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The Guardians And the Heirs of the Brown Dragon
By Katherine M. L. Smith
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Katherine M. L. Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe West Coast was silent. The night sky stretched like a glittering tapestry over the shadowy ocean as waves lapped quietly at the shoreline. Massive, dark rock formations stood soundless around the coast where gigantic walls of rock shot straight up towards the cliffs and the grassy land above. Indented in these walls were several smallish caves, hollowed out by ancient underground rivers when the world had been young. The caves reached far back into the depths of the earth, but whatever lurked deep down in there never came up. Even if it did, such a creature would flee at the sight of a certain family of dragons nesting in the entrance to one of these caves.
The biggest dragon slept in the front of the cave, half his nose poking out to scent intruders. Behind him, settled on a nest of rocks, dried seaweed, and bits of this and that, was his mate. She breathed easily and quietly, so as not to disturb the seven balls of fuzz curled up beside her. These were her dragonets—her young. She kept them close, lest someone or something should happen to sneak by her mate and try to get at her babies. Such an event, however, was rare. Nobody dared to mess with a fully-grown male dragon and his protective, equally-lethal mate.
One of the balls of fuzz squeaked in his sleep and stirred. He was smaller than the others, blue, with delicate wings. His foot twitched. Then he gasped and jerked awake, knocking his head on his mother's elbow and disturbing his siblings curled beside him in the nest. Rubbing his head, the little dragon blinked huge brown eyes and tested the air with a highly-sensitive, forked tongue. The vibrations were still and silent. The rest of his body, however, was covered in a cold sweat.
"Umphy? Are you alright?"
The little dragon turned. The eldest of his siblings, Possa, was awake and staring at him.
"I think I was dreaming again," he said softly. "My stomach hurts."
"What was it?" Possa enquired curiously. It was a well-known fact that dragons did not have the gift of night-thought, commonly referred to by humans as dreams. A dragon who dreamed was considered to be insane and an outcast. But Possa had not the heart to tell her elders about her darling little brother. She was curious to know what dreams were like. She pressed him again for answers.
Umphy trembled. "I saw the white lady again. She stood beside a very tall tree with silver veins and gold-rimmed leaves, and three rivers flowed from it, going north, east, and west. The riverbed going south was dried up."
"The Tree of Life!" Possa said reverently. The Tree of Life stood in the very center of the land of Balské, in a garden protected by very powerful spirits. Its rivers fed the three most prominent areas of the land, like a constant blessing. "Go on, Umphy. What happened next?"
"The lady stood beside the tree by the dried up riverbed. She said, 'This will run again when the crown is complete.' And then she pointed upwards, and ... and suddenly I was up in the tree, high off the ground, and sitting on a branch near the top of the tree. Surrounding me were eight identical branches all parallel to each other in a circle, like the rim of a crown, and there were—" Umphy looked at his sister. "Possa, they looked like owl-holes, but they were all the same size and shape—as if something was meant to fit inside. And I thought—it was funny, but I thought—"
"What?" Possa gave her brother a small push.
"I thought to myself, the crown is missing its jewels."
Possa was quiet for a minute. "Did she sing to you again?"
"Oh, yes." Umphy dutifully recited:
And he who asks first knock.
The mountain dark, the people dread
Who live beneath the rocky ledge.
They guard me, keep me safe from harm.
Lest evil come and cast its charm.
Find me, take me, if you can:
I solve doors and puzzles, heart of man.
Where to find me? The wise man knows.
Find him where the blue stone grows.
Use me well when thrice the sun
Makes its turn on its fifth run.
Then let me lead thee, guide thee on
Behind the wall of silver-stone.
I'll take thee to three golden halls
And on beyond the valley falls.
There, silver bells are hung in rows
And brightly gleams the red-red rose.
The tree is tall; the dragon brown
Within that hall who lives deep down.
The empress white; her satin gown
Ripples eight beneath her crown!
The day on which I shall awake
Will be the day the foe's life I take.
And set me once again within the hand
That forever more will rule the land.
"When the lullaby ended, I saw a flash of amber eyes and a wave of fire. My stomach hurts awfully." Umphy clutched his stomach and winced. Of all seven dragonets, he was the youngest, a runt from birth, and naturally sickly. His dreams had begun only within his third year of life; he was not yet four years old. All dragons marked their stages of life according to the years they lived; the first ten years were bolora years, and the next ten were keldora years. When a dragon reached the age of twenty, he or she was free to seek a mate and become a master and mistress. Dragons usually mated once for life, and gave birth to two broods of never more than ten at a time. Weaklings, runts, and mortally-sick dragonets were cast off from their clans in order to ensure the healthy development of their species. Umphy's mother, however, was an unusally kind-hearted drakona. She was the protective shield that guarded him from the fate other runts faced at birth and continued to look after him as he grew older. Nevertheless, with his dreams and illnesses, Umphy continued to walk a very thin line. Only Possa knew of his dreams, and only Possa would ever know of the stomachaches that accompanied them.
"Wait here." Possa slid over the side of the nest and hurried down the dark tunnel. She returned a moment later with a dark green plant. "Eat this," she said, climbing back into the nest and handing it to her brother. "It will make you feel better."
"Possa, when you become a keldora, you should think about apprenticing yourself to the healers," Umphy smiled and munched the plant. It had a strong, pungent smell and almost bitter taste, but his stomach felt better afterwards. "You're so clever with herbs."
The pretty young drakona made a funny face. "Too much learning for my taste. I've already asked for permission to go adventuring across the oceans. Papa says that if I behave myself, he'll take me to the islands in a few years. Then I can venture out on my own, officially." Possa watched her brother anxiously. "I might take you along with me, if you want."
Umphy snuggled up beside his sister. "I'd like that. But papa would be very angry if I didn't try to make my own way in the world."
She folded her wing over him, like a tent. "Baby brother mine, you might never leave these coves. You were born a runt, remember? Besides, you don't even know what you want to do in life, or what path you want to take. The only things you enjoy are playing your flute and exploring." She tweaked his nose. "And you have night-thoughts."
Umphy sighed. He already knew that his life would never measure up to a normal dragon's. But he felt in his heart that his path was something special and unlike any other's.
"The lady in white is trying to tell me something," he declared firmly. "Someday I will go adventuring on my own, like you, and I'll find her. I'll be a great hero, you just wait and see! And I'll bring you a beautiful golden statue from a faraway palace."
Possa laughed. "You've got your head up in the clouds, Umphy. I'd love to have a golden statue in my cave. But I'd rather have you, safe and sound, than all the golden statues in the world."
When morning dawned at last, the early mist lifted, revealing a pristine day. Spring was in the air; the Sunstar dragon clan had survived another harsh winter, and now they welcomed the warmth of the sun, eager to soak up its light and heat. The tide was out, exposing tide-pools and a smooth blanket of golden sand for miles up and down the West Coast, which was famous for its beaches, magnificent tide-pools, and exotic sea-creatures. The sun shone warmly upon the glittering waves of the sea, and gulls chased each other around the cove, searching for bits of fish and crab.
In the cave, tiny yawns announced the waking dragonets. One by one, several carefully poked their noses around the edge of the cave, sniffing the air and testing it with their tongues. Then, squealing with glee and tumbling over each other in their haste, the little dragons raced out to the tide-pools. They enjoyed collecting tiny mole crabs that buried in the sand, or the infant hermit-crabs that nestled in the seaweed patches. Seashells, sea-glass, driftwood, and varieties of seaweed littered the foam-speckled tide-line. The sand was wet enough to build sand-castles. When the tide was out, it was the perfect time to go play and explore.
Umphy sat on the beach with his flute and played for a small audience of gulls that hopped closer to listen. Possa had ingeniously crafted the flute out of smooth white driftwood and given it to her little brother for his second birthday. Umphy was somewhat of a music prodigy, and even the clan Matriarch had remarked once that his talent was unique and remarkable. He was fluting a childhood nursery rhyme when his older brother Kestern snuck up behind him and yanked sharply on his tail. "OUCH!! Kestern, knock it off!"
Kestern snorted. "Come on, dimwit. The tide's out. I thought you'd like to go out to the plateau today with me."
"I can't go," Umphy muttered angrily, clutching his flute tightly to his chest. "You know darn well I can't go." It was just like Kestern to make fun of him like that! The dragonets practiced their flying skills from the height of a hundred-foot plateau that rose out of the sea close to the coves. Umphy, however, was far too young, and his wings, delicate in their fibers, were not yet strong enough to take the wind. Umphy's mother had repeatedly told him never to approach the plateau, and Kestern bullied and teased his little brother for being the runt of the family. Umphy was frustrated by his incapacities and his brother's teasing did not help. But today Kestern only shrugged and smiled good-naturedly.
"Suit yourself. I thought you'd like to at least try. But if you're too scared—"
"I am not!"
"You are, too! Look, I bet today will be your lucky day. Come on, what's it hurt to try? I'll rescue you if you fall or something."
Umphy carefully laid his flute down on the sand. "If you promise ..."
"Sure," Kestern's yellow eyes twinkled. "I'll even give you some pointers on how to fly."
Inside the cave, the female dragon, Rana, watched her little ones playing and smiled. A dragonet's young stages of life were most important for learning to trust their senses and to develop various motor skills and flexibility that would aid them in battle someday. Experience was a dragon's most powerful teacher.
Rana's mate, Eitelve Firetongue, stood beside her and covered her tenderly with a wing. He was a large, powerful dragon with horns that sprouted from his head and curved wickedly down around his jaw. Muscles rippled beneath the black sheen of his scales, and yellow claws gripped the earth. Few other dragons ever crossed him. He was not a purebred Green Dragon, nor had his kin been a gentle species. Opposites dwelled in him; he was violent and temperamental like a storm at sea and yet as kind and gentle as a summer breeze. But he had always been aware of himself, inside and out, and suppressed his raging emotions in order to be a protective husband and responsible father. "Did Umphy go to play with his siblings?"
"Why should he not? He's old enough to look after himself." If Eitelve was a smoldering volcano, his mate, Rana, was the soft rain that calmed his temper. She and her mate had been divided once over their youngest son. Runts were an impediment to a clan, but Rana opposed her husband's traditional view of the deadly solution and raised her son like her other children. Nevertheless, Eitelve still fretted and worried in his strong, silent way.
"Age does not always incur wisdom. Umphy is curious and irresponsible. Lately, we haven't been able to keep him still for five minutes before he is off snuffling after some new interest."
"His mind is opening to the world."
Eitelve raised one eyebrow skeptically. "I hope so, for his sake. We cannot afford to have mindless youngsters in the clan, Rana. Not now. But neither can we have curious dragonets who snuffle after every hermit crab that walks by. These are dangerous times we're living in."
"You speak as though you've heard some news." Rana willed herself to stay calm. Eitelve turned away from his wife to watch the dragonets playing outside. He seemed hesitant.
"I was speaking to Deral of the Rockflower clan. He lives closer to the southwest."
"I remember him. He took a mate from our clan almost ten years ago, Ophria. She was my childhood playmate. I remember she said that Deral lives too close to the land of Hebaruin for her taste."
"It is his beneficial location. He has a spy-chain down there; creatures report just about anything and everything to him, and then he passes the information along. He thought I should know."
"Know about what? What is it, Eitelve?"
"There's talk down there, love. Talk of the Black Dragon. Of Morbane."
A heavy silence hung in the air. Black Dragon, Black Death, Rana's father used to say. And when there is Black Death, Black Hope as well. The Guardians feared the Black Dragon of the South more than any other foe. Rana came and stood beside her husband, shoulder to shoulder. "What did Deral say?"
"The South has had recent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Tree of Death is shifting. They say Morbane is restless."
"Eitelve, stop beating around the bush and tell me. Has Morbane risen?"
There was a long silence before the master replied to his mate.
"Not yet. But they say soon."
High up on the rocks, Umphy watched Kestern dive off the rim of the plateau and soar around the ocean waves, hooting as loud as he could. Umphy trembled in anticipation. He knew that his own wings were too weak for flight yet, but his courage and will were both strong as iron. He felt as though he could conquer the world! He could hardly wait to try flying.
Kestern came soaring back with a hoot and a holler, smiling in mock cheerfulness at his brother. The wind had picked up slightly, but Umphy was grateful for that. It would lend him aid for his wings.
"It's your turn," Kestern offered, with the innocence of a newborn lamb.
"How do I do that?" Umphy asked, all agog.
"Take a giant running leap and spread your wings. Catch the wind with 'em. You'll have the time of your life, I promise."
"Is that a squall coming up?" Umphy pointed to a thin line of gray clouds on the horizon.
"It won't touch us for several hours yet. Come on, what are you waiting for? Don't be nervous. Hurry up and jump!" Kestern's look of brotherly affection turned into one of impatience.
Umphy took a deep breath and ran full-speed ahead at the edge of the plateau. He spread his wings and took a mighty leap into space, feeling, for a brief instant, the warmth of the sun on his face and the wind through his fuzz.
Then he began to fall.
Umphy, panicking, tried to flap his wings, but the underdeveloped skeletal structure and thin-veined webbing was not fit yet for flight. Umphy felt a searing pain through one wing as a tendon snapped brutally, and both wings crumpled like paper as he fell like a stone a hundred feet to the cold water below. Umphy screamed and clutched for support, but his paws clamped down on nothing but air. A rush of wind passed him, and then pain shot through his body as he hit the pounding waves of the sea below. Salt water filled his nostrils as he inhaled sharply, and then he couldn't breathe and the world went dark as he sank like a stone.
Excerpted from The Guardians And the Heirs of the Brown Dragon by Katherine M. L. Smith Copyright © 2011 by Katherine M. L. Smith. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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