The slave screamed again as the blade cut deep into his flesh, piercingly loud over the solemn mutterings of the six hooded figures that stood around the altar to which he was tied. A seventh figure was performing the actual operation of cutting out the man’s heart, ruby blood running down his bare sides and dripping onto the bloodstained floor. The man did not scream again, having passed out from pain, as his still beating heart was lifted out, and held aloft by a bony arm, robes slithering down his arm as it was elevated. Blood trickled, mimicking the veins within the arm holding it up, and the six figure’s whispering stopped. An old man’s voice, hoarse with age, came from within the seventh’s hood. “We pray to you, oh almighty dragon, and offer you this heart.” The man’s voice was powerful, though but a whisper, “Let the great golden one descend, and be bonded to one of our kin, so we might rise to glory.” At the conclusion of this, he squeezed the heart in his hand, causing blood to spurt out of it and across the floor. He left the room, followed by the other six, leaving the man’s body to be cleared up by those who had once been his friends, and carelessly tossing the heart into a basket, which would be carried down to the dragon enclosure by a female Crassin, who typically would also end up being eaten.
The man washed his arm off under the flow of yet another slave’s bucket of water, the perfect temperature for his skin, and pulled back his hood to reveal a shrunken and wrinkled face, with wispy brown hair and dark reptile-like eyes. Following his lead, the other six did the same, careful of their sharp fingernails that extended like talons from the end of their fingers. The crassin were careful to avert their gaze, for to look a dragon lord (or lady) in the eye was to beg for death. Each of the six women was different, one had fiery red hair and amber eyes, another had eyes of emerald green, and her hair too was green, albeit darker. This matching hair and eye colour was consistent throughout the women, and each wore a circlet of silver in their hair and a stern expression on their face. They glided down the corridor in the wake of the old man, eyes fixed straight ahead as they paced down black obsidian stairs, glowing a gentle red. They paused as they emerged onto the dragon father’s personal living tier, overlooking the roost. The circular pit seemed to go down forever, wooden poles jutting out from the sides, a few of which supporting dragons. The summer sun slanted down through the entrance gaps in the roof, causing rainbows to appear wherever it glanced off of a dragon’s scale, and thus the entire interior was lit, colourful patterns dancing on the smooth obsidian. The old dragon lord wasted no time in stepping out of his cape and leaping off of the edge, into the shimmering lights. Barely a second passed before he re emerged, riding on the back of a deep brown dragon, sitting between the spines near its shoulders. The women didn’t even notice the rush of air and the wumph of the wings, so used to it were they, and they too dived to be caught by their dragons.
A thin faced, black haired woman, with eyes as dark as the obsidian walls that surrounded her was the last to jump, closing her eyes and spreading her arms as if they were wings. She fell down, past her own tier, and the levels that the other five women inhabited, tumbling past the residential tiers and almost reaching the apprentice floors that encircled the very base of the roost before a jet black lizard swooped down and caught her on its back. She landed heavily, winding herself, and took a moment to recover before pulling herself upright onto the beast’s shoulders, rising just as quickly as she had fallen due to the beast’s strong wing beats. Where she sat seemed almost like it had been designed for a human, and indeed all that was required was a soft leather patch, tied around the dragon’s neck and forelimbs, which helped to protect the rider from the sharp scales of the neck. The dragon angled itself more vertically the nearer it reached the top, and shot through one of the gaps in the roof, bringing the woman into the bright sunlight, blinking violently. It folded its wings, making the most of its freedom in the open air, and the woman was forced to hold onto the spike in front of her. Stop it she ordered, using the mind link that bonded her to the dragon, as words would just have been whisked away in the fast blowing air. They hovered in the sky for a second, before falling into formation with the others, and she took her rightful place at the front as most worth matriarch, escorting a forest green dragon with a basket on its back, tied around its stomach and back legs.
They flew slowly, their ward hindered by the extra weight of what the basket contained, giving the woman’s black eyes time to pick out the landscape below her, concealed here and there by wispy clouds. The ground sloped away from the base of the tower, which had been built upon a steep mound. The foundations were rumoured to go as deep as the town itself, which spiralled outwards down the hill, the richest houses easily distinguishable by their white-gold roofs. At the bottom, yet still within the walls, the houses converged into a brown mess, shabbily built wooden houses with no structure or plan resided there, holding the poorest of Drakeholm’s inhabitants. The height that the woman was looking at it allowed her to see the gap between the inner and outer wall – the killing ground – although she was too high to be able to see the distinctive glows of wards and glyphs that resided within. The outer wall was visible only by its shadow, resting upon the peaceful looking plain that the killing ground had become. They flew further away, and civilisation disappeared, giving way to broad forests and fields of crops, the land scattered with settlements every now and then.
They climbed higher, and the land below disappeared beneath brilliant white clouds, the riders pulling on their obsidian eyepieces, protecting their eyes from the reflected sunlight. Through the glasses, the peak of the mountain towards which they were headed loomed, adding to the light that shone amongst the flying lizards. Barely visible at first, the dragon’s nesting cave got ever closer, a large black mark on an otherwise ornate white fold in the world. The elders landed gently on the packed snow around the cave, as the green dragon alighted on the plateau of rock that jutted from its entrance. From her vantage point, the woman saw the dragon lower itself gently onto its belly, careful not to rock its cargo, and two figures dismount from its back. The apprentices, for that was who the figures were, walked around the dragon’s flank and reached up into the basket on its back, pulling out the four eagerly waiting five year olds within, three of whom dashed into the cave in an instant, returning near immediately with their egg choice, which they would nurture until it hatched into a dragonling, at which point they would begin their own apprenticeship, each seeking a place among the ranks on the dragon riders.
The only child not to have entered the cave was the woman’s own half-daughter, Lilith. She stood at the foot of the basket in a mixture of awe and worry – the cave seemed to her lit up with a thousand lights, despite it being pitch black, and each egg pulsated with a spectrum, not yet sure what it wanted to be. The touch of a child, still innocent and pure, was supposed to finalise that decision, and it was partly this that bonded the dragon to a rider, as well as the spell the Dragon Father would cast upon their return to Drakeholm. But Lilith didn’t really want to enter the cave – she was a half blood, and the only reason she had been allowed to choose a dragon was because of how powerful her mother, Sara, was. Not that Sara hadn’t argued against this decision, resenting her daughter for the circumstances under which she had been conceived. Plucking up her courage, and praying that one of the dragons would accept her touch, she slowly entered the cave, holding her hand just above the sticky surface of each egg, her feet pulling her further into the cave as each egg she passed didn’t connect to her at all. Lilith wasn’t sure that the egg was supposed to connect to her, but she thought it better to check than to rush the decision and find that the egg didn’t respond to her. She was nearing the cavern wall when she heard an intake of breath, and her head spun, searching the darkness with a frown. Outlined by the light that she could see the eggs giving off, a boy was crouched, bright blue eyes shining back at her own. “Go away!” the boy hissed, fear riding in his voice, “They’ll find me!”
Lilith paused for half a second, wondering what kind of game he was playing, before deciding it was the same that she often played – hiding from those who would be mean to her just because she was different. She smiled slightly, trying to reassure him that she wouldn’t tell, and reached for one of the eggs he was hidden behind, which had begun to lose its pulsating colour, and turned completely golden as she touched it. Happiness running through her, along with relief that she would be able to raise a dragon, she broke the boy’s gaze and turned back towards the entrance, carrying her prize. As she stepped into the sunlight, golden egg firmly in her clutches, the apprentices straightened in surprise and awe. Even so, they knew their duty, and gently lifted both egg and girl into the wicker basket, climbing back onto the beast’s shoulders and urging it into the air. It did so with a happy leap, almost dislodging the basket from its hind quarters, and spiralled upwards, joined after a moment by its escort of elders.
As they flew back, Sara’s mind was in turmoil. Had her eyes been deceiving her? For it seemed like her half blooded daughter had carried out the egg of a golden dragon – the rider of which was supposed to become ruler over the entire land, if legend was to be believed. She shook her head, the egg must be a very light, and therefore weak, colour, and had simply appeared golden in the sun’s rays. If it was golden, it would have to be taken off of her – they couldn’t have a half blood leading them into battle, it was an absurd notion! Surely Elwardo would see sense and ensure that some other child got the dragon, regardless of who had helped decide its colour – as Dragon Father he owed it to their race to let a pureblood take his place. Which lead to another point – Lilith was female, at most she could grow into one of the dominant sisters, but it was unheard of for a woman to be take the Dragon Father’s place – it simply wasn’t right! This thought lead to another, which set her mind at peace – the legend stated that the golden dragon’s rider would be king. That word alone suggested that Lilith couldn’t have chosen the golden dragon’s egg. Of course, legend changes over time – who knows what the original words were? Her dragon interjected. Perhaps your child truly is meant to become our leader. She scowled and sat in silence for the rest of the journey home, trying to think of the plain obsidian wall of her room in an attempt to stop the dragon reading her thoughts.
Soon the spire of Drakeholm was visible poking above the clouds, and they dipped down under the cloud cover to check on the state of the world. It had only been half an hour, but without the Dragon Father and the six matriarchs, it wouldn’t take long for the entire hierarchy to descend into disorder as lesser draconis argued among themselves over petty issues. The dragons swooped around the tower, the six entrances filled by six female riders descending into the bowels of the building, closely followed by the carrier dragon, which gently lowered itself down the centre of the massive space, before settling on the straw covered floor of the roost. The apprentices leapt down before the dragon had managed to fully settle, and began to unload the children and their eggs, taking them out of the wooden door and into an antechamber, where they would await the arrival of Elwardo. The eggs were placed in metal baskets and the children were sat in front of them. Lilith, with her shoulder length golden hair that seemed to reflect the same colour of light as her egg, drew the attention of everyone, and sat with her eyes on the floor – attention had never been a good thing as far as she was concerned, it usually lead to trouble. They waited as the elders landed their dragons and climbed from them, entering the small room via a set of spiral stairs, which glowed the same red as the rest of the internal walls and floors.
As Sara stepped down, she had to fight with herself to prevent her from pausing in rage. Her blasted half blooded daughter did indeed have a golden egg behind her, and she wished the child would look up so she could convey her emotions, but Lilith did not. There was silence as the room slowly filled, each of the elders ignoring all but the egg before them. The Dragon Father finally broke their trance like state of frenzied thought, as he cast the spell of bonding over the other children, who were hurried away without a second glance. Soon Lilith was left sat all by herself, hoping that whatever she had done wrong wasn’t serious, and wishing she would just be left alone. Elwardo motioned the six women into the corridor, leaving Lilith and her egg under the watchful eye of the two apprentices, and regarded Sara with a worried look before speaking. “We cannot take the dragon away from her.” He said, the certainty in his voice letting Sara know that no amount of arguing would do her any use. “It wouldn’t work. However, I will not perform the bonding spell. If she is to replace me after my death, she will need training, and very careful guiding to make her suitable.” He paused, “I know that the child is a half blood, but the draconis side of her seems to be holding strong at least, and I don’t see any other option.” Sara remained silent, grinding her teeth under tight lips. “She must be guided by one of us. With any luck, the dragon will seek a new master, having not been bound, and she will disappear into the background.”
The Dragon Father’s verdict was greeted with silence, before the red head, Lisbeth, nodded slowly. “I can see how this will work…” she admitted quietly, “only I wonder as to how we’re going to raise the child in such a manner that she is just as fierce – do we tell her of the legend, or wait until she is older and can understand what’s so special?”
This time, it was Mia who broke the silence, “We shall not tell her, not yet anyway. And Sara shall have to be fundamental in her upbringing, otherwise the girl might find it strange” She laughed bitterly “the girl, I don’t even know the half blood’s name!”
Sara stayed stood in silence with a frown on her face. If Elwardo agreed with Mia, then Sara would be forced to obey the hierarchy and do as she was told. She was the youngest of the six matriarchs, but also the most powerful, so only the Dragon Father could order her. To her dismay, he fixed her with a disapproving gaze, signalling that he would rather she simply agreed to it than have to order he to look after her own child. Sara lowered he gaze and folded her arms, knowing she was acting more like a teenager than her own age, but still refusing to willingly take back her daughter. With a sigh, Elwardo decided for her, and they entered the room again, Sara faking joy as she swept the disgusting half blood into her arms, congratulating her on her getting her very own dragon, and helping her carry said egg back to her room, where training would begin.