“Go, quickly now, girl!” hissed the stocky and shrouded shape of Fan Hazim; my mentor, boss – and owner. She didn’t waste time on the niceties, I noticed, but then again, she never had in the eight years I’d been in her ‘employment.’
Employment. That was a joke. As if cleaning pots and folding canvas and doing the thousands of other things I had to do for Fan’s travelling crew was really a job. I never saw any money, all of it going to work off my ‘debt’ for having the misfortune to be sold at age seven to this woman.
“Well, what are you waiting for? I have to get back to the Festival, and we can’t let the Torvaldites suspect what we’re up to!” Fan flicked her dark hair over her shoulder and gestured to the small crevice with one tanned arm, heavy with the deep blue inks of her tribal tattoos. She called herself a Headwoman of her tribe of itinerant wanderers – but I had never seen her join in with the old Gypsy songs with the others around our caravan campfires.
Another glare from Fan and I knew that I had dawdled enough. “Fine. Just don’t leave without me,” I muttered, hunkering down to crawl into the crack in the rocks of Mount Hammal.
“We’ll be gone before morning, child – so you’d better be back before then – unless you’re already dragon meat!” Her cackle echoed behind me as I crawled and scraped my way through the stones of the sacred mountain of Torvald and into the home to their infamous dragons.
* * *
The tunnel was tight, and it smelled slightly of old mouse droppings or perhaps fox. Nothing seemed to live here now though, and I wondered if the great lizards that I was climbing towards had eaten them.
No, they’re far too small, aren’t they? I thought glumly, remembering Fan’s ghoulish words just last night, in out camp outside the walls of the citadel of Torvald. “Dragons eat sheep and cows and deer – and most of all, they like the meat of young women!”
Ha. I’d never heard that the Torvald Dragons – those noble beasts that were ridden through the sky by the Torvald Dragon Riders – ate people. The wild mountain blacks, and the Sand Dragons yes, but not the Torvald ones.
Back home in the southlands, our dragons came in just three sorts – and all of them were as mean as a hungry desert cat, or so I had been told. We had the blacks, the orange and yellow Sand Dragons, as well as the much smaller Orange drakes, whereas up here in the north they had the Sinuous Blues, the Stocky Greens, the Giant Whites and of course the Crimson Reds. I’d seen the Torvald Dragons many times as a part of Fan’s surreptitious travels, but I had never been as close to them as I was about to be now.
This was a dumb idea, I thought once again as I teased out the tiny bit of earthstar crystal on its chain that Fan had given me and knocked it a few times on the rocky walls to get it to wake up. I didn’t know how it worked, but I was very pleased when the little shard of blue crystal started to glow a faint blue-white light, allowing me to see a few feet ahead. The tunnel rose unevenly over rounded rocks and jagged piles of rockfall littered its course.
Please don’t collapse on me, I thought as I pulled myself up over the hump of stone and squirmed under the next shelf of rock. But I was light – I wasn’t stocky like the others – Fan and her husband Rahim, their only son Naz, and their small crew of other Gypsy travelers. I stood out like a string-bean in a field of potatoes with my thin body and my long, platinum-white hair. Another reason I had ended up with the Hazim family, I guess. The villagers who had adopted me had been certain that I was a witch.
A few fragments of rock scraped and moved under my grasping hands and I froze, my heart hammering even as my breath stilled in my chest. I waited for the ceiling to shift, but it never did.
“Come on, get this over and done with!” I whispered at myself, knowing that even if I failed, it would still be a long trek back down the sides of the mountain to where the Festival of Summer was in full swing.
That was the reason why Fan had driven us all the way up here – or I guess you could say that was the cover that she had used to get us here. The rest of the Hazim troupe had transformed our caravans into show booths, and, Fan Hazim was no doubt returning to one of them to dispense made-up fortunes from tea leaves and playing cards. The others would be playing instruments or performing tumbling tricks for the fat, complacent people of Torvald. We would be just one more troupe of performers in a sea of others by the outer walls of the Citadel – easily overlooked, and hopefully just as easily forgotten.
“It has to be tonight,” Fan had told her husband Rahim, her husband, just last night. “The Festival offers us the only opportunity to sneak into the Dragon Enclosure and get our hands on some ACTUAL dragon eggs from Torvald stock.”
Rahim, ever the avuncular, and friendly one that I had liked far more than his wife had surprised me by nodding his agreement. “And it has to be Dayie,” he had said about me.
I was the thinnest, and I was the only one of the troupe who looked like I might have actually grown up in Torvald (which I hadn’t – I had far too many scars and bruises for that) with my fair complexion. If I was caught, I might be able to lie and say that I was just a stupid city-girl who had thought to have an adventure. I’d probably still be punished, but not as badly as a foreign emissary from the Southern Kingdom, sent to steal Torvald’s most valuable asset.
The rocks moved again, but this time when they shifted a little, they let in a chink of fresher air. I was close!
“Now, where are you?” I whispered, holding up the light. This tunnel I was in continued on into the darkness, but the shifted rocks had opened up a smaller, narrower cleft in the rocks above from which was definitely flowing a river of fresh, cool night air.
Do I continue, or try for up? What had Fan told me – that these tunnels were ancient, and that the dragon mountain was riddled with them? I could be stuck in here for days if I didn’t take the chance now!
Gritting my teeth and wiping the sweat from my already dirt and dust-smeared brow, I chose up.
“Almost…” my fingers (bound with strips of linen to stop the sweat and help me grip) searched and dug at the walls until I found a crack big enough to haul myself up from. “There!” The muscles in my back ached as I pulled and kicked until I could brace with my soft-booted feet against either side of the chimney walls and reach up a little further.
In this way I climbed up the rocky walls of Mount Hammal, following my nose.
Maybe I should have chosen the other route, I had a moment to think just as the rock I was shoving at gave way, and I burst to the surface, scrabbling quickly hand over hand, seizing at handfuls of tall, whip-like grass and panting as I collapsed. Above me, the vegetation waved in the night, the thick-leaved trees making a sighing sound as their branches shook a little – and between them they revealed the brilliant stars of the night sky.
There was the Hog, and the head of the Serpent. I recognized the stars that could be seen even down in the southlands, but the rest of them were a mystery to me. These strange northerners and their strange stars, I groaned as I flipped over, and found myself staring at a giant dragon claw.
* * *
Holy crap. I blinked, staring at the sleek black sheen of the claw. It was curled like a cat’s but whose inner edge had small serrated burrs that I knew would be able to rip leather and wood and even metal. It was also about as big as my entire torso.
But thankfully, there currently wasn’t a dragon attached to the other end of it. I was looking at an old talon from either a long-dead dragon or the result of a horrible injury to the Enclosure dragons. From the size of the thing, I suddenly understood why the Southern Kingdom were so keen to have another Torvald dragon.
Okay, Dayie, think… I folded myself back into a crouch, searching my travelling pouches attached to my broad belt for the little thick brown glass pot of salve that Fan had given me. She had watched as I had slavered it all over every possible bit of exposed skin just before sending me down the tunnel, but I didn’t want to take any chances, and so reapplied the thick, goopy paste again.
“This will hide your scent. The dragons will think that you’re another dragon,” Fan had told me, which made me wonder at what under the stars she had used to make this vile stuff. Nope. Actually, I really didn’t want to know.
It was only after I had managed to walk a few meters down the sort-of trail between the thick vegetation that I stopped to wonder: Aren’t dragons insanely territorial? Had Fan meant that I would smell like one of the Torvald dragons, or any old dragons? I stopped, waiting for the shrieks and chittering of alarm from the Enclosure around me – but nothing happened.
“Phew!” I whispered, and then clamped a hand over my mouth. And didn’t dragons have the best hearing in the world?
But no one had managed to get this far, that I knew. And so I took another few hesitant steps. The ground underfoot was damp and thick with the hummus of this strange place. It looked a little more like the oases that scattered the southlands, spiky-leafed plants or trees with strange, fibrous barks next to spreading leaves. Past the vegetation, the silhouette of the high walls of the Enclosure cut across the skyline. The Dragon Enclosure of Torvald was huge and sat inside the same mountain that the Citadel of Torvald climbed. It was here, in this ancient crater that the Torvaldites bred their dragons before sending them up to train at the famous Dragon Academy, to be their fire-full steeds, dominating the skies.
“Sussussuss-r!” The sound of the hissing whistle—close by—made my heart skip a beat. I waited for the alarm call to start, but only that strange, wheezing sort of hissing noise returned.
“Mamma-la, mamma-la…” my voice quavered on the words of the song that I used ever since I was a little girl. A song that I don’t even remember learning, but one that I knew was a part of my heritage.
I had been adopted by the villagers of Happa when I was just a little girl, and even though they did not know where I had come from, (a shipwreck, they thought, because they found me on the beach there) I had arrived with just one thing to call my own: this song ingrained in my memory. My adoptive parents had said that it must be the nursery song of my real mother, and that my mind had clung onto it because of the terrible events that I must have been put through. All I knew, was that when I sang it, I felt safe, and it seemed to calm the Gypsies’ horses and dogs too. I don’t know whether it worked on dragons, but I was willing to try anything in order to not get eaten.
“Mamma-la, mamma-la,” I sang, my voice sounding thin and stupid in the night air.
“Sussususs…” the whickering hiss eased a little, and, as I pushed aside the foliage to step forward, I saw why. I wasn’t dealing with an angry, territorial dragon but with a sleeping one.
It was beautiful. The Great White was curled up around itself, nose to tail like a giant, house-sized cat. Its bulk had flattened and crushed the trees and bushes around it, making a sort of nest for it to sleep in. Its scales gleamed dully in the starlight, looking almost milky and translucent, and my heart squeezed in awe at the sight.
I had never seen a dragon this close, and I didn’t think any of our retinue had seen one like this either. The dragon was massive, larger than all our caravans stacked end-to-end – but it also looked serene and comfortable; cute even in the way that it huffed and sighed in the night. Its scales were a blanket of armor that fitted naturally and perfectly, some of them burnished and smooth like mirrors, others smaller and hard like nails. I had never known that there was such variation in their skin, I thought as the Giant White went from ash-colored, to chalk, marble, milk and silver.
“Mamma-la,” I whispered once more, and the Giant White’s lungs sighed a deep breath. It made me feel honored and special in a way that I had never felt in all of my years with Fan Hazim.
Maybe I can do this, I thought, seeing where a small trail led out, behind the nest of the Giant White and up the near slopes of the Enclosure wall and to where a line of caves was bored into the rocks.
All dragons lay their eggs in caves, right? At least, that is what the wild southern dragons do… With a last, lingering look at the sleeping dragon, I picked up my pace and skipped up the slope, towards the dragon caves.
* * *
The air from the mouth of the cave was warm and tinged with a scent that I did not recognize—somehow fragrant and slightly bitter at the same time – a little soot, mixed with rose or jasmine, perhaps?
Now standing on the ledge in front of the line of caves, I could look out across most of the Torvald Dragon Enclosure to see that the entire caldera wall was marked with them. Fan had been right that this place was riddled with caves, it seemed – and from a couple I saw thin ribbons of smoke curling sluggishly into the night air. Those were the occupied ones, clearly.
But which one to choose? I regarded each of the nearest entrances in turn. None of them had smoke – but that didn’t mean that they weren’t occupied, right? For some reason, my steps were drawn to the last, smallest of the three caves. As I crept forward, my soft boots crunched a little on the layer of grit and sand, I noticed that the opening was smoothed as with the passage of many feet. Claws, Dayie – they’re called claws, I reprimanded myself.
I pressed on, to the mouth of the cave, my heart in my throat as I peered in…
The starlight reached into the cave over my shoulder, illuminating a large mound of fibrous material. Hay and straw and leaves. The Dragon Riders must stock these caves with bedding material, I realized.
They’re here. They’re close. I knew in my heart in the same way that I would know when one of Fan’s horses was slowing down because she was about to throw a shoe. I had never questioned these intuitions before, they had always just come naturally to me in a way that my adoptive parents Obasi and Wera had said was a gift, though it was a gift that other people wouldn’t understand.
My feet moved closer into the murk. I didn’t use the earthstar crystal this time, not wanting to accidentally wake up a mother dragon on her nest!
But there was no mother dragon here on this mound of nesting materials. The stones underfoot and the rocky walls already radiated heat, and the large eggs that I could now see were already packed down, deep into their home. There were three of them, each the size of a large melon, but egg-shaped, not round. They were each speckled with dots, some of which gleamed in the starlight.
Without thinking, I reached out a hand to the nearest egg, to find it warm underhand. This one would hatch soon, I knew without understanding how, and the egg quivered just slightly under my skin. There was a baby dragon in there – what did they call them, newts? – and I had never felt so elated in all of my life.
It wasn’t the achieving my mission. It wasn’t the joy that this would bring to Fan, or the money that it would earn, or the hope that it might eventually bring to the Southern Kingdom itself. It was just the fact that it was me, little Dayie, here with such a new life that was fragile and strong all at the same time.
I didn’t need any more encouragement. I drew out the padded egg-sack that Fan had made for this purpose, and, very carefully tugged it down over the egg and lifted it up.
It was done. I was now a Dragon Thief.