Both Solaris and Arnai sat in silence awhile, the only sound the crackle of fuel being eaten by the fire, then Solaris wrapped Arnai up in his arms. “You should not worry” he said softly “You are my son and I would not have you any other way” The boy smiled, and pulled his father tighter. Wanting to find something to distract his son, Solaris left the forge under Cormac’s care and took Arnai to the main gate, a huge arch that was stone up to the height of two men, hardened wood above. Through the gate the spiked defences could be seen – a huge array of trenches and crafted sticks sharpened to a point, designed to prevent horses and siege weapons from storming the place. Looking carefully, Solaris could just make out the safe path through the labyrinth, which he had travelled down secretly only five years ago, Meme dancing by his side as they strove not to be seen. Beyond the defences, where normally the giant redwood trees that marched up the hill would begin, a milky grey fog subsided in the winter air.
But it was not the outside that they had come to see, and Solaris pulled the boy away, not fast enough to prevent him wondering what was out there that was so dangerous, but quickly enough to stop him exploring for now. By the side of the main entrance were the stables, and beside them the hound huts, a quagmire with small wooden kennels around the outside, the pen extending in a circle. The clan had very little time for pets, as inter-clan wars had raged on for a long time, however they saw the uses of keeping dogs, trained to fight and kill any intruders. Being working dogs, and ones trained specifically to maim and kill at that, the handlers were reluctant to let them roam free around the keep, deciding instead to keep them well fed and penned in the corner, constantly ready for action. At first there was nothing to see, the dogs all lying quietly in their wood shacks, but as Arnai padded closer, his leather boots beginning to get stuck in the mud and squelch loudly, a few sleek shapes raised their noses and slunk out of their hiding places. Solaris smiled uneasily as the boy got closer. The dogs would be used to the handlers and the occasional visitor but he was unsure as to how they would react to the child, so he stepped forwards and put held Arnai by the shoulder. A few of the younger dogs, as yet barely trained, bounded forwards to greet the boy, stopping as they reached the fence and could go no further. Arnai regarded them with amazement, having never been allowed to venture outside the keep and un-used to animals. The dogs were thin, their long noses reaching out towards him and tongues lolling out from between their teeth, their brown coats barely visible underneath the mud that plastered them and tails wagging with vigour. The boy giggled and reached over the fence to pet them, his hand quickly becoming covered in slobber, the dogs leaping over each other to get some attention. Solaris kept a close eye on the older dogs, and when one of them yapped, drawing the younger ones away, he decided that it was time to leave.
Arnai saw the dogs more often after that, losing interest in Laurissa, who had grown too big to be anything other than a pain in his eyes. The handlers didn’t mind, happy to have company that wasn’t afraid, even after seeing the dogs being fed, and they began to teach Arnai how to look after the hounds, so that he was confident with all of them and familiar to even the old dogs. This was put to a stop around the time that Arnai turned six and a half however, as the chief heard word that the smith’s son was not yet learning the trade. Arnai was a fast learner, and there wasn’t much he could do in the smithy, despite being taller than the average six and a half year old, as strength was required that he had not yet developed. Even so, he worked the bellows, supplying air to the furnace, for as long as he could each day and watched as his father formed spectacular swords and ornate jewellery from the raw metals. When he got tired, and his body could pull no more, he was allowed out to play with the other children, and began to be taught how to wield a sword and how to pull a bow. By the age of seven, he was stronger than most people expected, and beginning to fire a bow precisely; almost always hitting the straw targets before him within an acceptable area. The short stints on the bellows had gradually gotten longer and longer until he was able to stay pumping away for almost the whole day, only taking comfort breaks. That summer, Solaris refused to let the boy in his forge, claiming that the fire could keep itself going, and that he should go out and mingle with the rest of the children his age in order to not miss out on his childhood.
Reluctantly, Arnai stepped out of the blazing forge and into the sweet summer air. Many of the clan were sweating in the heat wave, but Arnai, like his father and Cormac, found it refreshing after the inferno that gulped air within the smithy. He wandered over towards the central clearing, scuffing his feet on the dusty ground as he went. As he came into view of the healers hut, he spotted the group of children, Gregor and his brown mop of hair standing a head taller than the rest, and wandered over to join them. It didn’t take long for Gregor to notice him. At first, he wasn’t treated any differently, allowed to join in the games that they played, and he felt like he was part of the group for the first time in years. They got bored quickly however and changed Gregor changed the game. “Let’s play… Tanoi and imperials!” He yelled, “Arnai can be the Tanoi – if he touches you then you die and have to sit on the ground until the imperial mage – me – comes and resurrects you to fight again!” His eyes bore into Arnai’s as the group agreed to the game, waiting for Gregor to give them permission to start. He winced, then forced a smile “ok, I’ll start as the tanoi” Arnai hoped that they’d get bored after a while, and he could always outrun them anyway – his legs were longer. He began to run, the other children quickly giving chase, as the dust rose behind them – a smoky residue all that remained of their path through the keep. He weaved in and out of the huts, slowly leaving the others behind as he tore past the stables and crept behind some outer huts. Out of breath and hoping he had lost them, the running slowed to a trot and, panting, he leant against the nearest wall – the chief’s hut as it would happen. Suddenly, all of the paths were blocked by a mass of children, a triumphant Gregor emerging in front of him. “Kill the Tanoi” the boy yelled, and they all surged forward.
For the first millisecond, Arnai was frozen in surprise, unable to comprehend the fact that Gregor would go so far as to try to hurt him. This pause cost him his reaction time and almost instantly the children were upon him, all trying to prove their worth to Gregor by inflicting the most damage. The blows didn’t hurt so much as they fell into him – most of the children didn’t really want to hurt him, fearing reprimands from their parents, but didn’t want to be excluded from the fun by Gregor either, his presence winning them over temporarily. As he was pulled to the ground, Arnai spotted a weakness in the writhing, laughing mass and pushed one of his attackers out of the way, forcing himself out of the heap. As soon as he was on his feet, he began to run, his cloth tunic ripping as he tore away. It didn’t take long for a chase to commence and Arnai ran the only place he could, having been banished from the forge, out of the massive gates. Only Gregor followed him, the rest suspended by the invisible rule of their parents. Arnai flew past the stakes, the dry ground giving him enough grip to prevent him falling into the trenches that criss-crossed the terrain. He was still running long after Gregor had stopped, terror and shame fueling his muscles as the forest rushed to meet him and crashed around him. This part of the forest had fewer trees, allowing plants to grow on the forest floor. Arnai didn’t notice much of this as it whipped past him, before he tripped over a root and crashed to the ground, rolling between two stones. Everything went black.
Groaning, Arnai opened his eyes, to find himself in semi-darkness, the only light a strange blue glow from behind him. He pulled himself into a sitting position, tears beginning to stream down his face as he held his scuffed hands into his chest. He was still in that position 10 minutes later when a loud wump wump wump began, and a blast of air funnelled itself between a crack in the rocks. Stifling his tears, Arnai crawled towards the gap, ignoring the now distant pain in his hands. From his hiding place, between two round rocks, Arnai saw a large shape descend into the entrance, shielding the blinding sunlight that streamed in through the cave mouth. A lizard of gigantic proportions stood for a moment, before lowering itself to its belly, allowing the two people on it’s back to descend. It was at this point that the silhouette of the wings became visible, two giant sails that were attached just behind the shoulders. Arnai gaped in amazement, his mind barely registering what he was seeing. He had only ever heard of dragons in the ancient tales of the Tanoi, and the more recent of the Draconis, an order of the imperials that helped to protect the realm and who had been instrumental on the war against the Tanoi. Wary of his birthmark, he drew back, eyes pinched and lips pursed, praying that he would not be discovered.
The two figures did not enter the cave, but reached up into a basket nearer the dragon’s tail and helped four smaller figures down. Three of the young children quickly ran forwards into the darkness, weaving among the oval stones that rested on its floor, and each pushed their hands onto one of the smooth rocks, which at their touch changed colour – one into a sapphire blue, forest green and a dark, maroon red. They squealed with joy, and almost effortlessly lifted their chosen stone, carrying it forwards to where the final child had not yet entered the cavern. This last child entered timidly, slowly wandering towards Arnai with her hand just above the rocks. As she drew closer, Arnai judged that she was about the same age as Laurissa – around five – but with thick strawberry blonde hair that was cropped at her shoulders. He didn’t feel afraid of her at first but soon she was close to touching distance and he remembered the two adults that waited for her at the entrance and withdrew with a gasp, pushing himself backwards off a rock. At the small sound, her head turned in his direction, and a frown formed on her face. She drew closer and her eyes scanned the darkness before locking onto him and meeting his eyes with hers. They were a light brown, so light that they could almost be called golden. “Go away!” Arnai hissed “They’ll find me!” A look of confusion washed onto her face as she struggled to understand the fear in his eyes, but she simply smiled slightly and reached out to take the rock that he had brushed against. As she lifted it upwards, he saw the mucus membrane that had secured it to the floor and realised what it was – an egg. Her touch wiped some of the dirt off of its surface and a golden gleam was visible as she bore it back to her guardians, not looking back.
Arnai stayed hidden in the shadows for a while after the dragon and its riders had disappeared, the dragon seeming to leap into the air, until he was sure that they really were gone. Slightly alarmed at what he had just witnessed, Arnai crawled back towards the bright glow he had come from, a strange feeling washing over him as he got nearer, and could see where the glowing was coming from – a set of runes appeared to have been carved into the rectangular stones that leant together, looking suspiciously like a doorway. Assuming that this strange phenomenon was where he had appeared from, Arnai crawled back through the gap and sure enough found himself back in the undergrowth, bright patterns of light filtering through the green leaves above. Relieved to be back in familiar territory, Arnai didn’t waste time examining his environment but flew back through the woodland, following the animal track until he could see the keep and its defences. It was the first time he had seen the keep from the outside and he paused momentarily to admire his home, the black smoke rising from a dark corner and the tall watchtowers in the corners of a squat wall, stakes embedded in its stone foundations that rose to become part of the wall, the wood above that made up the catwalk a contrasting black to the bright stones. The structure of the defences was also clearer now – whereas from within the keep it had looked like a mess, the rows of stakes were now aligned and complete, steep sloping ground behind them to hold them in place and to conceal the deep pits that lay just behind them.
After Arnai’s eyes had consumed all that they could hold, he wove his way back up towards home, nimbly climbing the slope and passing under the open arch, where he paused to check that Gregor was not lying in wait. Still suspicious, he crept past the dog pens, stopping to pet them before continuing to sneak back towards the forge. It did not take long and soon he was back inside the forge, where his father began to dismiss him before noticing his ripped clothing and scuffed hands, and allowing him to stay.