Selection of short stories & world building exercises. Items CRS rated individually.
|When the egg failed to hatch, Cam feared for the dragon’s life. Like with chickens, one did not simply peel back the shell and help the infant out. Dragonets and chicks both had a depressing habit of dying if you did that.
Sixteen years of dragon rearing behind him, and more than a few poultry clutches, and Cam still hadn’t figure out why.
Ah well, it would be a good learning experience for the lad, if nothing else.
“Get those hatchlings in the nest-crates,” he told Bann. “You’ve handled day- and two-day old hatchlings before; these are no different.” He blew on a dragonet, drying the slime from its scales and tipped it into Bann’s cupped hands. “When you’ve done that, spray water over the remaining eggs. We can’t let them dry out, especially not now they are hatching.” He narrowed his eyes and stared at the boy. “And why can’t we let them dry out?”
“The moisture keeps the shell supple,” Bann replied. He had his back to the old mage and spoke in that soft, unhurried way of his. He didn’t even bother turning round to face Cam. Damn if the boy wasn’t a natural at this.
“Once the shell cracks, the babies have to break through the inner membrane as well as the shell. If the membrane dries, it toughens and becomes harder for the dragonet to break through.” Bann paused, and now he did turn around. “Cam, Master.” Bann chewed his lip, his eyes not meeting Cam’s. “That pinky coloured egg… it cracked six hours ago.” He lifted his gaze to Cam, blue eyes meeting blue eyes. “Most eggs hatch within four to five, right?”
Cam ran a hand over his jaw; a rough scar puckered at the side of his mouth and ran up into his right cheek. The scar pulled his mouth down in an elongated sneer and made smiling painful. Not that Master Cam smiled often.
“Keep the egg moist, boy. You never know.”
Bann sat amidst the study books at Cam’s great workbench. A bank of nest-crates lay between him and the fire. The nine hatchlings from this batch and twelve other hatchlings, all between five weeks and two months old, filled the crates.
He dabbed his pen in the inkwell and scratched a few more words on the parchment.
From four days of age, dragonets may be fed a diet of limbane berries and flamegrass. Limbane leaves may be offered, but branches must have thorns removed until the dragonet’s scales have cured. Older dragons will often rub themselves against limbane branches as the sap lubricates the scales and thus aids flight. The acrid scent also repels many would-be predators of small reptiles.
Bann jabbed the pen back into the inkwell and lent back, fighting off a yawn. He already knew this stuff. Basic dragon husbandry, but Cam expected his apprentices to write out their own copies of all his books. As far as Bann could tell, most apprentices parted ways with the crotchety old mage mid-way through book two.
And the ungrateful bastards invariably took their copies with them ensuring the next apprentice had to painstakingly copy his own. Damn them.
Bann glanced over at the box by the fire. In it, the dusky pink egg lay laced with spider-web cracks. He whipped his glance over to the candle and checked the burn down.
It’s been eight hours now, he fretted. Dragon’ll be dead from exhaustion by now. Surely.
Bann got up from the workbench and padded over to the box. A spritz of water left a thin film of liquid over the shell. Parts of shell had fragmented off, leaving the sticky membrane inside exposed. Where it came into contact with the air, the membrane was drying and, as predicted, coarsening.
The tiny dragon had broken through the membrane in some places and Bann was extra careful to spray moisture into the egg so the infant didn’t dry out. Poor scale lubrication at this point would seize the dragonet rigid.
Against all odds, the dragon was still alive; Bann could see quivery movement under the filmy white membrane. Fighting the temptation to peel back the greasy film and ease the dragonet out, Bann forced himself back to his books.
Another herb that may be fed to infants and juveniles is the pungent shail-night. Its dark leaves make excellent camouflage and hatchlings will burrow into the foliage, nibbling and gnawing leaves; as a result, shail-night is an effective way of introducing small insects into the older dragonet’s diet. From six weeks of age, the dragonet may be weaned onto larger insects and herpetiods, and thence to meat.
In front of him, the candle spluttered, sending up a wisp of grey smoke. It curled upward and wafted into Bann’s eyes, breaking his concentration. Waving the smoke away, Bann shuffled on his seat and gulped down some of the coffee Cam had left earlier. It was cold.
Between the poor light and the combined fire and candle smoke, Bann’s eyes were stinging. He blinked, but instead of clearing his eyes, that just made them water.
The pile of parchments had grown. Good, hopefully that means I’m further along than I thought. Bloody stars, this is boring. And Cam wonders why the village kids skip school.
He took another swig of icy coffee and grimaced. Cam had left the coffee pot by the fire; dare he risk pouring a fresh cup? Probably not, he decided. It’ll be stronger than camel piss by now.
Stretching the kinks out of his back and neck, Bann rose and checked on the nest-crates. Fetching a bale of limbane from the stable, he stuck a few branches in each of the crates housing older dragons. To the new hatchlings he added a fresh saucer of milk, pausing to ensure each baby drank – even if only a few tentative feline-like laps. More than once he had to pluck the dragonet out of the crate and drip milk from his finger into the infants’ gaping maw until it got the idea.
With a last glance at the hatchlings, he headed over to the rose coloured egg still basking by the fire. Poking the fire and heaving another log on for the night, Bann settled back into Cam’s massive wingback chair to stare at the egg.
Was it his imagination, or had the network of fine creaks and peeling shell fragments increased? He got up and dutifully sprayed the egg, resisting the urge to pick it up and listen for scratching, a heartbeat, a whimper, something, anything that might indicate the tiny dragon was still alive and fighting.
Nine hours. Hadn’t he read somewhere – in one of Cam’s reference books most like – of isolated incidences where the dragonets had survived whole days trapped in the egg?
Yes, isolated, he thought, isolated being the key word there. He sighed, his fingers itching to scrape away the shell fragments.
What is there to loose? The infant’s as good as dead anyway now. Bann chewed his lip as his eyes fixed on the egg. The master will hang me if I kill it; I’ll be cleaning the weaner pens single-handedly for weeks. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the leaping flames burning on his retinas.
After a moment, his eyes flicked open again and Bann blew out a long breath.
First he doused the egg in lashings of water to keep the infant humid, being careful to drench, but not drown, the dragonet. Then he took a pair of forceps from Cam’s desk and started easing the shell away from the lizard’s body.
He felt sick, his heart beating with palpable thuds.
He swallowed and willed his hands not to shake.
I’m going to kill it. A bead of sweat rolled into his eye and he blinked furiously to clear his vision.
A glisten of scales appeared through the broken membrane. The dragon’s skin flickered pearlescent white. Wicked flashes of blue and red darted across its scales in the light of the flames.
With another twitch of the forceps, Bann removed a piece of shell the size of his thumb; and then the infant’s head was visible. It mewed and tried to twist within the egg, but only succeeded in lifting its snout. It whimpered again and the milky snout flopped down.
Cupping the egg in his hand, Bann brought it up to his face and peered in. He inched away another piece of shell, and suddenly he could see why the dragonet hadn’t hatched.
It was deformed.
One wing was just a stubby nub of bone jutting from its back, the leathery membrane fused to its flank. The other, more fully formed, had jagged tears in the skin and the spines of bone that supported the wing where gnarled and bent.
Bann gave a last tweak and the remains of the shell fell away, the odd little lizard shuddering in his hand. The slimy residue of the egg dulling the glittery fire of its milky scales.
Bann went to breathe on the tiny lizard, knowing the body-warm air would breeze over the hatchling, drying the slime whilst keeping the baby warm; and stopped.
New hatchlings rested for perhaps an hour or so after hatching, and then started scampering around their crate-nests with all the chaotic vigor of kittens.
Keeping them warm whilst they rested was imperative, but once they started moving their bodies produced a natural oil that lubricated their scales – one Cam’s books recommended supplementing with limbane sap or refined animal fat.
This malformed, bizarre little lizard would not be racing around anywhere, perhaps ever.
Bann put it back down in the box, spraying it with a layer of warm water from the bottle by the fire.
“Do I tell Cam? What do I tell Cam?” Bann stood over the box and looked down. The opalescent dragon lay on its side, the snake-like belly rising and falling in shallow breaths. “You’re not going to last the night, are you little one?” He placed a makeshift lid over the box – in the hope it would keep the condensation in – and went to bed with a heavy heart.
When dawn broke and the damn cock crowed, that same cock-bird Cam had been threatening to eat for months, Bann was already awake.
Awake and staring at the stable rafters. Cam slept in the manse, in the one wing that wasn’t a tumbling ruin. In the winter he made do with a bedroll by the fire in the workshop, but in summer - when the winds didn't whistle through the manse with bone-chilling vigour - the old mage enjoyed the relative comforts of a real bed. Bann stuck with the stables. It was cool enough in summer and warm enough in winter; close to the privy, close to the workshop (important when he jerked awake at Cam’s desk in the small hours, drool spilling onto his copybook and notes) and above all, close to the dragon pens.
Cam had an entire courtyard devoted to his yearlings, two-year-olds, and even to the few adolescent three- and four-year-old dragons. They required less supervision than the hatchlings, but Bann still preferred to sleep near them.
Now he was regretting not over-nighting in the workshop. Not that he could have done any more for the milky-white dragonet.
Time to see if it’s still alive.
Bann swung down from the stable loft, his long legs missing half the ladder. One more decent growth spurt and he reckoned he’d be able to jump the whole way without problem.
Splashing water from the stone trough on his face as he lolopped passed, Bann ducked into the workshop.
The fire had lasted the night, and smouldered dull red on the hearth. Did he go straight to the crippled dragonet and check if it was alive, or should he feed the other hatchlings first and put off the inevitable?
Check the cripple, he decided. If it’s dead, it’s dead. If not… He chewed his lip. If not, a single minute might make a difference.
Taking a deep breath, Bann crossed the room and knelt beside the box. The heat from the coals seared through his thin nightshirt; good, that means the hatchling should have been warm enough all night.
He pulled back the lid, noting in grateful silence the droplets of condensation. It should have stayed moist too.
Huddled deep inside the box lay the tiny fiery-white dragon. Unmoving.
Bann rocked back on his heels and scooped the minuscule body out. It sat in his hand, pathetic and limp, somewhere between heartbreaking and ludicrous in size.
Limp, not rigid. That meant either it had died within the last few hours – or…
Bann rubbed his finger along the lumpy spine, his nail brushing against the nub of bone that almost formed the left wing.
And the dragon shuddered.
The smallest, most pitiful of movements; and Bann’s face split wide open in a grin.
"You made it, little one. You made it through the night!” His voice rose in excitement. He lowered it again with difficulty. “You’ve got to eat though.”
He carried the dragon across to Cam’s workbench and made an impromptu nest out of blank parchment and study books. The dragonet wasn’t going anywhere and he figured he could dig out a proper crate once Cam was up.
The other hatchlings forgotten, Bann tore over to the dispensary and raced back with a dropper and some goats’ milk – dragons couldn’t digest cows’ milk until they were on solids. Besides, cows’ milk contained far too much sugar.
Sucking up the milk into the dropper, Bann teased a drip of milk into the dragonet’s mouth. Some of it went onto it's cree; the dragon flared its tiny nostrils, making a snorting, choking sound.
But, at least it drank.
Bann fed it some more, talking in a soft monotone all the while. One of the first things Cam had impressed on him – between how to sweep the floors, scrub the work surfaces, and of course make his ever-important coffee – was how important sound was to dragons. He’d even written about it in one of his books.
Rather like many infant birds will impress upon the first living creature they see, so too will dragonets be susceptible to the voices around them. And, as a good shepherd is known by his voice to the sheep, so is the keeper to his dragons.
How many times had the mage written or said words to that effect? Cam didn’t talk to himself, he talked to his dragons. Constantly.
And woe betide the apprentice that didn’t do likewise.
“I guess we had better name you, little one. Since it looks like you might be a survivor.” The dragonet clambered to its feet and shook like a newborn foal. Bann’s eyes crinkled in delight as it tottered a few steps, then its spindly legs gave way and the dragon flopped down with an indignant meep.
Bann beamed with paternal pride. “Well then, little one. What are we going to call you? Snowy? Too obvious. Milky. No, you’re not that either.” He broke off. “Cam, look!” He gestured to the hatch-box as the mage strode into the workshop.
Cam raised a hairy white caterpillar of an eyebrow. “Of course it did.” He peered into the box and smiled fondly at the opalescent dragon.
Bann gaped at him and spluttered, “but, but…”
“Goats butt, boy.” Cam straightened and fixed Bann with his piecing eyes. “Peel away the shell unnecessarily from a hatching babe – be it fowl, lizard or snake – and in all likelihood you have killed it. But the operative word there is unnecessarily. Now and again it is necessary, and I would like to think I have taught you enough to see a sick infant through the night.”
He ran his finger in the air along the dragonet’s back, a nail’s breath above the scales, and traced its body. “Female I should think.” His finger flicked to the hatchling’s snout. “Hard to gauge colours on a leucistic animal, but I fancy the cree is light enough to indicate a damsel. No doubt you’ll be naming this one?” Cam lifted his gaze and gave Bann what was probably meant to be an inquiring smile, but, because of the scar, came across as a smirk.
“I was thinking Opal, sir.”
Cam nodded, his focus back on the hatchling. “Apt name. She’ll need poppy-milk until she finishes growing. You may be lucky and be able to wean her onto meadowsweet or willow bark later, otherwise she may be on the poppy for life. You sure you want to do this, boy?” Cam offered Opal his finger dipped in milk. “One could argue that killing her now would be a kindness.”
“She survived the night, Cam. She survived me breaking her out of the egg. She’s a fighter; she’ll learn to cope with the pain.”
Bann held Cam’s gaze. You taught me that too, old man. Time I passed the knowledge on.
Word count: 2836