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Darian outpaced me, but I knew where he was going. I could hear him in the brush ahead. Eventually I stopped trying to catch up to him and slowed to a walk. The day was bright and warm, but the cool green shadows and the rich, damp smell of earth and leaves refreshed me. The underbrush whipped against my legs.
On a normal day, we’d have taken our time checking the snares. There were wild berries in season. Choice mushrooms in the shadows. Other treasures to be found—arrowheads or spear points, or ancient, rusted pieces of machinery. But Darian had gone straight to our most productive trap, the one near the ruins.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Fren, or about Father’s anger. The day felt wrong—a confused mix of sun and warmth, terror and guilt, joy and sorrow. I was frowning when I caught up to Darian at last.
The crumbling walls and pillars of an ancient temple compound broke up the trees. More light reached the understory so there were tender leaves in abundance, and a small rivulet of snowmelt from the higher peaks provided fresh water. It never failed to bring grazers into our snare. A small deer had been impaled on the spear and lifted up above the reach of groundling predators. Darian had lowered the catch, reset the trap, and now prepared to dress the little deer.
I plucked some berries from a nearby bush; I didn’t want to see more blood. I sat on a block of marble with a pile of berries in my lap. I was often drawn to the ruins when Darian was busy with other tasks or when my own duties gave me an hour to myself. Riding on Grus, Mother used to bring me to the ruins for picnics when I was small. I felt a chill, as if her ghost were here and had brushed against me. I pushed the memories down and let the tumbled blocks and pillars distract me.
We didn’t know their story completely. The dhalla—Mabir, our local Temple priest—talked about it often, but we didn’t understand half of what he said. There was a name—Cinvat—an ancient city buried somewhere in the forest beyond the ridge that this temple once served. We knew the tales were important, of course, and that someone had put great effort into this ancient shrine. I liked to study the crumbling walls and the stumps of marble columns, all covered with remnants of carvings that suggested a story long lost. A statue made of two different colors of stone dominated the center of the patio. It showed two dragons, a black one carved out of dark stone below and a white one made of marble above, locked in combat. They didn’t look like our dragons.
“I wonder who carved them,” I wiped berry juice from my chin.
“You know—old dead people,” said Darian.
I scowled at him.
We knew they were Avar—the dhalla said so—High Dragons like the Emperor’s mysterious Korruzon. The White Dragon was Menog, and the black one was Dahak—that much I remembered, and their struggle was the epic climax to an ancient tale. A cataclysmic war had ended here long ago, but somehow the details never stuck with me.
“Were they real?”
“Of course they were.” Darian continued sawing with his knife.
I’d never before wondered if they represented something real. The ruins had only ever been inspiration for our imaginations. We summoned up armies of monsters to face and defeat in the course of a summer’s afternoon, before we climbed the cliffs overlooking the Copper Sea to watch the kiting of the ocean birds, which became fleets of attacking dragons in our eyes. We knew those tales best, for they were our tales, not like those of the dhalla. We were the heroes, and the victories were ours.
“Do you suppose our games were like . . .” I frowned, considering how to phrase the question, “like the ghosts of these people, trying to tell us their story?”
Darian looked up at me with one eyebrow raised. “That’s crazy-talk, Maia. I have no idea what you just said.”
I let it go. I wasn’t sure what I meant myself.
He finished dressing the deer and tossed the entrails into the bushes for smaller predators to find. Then he put the carcass out of the sun and washed his hands in the stream.
The perfect afternoon settled around me like a warm blanket. Perhaps Darian had been right to drag me out here after all. He could be a good friend when he wanted to be. I felt better.
But I knew we’d lingered long enough. “We need to get back, Dare.”
“There’s something I have to tell you, Maia.” I saw that same expression of unresolved conflict on his face.
My breath caught in my throat. “What?”
Darian scowled and kicked some dirt over the bloodied earth at his feet. “You’re not going to get a qit this year.”
Oh no . . . “This was our largest brood ever, with lots of—”
“Listen to me.”
He looked intensely uncomfortable, but finally managed to look me in the eyes again. “I overheard Father and Tauman talking last week, after the courier left. Something is going on . . . some new expedition or defense. The Ministry is grabbing up every baby it can. I don’t know what happened, but Father told Tauman that it sounded bad, like the Emperor is worried. Father said we may not keep any dragons this year or next.”
“Or next?” My stomach sank.
“Which means I don’t get a dragon either, Maia. If we can’t keep two, we probably can’t keep any. A breeding pair has to bond early, right? The Ministry asked for a lot of babies. We could buy a second qit from one of the other aeries. Cuuloda maybe. But the Ministry isn’t leaving any to buy.”
“You’re certain?” I fought back anger.
“I’m sorry, Kidling.” That was the nickname he used when he needed to be both an older superior and a friend. “Tauman tried to convince Father. But the choice isn’t really theirs to make. It’s just not going to happen.” Darian sat down next to me and put an arm around my shoulder. I shrugged it off. His hands flopped resignedly into his lap. The silence swallowed me. Words would not come.
Father had to make decisions based on business, but this made no sense to me. Could the Ministry really need so many qits that we couldn’t keep just two? Wouldn’t another breeding pair give them even more qits in the future?
No dragon. The little brown and buff female wouldn’t be mine, even though she and I both knew it was right—that we belonged to each other.
No dragon. I buried my head in my arms and remained that way for a long time. Darian was silent but stayed beside me. Finally, his arm tested my shoulders again. This time I allowed it. The events of this morning now felt like a prelude, a sure sign that things weren’t going to go well.
I thought of my mother again. “Dare . . . do you believe in curses?”
“No. Why would you ask such a question?”
I looked up and swallowed. “Do you think it’s possible for angry words and,” my voice caught, “bad deeds to create a curse, without meaning to?”
“You’re not cursed, Maia, if that’s what you’re thinking. Sometimes bad things just happen.” He hugged me a little tighter. “You have to learn to trust yourself.”
The world around us seemed eerily aware of my sorrow. A dead calm settled. The air had grown perfectly still. Not a bird or insect stirred.
“Listen how quiet it is.” Having made the observation, it suddenly struck me as unnatural, and Darian stiffened.
A soft whoosh of air rattled the leaves above us, and a shadow blotted the sun. Our heads snapped up, and the silhouette of a huge dragon passed above the treetops. As we gaped, the great beast sculled the air once, twice, with wings like the sails of a ship, and settled upon the tumble of ruins crowning the hill above.
It was the biggest thing I’d ever seen, colored like the sunset on a bronzed ocean horizon, with tinges of green at the edges of the wings and frill. It had horns like the twisted trunks of trees, and muscles that rippled with every least movement. Its scent wafted down the breeze toward us, rich with stone and earth, sap and spices, rain and lightning. It stretched upward and shook its mighty head so that the frill snapped like a flag. Then it looked lazily around, seemingly oblivious to our presence just down the hill. The air was charged with electricity.
I didn’t feel Darian’s hand on my arm until he shook me twice. “That’s a High Dragon!” he whispered. “Maybe even Getig, the Summer Dragon!” I was too dumbstruck to speak. “Do you know what that means?” he asked, but I wasn’t listening. I stood and started up the hill, drawn irresistibly to the magnificence of this animal. I disturbed a stone with my foot, and the great head turned our way. His gaze met my own briefly, and a chill shot down my spine, freezing my feet to the ground.
His eyes were molten copper orbs, the slits narrowed against the strong light. He fixed me with a look of stern evaluation, and I sensed an import, a sad urgency that I could not define. Time stopped as I tried to make meaning out of this strangely intimate gaze. My heart didn’t beat, my breath caught in my chest. Then the magnificent head dipped slightly, as if in acknowledgement of something, and he launched into the sky with a loud crack of leather and rush of air. He disappeared beyond the crest of the hill.
I tried to follow, but Darian pulled me backward by the shirt. “Do you know what this means? It’s a sign! The Summer Dragon! It’s a sign of big changes!” Darian took my face in his hands and made me look right at him. “I’m going to get my dragon!” He laughed. “Come on!”
Then he was galloping down the hill toward the compound. I looked one more time at the hilltop, trying to see the beast again in my mind. As I turned, the statue of Menog and Dahak caught my eye. I knew in that instant that the sculptor had seen the Avar. He had known what they looked like. Before I’d always thought the sculpture exaggerated, but now I saw it was a subtle and realistic portrait. The arch of their necks, the breadth of their chests, the musculature of the wings—it was perfect.
The breeze stirred again at last, swirling some leaves about my ankles. Insects chirruped once more in the trees. A bird trilled lightly nearby. Darian’s feet crashed through the distant forest, and one long, happy whoohoo! echoed through the valley.
The absence at the top of the hill drew me. Before I realized, I’d started the climb. I crawled over lichen-covered boulders and logs, leapt a rivulet, scrambled through some ferns and bracken, and found the foot trail to the crest. Soon I emerged into sunlight, on the very spot where the creature stood when his eyes met mine. His scent still lingered among the scattered ruins—a summer smell of orchards and grass and earth, but no other sign that he’d been here. I hopped onto the highest outcropping, my arms wrapped around the stump of a pillar, and scanned the landscape beyond.
The sky was empty but for a few scudding drifts of cloud. Cliffs shone on the far side of the valley. For a moment I expected to see him there—we knew that wild dragons sometimes nested among those steep crags where they could command a view of everything that moved in the woods below. On occasion Mother and Darian and I had picnicked right here, to watch them wheeling in the far-off currents.
But this wasn’t one of the wildings, and I could see no dragons there now.
“Where did you go?” I could still smell him. Or was I simply more aware of the scents of summer? The birds’ calls were bright, melodic notes playing above the rush and murmur of the wind. The trees danced in undulating waves. I could feel the entire mass of the world below and around me, its tumble toward night, the pull of the universe on my bones. I closed my eyes; it felt like flying and falling all at once.
Was that him making me feel this way? Was that Getig? I’d been on the verge of tears just a few minutes before, but now I couldn’t help smiling as I viewed the valley. It seemed more than it was before, transformed in some indefinable way. Greener. More alive.
Sunlight flashed on something white in the trees below. My heightened awareness drew me to it. So out of place—a stark brightness in the deep shade. Intrigued, I gauged its direction from where I stood, climbed down from the outcropping, and slid my way down the scree slope below.
The trees below dwarfed any on our side of the hill, the undergrowth more lush and tangled. I fought my way through the dense border and into the open shade beneath the canopy. The air was cooler, rich with the smell of humus. The boles of the trees were straight and branchless, like pillars in a temple. Sunlight reduced to thin shafts of gauzy green flickered in and out of sight. Moss made the boulders and logs of the forest floor into a strangely smooth landscape of alien shapes. Frogs croaked nearby, but eerily, the moss deadened all sound.
I considered my bearings, then headed into the still, green depths. The terrain rose gently, and soon I saw sun flash on white ahead of me once again. A slab of broken stone, like an altar, created a space among the trees where sunbeams danced. Moss gave way to light-starved saplings, ferns, and the occasional wildflower. In the center of the table lay the corpse of a dragon.
It hadn’t been dead long, but scavengers had already stripped away most of the soft flesh. The white I’d seen was the skull, grinning nakedly, with only a few remnants of skin on cheek and forehead. Its remaining scales were a dusty stone color with patches of bronze, fairly common among the local mountain breed. Its neck was arched back in the contortions of death, the wings drawn in like crumpled tents. The torso was hollowed out, leaving a shell of ribs that crawled with ants and flies. The stench hit me all at once, and I moved to the upwind side. It didn’t help much, but I was both fascinated and repulsed.
It couldn’t have been very old—perhaps two or three years, judging by the size and what remained of the frill. I couldn’t tell if it was male or female, but it would have been saddle-trained long since had it been one of ours. It might even have been old enough to breed, had it found a mate. It wouldn’t have been as healthy as our farm-fed breeding stock, but would have been tough and smart. A serious injury might lead to starvation and death, but a dragon had no natural enemies apart from other dragons and humans. Every two or three years, a wilding would become a nuisance, and Father and Tauman would be forced to bring it down. But the hides and meat, bones and sinew were always salvaged. It would never be left to rot in the woods this way.
A cruel wire noose bit deeply into the bones of its left rear leg. It seemed that someone had tried to capture this animal, not kill it. But it broke loose, came here, and bled to death.
Poachers. Father would want to know.
I squatted down, looking into the empty eye sockets. “Poor thing.” I said. “I wish I could’ve seen you alive. Perhaps I have—perhaps Darian and I watched you from the hill.”
It was almost too much: Fren’s mauling, Darian’s news, the Summer Dragon. And now this. Was there no end of portents and news today? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But then Darian’s words finally struck me: I’m going to get my dragon. Why would he assume that?
The Summer Dragon was a sign of big changes, he had said. Perhaps because we had seen him, those big changes would be ours.
I’m going to get my dragon. Perhaps I would get my dragon too.
I jumped up and ran back into the forest, crashed though the tangled margin, and scrambled up the slope. I was scratched and bruised by the time I reached the top of the hill again. I jumped up on the ruins for one last look back, just in case. And there he was.
Getig, the Summer Dragon, perched across the valley on a tall spire, his wings spread wide to warm in the sun, or perhaps to cool on a breeze. Then he leapt and snapped his huge wings downward, caught an updraft, beat his wings one more time, then turned and vanished beyond the line of cliffs. I watched for another few moments, but he didn’t reappear. I shivered in the full heat of the day.
Though my legs felt like they might crumple beneath me, I dashed toward home.
Excerpted from The Summer Dragon © Todd Lockwood, 2016