Chapter One

A Cursed Day

It was quite dark among the mountains of the Spine; a darkness almost of night, but not quite. Mostly it was the clouds. They hung overhead in a great blanket, dark grey and purple on the horizon. It was a violent colour. A colour of storm. There was storm, too, or the promise of it. Lightning flickered, as yet unaccompanied by thunder. It was what dragons called a cursed day, and that was more than just superstition. Since dragons fly, and since their bones contain high amounts of metal, it is only natural that they would fear the lightning, or 'flash of death', as they called it.

But there was one dragon in the Spine who was unafraid. He dared to fly when others stayed hidden in their homes for fear of the flash of death. But, then, he was a special kind of dragon. Huge and muscular, with strong wings and powerful claws, he was large even for a well-grown male. His scales were a rich and shimmering red, and his eyes were fiery orange. There was a reason for his foolish flying in stormy weather, though, and it wasn't just to prove his courage. The red dragon had little interest in proving his courage, particularly when there was nobody watching.

The area of the mountain range where he flew was high and barren; great spires and rocky outcrops rose massively into the grim sky, almost like a natural castle. This was the home of many dragons. It was their fortress, their home. Their sanctuary against their enemies. These mountains housed many caves large enough to house adult dragons, and the red dragon was heading for the one he shared with his mate. That was why he was daring to fly now.

Forked lightning stabbed over the dark sky. The dragon put his head down and narrowed his eyes against the wind, but otherwise he took no notice of the threatening light. He glided through the narrow gap between two sheer cliffs, clipping his wings close to his body at the slimmest point before opening them in time to flick them downward as soon as he reached open space. Then he was soaring upwards once more, his clawed legs curled up against his body to resist wind drag. The lightning began to increase in violence and frequency overhead, though there was still no thunder. Nor was there any rain, though the clouds promised it would come soon. The red dragon entered a bare, rocky valley. Its base was strewn with loose stones, sharp and jagged in the stormlight. In the cliff above it was the red dragon's cave. He wheeled about, his red scales gleaming, and took perch at its lip. Standing in the entrance, he shook his wings to loosen the muscles, looking out at the gathering storm and growling deep in his throat. Thunder finally sounded deeply in the mountains, like the beating of a great heart. The red dragon raised his head, a majestic figure among the dull grey of the surrounding stone. He watched the lightning split the tormented sky, his eyes narrow.

'Cursed day,' he muttered, and turned gratefully to enter his home.

The cave opened up into a large space just inside the entrance, and since this was the home of two dragons it was just as well. There the red dragon's mate was waiting for him, curled lazily on a heap of broken branches. Normally a dragon does not bother with nesting material, even if it's as coarse as a heap of shattered wood, but the red dragon's mate was soon to lay, and all prospective mothers seek some small comfort to make their time easier. The female dragon was about three quarters of the male's size, and her scales were a rich golden yellow. Her eyes were sky blue, and her features were fair. She looked up when the red dragon came in, and smiled.

'Hayagriva, it's good to see you. Were you flying in the storm?'

'Yes,' said the red dragon. His voice was deep and rumbled in his chest, but his look toward the yellow female was caring, almost gentle.

'You know you should not fly on a cursed day,' his mate told him gently. 'It's dangerous.'

'I would brave any danger for you,' Hayagriva said, unsmiling but genuine.

'And our youngster,' his mate replied.

'Of course. How do you feel?'

'Well enough,' said the yellow dragon, wincing a little. 'I think the laying is imminent.'

'How imminent?' said Hayagriva, tensing. 'Not tonight?'

'I hope not. No, no, not tonight,' the yellow dragon said hastily. 'I think it will be a few more days yet.'

'Good,' said Hayagriva, satisfied. 'Tonight would be-,'

'I know,' said the yellow dragon. She sighed. 'How goes it with the council?'

'Not well,' said Hayagriva, lying down next to her with a sigh. 'They argue endlessly over what to do about these cursed Elves. Some say we shouldn't fight them at all.' He snorted. 'Fools. To ignore an enemy is to succumb to him. I told them that if they did not make up their minds and quickly, I would drive them out of the Spine myself.'

The yellow dragon smiled. 'You're too harsh on them,' she said. 'They're confused and uncertain. And perhaps they're right,' she added, almost as an afterthought.

'Right about what?' Hayagriva demanded. 'That the Elvish war should not be fought?'

'Perhaps it would be better if we made peace with the Elves,' the female admitted, but timidly. 'War, after all, merely-,'

'Silence!' Hayagriva roared, rising to his full impressive height. 'I will not hear such idiocy from my own mate! The Elves are our enemies – they slew my brother. Or have you forgotten that? To kill a member of the royal family is high treason among dragons and punishable by death, and so the Elves must be punished in the same way. Their race is alien and unwelcome in our lands, and they must be driven out.'

'I'm sorry,' the female said, fearful of his wrath. 'I did not mean to upset you. But with so many dying, I fear that… never mind. Be calm, Hayagriva, my love. I haven't forgotten your brother. He was a fine dragon. Perhaps if our youngster is a son, we can name him the same as a mark of honour.'

Hayagriva calmed down. 'I'd like that,' he murmured, lying down again. 'I'm sorry too, Surya. I should not be so angry with you, and especially when you are so fragile.'

'I'm well enough,' said Surya. 'Be calm and peaceful, Griva. You are safe in your home and the one you love is by you.'

Hayagriva smiled at the sound of the nickname she called him by, and let himself relax into the warmth of her loving body. Before long, tired out from the exertions of the day, he fell asleep.

'Griva! Wake up, Griva, I need you-!'

Hayagriva's eyes snapped open, but it was several seconds before he also snapped out of his confusion. It was nighttime, the storm was in its full flight outside, and Surya was thrashing in pain beside him. It was her voice that had woken him, and now she looked around desperately at him, seeking his help. Her foreclaws were clutched around her lower belly, her eyes wide with fear.

'What is it?' Hayagriva asked, standing up.

'Griva… my egg,' Surya gasped. 'I'm burning inside… it hurts, Griva, it hurts…'

She flopped over on her side and lay there, panting and much distressed.

Hayagriva was by her immediately, nuzzling her face and draping his wing over her. 'Be calm, Surya,' he told her. 'Relax, block the pain. How badly does it hurt you? Where is the pain?'

'Here, where my egg lies,' Surya moaned, rubbing her swollen abdomen with desperate claws. 'It is a birthing pain, but so…' she trailed off, gasping with wide-open mouth as if she were drowning. Hayagriva, holding her close, could feel her heart pounding with a rapid, erratic sound, and felt his own heart clench itself in fear. If Surya died, if his child died…

'No,' he rasped. 'I won't let it happen to you. Surya, gather your strength. Think of the great dragons of the past. Think of our child. He needs you to be strong and to live.'

'Yes,' Surya whispered, very weak now. 'Yes…'

She closed her eyes and sighed. Moments later her body suddenly went limp. Hayagriva's chest stabbed itself with a bolt of panic. Was she…? But then he realised he could still hear her breathing. She was alive. Just.

Surya didn't move for a long time, but she did speak; muttering in a feverish undertone while her mate stayed loyally by her, his eyes fixed anxiously on her face. Outside the black clouds parted briefly to reveal a silver half-moon, a shining beacon of purity in the gloom and violence of the storm. During that short glimpse of sanity amongst madness, Surya cried out once again. It was a wild scream, wild like the storm, and it lifted her to her claws as if she were a puppet and it were her strings. Howling like a wolf, she thrust Hayagriva aside with unnatural strength, rising onto her hind legs with her wings spread wide like glorious banners in the dark cave. Her tail lashed, and she roared ferociously. The sound echoed mightily, and then Surya collapsed as quickly as she'd risen. Lying on her stomach with her limbs spreadeagled, she looked like a puppet whose strings were now cut. Hayagriva came to her, saying; 'Surya! Are you all right?'

She didn't respond. He lifted her head in his foreclaws, nosing at her snout and saying her name over and over. Eventually she opened her eyes and focused on him. 'Griva?' she faltered.

'Oh, thank the sky and the sea, you're alive,' Hayagriva moaned. 'Are you hurt?'

'No, but I am exhausted,' said Surya, trying feebly to get up. 'What happened? Did I fall?'

'You did, and I thought you were dead,' said Hayagriva, helping her up. 'Is the pain better?'

'Yes, it's gone,' said Surya. She seemed puzzled. 'It got so bad… I thought I was going to die from it. But then it went away. I feel so relieved now. But I think…'

'What?' said Hayagriva.

'I think the egg is gone,' said Surya.

'Gone?' said Hayagriva, horrified. 'You haven't miscarried it, have you?'

'No,' said Surya. 'I don't think so. I think I laid it. Just before I fell over, I felt it leave my body.'

'But it may not have been ready to be laid,' said Hayagriva, casting around for it on the floor.

'It was ready,' said Surya with certainty. 'A mother knows these things. It should be here somewhere…'

She turned around, showing surprising strength given her ordeal, but though both dragons looked everywhere around them they couldn't see anything.

'I can't have vanished!' Hayagriva exclaimed.

'We should feel for it,' said Surya, running her claws over the floor. A moment later her claws closed around a tiny, round shape. It was the egg, and she held it up to the light of the lightning from the entrance so that they could see it. Hayagriva came over to look, but the egg was invisible in the darkness. Then lightning flashed, and they saw it. Both of them froze.

The egg was black. There were no coloured veins on it as with a normal egg, and the entire shell was dull, shineless jet. It was more like a hole in the world than a solid object, but it was there in Surya's claws, and it was most terribly real.

It was Hayagriva who spoke first. 'It must be destroyed,' he said.

Surya looked past the egg to his face, terrible in the stormlight. But though his eyes blazed with rage and hatred she could see fear in them as well. 'I swear to you, I did not know,' she said softly.

'You knew, Surya, and you are no longer welcome in my cave,' said Hayagriva. 'Destroy the egg and I will let you live.'

Surya closed her claws around the egg, holding it to her chest with her head bowed.

'Do you hear me?' Hayagriva asked quietly.

Surya nodded. She looked up at him with difficulty and said; 'I will destroy it, Griva.'

'Don't call me that,' Hayagriva hissed. He was looking at her now as if she were some filthy vermin from the depths of the desert rather than the female he loved.

'I won't,' Surya said. She turned away from him and walked slowly toward the cave's entrance, her head low with shame. Reaching it, she paused and looked out into the storm. It had not calmed in the slightest since she had woken and the pain had grabbed her. If anything it had worsened. It echoed the storm in her heart, and in that moment she made a wild decision. She glanced back quickly at Hayagriva, and saw him brooding and dangerous. In her head the words echoed; My son…

'Forgive me, Hayagriva,' she whispered to him. 'A mother's love can be a weakness.'

He said nothing. Probably he hadn't heard her. Surya tore her eyes away from him, and launched herself into the air. Behind her she heard her mate snarl with rage, but she had made her choice and she did not look back. She flew out into the storm, heedless of the rain beating upon her bright scales. Hayagriva followed her, roaring like the thunder. Flames dripped from his jaws in his fury, and he pursued his erstwhile mate as fast as he could go. Which was very fast.

Surya, fully aware that his intent was murderous, flew straight upward into the midst of the lightning-rent maelstrom of cloud. It was foolish to the point of suicidal to fly this high in a storm, but Surya knew that. She hoped that Hayagriva wouldn't be angry enough to follow her there. Surely he would value his own life above the destruction of the egg…

She was wrong. Beating her wings frantically against the wind, she glanced back and saw him rushing toward her in a whirl of red and orange, like a living fire. He spat flames at her, and she climbed yet higher to avoid them. She knew she couldn't outfly him, and a plaintive moan escaped her as she knew she had no choice but to turn and attack him. She leant to the left, wheeling about on a rudder-wing, and met Hayagriva head-on. He saw her and screamed something, some word that was lost in the howling wind. A word forever lost, just like their love.

Surya sucked in a mouthful of storm-wind, and launched a fireball at him. Hayagriva wasn't expecting it, and caught it full in the face. He screeched, his eyes snapping closed involuntarily. A dragon's scales are more-or-less fireproof, but they can still feel pain. Eyes closed, he continued his hurtling ascent, head up, foreclaws outstretched. Too late, Surya realised her mistake. Unable to see where he was going, Hayagriva smashed into her. His claws tore deep into her body, the impact shattering bone and tearing muscle. Surya screamed, reeling backward in midair. Hayagriva bounced back, stunned by the backlash of his strike. While he was thus distracted, Surya fell from the sky. Blood was flowing out of her chest, and one foreleg was broken. But she roused herself before she hit the ground. Her wings spread instinctively, catching her like a parachute. Somehow, fighting to overcome the pain, she turned her fall into a glide. The egg had fallen from her claws, and her blue eyes searched frantically for it. She couldn't lose it, not when she had sacrificed so much for it.

Above, Hayagriva paused. He could see the blood on his claws, and the sight shocked him. Had he really attacked his own mate? Yes, he had, and he could hardly believe it. Anger had swamped his senses and overcome his reason, and now he realised what he had done he found himself tortured by remorse.

'Surya!' he shouted. 'Surya, forgive me, I-,'

Lightning flashed. Not above him, but all around him. For a second there was nothing but pain. Blinding, burning, agonising pain. And then there was only darkness. Surya turned in time to see her mate's charred corpse tumbling to earth. It hit the rocks with a horrible crunch of breaking bone, and lay still, burnt scales smoking. Surya landed clumsily and collapsed when her broken leg hit the ground. She lay still, panting, her eyes streaming with tears as her chest ran with her life's blood. But still she looked for her egg. Unable to stand up, she crawled awkwardly over the sharp stones, not feeling them scratching her scales. It was hard to see; everything seemed very dark. Even her night-piercing eyes couldn't make out much beyond the end of her snout.

But she found her egg. By some miracle, she found it. It lay innocently in its jagged, rocky nest, a piece of darkness still darker than the night around it. She grasped it in the claws of her good foreleg, and pulled it to her chest. Its hard shell become slick with her blood, but she held on grimly.

'Your hear me,' she whispered to it. 'I am your mother. I did what I did for you; remember that. My love saved you. Forgive your father; he feared what you are. And so do I. But I believe you can overcome it, for you are my child and special. To me you are the most special dragon in the world. I would have raised you and taught you about life, but now I know I can't. All I can do is tell you I love you and be with you to the last. And I name you.'

She gasped. The pain was smothering her, taking her away from life.

'Listen, little once,' she said urgently. 'I don't have any more time. There is no such thing as destiny. You are master of your fate. It is – your choice. Don't make the wrong choice. Your father – wanted to name you for his brother. Your name is Ravana. Even if you are female, the name is good for both.' Her eyes closed slowly, almost lazily. With one last effort, she flung the egg away from her. It bounced away over the stones and came to rest in a hollow a few metres away. Surya did not see it. She sighed out one last breath, vaguely aware that she was no longer in pain. Then she too entered the void of death.