"In the beginning there were only the dragons. They came to the world as all sentient beings do, crawling through the ethers of space and time to assemble themselves in some form of order. They did not begin with intelligence but with forthrightness, and in time they traded both for wisdom.
"The second beginning brought the humans. The humans did not crawl so much as fall unawares into the world's lap. They came under the care of the dragons, for the wiser beasts recognized the able will of workers in the humans' vacant eyes. They trained humans in the archaic traits of forthrightness and intelligence, deeming the ape-like creatures to be worthy of both but lacking the spark that was required in the wise. Soon the humans' eyes lost their dullness, taking on an implacable luster.
"As the dragons taught their pets they divined a hunger for knowledge that astounded them. The humans displayed a new ability for language and writing-the dragons were impressed that the humans, upon recognizing their lack of mental capacity, could develop a way to store all that could not remain in their minds. The dragons convened, discussing this turn of events, debating whether humans were indeed worthy of the wisdom that the dragons so carefully withheld.
"While the dragons were meeting, however, the humans plotted. They had long ago abandoned the idea of wisdom, seeing it as unattainable as long as the dragons lived. As such they did what they deemed intelligent and discarded forthrightness for ambition.
"The wisdom of dragons did not detect such a change and so it came to pass that whilst ensconced in their conference and comfortable in their knowledge they failed to see that their beloved pets had gone astray. So it was that while they talked on into the night the humans came and lowered a great Essence over the dragons, shutting them in darkness for many years.
"The decades passed and the humans prospered, turning into many different types of individual. Always they struggled to attain the wisdom the dragons had withheld but never was one able to reach it, no matter how intelligent he or she may be.
"One group that lived in the wilds and scorned the books of the settled man translated their intelligence into an understanding of nature, their ambition into wildness. The dragons called to these men and as one animal is drawn to the calls of another, so were these men called to the dragons to release them.
"The beasts that whirled into the sky were not the dragons of old. The centuries of darkness had removed from them their wisdom, instead replacing it with vengeance. The dragons swept down onto the towns of man, making it impossible for them to live. The dragons and city-humans came to be at war and at the war's termination the humans stood victorious, declaring the dragons to be beasts. The dragons returned to the wilds, the only land where they found welcome, and built their great nests. The humans took their victory further and harnessed what dragons they could, utilizing their great gyres to ever near themselves to unattainable wisdom."
Rennette's sister frowned. "I've never liked that story. It makes us sound awful."
Of course it makes us sound awful. Most beginnings do. "It's just an origin myth. No need to be insulted."
"I'm not insulted, Ren. I just don't like the story."
Rennette shrugged. The two sisters often argued about Rennette's stories.
"Besides," Sophia continued, "I like to think that something so wise that it commands our respect would see something like that coming. If you keep people down they rise up. That's a basic fact of life."
"I know, Sophia. It's just a story."
"Did you hear it somewhere? You always make this stuff up, don't you?"
"Yeah, well, this one came from me not wanting to store the grain. Come on-let's finish before Dad gets here."
The girls finished distributing the last of the grain into sacks and made for the house. Sophia still frowned.
"We shouldn't praise dragons so highly if we're about to work with them. You know how the school is-'Dragons, like horses and hawks-are animals meant for utilization.'"
"'They often capture the mind but are simply beasts-' yeah, I know. I'll keep it in check. Just one last hurrah before we get to work, I guess."
"Not too many hurrahs, Rennette. If we don't do this Dad'll send us off."
"No he won't."
"He's talking in there right now. He'll give us to farmers' sons, I swear he will."
Rennette sighed. I don't see how that's any different from what we're doing now. As they walked into their home their father was there as expected, describing his daughters to the district elder.
"Here, you can see them for yourself. Rennette, come here girl. She's a year younger and a hand shorter, you see. She'll always be stocky, but has a good head on her. Sophia, that's her there. She's like her mother, you see. Tall and feminine, but she's steady with anything she puts her mind to and strong. I've a son, too. Tate's a good lad. He's Rennette's twin, and ready to be sent off like the rest of them if they don't make it through academy. He looks just like her, but manly-like."
The elder made Rennette uncomfortable and she shifted under her steady gaze. Sophia was less subtle. "This is unnecessary, Dad. We'll pass."
"We've made it this far-"
"I said quiet, now!"
Sophia clamped her mouth shut. Rennette had another year before she and Tate had to worry about the marriage laws but Sophia was on the cusp. Her way out was to become a hunter and as such she held to it with an iron grasp. Rennette and her sister had passed the first two trials but were just entering the third. Few people ever passed the third.
It wasn't that Sophia never wanted to marry, she often explained. She just didn't want to do it now. Rennette didn't know how she felt about the ordeal, but could think of no one that caught her interest. She didn't find the same aversion to it as Sophia, but she also wasn't drawn to it like Tate.
They were sent to their room to pack while their father finished his conversation. Sophia packed fervently while Rennette lay on their bed. "You know, Soph, I think the real question is what the Essence was. Is it a metaphor?"
"A metaphor. You know, a-"
"I know what a metaphor is. What are you talking about?"
Rennette sat up. "My story."
"Ren, seriously? Pack your things. Start thinking about real dragons and how we'll survive the training without flunking out miserably."
Her sister packed with a ferocity that Rennette didn't feel. She slowly made her own way to her trunk and began loading what she needed.
It was good to be back at the Academy. The grounds were familiar and friendly, and the smells and calls of the animals set her soul at ease.
Well, almost at ease. She was having a hard time getting used to her new studies. As if to punctuate this fact the dragon beside her kreened and pushed itself from the ground. The back draft nearly knocked Rennette off her feet. Caleb caught her with a firm hand. "Easy now, girlie. That's the first thing you have to learn, there. These guys'll take off with a whoosh and leave you right on your ass. You've gotta get the stance down, like this."
Rennette looked at his firmly planted legs, each spread and bent slightly. She looked at Sophia, who was trying to mimic him.
"Good now, see how he goes? He's getting his wing out. It'll be a moment and he'll settle back, ready to listen to us. If this were a serious situation I'd have run him out earlier, but he deserves a good fly without worry."
The krys soared languidly, flapping his wings when he couldn't drift. Eventually he settled into a circular pattern.
"There!" Caleb pointed a shortened finger. "That you'll remember from your hawks. He's circling, right, but he's being a beast, he is. I've not sent him after anything-whatever he catches can't be for me. That's why I've got this." He produced a small horn. "Mind your ears now. It's always surprising the first time." He put it to his lips and blew.
A sound unlike any Rennette had ever heard crashed into her eardrums. She clapped her hands over her ears and still the sound came through. Sophia screamed in surprise.
The krys broke his circle and came back to Caleb, landing with a weight that shook the ground. Caleb reached in his bait bag and tossed him a hare.
"Always surprising the first time. This is a Nering. You'll each get one of your own. Any dragon you use will know that Nering belongs to you. You see, a dragon isn't quite a hawk and isn't quite a horse. They don't exactly herd up but they've more on their mind than getting fed. The Nering lets them know you're onto them. It tells them that they can do what they will but you won't be here if they keep doing it."
Sophia's voice sounded slight in Rennette's still ringing ears. "Why don't they just leave and do what they want?"
"Combination of things, really. Like I said, a dragon ain't really a horse and it ain't really a hawk-but it does have a lot of characteristics in common. This bloke here, he knows he'll get more food if he stays with me. But he's also a domestic. I'm his horde. If he were a wildlin he might just up and fly-but this one knows I'm family, and he'd have to do some considering before he left that."
Rennette could feel the krys staring at her as it crunched the hare. She forced her eyes to remain on Caleb. The back of her neck crawled.
"Alright, that's enough showing off. Grab your kits and we'll head to the wilds. Time for me to show you a hunt."
The girls followed him into the scrub, stepping dexterously among the roots. As the trees rose around them Rennette wished for a horse—though, she reasoned, she found herself always wishing for a horse. She had loved falconry but horsemanship was where her true fondness lay. True to keeping Sophia disagreed, preferring the distance that hawks provided both physically and mentally, but this difference only served to complement the two sisters when together.
She came back to herself as she stumbled into her sister's back. They had come to a stop at a small clearing and Caleb held out a hand.
"Hush now, here we are. It's a training clearing; that should be obvious. We've game here—hopefully one will wander across. You'll know the way of small game: a good deal of waiting with a grand reward. It's the same with large game as well. Sophia, tell me why you can't let the game see you."
Sophia's nose crinkled as she thought. "You'll scare it away?"
Caleb smiled. "Small game, yes. Big game'll come after you, charge you more like. Especially if there's a wee one nearby, the whole herd'll stand up to you. You have to make sure you stay far away from them or they'll give you a run through."
"How does the dragon get close enough?"
"Ah, a good question. In an enclosure like this we'll come in close—you'll see the krys work from the ground. It's a creepy sight, that, but necessary. Tomorrow we'll mount up and go out to the plains, but for now we best get the worst off first. Whist, now. Up and forward."
The krys perked his head at the commands, facing the clearing with a new intensity. Rennette pressed herself against a tree, holding back while the long tail whipped before her. Caleb and Sophia both leaned forward eagerly and silence returned to the surrounding wild.
After Rennette could no longer feel the skin on her back a finlare made its tenuous way into the clearing. Its tusks drew her eyes immediately—she remembered a time when she was younger and Tate had been gored by one of those tusks. The finlare stood a few hands taller than a destrier and was finely muscled. The krys lashed its tail.
"On, now." Caleb's voice was barely loud enough for Rennette to hear but the krys immediately began its advance. It moved in a serpentine motion, kreening as it approached its prey.
The finlare immediately took up a defensive stance, its head lowered and haunches braced. The krys moved forward, belly low to the ground.
The kreening continued, a long, mournful lament. Rennette felt tears spring to her eyes and looked to the others. Caleb and her sister seemed unaware, eyes wide as the krys moved in.
The finlare shuffled, confusion showing in its muscles. The kreening increased in intensity, rending Rennette's mind as the finlare raised its head.
It was only a moment longer. As the finlare raised its head the krys locked its eye; the finlare became entranced, its muscles relaxing completely. The krys continued its serpentine motion as the finlare collapsed before it. As the prey twitched on the ground the krys closed the distance, cutting off the kreen with a swift bite to the finlare's neck.
As the finlare's head was severed it let out a sharp and thunderous cry. Rennette imagined it to be alerting its loved ones of its betrayal. Caleb clapped triumphantly as the krys came back with the finlare in its jaws; Sophia's eyes were wide with wonder. Rennette realized that her own eyes were wet with tears and immediately scrubbed them dry.
"There it is. Disturbing, no?"
Rennette answered, "Yes," just as Sophia cried, "Brilliant! Fascinating!"
Caleb smiled. "It's how they hunt on the ground. Efficient creatures, dragons. You'll see them with a whole herd of the things soon enough. They take to the air for those."
Rennette followed Caleb and Sophia out of the wild, feeling her mind reel over what she had seen. She could feel more than hear the krys walking behind her. Once again its eyes bored into her back; she could imagine the finlare lying limp and headless in its jaws. She hurried forward, linking arms with her sister as they neared the Academy.
The dormitory hadn't been made for many more than two but the lack of other bodies still managed to give Rennette a lonely feeling. She watched Sophia scribble relentlessly in her notebook.
"I came up with another story."
Sophia glanced up at her sister, the usual frown in place. "Already?"
Rennette nodded. "Want to hear it?"
"Sure. I'm going to keep writing though."
Rennette lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. "Once, it all began. It must all begin because if not, nothing would ever end, and there would be no release from the Great Cycle.
"The Great Cycle holds us all, propelling us gently through twisting gyres of our own, sending us on missions that no one else may ever understand. One must complete his mission, for only then when the cycle ends will he lay comfortably, a smile on his lips, and whisper, 'Peace.'
"There was one, not long ago, who dreamt of being a great warrior. Every day she awoke with her mind full of adventures and her hands ready to clutch any item at hand. Farming tools she reared like swords, writing implements like daggers. Her father watched her with pride, for he had always desired a warrior to be born into the family and as such he ignored the marriage custom and sent his daughter to war.
"She flourished, as many born warriors do. Nothing came against her and lived—she became a great general, able to lift the spirits of her soldiers to the highest level of hope, respect, and belief. Though she never married she fathered four strong children, two boys and two girls, and remained a powerful figure long after the war's end.
"But her cycle was not complete.
"As many warriors do she deemed herself old when she felt the slightest failing of limb, deciding it best to ascend to the mountainous wild, whisper peace and commence into darkness. Her family grieved boldly but did not restrain her as she stepped forth into the growing darkness.
"It is said that the only people who know the wilds at night are the wildmen and the mad. Who can say what our Great General knew, but as she stepped further into the wild she began to remember all of her hidden-most dreams and resignations. She felt she could feel the blood pour from her hands—could smell it on her very clothes. Every enemy she had ever felled stood before her, a spectral guide into the unknown.
"'How shall I whisper peace when all I know is blood?' Her words dispelled the specters and silence descended—it was then she knew of the dragon.
"The krys was a simple creature, like all brothers of its kind, with none of the flare of a wildlin or regality of a metios. It sat on its haunches and regarded her with its slit red eyes.
"'As you will, beast. With you I have taken many—would it be fitting that I could take you as well.' With such, she drew her sword. The krys moved not a mote as she advanced and with a vague sense of triumph she plunged her sword into its heart.
"The beast was no longer before her. Her sword lay shattered at the edge of a boulder, the pommel rattling in her hands. She looked about the clearing but was alone—she staggered into the center.
"She began to hear a song.
"It was a folk song, sad and soothing, that her brother had sung while he healed the animals. Her middle brother, it was, a healer amidst the warriors in his family, and scorned by father and mother alike. She had always enjoyed working beside him, enjoyed the calming effect he had had over wounded creature, their ability to take their pain away.
"But where her brother was sure of his calling our general was afraid, for she saw how her father scorned him and praised the other children, and so she too came to scorn him she loved the most, casting down her bandages and picking up a sword.
"The song encircled her, bringing her to her knees as the melody flowed. Tears blinded her eyes as she sobbed and she drew in one great breath. 'Peac-' she began to scream, but could not complete the word before the final darkness fell."
Rennette was surprised that the silence stretched on and sat up. Sophia was staring at her intently.
"Why'd you come up with that, Ren?"
"It's just a stor-"
"Ren, you can't say things like that. I get the dragon part, that's fine. Just, don't say things like that about warriors. Think of Tate."
Tate had wanted to become a hunter to stay with his sisters but his true drawing was to fighting. He was training to become a warrior himself, and had enlisted in the army.
"What? No-that's not the point. I think the point is that you should do what you feel drawn to, and not what everyone tells you to. So, really, Tate did the right thing, see?"
Sophia continued to stare at her sister. "I don't like it. I don't like what it implies."
"You never like my stories."
"You're like the crazy horse people-you know, 'horses are sentient and wise creatures.'"
"Well, they are."
"You're like that, but with dragons. You have to get serious about this. You have to pass."
Rennette flopped back onto the bed. "I don't know what I'm drawn to."
"You're drawn to hunting."
"No, you are. You just made me come with you."
Sophia's pen stopped scratching. "You like animals. Here you get to be around them all the time. Problem solved."
Rennette squeezed her eyes shut as her sister's pen commenced scratching. "I thought you'd like it because she never has to get married."
The cry of the finlare echoed in her ears. She opened her eyes and focused on the ceiling beams, humming to drown out the sound.
When they had been younger Tate had gone with her to the edge of the wild. There had been a herd of finlare-only a group of four-and the children had been desperately curious. Sophia had grown afraid and had run back to the farm but the twins pressed on regardless, hoping to catch a glimpse before their mother came to retrieve them.
The finlare had been calm, grazing on the scrub while the twins sat in a tree. Rennette wondered about dropping onto their backs and riding them like horses. Why had no one tried?
She soon learned why. Benano, their dog, burst into the clearing looking for the wayward twins. The finlare bristled and took up an offensive stance; Rennette screamed as the dog was charged.
In a flash Tate was leaping from the tree, arms spread as he landed on a finlare's back. The creature screamed in confusion, its tail lashing as it bucked. The other finlare darted in a rare panic, afraid, Rennette later thought, of the unfamiliar sight.
Tate held on mightily with one hand as he drew his farmer's knife. Benano, seeing Tate in trouble, squared himself against the beast, lunging for its throat just as Tate struck the finlare's soft-point with his knife.
Rennette screamed again and Tate was thrown from the finlare's back. The finlare whirled to face him, Benano's heavy body holding its head down. It tripped over its own feet and Benano as it lumbered into a shuffling charge, catching Tate with a tusk as he tried to jump away. Tate cried out and was thrown again, his body landing as Rennette dropped from the tree and the finlare's neck snapped in Benano's jaws.
Their mother found them as Rennette bent over Tate's body. "Don't blame the dog," he whispered to his sister. "They'll kill 'im."
She could still remember her convoluted story, the lies disguised as fear. She had told of her own frolicking through the woods, of the finlare charging at her, Tate coming to her rescue with Benano, a hero. At the end of the telling Rennette's mother had slapped her across the face with a fierceness she had never known. The blow had knocked Rennette down and no one came to her aid, all turning to Tate and seeing that he became well. That was the first time Rennette realized the power of her gift. Her words could affect people in such a way as to change who they were-those words had turned their soft, timid mother into a figure of fury.
Rennette's heart pounded. Words-simple words-had created a new reality. She felt guilty for the lies. She closed her eyes and tried to find truth in them. She could only find a new sense of purpose, a resignation that if her words had such power she would only speak them true. From then on she became a prolific teller of tales, and not one story was false.
Her sister was still writing in the notebook.
"Soph? Do you think Benano misses us?"
"No. I imagine he's sleeping in the sun right now, waiting for Dad to drop a scrap. If anything, he probably just misses Tate."
Rennette closed her eyes again. The finlare's cries were gone. "In the beginning there was a loyal protector of man. He serves to this day and those loved by him may see his future. 'The brave beast Benano lived a long and healthy life,' they say, 'longer than all other of his kind, and strong until he at last closed his eye.' The end."
She could feel Sophie smile. "There," her sister declared. "That's a story I do like."