“You are going to be late, Iorneste,” the old dragon librarian chided him.
Iorneste wriggled about on the cavern floor, serpentine tail writhing behind him. “In a minute, Sreache,” he said. His reptilian eyes flickered over the pages of the book in front of him, Elshalle’s poetry.
“You cannot read all the books before you leave, haergaunte.”
That caught his attention. Today was his seventy-fifth egg day. No longer a premagaunte, the next stage beyond hatchling, he was entering a new chapter of his life. Aha, new chapter. He turned the page of the book to his right, starting the next chapter of The Complete Histories of the North.
“I know, Sreache, but can I not read a little more?”
In normal circumstances, it was not even worth the request. Among the dragons of Kaer Drac, Rrachma was its sage, historian, and librarian. Like all males, he was small and weak compared to the females of his age. Yet dragons are singular creatures, and the matriarchs of Kaer Drac favored his advice.
It made Iorneste a fortunate fosterling, a fact that Rrachma rarely let him forget.
“If you are too late, they will think you are resisting your duty, and they will hold me responsible. If they hold me responsible for it, I will—”
“Tear out my tongue?” Iorneste asked, scanning The Fall of the Elvariens to his left, committing as much as he could to memory.
“Yes,” Rrachma said. “And then I will eat your eyes.”
He scanned the pages, reading all three books at once. The analysis of the design aesthetics of the Elvarien longbow was fascinating! Was there not a reference to it in Elshalle? He picked up where he left off, reading about the ice-fishing habits of the Northmen. Then a great shadow fell over the books he was trying to read.
“Iorneste,” the proud gold-scaled dragon said, towering over him.
“It was only a few minutes!”
“It was a few hours. If you have a few more ‘minutes’ like your last, the sun will set. Then they will come for you, and me, and before they can punish you for disobedience, I will—”
“Spear me to the wall as a warning for others?”
“Not a bad idea,” Rrachma admitted. “But no. I would tear out your spine and leave you to finish your eons as a boneless husk of a relarche.”
He could not be certain that Rrachma was not serious. He sighed in a dragonish way, and rose to his feet. He cast one last longing glance upon the pages, before Rrachma summoned the aethir. The books closed, flying back across the room to their shelves.
“Are you ready, Iorneste?” the old wyrm asked, and his voice and his animus held a note of sadness.
“I believe so, Sreache.”
“You have been pestering me about the First Exile for fifty years. Why so hesitant now, young one?”
“Because now it is happening. After this, nothing will be the same.”
“Embrace change, Iorneste. It is the world’s only constant.”
“So is the world.”
“What if I do it wrong?”
“So long as you not lead humanity to our doorstep, there is little you can do wrong. So long as you do not overthrow kingdoms or cast down their traditions, fear not. So long as you do not interfere too much in their ways, you will be in the right.”
“How will I convince them that I am human? I have spent little time as one.”
“A neglected part of your education, alas, but that is why you will have a kiin to guide you.”
“What if I take two steps outside and someone recognizes me?”
“Let me tell you a secret about humans, Iorneste: If you look human, they will tend to react to you as if you are a human.”
“What if I behave strangely?”
“Then they will react to you as if you are a strange human.”
“What if I fail?”
“Then you will become a relarche, and your days in my library are over. The solution to that is simple.”
“Do not fail?”
“As ever the astute student.”
He beamed with pride. Praise did not come from Rrachma often, and when it did it was often followed by an admonishment to soften his ego. “My thanks, Sreache. I could not have had a better sire.”
“I am your Sreache no longer. Now you must learn on your own, from here ever after. And it begins now. Now go, or I will wear your skin as a suit like the humans do.”
Seeing that the hour was growing late and he was no longer welcome, the young dragon beat his wings and fled. He hoped he would reach the kiin before the sun set.
The old wyrm watched him go, resting in the sudden quiet that remained, and pondered.
By the time he left, daylight was threatening to turn to dusk, and the twin suns were lowering in the sky. He beat his wings hard, feeling the aethir surround him. He reached deep into its channels to pull himself aloft, streaming through the wind like air. While on the ground he was heavy indeed, but once in the air he felt like a feather. He made good time to the meeting place, despite the late hour.
He spotted a small figure on the ground below, a tiny dot from his vantage point, and circled to the ground. He reminded himself too late that he should have paid more attention to this flight. It was to be his last for the next twenty-five years.
As he drew closer, his keen eyes identified Mourne, much respected of the human kiin. Also an appointed trainer of young dragons such as himself.
He landed on the ground before Mourne. He flexed his claws, leaving indentations in the earth. His wings flapped twice more before folding behind his back. Settling back onto his haunches, his tail curled around his body.
“Good day to you, Mourne,” he said, dipping his head to show respect. “I am here to begin the First Exile, and submit myself to your training to become human, like you.”
Mourne's dark eyes were level as he bowed. He smiled, but only just. “It is my honor and pleasure to do so, Iorneste. I was beginning to wonder if you were coming.”
“I was detained by a book, I must confess.”
“A common occurrence for humans as well. I, myself, have often found myself so detained. Common ground! We are off to a good start already.”
It was good to see that his mentor was to be so agreeable, and he felt the onset of the inevitable, of adventure. He rustled his wings in the fidgety way that was his characteristic. “I am anxious to begin. How should we start?”
“Let us start simply. How about choosing a name?”
“Humans have short names, yes?”
“Not always. Nobility often have longer ones. But even a person with a longer name will tend to shorten it, to save time.”
Mourne nodded. “Yes. Life is short, and humans die. Most of them are dead before a Drac begins the First Exile.”
“An unsettling thought,” he said. He felt the shiver begin in the ruff of coal black fur at the nape of his neck and slither all the way to the end of his tail.
“Indeed. So we do what we can with the life we have. Every day matters. Every minute is important.”
“I can see your reasoning.”
Mourne nodded. “You are only just beginning to see. That is why the eregaunte think it important that all Drac be able to participate in that world. If only to observe, to learn.”
“I know this, human.”
Mourne stiffened. “First lesson: Don’t call me ‘human’. Humans don’t call each other ‘human’.”
“Apologies, friend Mourne.”
“Apology accepted. We can decide your name later. Let us get started with you on two legs. The sooner you look like a human, the sooner you can start acting like one.” Mourne walked up to him, patting his hide in a friendly manner. “Once you have chosen your human form, I will execute the Binding, which will bind you to that form. Then, the First Exile will begin, and with it your training.”
“I understand, friend Mourne. Shall I begin?”
“Please do. I always enjoy this part.”
He concentrated, the High Art coming to him like breathing, like flying. Although he had never tried to become human, he used Mourne as a base in his mind. There were a few mental adjustments, of course. Mourne was short and dark-skinned, he planned to be tall and lighter-skinned. He started the change, first shifting his density. He retracted his tail, his front legs shortening, with his back legs growing longer. He reduced his scale fourfold, compressing some of his mass into the between place, the aerte. Next he addressed his claws, feeling them melt into articulate, albeit talon-less fingers. His feet adjusted to match the deformed, club-like phalanges that humans walked on. His obsidian scales lost color and definition, smoothing into skin. Last to go were his wings, and he let out a sigh, feeling their loss most keenly.
Once he was standing on two legs, he staggered and fell over, landing on his rump.
“You’re a bit too orange,” Mourne said, biting his lower lip.
He concentrated a bit, shifting to a light tan.
“Better. Your eyes are a bit too red, unless you want to attract attention. Also, you should probably have at least some hair, somewhere.”
“I would like a closer look. Give me your hand, Mourne,” he said.
Mourne tried to help him to his feet, straining with the effort, feet slipping on the ground. Once he was upright, Iorneste wobbled forward, slapping his hands around Mourne’s neck. For his part, Mourne bore his mass well, albeit with a buckling of his knees and a grimace.
His eyes were at a level more conducive to study of a live human specimen. His brain had not yet adjusted to the new perspective.
He studied Mourne more at proximity. He added blonde eyebrows, a more prominent nose, and a long mane of pale blonde hair. Pores and fine blonde hairs appeared on his face. Meanwhile his pupils lost the vertical slits, becoming round black pinholes. He considered a few different eye color choices, before deciding on a deep blue. The color of the sun on his scales.
Mourne studied him in return, looking up and down. Then he stopped, and coughed delicately. “One more thing.”
The kiin pulled his pants down and pointed.
“Ohhhh, so that’s what it looks like.”
“I suppose it is. Should mine be bigger, or is yours normal?”
Mourne lost his composure, pulling up his pants and barking with human laughter.
Iorneste chuckled along with Mourne, just because it was contagious.
“Well, Iorneste,” Mourne said, still laughing. “If you gave any man a chance to make it bigger, he would always want to make it bigger, so...”
“Definitely bigger, then. How about like this?”
“They will write songs about you.”
“Superb! Anything else?”
Mourne inspected him, walking around him in a circle. “This will do. I see you are balancing on two legs for now, but can you walk?”
“Of course I can walk.” He took an experimental step, and buckled forward, landing on his hands and knees.
“First thing’s first then,” Mourne said. “Let us start with the most basic human instruction of all.”
“And what is that?”
“Moving from crawling, to walking.”
Walking took him a couple somewhat frustrating hours to master, running took a bit less time. Mourne pronounced him a tireless runner. Iorneste found that he could jog faster than Mourne could sprint. His mentor demonstrated a few more athletic feats, performing cartwheels, somersaults, and handstands. The last was more of a description than a demonstration.
Iorneste repeated each of these to Mourne’s satisfaction. By the end of the orientation, Mourne sat sweating on a rock, taking a drink of water from a wizened leather skin.
Up above, Iorneste was attempting to add tree climbing to his repertoire of skills.
Mourne spoke from below. “This is quite the exhibition, Iorneste. And cruelly unfair. With almost no training, in a few hours, you are a better athlete than any one of us. Yet among your kind, you are barely a teenager.”
“Ahh,” he said. “But I merely look human.” As if to prove this point, the branch of the tree he was holding onto broke, sending him plummeting to the ground. Several more branches broke on the way.
Mourne winced as he slammed into the earth.
“For instance,” he said. He pulled a few branches out of his hair as he emerged from the woods.
“I still possess most of the weight of my natural self. It is just hidden elsewhere.”
“Yes,” Mourne said. “How well I know it. You are heavier than any human has a right to be, stronger, faster, more resilient. These will be your greatest challenges to mask from others. Then you have magic on top of that. It is too much power to be given to a new haergaunte loose in a strange land. That is what the Binding is for. And now that I mention it, and considering your lateness, we should begin.”
The kiin stood up and pointed to the entrance to the tunnel nearby. “They have placed some items here for us, a few things to get us started on our journey. The chest should provide us with anything we need to settle your identity. You’ll choose your name, and we’ll discuss our story of your origin in the world beyond. Then I’ll perform the Binding, and we’ll be on our way. Simple, yes?”
“I am eager to get started, Mourne friend. I think you will be a good teacher.”
“So formal,” Mourne said, but his smile was warm as he said it. The kiin led him over to the tunnel, which was human-sized, not dragon-sized. There was a fine wooden chest waiting to be opened, and two stuffed backpacks beside it.
“Have you thought of a name?”
“Yorn of Summersgard,” he said.
“That will do. Why Summersgard?”
“Their ancestral people match my coloring, for one.”
“Also for political reasons.”
“Political? And how would you know this?”
He shrugged his shoulders and recited from memory. “‘Its ancestral people are fair-skinned, characterized by hair of exquisite silver-blond. Their lands now host to the only neutral state within the Many Kingdoms. It houses the Great Academy, where the lords of many lands send their sons and daughters to be educated. The Many Kingdoms have all contributed to a pact of peace within its borders. Thus it also serves as a center for politics and a neutral ground where treaties are made.’ Neutrality is a good asset, I would think, if I wish to avoid too much politicking.”
“You’ve been studying, that’s good. Is that Fellswine?”
“Caperra. The Fall of Olde Summersgarde, it's from the introduction. Page thirty-six, second paragraph.”
“Impressive, Iorneste! A memory like yours is rare, even among dragons. Have you given any thought to your occupation? Or at least what we will tell others your occupation might be?”
He shook his head. “Some ideas, perhaps? It is hard to invent a story without feeling unoriginal.”
“Originality makes you distinctive. I would focus more on blending in.”
“Why would I want to blend in?”
“To draw less attention to yourself, of course.”
“I would prefer to be somewhat distinctive. It may be my only chance in life to be so.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that as a male dragon, I will return after the First Exile to Kaer Drac. There I will be chosen by one of the females to be part of her service. Not every male Drac gets to be Rrachma.”
Mourne gave him a steady look. “I see. Just be aware that for every choice, there is a consequence. Starting with your choice of profession. Do you have any skills?”
“Flight. Magic. I only read sixty languages or so, hardly anything special.”
Mourne shook his head, smiling. “I don’t think there is a single living human who knows sixty written languages. You are also well-read. You could be a scribe.”
“What does a scribe do? Writing?”
“Yes, and translation.”
“But I cannot write.”
Mourne blinked. “What do you mean, you cannot write?”
“I’ve never used a pen before, Mourne. This is my first time having hands.”
Mourne shrugged. “Your handwriting would be terrible at first, but you could be an apprentice scribe. You could certainly learn.”
“I do not know, Mourne. While I want to learn to write with hands, I am not sure if I want to spend all my time writing for people who should be learning to write for themselves.”
Mourne took a moment to look around the clearing, letting out a deep exhalation of breath. Iorneste realized he should start taking notes, and mimicked the gestures. He found it particularly interesting how Mourne shifted his weight from leg to leg. For creatures who spent so much time standing on two legs, they appeared to be ill-suited for it. At closer inspection, he had also found his monkey face to be very expressive. The man was chewing his lips, the tufts of hair above his dark eyes were low. Wrinkles had appeared on his forehead. One hand reached up and stroked his chin, and the short black beard that grew there.
He waited for Mourne to finish his thought. Waiting for his elders to finish a thought had often taken days. Mourne only left him waiting for a few moments.
“Flight is not possible,” said Mourne, returning his attention to Iorneste. “Nor magic either.”
He blinked. “No magic?”
“It is not advisable.”
“Forgive me, Mourne, but it is not possible to separate one of the Drac from their magic. We are creatures of magic, and without it we would die.”
“I know that. But no human mage uses magic the same way as one of the Drac. It is another way of drawing attention to yourself.”
“I see,” he said, staring down at the ground and feeling melancholy. “This is harder than giving up my wings. Rrachma spent so much time lecturing me about learning to do things without relying on magic. Now I see why.”
“I didn’t say you could never use magic. Conditional amendments to the Binding are occasionally permitted. But you should never use it overtly, in the sight of others, and you definitely shouldn’t pretend to be a mage. Better to keep that a secret. You will be keeping many secrets as it is. What is one more?”
He felt such a sense of relief, and felt comfort at how well his mentor had explained the situation. A good sign of things to come. “I understand! This I can do! But...” he reached up and stroked his chin in an earlier imitation of Mourne. “If I am not to make use of my skills, what should I be?”
“That is for you to decide, Iorneste. I am not permitted to choose your path, only explain which paths you are not permitted to tread. And answer your questions.”
“Well, I do have great strength for a human. What sorts of occupations do humans with great strength generally possess?”
Mourne nodded. “You not only have great strength. You have too much strength. You will have to pretend to be less strong than you really are if you are not to reveal yourself.”
“How will I know what is normal?”
“You will have to observe. But in general, hedge your bets in favor of weakness. For you what seems very weak will still be considered very strong to us. But to address your question, there is no single answer. Some with great strength are laborers. Simple enough. But some tradesmen like blacksmiths are known for their strength. Then of course there are the martial professions. Warriors and duellists, mercenaries and knights. Those professions all require a certain amount of strength.”
An idea began to take hold, and a smile formed with it. “I have read many of these stories. Your people take much pride in your warriors. Some of them even slayed Drac once, if the stories are to be believed.”
“That is correct, before the Drac left the world to humankind. All the more reason to learn to walk as a human without drawing attention to your true nature.”
Iorneste walked over to the chest and then up to the open doorway leading out into the world beyond. “Tell me, Mourne: have you ever been beyond the Wall?”
Mourne walked over to join him, standing at his side and looking down the long tunnel. “Yes. Many times. I would not be much of a guide if I had not.”
“So outside of the bounds you mentioned, I can choose any path I wish?”
Mourne nodded. “Yes, I believe I’ve covered the restrictions.”
He thought of his dragon mentor, Rrachma, and of how amused and horrified he would be by what he was about to do. He laughed to himself, surprised by his own thoughts. “I know my origin story, as you put it, Mourne.”
“Yes. I’m going to be a dragon slayer.”
by the Feline Inferno, Fireytika