It was two months before Ayil's parents brought her out of the house for the first time to taste the fresh air and marvel at the world. It was tradition to keep the baby inside for the first two months of its life in the belief that the spirits of both man and dragon might steal the baby away if they knew one had been born.
Ayil was destined to have a pretty face and no doubt at her coming of age she would have little trouble in finding suitors. Her hair was indeed auburn but for now it bounced on the baby's head in shiny locks. Small, straight noses were favoured for beauty and she was lucky to have one. Her eyes were deep with blue but the mark she wore on the right side of her face had not faded. It was also plain that she would not outgrow it.
The day a baby was first brought outside was a great celebration. Of course, when the baby was born the village would be told but only would they see it after two months.
For the morning the baby would spend time in this new, giant world and then in the afternoon would be welcomed by all of the villagers in the village hall, a place designed for such occasions.
Annie stepped over the threshold of the front door, bearing her child. She watched as Ayil's pupils seemed to dilate and the nostrils widening, all of the senses reacting to this alien place.
Zarh and Lihnt had set the table outside in their small walled front garden. Their house had been built on bank overlooking the rest of the village and the married couple knew that they were fortunate to own such a beautiful place.
The garden was a pretty place also, well tended by Annie. She had worked hard over it before autumn, and with the February's spring the plants were blossoming and the garden would soon explode with colour and pleasant smells.
The winter had been a particularly cold one and the village had lost two inhabitants to it but as December and January retreated the bitter cold receded. However, there was still a chill in the air and Annie had made sure Ayil was tightly wrapped in the thickest and warmest of their wool blankets.
Zarh stood by the table, but upon seeing his wife bearing their child outside came to meet her and revel in the special day his little girl was undertaking.
"The next piece of the future." He said as his wife passed the child into his careful arms. "The village will admire her, and I am sure the Elder with have a thing or two to say about her mark."
The Elder was a wizened old man who helped to govern the village, called on by the villagers for wisdom and counsel. His body was beginning to crumble but certainly not his mind and the Elder expected to see every newborn. It was also rumoured that he possessed a fragment of power that enabled him to predict things of the future, and in his twenties had foreseen the arrival of a baby that would bring suffering to the couple who would bear it. He had advised them to rid of it, which did pain him to say, and the couple refused. The baby was born and allowed to live but when it was six months old the mother decided to leave her husband and a fight broke out when they argued over who would take charge of the baby. The father stabbed his wife several times and after seeing her corpse mutilated at his hands had hung himself. When the other villagers discovered the bodies and worked out what had happened, they decided that the baby had to die, remembering what the youngster who would come to be the Elder had predicted. They left the baby up on a high hill, waiting for a dragon to hear its wailing cries and come do the task for the villagers.
Zarh always shuddered at that story. He didn't like to believe in fate and destiny, and that you had no choice for whatever you did in a bid to change the future would still lead to the same fate.
The sun fought its way from behind a persistent cloud, gaining a stronghold in the sky where it could glow with radiance.
Zarh set Ayil on the dewy grass and watched the baby stare around herself with awe. She gave a little cry of joy and rolled over from her seating position so that she was on all fours. The wool covering her was not simply wrapped around but sewn together as a single garment and it did not slip off as the inquisitive baby begin to crawl along the grass. Her blue eyes glittered with intense fascination as she reached out a chubby finger to feel a blade of grass. She felt the shade falling on her from Annie's shadow and looked up proudly at the human she recognised to be her mother, the one who gave milk to quench her thirst and hunger, the one who could so tenderly clutch her to her bosom and surround her with heavenly warmth.
"Ayil likes this new world. Not like Frin, you remember?" Annie turned to Zarh.
"How could I forget? He was never more terrified in his life."
Annie smiled and Zarh admired his wife's beauty, the smile and the warming light of the sun enhancing it. But he was puzzled to see her smile fading, her eyes fixed on the sky. He wheeled round to see a dragon gliding through the air, heading toward them. But no, dragons rarely attacked them. Not since the bone flutes had been created centuries ago. Zarh threw the fancy away; the dragon was clearly flying in their direction but would simply swoop overhead. It was not an uncommon sight to see a dragon flying over the village, but unusual to see more than three in one area unless they were youngsters still cared for by a mother dragon.
"It's alright, Annie. You have nothing to fear."
"I know, but Ayil will be scared out of her wits."
Zarh saw her point and found himself nearly amused when he searched the ground below for his daughter only to see that she had crawled a good three metres away.
But the dragon was already flying overhead and left the parents no time to shield Ayil from the fearful sight; giant wings that soared the dragon along the air thermals at ease, a long powerful tail at the end, deadly claws at the legs, and massive jaws and eyes that bored into the soul.
Zarh waited for the frightened wail of the baby, as it remained dumbfounded while the beast cast a gigantic shadow across the house. But there was no cry, no outbreak. Instead there was the giggling of a delighted young child. He looked at the baby to see her stretching her stubby arms out to the sky, where the dragon was passing overhead. She was gurgling in a way he had never heard a baby do before and her eyes were locked on the creature. When the dragon's shadow left the ground she lowered her arms and gave an expression of 'annoyance', one might say.
"Well I'll never…" Annie said, as she walked over briskly to scoop Ayil up in her arms.
"That'll be another interesting thing to tell the Elder." But Zarh had more than that on his mind, a deep itching inside him that made him look questioningly at Ayil's wing mark and wonder if there was a reason why that mark was there, and why it was that shape in the first place.
After lunch, they prepared for the village's welcoming of the newborn. Both parents dressed in their smartest garments, the ones worn for the Welcomings of Lihnt and Frin. Annie plaited her chestnut hair so it fell in braids down past a long dress embroidered with gold and silver thread, a valuable family heirloom. Zarh wore a beige tunic and black trousers, accompanied with a jacket of red and gold, buttoned up to the neck. On this jacket he bore the village's crest.
Annie spent some time smartening up her two sons as well, scolding their dirty fingernails and loose collars.
Ayil was dressed in the special Welcoming gown worn by her older brothers before. It was milk white, lacy and silky to the touch. It trailed down beyond her little feet and blew with the chilly breeze.
With Ayil tucked safely in her mother's arms, her father walking beside and the two boys behind the family set off to the heart of the village to present their new child to the village and the Elder.
The village hall was a rounded, high-roofed stone building. Inside, waiting, would be a member from each family in the village and the respected Elder. As Ayil's own family processed through the village several friends waved or shouted in greeting. Annie was greeted by many of her friends for as well as the child the mother is not allowed outside for two months.
As they reached the door of the hall and entered, there was a great cheer of happiness. Villagers crowded round to sigh at Ayil and say, "Look at those gorgeous locks", or, "Isn't she a darling?" And when they saw her mark they would either give a look of pity or claim that it was lucky.
More self-contained people hung back and waited for the cluster to thin before shaking hands with the parents and congratulating them. Finally, everyone had gazed upon the new addition to the village population and the Elder who was seated on a grandly carved oak seat at the back of the hall called in a deep husky voice. "Let me see the child." His arthritis hindered him with pain when he tried to walk so he remained seated. He was garbed in royal garments that showed his status, bearing a larger version of the village crest on his jacket.
Annie felt tense as she brought her daughter forward, just like the last two times when her sons were newborns. The Elder was a scrutinizing man who spoke his opinion and although he was satisfied with Lihnt and Frin she knew friends whose children had been unpleasing, whether from weakness, deformity or dumbness.
"Here is my daughter, named Ayil after the word for wing in Old Tongue." She bowed her head and Zarh, a little further behind, did the same although custom required that only the mother would bring forth her child.
"Your third one, then. Another asset to the village." The Elder's eyes looked the baby up and down. Ayil, thankfully, was sleeping lightly for Annie feared she might make a racket, being in such a strange place so suddenly.
She saw his eyes glitter when they reached her face and ordered, "Bring her closer. I wish to see the face more clearly."
Annie obeyed and her heart pounded for she knew the request was because of Ayil's mark.
"I know why she is called Ayil now. This mark-she was born with it?"
"Yes. We thought it might fade quickly but it appears to grow with her."
"Strange, the way it is so deliberately shaped…" The man leaned out of his chair. As if feeling his eyes boring into her, Ayil woke and her blue eyes blinked up at him. She gave an excited gurgle but the old man did not notice and was focused intently on the wing mark, pondering and fiddling with thoughts inside his mind.
"I sense a great power in this child, yes…as though Fate gave her this mark to show a purpose." The Elder's words stirred fear in her and felt the itching stares of people behind within earshot of his words.
"I wonder…" He reached a hand out and touched the mark with a finger by Ayil's eye. He immediately recoiled and the baby laughed, as though she enjoyed it.
"What is wrong, Elder?" Annie asked, concerned at his reaction.
"I feel the tingle and spark of supernatural energy in this mark. I am almost certain something other than coincidence is at work, the forces of nature at hand."
"Well, I did feel something when I touched the mark after she'd been born. And the strangest thing is, she saw her first dragon this morning flying low over the house and she liked it. She was disappointed when it flew away." Her voice was low, because she did not wish for the whole village to know of the peculiarity of her baby, and her unnatural fearlessness of dragons.
The Elder was intrigued. "Unafraid of a dragon? Even I was when I was but a youngster. Perhaps this and the mark are linked in some way, a binding with the dragons."
"Elder, I do not rebuke your fancies, but to think that my daughter might be linked in some spiritual way to dragons is incomprehensible to me."
"This child has a purpose, a great one. Raise her well and keep her safe, for destiny cannot be altered, nor Fate's choice bribed."
"Say not that my child's destiny is simply to serve a strange force. I want her to be normal."
"Then she would not bear that mark." The Elder replied gruffly. But then he softened his tone and lowered his voice.
"But I will say this: keep it to yourself. There are many who would persecute such a thought, and see Ayil as an item of bad luck. Keep her possible purpose a secret, and I would advise against telling her anything about this till I say she is ready. I will want to see her again, possibly once a month. But go now, and share this conversation with only your husband."
Annie turned around to see the expectant faces of the villagers.
She realised they waited for the Elder's confirmation of approval.
"I approve." He said, holding a thin paper-crinkled hand up.
There was a murmur of relief from the small crowd. Annie rejoined with Zarh and whispered that she would tell him about the Elder's words when they were alone. Lihnt and Frin, glad that it was finally over, trailed behind. The crowd parted and they left the hall. She felt that she could breath properly again as they stepped into the outside.
"Come, let us return home. You look troubled, my dear." Zarh closed an arm over his wife's shoulders, studying his daughter's face as they walked home.
Now time travels slightly back, to a little after both Ayil and the dragon clutch came into the world.
The freezing winter storm had ravaged on for four days more after the mother dragon's clutch hatched. The storm was responsible for the two dragonlets she had lost to starvation, as their thinning bodies finally went cold and stiff, deprived of even a single meal in their short life.
But they served another purpose: to save their more fortunate siblings who, as they burrowed with their snouts into their bodies to feast on the flesh, felt feelings of remorse and guilt.
The mother dragon feared that her five dragonlets would gradually be killed off but at last the storm had mercy on her and her offspring and she was able to leave the cave to hunt. Desperate to bring food as quickly as possible, she was grateful that only a mile from the cave she found a small buffalo herd. She dived from the sky, a merciless ambush that almost always rendered a victim dead. She picked out a lame but fattened bull and killed him. The herd fled from the scene and the she-dragon, unable to stop herself having not eaten for five days, devoured some of the meat and then scooped the carcass carefully in her clawed feet and flew back to the cave. Her young were ecstatic and would have thrown themselves upon it if their mother had not snarled them off and selected small, tender pieces to give them. Their teeth, though sharp, could easily chip of break off in this fragile stage and meat had to be easy to slice and swallow.
The dragonlets grew over the next two months, the small horns that broke them out of their eggs having dropped off long ago. Their wings became stronger and at present they could hover a metre or so above the ground for a few seconds. Fangs strengthened and eyes grew wide, accustomed to the dimness of the cave. They learnt how to communicate, how to strip flesh off bone, and of their heritage, which was taught by their mother.
The she-dragon gave each of them a name. Her own name was Haviynar, and so the two females were called, Hayio and Hyafin. She called two of the males with hides of gold and pewter Bayne and Gireft. These names had belonged to some of her brothers, and she saw it fit to use names from her family. But when she came to naming the royal dragonlet, she decided that he should have a name that mustered respect and authority. The name of his father was Souliouth, and in her mind she formed the perfect name: Soulriath. Of course, many dragon names were quite a mouthful and naturally he would be addressed by friends and family as 'Soul'. She rolled the name around on her tongue, commending herself at the remarkable name. She had also noticed, by now, the curious wing shaped mark on his right eye but never once did a deeper thought of questioning flicker in her mind. She dismissed it as a lucky birthmark.
Now, as she rested by the nest already to small for her growing offspring her belly rumbled and she warned her young not to venture to the cave mouth, she was going hunting. The ground vibrated as she made her way out of the cave, and there was a great gust of air as she took off in search of a buffalo herd or livestock strayed from Man's dwellings and shepherded flocks
Soulriath gazed longingly at the distant cave mouth. He sat just outside the nest, watching Gireft gnawing a tiny bone remnant from the last meal.
"Don't you have anything better to do than chew a piece of bone?" He whined. Since birth he had had a yearning for adventure, to learn. He was the first to crawl from the nest, and wanted to be the first to reach the cave mouth.
"Can you think of anything better, Soul?" Gireft spat the morsel away. He would have been surlier with his sibling but Soul was a royal dragon, and they were to be respected. He felt a twang of jealousy whenever he had to hold himself from disrespecting his brother.
"Mum will be gone a long time. She won't know if I go to the beginning of the cave."
"Oh no, you mustn't. Mum would be furious. She'll cuff you a stinging one." Gireft warned. He was no weakling but he gave himself to his mother, obeying her every command. He'd probably jump off a cliff if she told him to, Soul thought.
"She's going to be a long time, I'll bet. Anyway, we're old enough to go outside."
Outside. A word that all the dragonlets longed to grasp the meaning of, live it, explore, taste, touch, see, hear, smell.
"You're too scared. Mum's punishments don't stop me. She will never control me-I'm going."
Gireft watched him in awe as he began to amble away, heading for the source of light that flooded all but the deepest part of the cave during daytime. Bayne and his sisters watched from the nest. They knew better than to reproach Soul, and Bayne looked up to his brother of royalty as an idol.
Soul felt the stares of his siblings behind him. He shuffled along, bearing most of his weight on the two back legs that were stronger and stouter than the two front ones. His forelegs' only purpose was to help him get up, and they were armed with just two small claws on each.
The light grew stronger, and for the first time in his life, his pupils had to adjust dramatically to the change in light.
The smells of the outside hit his nostrils like a physical blow. So many different scents…his head reeled. The cave mouth, with its far-off and brightness, had seemed like an invisible yet impregnable wall. He tensed as he neared it as if he might discover that the source of light was hard and impassable, but knew that this was ridiculous because his mother passed through it with ease.
Whispers from his watching siblings had petered out and he felt alone but dared not glance back. He swallowed, suddenly fearful. But to retreat would single him out as a coward and his pride insisted he continue.
An age passed until he reached the cave mouth. He felt dizzy from all the smells, sounds and the light piercing his eyes, as it had never done before.
He shut them tight, took a deep breath and stepped outside for the first time ever.
When he opened his eyes cautiously, he was robbed of his breath in awe of the vast landscape laid out before him. He had never contemplated anything like this, his world and imagination limited by his tender age. But now he gazed from the cliff that the cave was hollowed into upon the frosty plains, a thin spread of snow smothering them. A bird overhead screeched, and he jerked his head up. This moment was especially significant for this was when he saw his first other specie of creature, and when he first saw the sky and realised that the huge plains were not the entire world.
When he saw the sky, his heart pounded harder than ever and adrenaline coursed through his blood, for the sky is where dragons are meant to be and instinct was responding to this new sight with a yearning to fly high, and look upon the world through the eyes of a magnificent creature, one that evolved to dominate the earth.
Soul felt the urge to run into the sky, to fulfil his purpose. Before he could control the overpowering hormones now pumping through his blood, he was running towards the cliff edge. His feet left the rock, and for a split second he felt like he was floating, a wonderful experience. But gravity gripped him and began to plunge him downwards. He felt useless and unable to react, and the blow when he hit the ground would certainly kill him. But again the hormones inside him worked their mastery over him, and he remembered to use the wings, instinct having already taught him what to do.
The wings were stiff at first as he still fell, but the air resistance had increased and he slowed. Gradually he began to climb the air, warm thermals billowing under his wings as they flapped furiously. He streamlined his body and stretched his neck, and he knew that he was flying.
Soul could have flown all day, until all his energy was used up and he returned exhausted, back to the cave to describe and boast to his siblings that he had flown. However this was not the case because as he wheeled in the air, growling with delight, he heard a familiar sound, the swishing of huge wings, the snarling of a she-dragon. His mother was returning from her hunt. He panicked, and turned back towards the cliff in the hope of reaching the cave before his mother realised he had disobeyed her.
But in his heart he already knew that there was no way he could reach the cave in time, and his wings were already going stiff with exhaustion. He summoned the last of his energy reserves to purchase a grasp on the cliff edge, and scrabble onto flat, safe ground with his stringy front legs to rest.
For a moment after flopping down, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, feeling sleep calling him. A snarl dispelled the calm, and he slowly turned his neck to face the upright figure of his huge mother. She looked furious, her nostrils flaring with hot breath that almost suffocated him. She raised a long, forearm and clouted him on the shoulders. The pain was worse than anything else before and he emitted a sharp squeal.
"You have defied me!" She cried. Soul did nothing but gulp up at her.
"Get inside the cave-now!" Soul rose weakly, muscles aching and his shoulders screaming from the blow. With the remaining dignity he mustered, the dragonlet limped back to the cave, his mother following behind. His siblings were silent, but they knew that he had done wrong and that mother was angry. Gireft shot him a look that said 'I told you'.
That evening, Soul's punishment was to stay hungry, while he was forced to watch everyone else gorge on a horse's carcase that their mother had brought them. His stomach growled with hunger but he did not want to lose the rest of his pride by whining for a morsel.
As he curled up outside the nest, which could no longer hold all of the dragonlets, he fancied he heard his mother whisper something before resting her huge bulk beside them.
"I knew you'd fly the first."
Soul was not sure whether it was encouragement, or a compliment. He toyed with it till sleep finally spared his hunger.
Haviynar opened an eye to look at the sleeping royal dragonlet. She was angry that he had disobeyed her, yes, but secretly pleased and proud. No doubt he would be a favourite among the females when he began to mate, and would father many offspring.
Soon it would be time to show her young the world, how to fly and hunt, and most important of all, teach them of Man. Dragons knew well enough to keep away from them lest they pose a threat, but those who strayed too near were deterred by the tune of a bone flute, an instrument carried by nearly every human. The dragons could not understand why they felt dizzy and were overcome with the urge to flee when they heard the tune, and the flutes served Man well in his protection. For over one hundred years, deaths on both sides were either Man's fault or a dragon's mistake.. And there was still friction between them, because the dragons if given the chance would steal livestock from herds of cows, sheep, goats, deer and horses. Buffalo was not always abundant and Man had learnt that if they hunted these wild animals too then the dragons would be forced to hunt livestock.
A snort from the sleeping Soul turned Haviynar's attention to him, and she wondered what he was dreaming about. Probably flying. But just as she was about to close her eye again, the wing mark on his right eye glowed a bright blue for a moment. She stared in alarm, but gradually told herself that it was imagined. That night she slept peacefully.