What else?”
A second call went up from Grystina, the final call to battle. The assembled dragons burned the air in acknowledgement. All along the skyline now, more were arriving like a flock of giant birds. G’vard threw out another fierce roar.
“What else?” per Grogan repeated harshly, lashing his tail across Gabrial’s chest to prevent the young dragon from launching too soon.
Gabrial roiled his wings in frustration. “Only one i:mage.”
Per Grogan nodded. “One. Don’t waste it.” He pulled his tail away and Gabrial launched. “Stay low!” the old dragon bellowed, adding to himself, “The less far you have to fall, the easier it will be to stand up tomorrow…” And then he took to the rock that Gabrial had vacated and bellowed to per Gorst that his charge was in the air.
Likewise, per Gorst let it be known that G’vard had launched.
Two dragons, one theatre of air.
The battle for Grystina had begun.