Author's Note: I do not own the Age of Fire series—E.E. Knight does. This is a product of my ravings and obsession with dragons and their awesomeness, as well as the fact that I just finished reading Dragon Outcast and Dragon Strike.
Flight of Sire and Dame: A Retelling
It had gone quiet all of a sudden.
Having been huddled in a corner all this time next to one of the furnaces, the man tentatively uncovered his head, his Dragonguard armor clattering softly. There was no sound now, beyond the dull roar of hot air in the furnaces here in the incubation room and the eerie whoosh of cave drafts. One would think he would be relieved, but now that the screams and roars had faded he was more afraid now than he had been prior. Slowly he got to his feet and picked his way around warm dragon eggs to the cave entrance. He and another Dragonguard, Lear, had had the mid-morning watch when the bowels of the caverns erupted in a loud frenzy, and Lear had run out to see what the matter was. That had been some time ago—he did not know how long—and his companion had not come back to tell him what had happened.
He peered left toward the Dragonguards' quarters. Nothing. Only the smell of dragon-flame and burnt flesh greeted him.
Timidly, he called, "Lear? Lear, can you hear me? What has happened?" Still not a sound.
He looked back at the egg cave briefly and made the lonely trek through the main corridor, large enough for the dragons to alight and make their way to their perches deep inside the mountain. More than once he lurched toward a crevasse, retching, as body after body greeted him the closer he got to the entrance. Some had been crushed by dragons until they were pulpy messes, with few substantial—and recognizable—bits of flesh left. Others had been cleaved in half by tooth and claw, and still others were nothing but dry husks. So twisted were they that he was oddly reminded of dried herbs and beans used for cooking, darkened by the process. And still they smoldered and smoked as he passed.
"Lear?" he called again. He dare not speak much louder than a hoarse whisper, lest he arouse the attention of a wary dragon. "Lear, where have you gone?"
He stifled a cry when something groaned nearby, throwing himself against the entrance wall. He could see nothing, as the wall formed a small mass of rocks and stalagmites where it joined the ledge. He gathered himself and edges his way around the rocks and into the sunlight.
His fellow Dragonguard held the lifeless body of one of the cart-women across his lap, one he had been keen on, weeping quietly. Her torso had been ripped open from shoulder to navel by claws. She stared at the cruelly blue sky, face still contorted in agony.
"Lear! Lear!" he hissed, grabbing the other man by the arm and shaking him. "Lear, take hold of your wits!" That seemed to snap the other man to his senses. He scrambled away from the dead girl and seized him by the wrist.
"We must do it! We must, we must, we must...!" His already firm grip clamped harder on his wrist in hysteria. "We have to do it, Hart! We have our duty—"
"What are you talking about, Lear?" The man had the pallor of wax and babbled like a lunatic.
Lear led him quickly to the armory, near the Guards' quarters. Barrels lining one side of the dimly-lit cavern held the catch-poles used to pinion the dragonelles when eggs were collected, as well as venom-blades on long poles should they still prove too much. On the other side, also in barrels, were poison daggers the Guards carried on their person. Lear armed himself with extra blades, clipping some around his waist and carrying more in his hands. "Hurry, hurry! Take as many as you can and come with me!"
"But, Lear, what are we doing with—"
"There's no time! Do as I say!" He ran from the cavern with his load and was gone. Hart could not fathom why they would need the poison daggers now. Had he overheard the dragons planning something and planned to catch them unawares? He took two daggers from the barrel and left to look for his comrade again.
"Where has he gone now?" A crackle echoed along the greater cave and he ran back to the incubation cavern. He found Lear hunched over the eggs, as if inspecting them as they had before. "What—" The other man whirled around to fully face him. A broken dagger was in his hand, dripping both with Starlight's venom and a thick, viscous fluid, which he soon realized to be on the floor and dripping from an upended egg. "What are you doing?"
"Come along, Hart! We must hurry!" He dropped the broken dagger and took another. He used the sharp blade to break the shell of the next hapless egg, producing a slow dribble of egg-white from the hole. Then he plunged his entire arm into the shell and striking the dragon within, breaking the blade and releasing the venom. Almost instantly the egg began to rock violently on its brace as he moved to the next one, followed by an explosion of egg-white and yolk and hatchling, explaining the loud crackle he had heard. Already the young was large enough to destroy its egg, thrashing as it was from the venom, and toppled into a wet heap on the floor, still twitching as two more eggs were breached. He felt his throat tightening in a wave of nausea again, at both the sight of the dead dragons and at Lear's quick efficiency at the task.
"Lear, stop this!" he rasped. Now a fourth hatchling fell to the ground, a rather large blue. What a fine warrior he might have made.
"No!" he snapped, attacking a fifth and sixth egg. "This was the Master's plan should anything go wrong!"
Down went the seventh egg. "He would not want this!"
And the eighth. "You're a fool, Hart! We cannot let these eggs fall to their dames!" The ninth and tenth eggs fell almost at the same time under a double-handed attack. "We must carry out our tasks before we are discovered, for the Master!"
"Better to find the Master and help him raise these eggs than this! The Isle is theirs! Let us run now and stage a counterattack later with the Master's help—"
"NO!" Breaking poison daggers was taking too long, so he resorted to simply smashing the eggs open. None of the hatchlings were strong enough to survive in open air as yet and would perish within minutes. "We must—"
"We'll be killed if we do this!"
"Is that all you care about? The Master had a dream and it has been dashed. We cannot let it be completely ruined because a rogue beast was able to sway the minds of our own!" He swore savagely and lashed out at another group of eggs.
"This is lunacy!" He turned to leave and seek mercy from any dragon about, even an angry dragonelle. Perhaps he could secure his safety by leading them to Lear, and helping them take their eggs back.
He froze. The realization that he was being watched jolted through him like lightning. Without really looking up he saw the glow of several pairs of red, angry dragon eyes. "Lear...?"
"Do not trouble me with your feeble attempts to stop me, Hart!" he snapped from the cavern. By now he had smashed a score of eggs or thereabouts.
"But...but, Lear, it is no use!" he replied warningly. "We are discovered!"
Finally Lear stopped what he was doing and looked at Hart, then into the greater cave outside. Five angry drakka lined the corridor, glaring at them. Blast their instincts! Drakka were never taught hunting like their brothers, and yet they crept up on them like lionesses! "How did you all escape?" He held up his hand. "No matter. I suppose you will go seek the adult females to kill me? Do as you will! But I assure you that I will finish my work!" He recognized the drakka now. Three had gotten their cages off their heads, and he had to admit that Ranashe, Taraya, and Habthea snarled as fiercely as a dragon in battle. The other two, Selianna and Dapheelia, had to settle for waving their tales and growling.
"Lear, stop this!"
"Fie on you!" With that, he kicked another egg open. The uncaged drakka needed no goading and seized upon him, tearing him to bits as he lived.
"An arm gone for killing Nereeza!" Ranashe cried.
"A leg for Ktarata!" added Habthea.
"And your gut for all the others!" Taraya roared, digging into him with her saa.
Hart watched the entire spectacle, trembling, and then looked at Selianna and Dapheelia sidelong. "I beg," he said, "let me live! I can help the dragonelles get their eggs back! Lear has not destroyed all of them!" One of the three behind him belched as she gorged on his comrade's body. "I beg you!"
The red eyes above the cages were unmoving.
Meanwhile, the surviving dragonelles of the brooding cave (minus Natasatch, as she was with AuRon) were gathered around the hatchling cave. It was wide enough for dragons like AuRon to see into, but only near-fledged drakes could actually fit through the entrance, as they did not have the span or the muscle on them to hinder their movements. Four drakes not quite old enough to leave this cavern, wings not begun to rise, hunched stiffly in front of their terrified younger siblings of both genders. They looked like two cats meeting in the night, when one does not fall into full fighting stance but half-squats, tail flashing irritably, yowling at an unwanted companion in warning. They growled softly, griffs only partly lowered, hovering somewhere between protectiveness and anxiety at the sight of the colossal females.
"How brave you are, young ones," Saima was saying; her voice was muffled from the cage still clamped around her mouth. "But there is no need for fear."
"What she says is true," said another dragonelle named Eszreethene. She lowered her head toward the hatchlings—about the only part of her that would fit—to try and comfort them, but the sight of her great spade-shaped head and the cage fastened to it frightened them, being so close all of a sudden. They shrieked timidly and fell behind their older siblings. A young gold needed no other hint and hissed and spat at the dragonelle.
"What cheek!" Ouistrela growled.
"Enough, Ouisa," Saima said. "It is not of his doing. The Wyrmmaster brought them to this."
"Those monsters!" cried a fourth dragonelle. "They've robbed us of our lives!"
"Easy, Hatheela," said another next to her.
"How can I be, Beajara, and how can you say such a thing? This is a travesty! Our own young fear us!"
"Now, everyone calm down," said another from further up the corridor. "Hysteria will only give them cause to fear us."
At that moment, two drakka bustled up to them, covered in blood and gristle about the claws and mouth. "We have news of your eggs!"
Saima turned to them. "What is it, girls?"
The same golden drake addressed the one closer to him. "What are you and Habthea doing, Taraya? You mustn't speak to them after what has taken place!"
"Stow it, Solwing! You would not be so quick to defend the humans if you had the view of the breeding cave we had!" she countered.
"But they have killed so many of our caretakers!" replied a young red.
"And our mothers have suffered more at the hands of our 'caretakers!'"
"One of them was destroying the eggs in the incubation room!" Habthea added.
"WHAT?" the dragonelles gasped, half-rearing in alarm.
"It's true, but we took care of him where he stood, just like you took care of Eliam and the others!" said Taraya. The drakka had heard everything in the breeding cave and staged a rebellion of their own, bashing their cages into the humans and Guards in the cave with them and striking others down with tail-swipes. Few had escaped the chains that tethered them to the wall, but they were able to remove some of their friends' cages so they could use their flame.
"Destroyed eggs?" the red asked incredulously. "But, that cannot be! The Dragonguard took such care of us!"
"They cared for you! When we left the hatchling cavern we were privy to the sight and sound of our lives as dragonelles! But you will find out about that soon enough!" The two drakka pushed past the drakes and spoke with the younger hatchlings. Like the adults, they were able to use mind-speech, and rather than using words, they explained the dragonelles outside were no threat to them and were to be trusted. To the drakes they used mind-pictures and showed them the gory truth of life in the breeding cavern (or at least some of it). They cowered away, shivering.
"This is only the first lesson, drakes," Ouistrela muttered.
Hatheela spoke next. "Your name is Taraya, yes?"
The drakka beamed. "Yes."
"Take us to the egg cavern."
"All right." She led the way along the corridor; Habthea drove the four drakes ahead of her, behind Taraya, with nips to saa and tails. The adults followed behind, and the hatchlings walked among them, sticking close and keeping quiet. Even the males were too timid to dart about, as they normally would.
"Some of the eggs were left intact, you say?" Beajara was asking.
"Yes," replied Taraya. "He had already destroyed quite a few when we arrived, though. Ranashe, Selianna, and Dapheelia are guarding a friend of his right now."
"You left him alive?" Ouistrela roared.
"He says he can help you get your eggs back."
They reached the cavern; having heard their approach, Hart ran out of the cavern and lay prone before the dragonelles. "Mercy! Spare me long enough to right the wrong done to you, I beg!"
"Do stop blubbering, human!" Eszreethene snapped. "Who is this man, Taraya?"
Ranashe answered for her. "His name is Hart. He had the watch over the eggs when Lord NooShoahk began the rebellion."
And Dapheelia: "We're sorry, Taraya. We tried to stop him when he realized you were coming—"
"No need for that, girls," the same dragonelle had who called for calm said, a grand female named Zeedasmene. Even with the cage she was still elegant, head held high on her long neck. She stepped past the others carefully in the cramped space, sniffing at Hart lividly. "We can deal with him later." She stepped further forward and peered into the cavern. The entrance here was only fit for a human and a line of obedient freshly-hatched dragons, making their way to the cavern they had just left. She peered inside and stiffened. "...O, Susiron above, no...!"
"Zeeda, what is it?" Epinonia asked. She and the nearest dragonelles tried to press closer. Hatheela, of smaller build than the others, managed to squeeze past and joined the larger female; she immediately regretted it and withdrew.
"Horrors! Horrors!" she cried.
"Theela, calm yourself!" Beajara said once again.
"What do you see?" added Saima.
Quivering badly, Zeedasmene replied, "The eggs have been smashed open...and young are everywhere!" The others went still, with the exception of Hatheela, who whimpered miserably. The drakes could hardly believe their ears and rushed to the cavern entrance to see for themselves.
"No!" the gold named Solwing gasped.
"But, the Dragonguard said they would never harm egg nor hatchling! They let us see how they tended the eggs!" the red added.
The blue among them shuddered. "They have filled us with lies!"
The last of the four drakes, a bronze, found he could just fit through the entrance and padded inside. He sniffed the pools of congealed egg-white and dead hatchlings. He had already recognized the corpse as that of Lear. He had been such a steady-minded human, he recalled. What had driven him to such an act?
"What are you doing, Firelash?" the blue hissed.
He looked back. "Do you not smell it?"
"Smell what?" He and the others perked up.
"Come here." He was joined by the blue in a moment. "Those eggs over there do not have it, but these here—"
"Yes, yes, you are right. They smell...metallic...or acidic, like foua, but sharper." He saw a broken dagger lying on the ground near a contorted hatchling and made to investigate it. "This smells the same—"
Saima saw what it was in front of him. "No, drake! That will kill you where you stand!" Both he and Firelash gave short grunts in alarm and backed away.
Beajara poked her head through the throng of dragonelles to see. "Why, there's a hoard of those daggers! They're the ones the Dragonguard used for protection!"
Ouistrela rounded on Hart. "You did this!"
The man fell to his knees weeping. "Not I! It was Lear, the dead man you see within! He ran from the armory with the daggers and was emptying the contents of the vial into the eggs when I arrived!"
"As if you didn't help him!"
"Truly, I did not!" he sobbed.
"It is true," Selianna said. "When Taraya brought us here Hart was trying to convince Lear to stop. He never once picked up a dagger or kicked open a shell."
"Is that so?" Eszreethene muttered.
"Oh, yes," sniffed Hart, "and, as I said to the drakka and to you, I-I would be happy to return the unharmed eggs."
"And how would you go about it?"
"I-If I may, there is a book, over there—" He pointed to a small stone podium in one corner of the cavern. "—and it had all of our records in it."
"Y-Yes." The man shuffled over to the book and took it from the podium. "Whenever new eggs were brought to us, we were told to record which dragonelle laid them and by whose seed."
"Did you indeed?" Saima snarled.
He flinched. "Yes, and with a little time I could sort this out and return the eggs to each of you."
Epinonia snorted. "And what reasons have we to trust you? You might have other ways to sabotage the eggs!"
"Certainly not, dragonelle! I assure you I would not do such a thing! I cannot even suffocate the young!" He gestured toward the intact eggs. "See here; we mark where the top of the egg is to prevent such an event." He flinched again when one or more of the dragonelles growled. He could not be sure when they would kill him, eggs or no eggs.
One of those behind him shrieked and set the others into a panic.
"What was that? Who has been hurt?"
"Emallagnia, take the hatchlings back to the—"
The drakka had been pounced upon by a surviving Guard. She roared and spat and bucked her way up to and out of the main corridor, trying desperately to crush her attacker against the rocks. Another leapt from a crevasse and joined the melee. Habthea and Ranashe sidled alongside, trying to angle for a pounce of their own or a shot of flame.
"Fight them, Taraya!" They were seized, too.
"No, not Ranashe!"
"Habthea, that one has a dagger!" The four drakes dragon-dashed after them when they heard that, leaving the dragonelles to guard the hatchlings.
One long, piercing scream echoed throughout the cave as the venom took hold of Habthea. Accelerated by her struggling, the venom coursed through her body faster. She spasmed violently. She involuntarily loosed her flames and killed one man. Ranashe turned the other into a pyre, as well, spinning in her battle against her own attackers, before she, too, was stabbed and fell victim to Starlight's curse.
"Taraya, lead them outside where you have room to fight!" Solwing called as his friends fell on the surviving Guards.
In the corridor, Emallagnia roared and bowled past the other dragonelles. Four other Guards clung to her back, and would have done her in had she not the benefit of size and wings to delay them. Heeding the drake's advice, she made for the main entrance to the cave. Beajara whipped around and knocked two more Guards bringing up the rear with her tail. "It was a ruse! To the outside, hurry!" She urged the hatchlings to follow the other adults and covered them, backing out of the corridor, ready to loose flame if any should try another sneak-attack.
Ouistrela stayed to deal with Hart. "Assassin! You would kill us before our hatchlings' eyes!" She took him up in her jaws, armor and all, and bit down, cutting him in half. She dropped the carcass and ground it against the cave floor.
"Come, Ouisa!" Beajara called. Foua pulsing, she followed.
What greeted her was chaos, and not the sort of the hatchling cave.
The Dragonguard had managed to reconvene and remain hidden in the trees surrounding the entrance of the compound, despite grown dragons overhead and young ones searching the forest floor, and mounted a counterattack. They had sent a few among them into the cave through other, smaller tunnels built for this very purpose, knowing those dragons inside were distracted and unprotected by the others.
Unable to breathe fire for their cages, Saima, Zeedasmene, and Eszreethene had herded the hatchlings inside a loose ring they had formed with their bodies. Turned slightly to the side and tails lashing, they all faced on direction like a wagon-wheel, so they could defend each other as well as themselves, and from there stared down a small detachment of Guards surrounding them. Already they had been cut by normal blades and bled profusely. In front of them lay dead or wounded drakka, also still caged. Epinonia and Hatheela were leading the drakes against another detachment in retreat. The caged dragonelles were seized at the same time and roared, rearing up to try to throw their attackers, and when that did no work, ran headlong into the waiting men, rolling and thrashing wildly to kill as many as possible.
Ouistrela lunged for the men climbing over Eszreethene. She knocked one away from the dragonelle's neck-hearts with a vicious tail-swipe. "Eszree, duck your head!" She unleashed her flame on more men who had scaled her back. Two ducked under her stomach; she saw them and kicked them away. "Are you all right, Eszree?"
"Never mind me! They've—"
Emallagnia screamed in agony from her position at the very edge of the forest. One of the men had cut her badly across the chest, just over her breastbone. Bleeding heavily, she turned a tight circle and tried to strike back.
"Agnia, on your back!"
"He has a poison dagger!"
A great roar floated down from the sky and a streak of blue flashed past Ouistrela and Eszreethene. The humans crawling on the dragonelle hardly had time to consider cowering before they were blasted to pieces by an airborne tail-swipe. It was a grand fighter named Wavebreak. He had heard the commotion while he had been hunting for humans overhead and dived on his prey when he saw what the matter was. He turned a tight circle, flapping like a small bird and kicking up dust, and landed beside the stricken female, heaving for breath.
"I take it you all believed we would be so distracted as to neglect the dragonelles!" he roared. As he spoke, a white named Frostcrest, his clutch-mate, and a gold named Suntail descended upon the scene, flanking him. Two reds aided the other dragonelles if need be, while two bronzes defended Zeedasmene and Saima. "Where are the rest of your comrades?"
"Spare us, Wavebreak!"
"Where are they?"
"There are no others!" cried the most senior of the men before him.
"Liars!" Ouistrela bellowed. "You had that Hart-character bring us to the egg cavern so you could surprise us! Now three young drakka lay dead from poison and dragonelles bleeding!"
"And for what?" added Epinonia. "Your Lear destroyed our eggs! We cannot have that for recompense!"
"Destroyed eggs?" asked one of the reds, appalled.
"Yes," said Hatheela. "Lear emptied poison into them!"
"Kill them, Wavebreak! The rest, too!"
"Be easy, Wrathflame," said the gold. How appropriately his name fit his personality.
"I'm with him!" replied the other red.
"You aren't helping, Lavawhip!"
"I say to you again," continued Wavebreak, ignoring them, "tell me where your comrades are. I know there are escape tunnels carved into the mountains—that is how you began this little ambush, I gather. Tell me!"
"There are no others," the senior Guard repeated. "I assure you. All assembled here are those who remain."
"Then you will stay here long enough to help us here, and then you will leave with the others."
"Yes, of course, Wavebreak."
The blue stamped the ground with his sii so hard the men rose into the air and landed in a heap. "You do not acknowledge that name!" The other dragons were puzzled. His brother Frostcrest the White stepped forward.
"What do you mean?"
"Henceforth I am to be addressed as EnSeele, son of EnMar, as is proper." He looked at his brother sadly. "Is it not?"
The white drooped a little. "I think so."
Eszreethene padded over to Emallagnia. "How is the wound?"
The other female looked up from licking it clean. "All well. He used a normal sword."
Hearing that, EnSeele the Blue snapped, "The cages: remove them from the females' heads, too—"
"Y-Yes, right away," said the Guardsman.
"After you lay down your weapons."