Above the nestled city, overlooking the inlet’s open mouth to the sea, they sat from salty coastal cliffs. A seaway horizon beckoned a setting sun, waking stars in a darkening sky. Miles across, the first lights in the surmounting castle flickered in high windows. The gong of a bell tower chimed the evening hour, a lonely stillness in its distant echo.
Dragon and rider sat in numbed silence, sharing the view for what would be their last time. Soren’s sad whimper fell his chin to his front claws, Drystan slinging an arm around his scaled neck. Softly, he brushed Soren’s metallic coat, hoping trembling strokes went unnoticed. But the anxiousness, the heartbreaking uncertainty, emanated from them. Gut-wrenching fear and agony gnawed at their insides. Drystan’s words came in a shuddering breath… “Things will be fine.” …A lie that slipped off his tongue.
Soren’s body quaked. “I… I don’t know if I can do this.”
“This place isn’t everything.” Oh, but it was. This place was everything. Hardinggate was home. Hushed optimism attempted to bury heartache and hatred. Another lie. Rage ignited and burned. But, sorrow quickly doused the flames as memories of Soren’s hatchday flooded his heart. Throat went raw… My baby bat… Clutch on Soren tightened. Four years… Four years of endless time together had flown. Time had been surmised.
Soren’s distant gaze told Drystan his comment hadn’t even been acknowledged. His magnificence was incomparable, painted with dark scales of slate. Steel. Iron. If only your heart was as tough… Drystan dropped his head to Soren’s shoulder with a heavy sigh. Tomorrow. Tomorrow would bring so much more pain. Shards had been forcefully carved from his crushed soul. And, already he felt empty. Oh, but as much as he tried to recognize business as business, the pain only stiffened his focus. All the dragons were sold. Eventually. Most before they could fly. But, Soren… Soren had been the exception. Four years ago, fifteen years old, and Soren had become the exception. His dragon.
His chest heaved. A life raising hatchlings, hatching them from colorful eggs to be chosen by the wealthy and the royal, and his dragon, full grown and rooted in Hardinggate, was to be sold.
Memories only fueled his venom. Calming his leaping emotions were anything less than difficult. “You’ll be in Aledonia, at least,” Drystan tried, thinking of the kingdom under Elvish rule. “…With a Prince.” Angry cynicism dripped in his scoff. Sitting up, diving stressed hands through his dark waves… “Sorry. I’m not helping.” …He stroked Soren’s neck. “It’s supposed to be beautiful there, though.” That worn saddle, strapped between folded wings… More memories.
Soren ignored the words and scooched his chin onto Drystan’s lap. “My heart hurts. I’m so scared.” Oh, if words could lacerate, they’d dissever the remnants of his heart. Drystan’s jaw set with stinging tears. The devastation, the unfairness… His father had caused so much damage since that night. Since that letter. The letter they received, that leafless autumn night, from Aledonia’s royal family, stating they would pay the dragon’s weight in Elvish silver to own him… It hadn’t hit hard enough. Now, it collided with tormenting impact. If he could go back to that night…
Hamond could not turn down such a profit. Soren’s age, his color, his maturity and ability to hold a rider… It only added to the steep price on his head.
Sunset shimmered off his iron-clad dragon, and he cringed at how it glossed in Soren’s eyes. Pools of wet pewter. “We should turn back,” he murmured. Reluctance climbed Drystan to the saddle and stretched a pair of wings. With a powerful down stroke, the air cradled them, Hardinggate spanning below with narrow streets and clay tile roofs. White-sailed ships lined the harbor, the waves specked with gulls, the flawless strip of cold lonely beach. Cliffs encrusted the coast, vast green plains expanding to the inland skyline, and there on the edge of the land, his home in the shadow of the castle came into view.
If it weren’t for the profit of breeding the dragons, the business and their previous home would be greatly contrasted to their current life. The King’s invitation to have the dragon stables rebuilt on their acreage, if his only daughter were to have a hatchling of her choice, allowed Hamond’s humble home in the country to be replaced with a large extravagant cottage.
Grassy fields expanded between the castle and their property, dotted with solid barns and outbuildings. Soren banked and tucked his wings, and Drystan saw the doors to the hatchling’s barn were wide open.
Squealing chirps of restless baby dragons, hungry and playful, pried their ears as they came into the doorway. Overwhelmed Hamond struggled in their holding pen. Attempting to empty a barrel into a long feeding trough, nine hatchlings impatiently snapped at the avalanching fish, flinging snapping teeth. Drystan promptly hurried to his aid, taking over the unsteady weight as Hamond plucked the babies out of a scrambling pile.
Hamond choked down throaty coughs in trying to thank his son, arm to his mouth. Letting themselves out of the straw-filled pen, they leaned on the rails in silence, watching them rip through fish half their size.
The decision, Soren’s goodbye ticking on a timer, had wedged a barrier between father and son. Nine babies, all remarkable shades of blue, created a swirling cluster of sea and sky. Another stunning clutch from Faxnyss and Kallisto. Like Soren…
Drystan, sensing his father’s exhaustion, broke the uncomfortableness. “I’ll take care of the others,” he offered quietly. “And, I’ll grab the order from the docks come morning.” As much as his heart ached, he’d no desire to show disrespect.
“I can do it,” Hamond insisted, having already told Drystan to have his time with Soren. Drystan pursed his lips, letting him have his say. But, preparations were already set to be up with the sun. He’d been managing the dragons’ food for years, now. A trip to the docks was an ordinary part of his schedule.
“The others were out for exercise,” Hamond wheezed, coughs attacking roughly.
“Go rest. I’ve got this.”
An appreciative hand clasped his son’s shoulder, Drystan squeezing a tight smile through bottled tension. It dropped once Hamond was gone. Arms crossed and slumped across the gate, he turned his gaze to his saddled dragon in the threshold. “Hungry?”
Soren’s wings drooped in response.
“Yeah, me either.” With the babies yawning into the straw with full bellies, Drystan thwarted himself from the fence, Soren trotting after his annoyed stride.
His shadow. His partner. Soren was always there. Always at his heels. And, to fathom that only four short years had grown him into a head taller than a hefty draft horse… Anyone would want a loyal adult dragon like him. Hands in sweater pockets, eyes to the ground… “Still wanting to go on a night flight?” … And, Soren purred contentedly.
The barn that housed the adult dragons, a cathedral of a building with high-vaulted ceilings, gave plenty of space for extending wings while lingering on the rafters. But, the spring evening and the coolness of the grass had the four adult dragons outside, Faxnyss being the first to rise.
Scales of cerulean and indigo, navy and sapphire… She was stunning. And, as she greeted her son with a motherly purr and a warm nuzzle under his chin, a note of farewell lingered in her tender embrace. Kallisto, seeing Drystan’s sizzling pain, rose from his spot. Handsome appearances were passed down to his son. But, it was his mother’s disposition that made Soren who he was. It was his mother he was closest to. The silver dragon ruffled Drystan’s hair with his snout. “This is just as hard for us,” he quietly reassured.
Pyralis, scales of embers, and Araxie, a coat of liquid sunshine, had lovingly surrounded Faxnyss and Soren with optimistic spirits. His family… This was his family. Parents, and two that were comparable to parents, Drystan, closer than a brother. Everything was to change. Even from where he stood with Kallisto, Drystan could hear Araxie’s trying a little too hard. “You must be excited. A home with the Elves?”
Soren cocked his head nervously, unsure how to answer, his mother’s tongue relentlessly grooming the side of his face. Drystan immediately saw the anxiety plastered to Soren’s expression in trying to respond kindly. But, nothing came from his open mouth. “Prince Liasar will have a handsome companion,” she added, spiking Drystan’s hate. Done. He was done. And, he shoved off towards the barn, leaving Kallisto and the clutch.
Gas lamps shed a different light. The homey feeling of their warmth had burnt out and emptiness lay in their shadows. He rolled the feeding barrels near their open-air stalls, loaded with a fresh evening catch. Soren’s stall whisked into view. It would remain empty after tomorrow. A fine companion indeed. The thought seethed with cutting spite. For the first time in his life, the sweet smell of straw, the musty scent of dragon, the after-smell of fish… Churned his stomach.
The clutch came to eat. The sound of crushing dragon teeth, a sound all too familiar… But, a lone barrel sat untouched. Soren waited in the broad doorway with a lost appetite. Drystan went to his side, hands deep in his pockets, and Soren’s anxious eyes stared at his corner stall. He released a whimper. “C’mon,” Drystan urged as distraction. He nudged his shoulder with his. “Help me with the hatchlings so we can get out of here.”
Baby dragons had piled in the straw with full stomachs. Letting himself into the pen, he discarded the soiled straw around the trough, tidying up their large play area. Soren nudged the empty food barrel into the corner for tomorrow’s meals.
One of the nine attempted his new wings, leaping from one end of his siblings to the other. Strenuous flaps landed him on his sister, resulting in harsh squeals and snapping sharp teeth. “You remember being that small, Soren?” Drystan reminisced while he raked in new bedding. “You and your batty wings?” Soren nosed a fresh bale in his direction. “Now look at you.”
Soren lifted his head from his work, slowly wagging his tail. A purr rumbled in his chest. “Think they’ll join us tonight?”
“Hope so. They were invited. Definitely invited.” Lastly checking their water, he dimmed the lights and shut the barn doors behind him. The sun had diminished to a bright orange streak, inky clouds crowning the sky. The cliffs called to them, as they always did. A place of silence and solitude. A place where flight broke free.
Thundering waves attacked the rocks on a lulling metronome. Drystan’s attention folded to the looming castle behind… Nothing. No signs of movement. No wings rounding elegant towers. A sigh hopped him onto Soren’s back.
Claws gripped the edge of the land, particles crumbling to hissing whitewash. This is it… this is… our last flight. He gulped down the impaling thought. But, you’re right beside me. And nothing in this moment could separate that. He inhaled the ocean breeze and all the scents carried within. Breathe. All he had to do was breathe and his wings would carry them away into the patient sky. Eyes fluttered open to clustered stars. The sky always understood, always waited. And, with a small confident leap…
Dove them into a time-stopping fall. Dove to abandon all despondent thoughts. The air, the rush, revived and renewed with fleeting euphoria. Oh, how he wished their fall could plummet them out of tomorrow’s sight.
Parachute wings braced their fall, angling them with the land. Hardinggate’s dimly lit seafront came into view. Piers and ships along a cluttered boardwalk. The curve of lights along the coast. Up… Up, and over the city, wide easy arches combed velvety moonlight. Wings pivoted towards the black sea. There, still miles from the harbor, a triad of ships sailed towards land.
Playful circles rounded above… Swooping closer.
Coasting alongside their decks. Wingtips smacked the waves between paralleled glides. Spray from the bowsprit blew with salty kisses. If anyone on board observed the dragon’s ballet at their port side, he didn’t know. And, if they hadn’t, they were too late. Soren surged upwards in a leisure spiral.
He leveled on an air current, somewhere between planet and stratosphere. All was quiet, save for the occasional drum of his wings. Beyond, ocean and oxygen melted into abysmal darkness. Above, stars and distant galaxies seemed wet enough to smear, watercolor on canvas. Sceaobyss sliced through the masterpiece with its neon blue rings, Arigae’s tropical neighboring planet. Thin gridlines of starships, strung high past the moon, laced between the two planets.
Their bond, fastened under the network of stars above, grounded deeper than the ocean below, could not be swayed even with approaching dread. Neither spoke. Words would not express the grief, the fear, that lay just beneath the surface of their bliss. And, a satisfying silence capped their flight.
Drystan released his grip, unbinding his hands from the leather straps, and sat upright. He kicked his shoes from the short stirrups, letting his legs hang casually. Heights inflicted no fear. Gaze meandered to the heavens.
But, expectation was thwarted.
He strained his eyes. Refocusing. Blinking. No, it was there. It was definitely there. Parting stars and atmosphere, a wispy pattern of dusty rose in its wake… “Soren, look.” He tapped the dragon’s neck… “Look up there. You see that?” …And Soren craned his eyes. Blackness was seared with a captivating streak of magenta light. A curious head tilt angled Soren’s wings. “…What is it?” He tightly flattened into Soren’s ascent.
“I don’t know.” Hushed interest hooked in his rasp. “It looks like… a comet.”
“A comet? No, that’s too fast to be a comet.” Arigae welcomed it, magenta igniting to neon pink as it punctured another layer of sky.
“Maybe a shooting star? I didn’t think there was such a thing as pink stars, though.”
Reply came distantly. “… Neither did I.”
And Soren’s giggle-snort came with delight. “It’s the Birth of a Unicorn.”
Drystan shook his head at Soren’s reference to the fabricated children’s tales. “Right, that’s exactly what it is.” Pink gaseous trail smudged in its wake. But, the bedtime stories he’d heard growing up… The stories of legend and magic and brave hunters who fought the most powerful unicorns into extinction… They watched neon-rose slowly dissolve into space, following until the East swallowed it up. “Who’s to say they even existed in the first place?”
“Well, I think they were real,” Soren muttered.
“Horned space horses. Known as the only creatures to possess star magic, whose one desire was to bring love and peace to the galaxy, devoured under man’s blade and never to be seen again. Right.”
“Oh, c’mon. Remember Hamond telling us those stories that one winter? We were little, but –”
“You were little. He was telling you those stories.”
“How did it go? Something that they were all stars…?”
“That unicorns were mere stardust. And, when they died here in our world they would return to the stars, to be reborn in another. Yeah. Something like that. You know how it goes. I’m sure every kid grew up hearing the same stories.” Recalling young nights by the fire with his father, a quilt and socks, a hot mug in chilled hands… “Even if they were real,” he huffed, thwarting memories, “They haven’t existed for hundreds of years. Hunters slaughtered ‘em all. Because, supposedly, they had the most powerful magic in all of creation. S’pose to be more mind-blowing than any magic. Even the Elves’ magic. Or, dragon magic.”
“I don’t have any magic,” Soren answered flatly.
“Well,” came a shrugged eye-roll, “Alright, wild dragon magic.”
Soren pondered over denying words and old fables, all the while admiring where plunging magenta had scored the night. “I think it’s a legend,” he decided, a glimmer in his eye, “And, legends stemmed from truth at one point in time. Don’t you think?”
A chuckling smile pushed dark hair from the wind. “Whatever you want to believe, Soren. That’s fine with me.” The last wisp of pink dust faded, blurred, and the night claimed its unknown destination.