[+ Part II -Secrets +]
[+ Part III -Apprentice +]
[+ Part IV -Youngling’s End +]
The shadow overhead loomed closer as Raef ran farther into the meadow. He was running away from the village, away from safety, but it had gotten between him and home, and there was nowhere else to run. The youngling’s dark locks swirled behind him as he tore through the open field. The blades slapped against his shoulders stinging and leaving tiny cuts up and down his slim arms. The grass was slowing him down; he could not outrun the foreboding creature.
A rush of wind from behind threw him face down, tumbling him head over heels before coming to rest on his stomach in the deep grass. He felt the darkness pass so close over him its chill blocked out the sun. He trembled, crouching in a ball and closing his eyes tight as if that would make it go away. He could not make himself look up. He felt the sun on his back and he knew the shadow had passed, but he still could not bring himself to look up. Was it going to come back?
Slowly, after what seemed an eternity, Raef opened his eyes and looked up. The grass around him blocked all but the sky above. He sat up on his knees, back to the village, and carefully peeked over the grass. In the distance, high up in the sky he caught a glimpse of a dark figure flying towards the distant mountains. He was not sure, but he thought it glanced back briefly at him before flapping its mammoth wings and shooting up into the sky, nearly out of sight. Raef watched it for a moment as it continued towards the dark, spiny mountains on the horizon.
Raef stood upright and looked down at himself. He was still breathing hard. His trousers were muddied and stained with grass. The tie straps, sewn to each side and knotted in front, had come undone. He tried to tie them together, but the result was insufficient. He would need his mother’s help. The lacing above his leather shoes that held his trouser legs to his calves and ankles was also coming undone. He held out his arms and saw tiny droplets of blood where the grass had cut him. He suddenly noticed the sting again and clasped his arms together across his chest holding his hands over the bloodied spots. He felt tears begin to well up in his eyes. He looked around and realized he had run nearly to the center of the meadow on the east end of the village. He worried he would be punished for being so far from home. He felt exposed surrounded only by an expanse of grass. His village was in the center of a vast forest of tall fir trees and he was not accustomed to being out in the open. He turned toward the village and began to run back along the trail he had cut through the meadow, holding his trousers by the waist so they would not fall down. He broke out of the meadow and ran down the dirt road that led to the northeastern edge of the village where he lived.
Raef was careful to stay on the flat space in the center of the road between the ruts so he wouldn’t stumble. It was late spring and the roads were no longer muddy so running was easy. He ran past rows of small dwellings, their dark timber frames outlining white washed walls of clay and stick, the roofs thatched with poles and grass. He felt the laces of his shoes come loose and his trousers began to flap around his ankles as he neared his family’s dwelling.
Raef rounded a corner and ran down the short path to his home. He hit the thin door with enough force to make it fly open and slam against the inside wall. His mother was at the center of the room stirring a pot that hung over the house fire. Raef ran to her and clung to her leg.
“Momma, Momma! It was chasing me…and it nearly snatched me up!”
Malta, his mother, paused and looked down at him. She was on the short side for an adult and almost always wore a kind smile. She lifted an eyebrow as she looked down at him. She did not look as alarmed as Raef thought she should be.
“What was chasing you?”
“The dragon,” he said, “it was the dragon!”
She put down the wooden spoon she held and reached down to pick him up.
“Raef, my little story teller, no one has seen the…well, that monster in a very long time, not since before you were born,” She tussled his hair, “I think your imagination…”
“It was, it was!”
His mother’s expression grew dark, and Raef could not read it.
“Raef, what did you see, exactly?”
“It was flying!” he said, “It came down out of the sky when I was in the meadow. It chased me, but I fell down, so it didn’t get me, then it flew away, but it looked back at me again and…”
“You were out playing in the meadow?”
Raef felt a slight panic, “I…I…I was just at the edge. Not out in the big part. But then it came out of the sky and chased me way out there!”
His mother looked confused “Raef, Raef,” she said, “I have told you never to wander so far from home alone. I do not want you to be going out in the meadow.”
“Will Father be angry?”
His mother put him down, put a hand to her chin, and looked off into the distance. Her eyes squinted slightly, and her face grew expressionless. Raef followed her eyes to see what she was looking at, but her gaze led only to the blank wall of the hut.
Just then his father walked in the door, coming home for the mid sun meal. Folor ducked to get under the doorway then stood, his head nearly brushing the ceiling joists. His inky hair hung down past his waist. Folor paused inside the door with a large smile and looked at Malta, then down at Raef. Raef’s mother did not seemed to notice Folor’s arrival. Raef saw his father’s smile fade.
“Is something wrong?” Folor asked his mother.
“No, no,” stammered his mother, taking her gaze off the wall and looking at her husband, “well, Raef…he says he was chased by a dragon…out in the meadow.”
“A dragon?” Folor asked.
Raef ran to his father’s feet, waving his arms as he talked.
“I saw it, I saw it! It had big red fangs and black claws…”
“Raef,” Folor cut him off, “The dragon does not have red teeth. And where are your shirt and tunic? I will not have my own son running about the village half-dressed.”
“But, Father, it really did chase me! It was right over me, and its wings made a big wind an it knocked me down!”
Folor looked down at Raef and squinted.
“Folor,” Raef’s mother said, “something scared him in the meadow.”
Folor sighed and looked down at Raef. “What did you really see?”
Raef studied his father’s face. It looked stern, almost angry. Folor got very loud when he was angry.
“Well,” Raef said, “it was like a big windy thing, and it knocked me over and…and…I couldn’t look up, but then I did, and it was flying away and…it was really big, Father!”
Folor sighed again, hung his robe on the wall and walked around Raef to the table with slow, deliberate steps. He sat on one of the wooden benches putting both his arms on the table, banging them down harder than Raef thought he needed to. Raef watched his father’s arms flex and bulge through the tunic he wore.
“No one has reported a sighting in seasons,” said Folor speaking in the direction of the window. Raef was not sure to whom his father was speaking.
“Besides, the dragon never ventures so near a village,” continued Folor.
“Raef was alone in the meadow,” said Raef’s mother, “He is small…easy prey. Perhaps…Folor do you think?”
“Malta, be sensible. After all this time why would…that beast come back? And why chase our son?”
“It has not been so long. Narra vanished just last moon cycle. You know, Serip’s daughter.”
Folor did not look at Raef’s mother, but shook his head disbelievingly.
“You know it was the dragon that took her,” said Raef’s mother, “We can’t keep letting Raef go off alone like that!”
Folor sighed. He does that a lot, Raef thought. Then Folor looked over at Raef. He smiled a little, and Raef came up to his side. Even when his father was seated Raef did not even come up to his shoulder. Folor reached out and patted his head.
“Malta, Raef will be fine. Narra had already fifteen seasons. She probably ran off with some greenling from another village. The dragon had nothing to do with that. Besides, I taught Raef how to take care of himself. He will be fine.”
“Folor, Raef has only six seasons!” Malta turned briskly back to the fire and began to stir the pot hanging over it. “The dragon did see him. I am sure of it now.”
“Malta, we cannot keep our son locked up in the house. We will not become one of those hysterical families that believe the dragon is hiding behind every rock.”
At that Folor stood swiftly, walked to his bed against the far wall, and pulled the privacy curtain closed behind him with a swoosh. Raef saw his mother sigh, pull a towel from her sash, wrap it around the wire handle of the pot, and lift the kettle from the fire.
“Raef, go wash up, the meal is ready. And put a shirt on at least.”
Raef padded over to the washbasin that sat on a small table against the wall as his mother put the pot on the table. It smelled like lamb to Raef, and he didn’t like lamb much. He washed his hands and his arms to get the little bits of dried blood off. He was surprised that it no longer hurt. He wondered why his father did not believe he saw the dragon. Had it been real? Was he really safe? Raef was not quite sure.
The water in the small pool stirred as if a breeze had blown over it, though the air was still and hot. The image of the small youngling washing his arms faded with the ripples, then the pool grew still as glass. Erif let out a sigh, stood slowly and stepped away from the pool. He had been crouching as he watched the scene play out in the water. He put his hands to his waist and bent backward, stretching his back until he felt it crack. Groaning, he ran his fingers through his short hair as he felt the sun warm his bare chest. The tattered remains of his trousers were insufficient for the straps of his boots to hold tight to his calves. The summer breeze blew the frayed edges of his sand-colored trousers about his legs.
Erif looked out over the dry, desolate island that was his new home. Hardly a tree in sight, only sand, dust and rock. He had thirty seasons and he found himself wondering how had his life come to this. He looked down at the temporary pool of water formed in a depression by a rare rainfall. He remembered the youngling in the vision.
“He is doomed.”
“No,” said the old spirit standing beside him.
Erif looked up into Zul’s gray eyes. The spirit had a snowy beard and hair that blew in the breeze. Zul’s face looked a bit worn and well tanned, but showed no frailty that one might expect of a being so ancient. Only the spirit’s threadbare and faded robe gave any sign of age.
“You know what will happen to him,” Erif said.
“That is why I am asking you to save him.”
“You know I can’t defeat it.”
“Not alone, that is why I am here.”
Zul moved closer to Erif and put a hand gently on the Warrior’s strong shoulder. Erif looked back at the pool of water where he had seen the vision.
“We can go back now,” said the old spirit.
Erif looked incredulously at the spirit.
“You drug me all the way up this hill just to see this? Couldn’t you have shown me down on the beach?”
“Use the walk back to gather your courage.”
Zul faded from sight. Erif shook his head and began the long walk back to his camp near the beach. The air was hot and the path dusty. The few trees on the horizon were stunted and haggard. This particular sun’s journey had actually been fairly pleasant before Zul had interrupted. Erif had managed to put his loneliness briefly out of his mind. But now this vision of doom reminded him of his own situation. This deserted island was the very image of hopelessness. He took a deep breath and walked taller. He would try to have hope. At least he wanted to have hope. He felt ready to follow the Great Spirit, even into this fanatical plan, but what could Erif do stranded out here on this island?
Erif’s attention was snapped back to the present at the sound of a faint scuff on the ground nearby. His hand instinctively went to the sword at his side. Half hidden behind a dry bush crouched a gray wolf. Erif saw other wolves in the distance. The closest wolf snarled at the sight of the man. The wolf turned when Erif began to draw his sword. As it slinked away, Erif could see the long scar on its side from the last time it tried to ambush him. The other wolves followed the first upwards into the higher hills. Erif sheathed his sword and muttered to himself. He looked down the long, winding path. He could scarcely see the beach where he had made his camp. He shook his head and slowly trudged on. Couldn’t Zul have chosen a closer spot to show him this vision?
“Ow!” cried Raef, falling to the ground and grimacing as he held a toe he had snagged on a rock. His leather shoes were thin and did little to protect his feet against rocks. “Damn the spirits!” he muttered, trying out words he had heard older greenlings use.
The three younglings walking with him stopped suddenly and looked back at him. They had his seasons but wore hair cut above their ears, indicating they were the sons of Warriors.
“You are not allowed to speak that!” said Keever, as he walked back to Raef.
“Your father is a Keeper,” said Chaz, joining Keever to circle around Raef, “You profane his name.”
“Be quiet,” said Raef, still holding his big toe, “I can speak what I want.”
“But, you are an Intercessor,” said Liet, joining the circle.
“So?” said Raef, feeling his cheeks burning.
“Intercessors are not to speak like that,” said Chaz.
“You do!” Raef said.
“We are Warriors,” said Liet, reaching down and giving Raef’s long hair a sharp tug, “Warriors don’t go to ceremony, and we can speak any way we like.”
The three Warrior younglings danced around Raef, taunting him a bit more, then ran ahead on their way to youngling lessons. Raef watched them go as he sat in the dirt. He was actually a little taller than all of them, but they were stronger and faster. Raef got up and followed at a distance, trying to fight off tears. Why did his family have to be Intercessors? He would almost rather be a common Laborer or a Merchant. But these were things he knew could not be changed.
Raef did not mind going to lessons. The Training Lodge was one of the few places all the younglings were treated the same. Except the Laborers, that is. Their younglings worked out in the fields. He decided it was good he was not a Laborer. Raef kind of liked the Training Lodge, even if it was hard to sit still so long. He was not quite confident in numbers, but he liked to hear the stories of old times and learn about the other villages in the Great Province. But after lessons he could not quite fit in with the other younglings. Some returned to their homes, but Chaz, Liet and Keever played Warrior back behind the Training Lodge. Raef played with them, but he wished they would play something where he could not get hurt. They used sticks as swords and an old wooden barrel as the dragon. Raef played half-heartedly, keeping his distance from the flailing sticks. Liet turned and saw Raef, who was standing away from the others.
“What’s the matter? Afraid of a stick!”
Liet swung his pointed stick back and forth in front of Raef’s face. Raef held up an arm in defense and backed away. Liet laughed at him.
“Now Raef is the dragon!” Chaz said, “Get him!”
Raef dropped his stick and ran, the other three chasing with their makeshift swords. Raef shrieked, running in circles to evade them.
“Younglings!” came a stern warning.
All four froze at the sound of the older voice. It was Irah, Raef’s older sister. She was a greenlia with fifteen seasons and a well respected Intercessor. Her earthen hair was braided down her back. As Raef and his father, Irah was tall for her age. She stood in the road, hands on her hips.
“You three stop that, or I’ll tell your mothers!” Irah said.
Raef’s three friends knew better than to disobey her, even if they were from the Warrior clan. They dropped their sticks. Raef was relieved but embarrassed.
“Raef,” Irah said, “You were supposed to be home by now. This is new moon meditation, remember? You need to get cleaned up.”
Raef hung his head. He could hardly imagine anything more embarrassing. In Warrior families a sister, even an older one, would never tell a brother what to do. And Warriors never went to meditation or religious ceremonies. Raef could hear his friends snickering quietly. He could only imagine what they thought of him. He slunk away after his sister. He could hear the youngling Warriors begin to laugh as he left.
When he arrived home, his father was already dressed in his crimson Keeper robe. The mid-sun meal was set at the table, his mother busily laying out leather mugs and thick slices of hard, stale bread called trenchers, which the food was to be served on. Folor did not look pleased. Raef hurried and took his seat on the bench.
“Raef, look at you!” said Folor. “You are a filthy mess! You were supposed to be home in time to wash before the meal.”
Raef sat quietly at the table, unable to look up at his father, who had not taken a seat at the wooden family table. Irah sat next to Raef and began to cut some meat from the wooden serving plank at the center of the table and put it on her trencher. Raef, hoping his father was done speaking, pulled a knife from where it had been tucked in his trouser tie strap and reached for the meat to cut himself a piece.
“Well, Raef,” said Folor after a minute, “we cannot take you looking like that. What were you doing, rolling in dirt?”
His mother did not look at Raef or Folor, but sat quietly and poured malt from the pitcher into her mug.
“Go on, Raef,” said Folor, pointing to the wash basin, “get over there and wash yourself. And hurry; we are already late!”
Raef pushed away from the table, not looking up at his father.
“Folor,” Raef’s mother said quietly, “the ceremony has not started. We are not late.”
“But we will be,” said Folor, “and it will be your fault, Raef!”
As Raef ran past his father he felt a sharp swat. His backside stung. Folor followed him to the basin, standing over Raef like a granite tower. Raef tried not to cry too much as he washed his face, hands and arms. When he was done washing Folor finally stepped away, returning to the table to eat.
“And put on some clean clothes,” Folor said before Raef could return to the table.
Raef dried his face and hands and went to his bed to change his clothes. He did not have a privacy curtain, so he changed with his back to the family. When he turned to the table Folor was seated and everyone was done eating.
“Hurry up and eat,” Folor said, “you can’t very well carry your food with you.”
“I can eat after,” Raef said.
“No, you will eat now,” said Folor.
Raef sat and quickly cut some meat and put it on the trencher in front of him. He spooned some pottage from the pot and put that on the trencher beside his meat. Folor sat across from him, glaring while Irah and Malta got up and cleared away the meat plank and the three used trenchers. They would be given to the poor to eat later. Raef wanted to cry but was afraid that it would make his father even angrier. He ate quickly, trying not to drip food on his shirt.
His family arrived at the Ceremonial Lodge after most of the others, but they were not late. As they entered Raef saw the rows of split-log benches filled with villagers, but the meditations had not yet begun. The Ceremonial Lodge was the second largest structure in the village. Only the Common Hall used for dances, village feasts and watching travelling troupes of actors was larger. Even then, the Ceremonial Lodge was much nicer inside with ornate carvings in the timbers that supported the tall ceiling. Most of the seats were already taken, but Irah found a spot for him, his mother and herself to sit near the front. The village Nobles and their families sat on the front rows with those of Intercessor lineage like Raef’s family in the rows just behind them. Raef did not understand why those on the front rows were called Noble because they looked no more significant than his own father. Raef’s father even wore a nicer robe than any of the Nobles. The Merchants, Artisans and Laborers sat in the rows behind the Intercessors and made up the largest group. Folor walked to the front of the room and stood to face the gathering. It was his turn as one of the Keepers to lead the ceremony. The other Keepers stood off to the sides in their blazing robes.
Raef watched as his father begin to speak. Folor towered over the other Keepers, and Raef imagined him to be taller, perhaps, than anyone in the village. His father’s voice resounded through the lodge, and Raef relaxed and slouched down on the bench. No one would make fun of him here. Not even his father would raise his voice to him. Not here in the Ceremonial Lodge. There were no Warriors here, everyone here observed the ceremonies. All Intercessor males wore their hair long, just like Raef. Even the male Nobles, Merchants and Laborers had hair that brushed their shoulders. Here he was not different.
Raef leaned against his mother and tried to listen as his father spoke. Folor was saying something about the Great Spirit, Zul. It was always hard for Raef to pay attention at ceremonies. He was glad that younglings were only required to attend some of the ceremonies.
“We must never lose our vigilance against the evil of the beast,” said Folor.
Raef knew that his father meant the dragon. This was at least a little interesting, because the Keepers rarely spoke about the dragon.
“Even its very name is too evil to be spoken. We must never let down our guard.”
Raef wasn’t sure what his father meant. What was a “guard?” He leaned back so his foot reached the floor and made circles in the dirt with the toe of his shoe. The people were pleasant here, but it was terribly dull.
“We can be fooled as it is so rarely seen, hiding in the forbidden mountains,” Raef heard his father say, “but do not be lulled to complacency. It lives to catch us unaware and eat us alive when we let it come too close.”
Raef wondered if what chased him a few sunsets past was really a dragon.
“But we are guided by the Great Spirit, Zul. He will protect all who observe the ceremonies.”
Folor’s voice faded as Raef closed his eyes and imagined being a Warrior and hunting wild animals out in the forest. But then he heard Folor mention his name. Raef perked up to hear what his father was saying about him. Folor was telling the gathering about the dragon chasing Raef out in the meadow. Several heads turned to look at Raef. Raef was confused, hadn’t Father said earlier that it was not really the dragon?
“Surely Zul protected my son,” Folor said, “for Raef, though only a youngling, observes the ceremonies.”
Raef sat a little taller. His father was telling a story about him in front of everyone, and saying nice things about him. Real dragon or not, Raef liked that. Folor continued to speak, but he moved past the dragon story and onto something else Raef didn’t understand. Raef drifted into another fantasy. He imagined a giant dragon coming after him, but Raef stood still in defiance.
“You can’t hurt me, you old dragon!” Raef said in his dream, “Zul will stop you.”
The dragon swooped down, but was repelled. It swooped in again and again, but Raef could deflect it by a simple wave of his hand. Raef laughed at the beast.
“Shh!” said Irah.
Raef was startled and opened his eyes to find the room silent. His father was no longer at the front, and everyone’s eyes were closed with hands and heads lifted skyward. They were meditating. Raef hated this part, sitting in silence so long. All the adults seemed to like meditating, and he supposed he would too one sun’s journey. Younglings only attended the new moon meditation each cycle. Raef was glad for that. Raef slouched down in the hard wooden bench and let his mind drift away again to fantasies of exploring the nearby forests and defeating dragons, trying to keep more quiet this time.
Erif pounded the glowing steel. The sword was taking shape nicely. He placed it back in the fire for a while before removing it to shape it further. This would be a longer sword than Warriors used. It was much longer than the sword he carried now. It would take time to master. Time did not matter. He had nothing but time out here.
His thoughts turned to his beauty; his wife. He missed her deeply. Tama had such warm eyes and a smile that made all anxiety melt away. Her hair was golden, a bit wavy and often a little messy, but that was all the more attractive to Erif. Tama had always been there, a rock to hang onto in the storm. She was not forceful or aggressive, simply steady and consistent. She loved him as much as he loved her.
It had been nearly a season since he’d seen her. She was almost the only good thing left in his life. He was fighting for her and the children as much as for himself. He had gotten her letters, ferried out to the island every moon cycle by the guardian. He knew that she was still waiting for him. He drew strength from that.
Erif plunged the hot blade into a barrel of water. Steam rose to his face. He closed his eyes and breathed it in. It felt cleansing, somehow. He grinned; it was amazing how such simple things were pleasant when everything else-his friends, family, village, home and trade-had been stripped away. He placed the sword aside and walked away from the makeshift forge he had made in an outcropping of rocks on a small hill above his camp. He walked out onto a sand ridge that paralleled the coast and looked out over the ocean in the distance. Above the utter silence of the island he could hear the water sweeping against the sand.
He turned and gazed over the dunes on the beach, plains of scrub grass above and rocky hills behind him. Only the faint breeze accompanied him in this desolate place. Yet he was surprised to realize that he was at peace, even in his loneliness. He would see Tama again, he was certain. And he had a purpose now, though Zul had not been entirely clear as to how that was to play out. He took a deep breath of sunset air.
“I will return to you, Tama,” he said aloud, “I will return.”
Raef woke the next sunrise to the sound of visitors outside the house. He sprang off his straw bed and ran to the front door, bare foot and still wearing his night robe. His father was in work clothes talking with a family in a horse drawn cart out in the road. The cart was a long one with two sets of large wooden wheels but no cover. There were only a couple of small wooden boxes in the otherwise empty cart. He recognized Keever’s father and mother sitting on the driver’s bench. Raef did not see Keever anywhere.
“What is Father doing?” Raef asked his mother as she joined him at the door.
“He’s going to Pine Creek to help move Keever’s grandparents. They are moving to our village.”
“But, where is Keever?”
“At a relative’s house.”
Raef watched thoughtfully. Folor got in the cart and sat on a small box in the back. Keever’s father snapped the reigns, and the cart started off down the dirt path but became stuck when the right rear wheel fell into a deep rut. The horse tried to pull but the wagon only moved a bit forward before rocking back again into the rut. Keever’s father put down the rains and started to get out, but Folor jumped out first and ran behind the cart. Folor squatted behind the stuck wheel, grasped it firmly and with a grunt lifted the wheel and the back corner of the cart off the ground.
“Pull ahead!” called Folor.
Keever’s father sat quickly down and coaxed the horse forward. The cart moved forward with Folor following, still holding up the back corner. He let go once they cleared the rut. Folor may not be a Warrior, Raef thought, but he is stronger than nearly all of them. Raef watched as Folor vaulted onto the cart. Folor looked back at Raef and his mother, smiling and waving as the horse pulled the cart away.
“Why is Father gone so much?” asked Raef.
Irah joined them at the doorway, her hair not yet combed and looking a bit sleepy.
“Because so many people need his help,” said Raef’s sister. “After all, Intercessors are supposed to help everyone.”
“Even Warriors?” asked Raef.
“Yes, even Warriors,” said his mother.
Raef stood and watched the cart ride down the path until it went around a corner and out of sight. His sister disappeared into the house again.
“Mother,” he asked. “Where are my grandparents?”
Malta leaned against the doorpost and was silent for a few moments.
“Your grandparents? What brought that up?”
“Everyone else has grandparents, but I’ve never seen mine. Do I have any?”
Malta reached down and stroked Raef’s head, combing his hair down onto his back with her fingers. He liked it when she did that.
“I’m sorry, Raef, but all your grandparents died seasons ago, before you were born. You never got to see them.”
He wondered why he had so few relatives compared to his friends, but he decided not to ask about it. His mother’s expression had grown dark, and he didn’t want to upset her. His sister reappeared shortly wearing her nice dress and with her hair braided neatly. She was carrying her alms basket.
“Where are you going?” asked Raef.
“To the Intercessor’s kitchen then to old lady Naba’s to bring her whatever food has been prepared. She has not been feeling well, so I’m going to sit and visit with her awhile as well.”
“You mean, you’ll sit and listen a while,” said Raef’s mother with a smile.
“Mother!” said Irah. “She’s just a lonely old woman. She needs someone to talk to, that’s all.”
“Raef,” Malta said, “why don’t you go along with Irah? Naba would love to see you.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” said Raef, shaking his head, “it’s dull as dirt at Naba’s house!”
His mother laughed, “It’s not that bad, Raef.”
But Raef ran back in the house and to his bed. He tossed off his night robe and pulled on his trousers, wrapping the tie straps around himself and tying them in front as best he could. The scabbard holding his eating knife had been permanently attached to the left tie strap by his mother, and he felt it flap against his right side. He pulled his leather shoes over his feet and tucked his trouser legs into the uppers of his shoes, then wrapped the laces up over his calves and tied them below his knees. He inspected his attempts at tying his trouser ties and shoe lacings. They would not hold long but he did not want his mother’s help. She might make him go with his sister. He quickly slipped on his long sleeved shirt and short-sleeved tunic over it. He then went to the back of the house, opened the window shudder, and shimmied outside before his mother came back inside to find him.
With Folor gone his mother would be less strict with him. He wanted to leave before she found something for him to do. The back wall of his home was just a few paces from the edge of the forest so he ran quickly into the tress before he was caught. He slowed only after the fir trees closed around him and his house was no longer visible. The coolness of the forest touched his face. He was free. There would be no lessons as it was the first sun’s journey of the new moon cycle. Only the most necessary of tasks were performed on the first sun.
He wandered aimlessly into the forest, even though he’d been warned to stay on the larger trails to keep from getting lost. Those trails no longer held his interest; he’d seen them all. He pushed through ferns and crawled over rocks, looking for some new adventure. He paused beside a towering fir tree, leaning his shoulder against its ancient crackly bark and looking deeper into the forest. This tree was as far as he had ever gone.
He knew his parents would not want him out this far, but he had been here several times. As he peered deeper he was disappointed that everything looked the same as the rest of the forest. But what if there was something different out there further? Way out in the mysterious woods. After a few moments of nervous anticipation he dared himself to walk deeper into the trees. When he wandered so far he feared he was lost, he did find something; a trail he’d never seen before. It was very faint and overgrown, leading even deeper into the forest. A deer trail, he imagined, or maybe some other animal. He picked his way gingerly down the old trail to find out.
The trail wound between thick trees and down into a ravine. Everything was dark and shades of emerald. The trees dripped with moss and all the ground was covered in fern. Slim, lacey maples grew below the larger firs, stretching their fingers in all directions. As Raef tiptoed over ancient moss a sound broke the silence. Raef froze. It sounded like someone giggling up ahead, not too far away.
The noise was coming from directly down the path. He strained his eyes and thought he saw a lighter spot up ahead. A clearing. He had never imagined a clearing would be so far out from the village. He crept quietly towards the light and hid behind a patch of dense ferns at the edge of the opening.
Raef saw a young greenling of perhaps thirteen seasons laughing and running barefoot through the grassy space. What he saw just beyond the greenling sent ice through his veins. On the other side of the clearing, not more than a dozen steps from the greenling, lay a dark, oily dragon, draped across the grass like a monstrous snake. Raef froze. He felt as if his heart had stopped, and he could barely breath. It was as long as three houses, and its back was taller than a rooftop. Then Raef noticed a long tail move that was wrapped back along the length of the beast, making it twice as long as he first thought. It was a shadowy thing and hard to make out, it’s head was raised up on a serpentine neck weaving very slowly from side to side. Something hung down over the edges of the looming head, drifting and shimmering in the breeze. Raef realized the dragon had hair on its head that hung almost into its dark green eyes. Near the back of its head, where ears might be, a pair of spikes curved up and back. The protrusions moved, raising up and then drooping down against its neck as Raef watched. The thing had a long snout with wide nostrils at the end that flared from time to time. Its mouth hung slightly open exposing a sickly salmon colored tongue and two huge fangs nearly as long as Raef was tall. Raef felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He wanted to run, but his eyes were glued to the terrifying image in front of him.
The underside of the dragon’s long throat was milky colored and made of wide plates like the underbelly of a lizard. The dragon rested lazily on its elbows with long black talons loosely clasped in front, as if it was folding its hands. Along its back was a ridge of more dark hair in the form of a mane that stood a bit up from its spine and drooped over on one side or the other. The mane went down its spine all the way to the tip of the very long tail. The sun glinted off the dragon’s inky scales illuminating rusty speckles beneath the oily sheen. Raef found it quite ugly to look at. This was no shadow in the sky. It was the real thing, the beast itself.
The sound of giggling snapped him back to the present, and the greenling came into view. The greenling turned so Raef could see his face and Raef recognized him. It was DeAlsím, a greenling two or three seasons younger than Irah from a Merchant family who frequented the Ceremonial Lodge. DeAlsím looked tiny next to the dragon. Raef nearly panicked as he watched the greenling run up to the dragon’s talon, touch it, and dart away again. Raef was certain DeAlsím would be eaten right in front of his eyes. The greenling ran a short ways from the dragon and fell down laughing into the grass. The dragon peered down at DeAlsím, tilting its head to one side. Raef tensed, willing DeAlsím to get up and run.
DeAlsím did get up, but Raef watched in disbelief as he ran back to the beast, touched its huge talon, and ran away again. The dragon gazed after DeAlsím, but made no move to hurt him. Raef’s mind spun, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. DeAlsím continued his game, laughing so hard now he could hardly run. Then the dragon lazily lifted its foreleg and extended a claw in DeAlsím’s direction. It was all Raef could do not to scream out loud. DeAlsím dashed away, laughing hysterically. The dragon slowly put its claw back on the ground.
Raef’s fear slowly melted into confusion. They are playing, he realized. DeAlsím is playing a game with the dragon. The dragon that eats people. Here it was, right in front of him, the dragon playing with DeAlsím and making no attempt to harm the greenling. Raef watched as DeAlsím stood up, ran up to the dragon, slapped one of its talons and looked up into the face of the thing. The dragon slowly extended a talon towards DeAlsím, but the greenling ran away, laughing. As Raef continued to watch he slowly realized that he had never heard anyone say they’d actually seen the dragon eat anyone. In fact, he had never heard anyone speak about seeing the dragon themselves. Yet anytime someone went missing, the village said the dragon must have eaten them. He wondered if perhaps this was one of those stories parents told younglings to keep them from going too far from home. Do adults really believe the dragon ate people? Maybe it did, and Raef would soon see DeAlsím eaten alive. A chill ran down his spine.
DeAlsím continued to tease the great beast. The dragon would occasionally reach out and almost touch DeAlsím, but it always allowed the greenling to get away. After a few more turns, the dragon looked away from DeAlsím and glanced in Raef’s direction. It seemed to look right at the spot where Raef was hiding. Raef went cold, but the dragon looked away again. Raef tried to calm himself. Certainly it could not have seen him through the dense fern. DeAlsím collapsed in the center of the clearing, his chest rising and falling rapidly. The dragon bent its enormous head over the greenling and sniffed him. DeAlsím reached up and touched the dragon’s snout. While DeAlsím kept a hand on the beast’s snout, the dragon unfurled enormous leathery wings. Then with a single flap its great wings lifted the dragon into the air. The gust of wind bent the surrounding trees and nearly flattened Raef’s hiding place. Raef could now see that the dragon had both front and hind legs, each bristling with sword-like ebony talons. Moments later the dragon was gone from sight. DeAlsím got up, still panting, and walked to the trail. Raef crouched low to hide, for he was very near the trail himself. DeAlsím passed by and did not seem to notice Raef. Raef waited until all was silent, then waited some more. When Raef was sure DeAlsím was far away, he crept back to the trail and headed home.
He felt his heart pound in his chest as he made his way back to a more familiar forest. He had witnessed something outside his imagination. Something dangerous. Something that felt forbidden, but somehow exciting. Something he knew he must keep secret.
The image of Raef walking through the forest blurred and faded. The water in the pool became foggy and rippled slightly before growing still again. Zul had not taken Erif up into the hills but had brought him to a pool of water on the scrub grass plains, near where he practiced his swordsmanship. Erif had never seen this pool before. Erif sat back against a small boulder and put his face into his hands.
“Yes, it is sad,” said Zul.
“Why didn’t you stop him?” asked Erif.
“Who, the dragon, or Raef?”
“Either one! You know what’s going to happen.”
Erif felt his anger rise. He knew he had no right to be angry with the spirit, for spirits are superior to men, but he could not help it.
“So, why didn’t you stop it?”
The spirit paused and looked intently at Erif.
“Some things are meant to remain a mystery to men.”
“Stop taunting me!” said Erif, standing to face the spirit, “Why would you hide your reasons for refusing to help?”
The old spirit was a bit shorter than Erif, and obviously older, but Zul held himself with a strength that evaded even a Warrior like Erif.
“You are bound in time, why would you expect to reason as a spirit?”
“You doomed that youngling to a life of …”
“He doomed himself.”
“He is only a youngling!”
Zul gave Erif a curious look.
“You have never talked to me like that before,” the old spirit said.
“It is time someone challenged you! We don’t have the power to gaze into the future or to see what will happen if we do some foolish thing. You can, yet you sit and watch us destroy ourselves. How can you call yourself the Spirit of Peace?”
Erif paced angrily around the pool.
“This is good,” Zul said.
“What is good?”
Erif stopped and glared at Zul.
“You rarely let your anger out,” said Zul, “you will need it to face the dragon.”
Erif ran a hand through his hair, feeling it prickle between his fingers like brush bristles. He had taken the time to cut it regularly since coming to the island, though all he had to work with was a knife.
“You are not helping, old spirit.”
“Raef did not listen to his father, why would he listen to me? I force no one, you know that.”
“That is not fair, he is too young to understand.”
“I did not say it was fair.”
“So why not stop the dragon, then?”
“The dragon is very powerful. It has been granted the right to roam freely for now, so by my own word I must not interfere. This is an agreement between the Great Ones, and men have trouble understanding.”
“So, what then?”
“The villages must be made to understand.”
Erif kicked the sand but slowly relaxed and let out a long sigh.
“They do not understand,” said Erif, “That is why I am here.”
“That is not the only reason you are here, Erif,” Zul said.
Erif stopped and looked at the old spirit. He did not want to go down that road with the spirit. It was too painful. Then Erif grew a slight grin.
“You revealed your reasons to me after all. I do not understand, why did you not say this in the first place?”
A smile slowly crossed Zul’s face.
“I wanted you to feel your anger again.”
Raef stood on the stream bank with his father. It has been several moon cycles since his trip into the deep woods and summer was nearly over. Even after so many journeys of the sun, he had not been able to forget seeing DeAlsím with the dragon. Although Raef had more questions about the dragon than ever, he tried not to think about them when he was with his father. Intercessors should not think of such things, he knew.
Raef loved trips to the stream to fish. Raef occasionally even caught one himself. Fishing was a job for Laborers or Merchants, who sold fish in the square, but Folor liked to fish, so he went on the rare occasions when his duties did not demand his attention. It was very rare when he asked Raef to join him.
The stream ran along the north edge of the village, just a short way into the forest. The trees were not as dense here, and it was common to see other villagers fishing, though this time no one else was present. Raef watched his father expertly toss the small square net into the center of the stream. Folor used a line secured to the net to guide it directly into a deep pool on the opposite side of the stream. They had to keep their distance, as the fish were skittish. Folor grew very still, holding the line tight with his right hand while resting a finger of his left against the line in front of him. Raef watched in silent awe. Suddenly, Folor stood and pulled furiously on the line, hand over hand. A silver fish two hand spans long squirmed in the net as it came ashore. As Folor removed the fish, he looked at his son.
“Here, you try the next one.” Folor said.
Raef nervously took the net. He could not toss it far enough to reach any of the deep pools, so he went downstream and dipped it near the bank. He waited, feeling his father’s eyes on him.
“No, not like that Raef! Let the line out more. The fish aren’t right here in the shallows.”
Raef pulled the net in and tossed it out farther. He hoped the net didn’t get all twisted up before a fish got in it.
Please, please, please, Raef begged the fish silently. He wanted Folor to see him catch one. He felt the line pull just a little. Raef jumped back and pulled hand over fist as fast as his arms would go. A small but very lively fish came up on the net. He held it up, beaming, to his father.
“Well done,” said Folor.
Raef smiled at his father, then down at his fish.
They fished a while longer before Folor said it was time to go home. Raef carried the string the fish were tied to, trying not to let them drag the ground. As they walked along the stream Raef saw something reflecting the sun from under the water. He stopped to look. The stream was very shallow here, and he saw the bed was covered in small stones. One of them seemed to sparkle when light hit it. As Folor went on ahead, Raef put the fish on the bank and waded out to retrieve the stone. It was about twice the size of his thumb. The stone was oval and perfectly smooth and almost completely transparent. Raef ran to his father to show him the treasure.
“Father, Father! Look what I found.”
Folor took the stone and held it up to the light. The sun shone right through it.
“It’s just a piece of quartz, worn round by the stream.” Folor said.
“Is it a…a treasure?”
“Not really,” said Folor, handing it back, “but I suppose it is unusual to find one so clear.”
“I like it.”
“You can keep this but no more. Your mother is already angry at the pile of stones you collect and keep under your mattress. Now go get the fish and let’s go home.”
Raef went back to get the stringer of fish and rejoined his father. Raef held the small stone tightly in his hand. They walked home in the dimming light. It seemed like a perfect sun’s journey. His clear stone would always remind him of it, he decided.
The next sunset, after last meal, Raef went outside to find someone to play with before it got dark. He saw Chaz alone at the forest edge. It was odd for Chaz to be in this part of the village where the Intercessors lived. Raef was happy to see him, however. Chaz was usually nicer when Keever and Liet were not around.
“Ho! Chaz,” called Raef.
Chaz looked up and squinted in his direction.
“What ya doing?”
“How about a game?”
Raef thought frantically, trying to come up with a worthy game. He remembered the clear stone he now carried in a bag tied to his waist. He smiled and pulled it out.
“We’ll have a treasure hunt,” said Raef, showing Chaz the stone. “We could have my sister hide it, and we could be explorers looking for it.”
Chaz’s eyes opened wide as he looked at the stone. Raef handed it to him.
“Where did you get it?” Chaz asked.
“I found it in a stream when I went fishing with Father.”
Chaz rolled the stone over in his hand.
“So, do you wanna play explorers, then?” Raef asked.
Chaz looked up and smiled, “Okay!”
Irah agreed with obvious reluctance to help them, and they spent all sunset searching for the stone between times she hid it. Chaz was pleasant the whole time, never once saying anything mean. He didn’t even trip Reaf for fun or punch his arm like he usually did. When Chaz’s father finally came looking for him Chaz gave Raef a soft slap on the arm and said, “See ya tomorrow!”
Raef returned to his home, changed into his night robe and got into bed. His sister was sleeping in her bed behind a curtain on the next wall. Raef’s mother and father were against the wall opposite his behind their privacy curtain. Raef had no curtain but his bed was under a window. The shudders were open so the moonlight could shine through. He lay on his back, the straw poking softly against him, and held the stone up to the window watching the moonlight shine through it. He smiled.
The following sunrise Chaz did not pay much attention to Raef at lessons. To Raef’s surprise, however, that sunset Raef saw Chaz coming down the path toward his house just after last meal.
“Ho, Raef!” Chaz called.
“Wanna play treasure hunt again?”
“Sure!” said Raef.
Irah was harder to convince to hide the stone this time, but Raef’s mother finally intervened telling her to help her little brother. The next four sun’s journeys Raef and Chaz met in front of Raef’s home each sunset to play treasure hunt until one of them was called home. By the fifth sunrise they both had grown tired of the game. They sat on a log alongside the road in front of Raef’s home, kicking at the dirt.
“You wanna come over to my house?” asked Chaz.
“Sure!” said Raef. He had never been inside a Warrior’s home, “I will tell Mother.”
They walked down the dirt road and turned south at the first corner. This was the Warriors sector, a part of the village Raef had never been to. The buildings were similar, clay covered sticks over a timber frame and a thatched roof, but many were longer than homes in Raef’s sector. Chaz turned off the path at one very long house and Raef followed him inside.
Raef entered a room with a fire in the center and a long table, but he did not see any beds or privacy curtains. Instead, there were doorways hung with curtains on two walls. A man was sitting on a bench at the table, unwrapping the lacing of his calf-high boots. Raef knew it was Rodon, Chaz’s father. Rodon was shorter than Folor, but was all covered in muscle. His face was lined and worn and had a faint scar on one cheek.
“This is my friend, Raef,” said Chaz to his father.
“Ho, young Raef!” said Rodon rather loudly.
Raef giggled. Adults did not normally speak this way.
“Ho…I mean pleasant sunrise, sir,” said Raef.
Rodon smiled slightly, then removed his boots.
“My father is the Prime Warrior, the leader of all the Warriors!” Chaz said.
Rodon got up and wrapped an arm around Chaz’s head and rubbed his hair briskly with his fist.
“Maybe I’m just the leader of fools,” Rodon said, “Raef’s father isn’t likely to get killed at work. I am not so sure he isn’t the wiser one.”
“No one could kill you!” said Chaz.
Rodon smiled and turned away to work on an arrow of some kind.
Raef followed Chaz through one of the doorways. On the other side of a curtain was a smaller room with a straw bed on the floor.
“This is where I sleep,” said Chaz.
Raef was immediately taken in by what he saw. Wooden swords hung crossed on the wall along with small spears and arrows with real stone tips. Collections of arrowheads lined little shelves and nets hung from the ceiling. Raef had never been that interested in weapons but he couldn’t help but admire the room.
“My mother would never let me have all this stuff,” said Raef.
“All Warriors have weapons,” said Chaz.
“Even the younglings?”
Raef wished he could be like Chaz. On an impulse he could not explain, Raef untied the small bag at his side and took out his clear stone.
“Here,” said Raef, handing his treasured stone to Chaz.
“You can have it,”
Chaz looked surprised. He looked at the stone, then at Raef.
“Why are you giving it to me? It’s your favorite.”
Raef wasn’t sure. “I just want you to have it.”
“Wow,” said Chaz, gently picking the stone from Raef’s hand, “Thanks.”
But the friendship did not continue for long. Only a few sun’s journeys later Keever and Liet found them when Chaz and Raef were playing ball after last meal. Chaz was happy to see them and invited them to play. It was Raef’s ball, and he was not sure he wanted to share it with those two.
“This is dull,” said Keever, “I know a better place we can go!”
Before anyone could respond Keever was off and running. Liet and Chaz followed immediately. Raef wasn’t sure he wanted follow, but he did. As he ran to catch up he wondered if he would be punished for not telling his father where he was going. It was getting late, after all. Keever led them to the space behind a small hut near the Training Lodge. Raef didn’t know whose home it was, but he knew it wasn’t any of theirs.
“Look,” said Keever, “there’s an apple tree with rotten apples on the ground. We can have an apple war!”
The others laughed and began to pick old apples off the ground.
“Wait, whose hut is this?” asked Raef, “are you sure we can play here?”
“They won’t care,” Keever said.
“But, how do you know?” asked Raef.
Chaz tossed an apple at Liet. It hit him on the side and sprayed mush everywhere. Liet laughed loudly and tossed one back at Chaz.
“Are you sure we can be here?” asked Raef.
“Stop crying,” said Liet, tossing an apple at Raef, but missing.
“I am not crying!”
The three Warrior sons began throwing apples at each other one after another. Raef finally picked up an apple. One side was pretty soft, but the other was still hard. He turned his head sharply as he heard an apple hit someone with a sharp smack. Chaz flinched, a hand going to his side where he had been hit, but he smiled and threw one back at Liet. Raef stepped back a little; it looked like that one had hurt. When Chaz came near Raef threw his apple lightly at him. Chaz dodged it easily. Liet turned to Raef, and threw one right at him. Raef turned away but felt a sharp pain as a hard apple hit him square in the back.
“Ow!” said Raef, “that one wasn’t rotten!”
“They are all rotten, you snork,” said Keever.
Raef threw another one at Chaz, but he missed again.
“You can’t throw at all!” laughed Liet.
Suddenly both Liet and Keever started pelting Raef with apples. Many of them were still hard and stung badly.
“Stop it!” said Raef.
“Stop what?” said Liet, “this is a war, dragon-breath.”
“Come on, Raef,” said Chaz, “we’re just having fun.”
But Raef didn’t think it was fun at all. The others didn’t seem to ever get hurt, but Raef did. In anger he picked up three apples and began throwing them at Keever. They all missed. While he was attacking Keever, Raef felt a hard smack on the side of his head that made his ear ring. His cheek throbbed in pain. But he didn’t cry this time. He was mad, especially at Chaz who was supposed to be his friend. Raef dropped his last apple and turned and walked away. None of the others came after him. No one even said anything to him as he left, not even to call him names. Not even Chaz. Raef walked home in silence and went immediately to his bed. His sister was already in bed and his father was just closing the privacy curtain to his parents’ bed. No one even said “good night.” Raef lay on his bed without even bothering to change into his night robe. That’s when he finally let himself cry. It was a very bad sun’s journey, a path Raef did not want to retrace.
The next sunrise Raef did not try to find Chaz on the way to lessons. During lessons he noticed how Chaz, Keever and Liet laughed with each other and never looked over at him. Chaz went off with Keever and Liet after lessons. He didn’t even ask Raef if he wanted to come. Raef lingered around the Training Lodge after lessons, since he had nothing else to do. The sound of younglings laughing and playing grew louder as the older ones arrived for their lessons. Raef approached one of them, a couple seasons older, who was standing alone.
“I am Raef,”
The older younglings looked down at Raef.
“Shouldn’t you be going home with your friends? Lessons for little ones are over.”
“I know,” said Raef, looking at his feet, “but no one wants to play with me.”
“Well, I don’t play with little ones like you.”
A couple of others approached as Raef began to leave.
“What’s with the little one?” asked one of them with a smirk.
The first youngling said, “Nothing, he’s nothing,” and the older ones walked towards the lodge.
Raef turned away and walked slowly down the road to home. Then he stopped. He felt tears begin to come, but he didn’t want to be seen crying out here. He turned towards the nearby woods and walked swiftly into the trees. Back at the Training Lodge he heard the older younglings laughing. He began to run. He did not know this part of the forest, but he didn’t care. He ran as fast as he could into the woods. When he felt tears on his cheeks he slowed to wipe them away. He was breathing hard, so he slowed to a stop to catch his breath.
He looked around and realized he had no idea where he was or which way was back to the village. As he looked through the dense trees he noticed someone sitting a ways off on a log that lay under a tree. He had not expected to see anyone out here. It was too small for an adult, and he or she was bent over and looking at something in their hand. Raef slowly crept closer to get a better look. As Raef approached, he realized it was DeAlsím, the same greenling he’d seen with the dragon a few cycles past. DeAlsím did not seem to notice him as he looked at whatever he held in his hand. Raef paused a minute, trying to decide if it was safe, and then walked up to the young greenling.
DeAlsím jumped up and shoved what he’d held in his hand under his tunic. DeAlsím had a guilty look on his face at first, but after he saw Raef he smiled.
“Ho, Raef,” said DeAlsím.
DeAlsím sat back down on the log and leaned against the tree behind him. Raef sat on the log next to DeAlsím.
“What ya doing?” Raef asked.
“No, I mean, what are you doing?”
“Like I said, just breathing.”
“But you have to be at least thinking or something.”
The older greenling just shrugged.
“Don’t you have lessons now?” Raef asked.
“Lessons? I’m a greenling. I’m done with lessons. I’ll be an apprentice soon.”
DeAlsím is very calm and sure, Raef thought. Raef wished he could feel like that. Raef watched the greenling stretch lazily, arching his back. When DeAlsím showed no sign of doing anything else, Raef scooted a little closer so he could lean back against the tree as well. It was a little crowded, but DeAlsím did not complain. There was a long silence. Raef half expected DeAlsím would ask him to leave. After a few moments of silence, Raef dared to say what was on his mind.
“I saw you with the dragon,” whispered Raef.
Raef’s felt his eyes grow wide at the memory. DeAlsím just grinned.
“I know,” said DeAlsím.
“You know? How did you know?”
“It told me.”
“It? What do you mean, ‘it?’”
“The dragon talked to you?”
”Yes,” said DeAlsím, sitting up taller.
“The dragon can talk?”
“Of course, but it only talks to very special villagers.”
“It won’t eat you?”
“No, no,” laughed DeAlsím, “it doesn’t eat anyone, especially smaller ones like you or me. The dragon scares villagers sometimes, you know, for fun, but it never eats us.”
“Well, I guess it might hurt someone, if they tried to hurt it first. The dragon is very powerful, you know.”
“But what about villagers who go missing?”
“That isn’t the dragon. The dragon doesn’t eat villagers. The dragon is nice.”
Raef sat and blinked. DeAlsím leaned down so his mouth was close to Raef’s ear.
“And its name is Rail.”
“The dragon has a name?”
“Sh! Only its friends can know its name. Rail said I could tell you.”
“How does it know about me?”
“Rail saw you hiding in the ferns.”
Raef sat, dumbfounded. A mischievous grin grew on DeAlsím’s face.
“You want to see something amazing?” asked DeAlsím.
Raef nodded. DeAlsím reached under his tunic and pulled out a long dark strand. At first, Raef thought it was a very thin snake or a really long worm, but it was not alive.
“Here, feel it,” said DeAlsím.
DeAlsím handed it to Raef. It was as big around as his finger at one end and tapered to a fine point at the other. It was longer than Raef’s arm and very flexible. It had a polished feeling.
“What is it?”
“A dragon hair.”
Raef held it up to admire it. It was dark like night at first but when the sun hit is just right it glowed deep golden and looked almost transparent. It glistened a little in the sun too. It seemed magical, somehow.
“You were right,” said Raef, “it is amazing!”
“Sometimes they fall off the dragon.”
“Just like my hair does.”
“When another one falls off, you can have it.”
“Of course, you. Rail likes you.”
“How does Rail know me?”
“I think Rail watches us. It seems to know a lot about all the villagers.”
“But I thought the dragon stayed out in the mountains.”
“It does, but not just any mountain. Rail lives on Black Rock, the big dark one in the east, but it comes near the village nearly every sunrise and watches us.”
Raef wasn’t sure what he thought about that. It felt a little scary, but it was nice to be noticed by something as powerful as a dragon, even if it was supposed to be bad.
“Raef, you should come to Rail’s secret place with me sometime.”
“I … I don’t know.”
“Oh, I forgot, your a Keeper’s son.”
Raef straightened up at the remark.
“I can do what I want. I don’t have to do just what my father says.”
“Good. I’ll take you soon. Rail wants to meet you.”
DeAlsím slowly stood and stretched. Raef knew DeAlsím had only twelve or thirteen seasons, just barely a greenling, but he seemed very tall next to him.
“Well, I need to get back to the Merchant sector,” said DeAlsím with a groan, “one of the butchers wants to meet with me about maybe being his apprentice.”
“I probably should go home,” said Raef, standing as well. “Father will be angry if I am late for mid sun meal.”
Raef gave the dragon hair back to DeAlsím, and they started off toward the village together. DeAlsím put a hand on Raef’s shoulder as they walked. Raef liked that. When they cleared the forest they parted ways. DeAlsím waved. Raef smiled and then turned for home. He felt scared but happy. He was afraid of the dragon. But he really liked DeAlsím, and it seemed like maybe DeAlsím liked him. Maybe Raef would not be too afraid to meet the dragon after all. Chaz, Keever and Liet would probably be too afraid to see the dragon for real, even though they like to pretend to fight it. Raef began to walk a little faster. He felt himself smile a little as he reached the road that lead to his home.
When Raef did get home, mid sun meal was on the table. The whole family was home. Everyone seemed to be happy. Raef went to the washbasin and washed his face, hands and arms, even though they didn’t look dirty to him. He took his seat next to his older sister at the table and drew his knife out of its scabbard. The others had already begun to eat, but Folor did not scold Raef for arriving late this time. Folor was in the middle of telling a story about the other Keepers that was apparently funny, but Raef could not understand why. Raef cut off a piece of meat and put it on the hard bread in front of him, then took a drink from the wooden mug he and his sister shared at meals. It was weak beer, the kind for younglings to drink.
“Father,” Raef asked, “does the dragon have a name?”
Folor looked quickly at Raef’s mother before answering.
“Why do you ask, Raef?”
“Well, everyone else does. Even Zul has a name, and he’s a spirit. I just thought maybe the dragon did too.”
Folor looked at Raef with an expression he could not read.
“No one ever speaks the dragon’s name,” said Folor.
“Does anybody know it?”
“Why would you want to know such an awful thing?” asked Irah.
“He’s just curious,” said his mother, “that’s normal.”
“The Keepers know the dragon’s name,” said Folor, “but no one says it. It is evil.”
“The dragon is very bad,” said Folor, “if we all called it by name, we might lose our fear of it. We must never do that.”
Raef did not understand, but he stopped asking questions. He wanted to ask if his father had ever seen the dragon, but he was afraid to ask. It didn’t matter; Raef had seen the dragon himself. Bedsides, if he had questions about the dragon, now he knew someone who had the answers. DeAlsím would tell him.
Erif finished his letter to Tama. The knowledge he would see her again made this long wait bearable. He closed his eyes for a moment and saw her smile and her golden hair. He smiled and shed a single tear.
The boat would arrive sunrise next, as it did once every moon cycle. The guardian would verify that Erif was still alive. Perhaps this time he wouldn’t look so disappointed to find Erif healthy. The guardian would then hand over some bread, dried vegetables and perhaps some ointments in case Erif was injured. The Provincial Overseers were apparently at least pretending they wanted Erif to survive during his exile on this island. Erif was on his own for the rest of his needs.
But most valuable of all, the guardian would deliver Tama’s latest letters. These would inspire Erif to keep hope alive one more moon cycle. Erif hoped his letters would do the same for Tama.
“She does love you sincerely,” said a deep voice.
Erif jumped at the sound.
“Zul, do you always have to sneak up on me like that?”
“I did not sneak,” said Zul, “spirits are merely quiet by nature.”
Erif laughed and folded his letter. He put his seal on the letter and placed it in a wooden box he had made. He sat back and looked up at Zul, who now stood over him. The spirit’s tattered robe fluttered in the light breeze.
“Tama and I have been apart a long time, Zul. And there are more seasons to go. Will our love hold out all this time?”
Zul put a hand on Erif’s shoulder.
“This is one area I do intervene in,” Zul said. “I do all I can to keep the love between you and Tama strong.”
“You can do that?”
“In your cases, it is not much work. Few people have such passion for each other as you and Tama.”
Erif smiled at the thought. He reached for a long, leather-wrapped object and unwrapped it. He held a gleaming sword up to Zul. It was two thirds as long as a man was tall. Its two edges had been ground over and over until razor sharp.
“You have done well,” said Zul, “after all your practice it is still sharp.”
Erif stood up and smiled. He began to walk towards the beach, where he had been practicing recently. The spirit did not follow.
“You are to train in the rocks up on the hill,” Zul said.
Erif paused and looked back at Zul.
“Why?” asked Erif, “That is such a long walk.”
“Rail does not live on a beach,” said Zul.
“Ah,” said Erif, understanding.
“You need to get used to the unstable footing of rocky terrain.”
“A challenge,” said Erif, “sounds fun.”
Zul smiled back.
Erif began up the trail that led to the hills. Zul followed at his side.
“Do you have any idea how much you’ve changed?” Zul asked.
Erif blushed a little, and then picked up his pace.
Raef sat outside his house after mid sun meal, trying to sharpen the family carving knife against a stone he had found. He would soon celebrate his seventh season and he wanted to impress his father. He had been working a long time without much result. Folor came out to see what he was doing.
“I’m sharpening the knife, Father!” Raef said.
“Well, you won’t get far with that rock, son. Here, I’ll use the whet stone on it. That will make short work of it.”
Folor took the knife from Raef and walked into the house.
“Can I help?” Raef asked, starting to follow.
“It will be faster if I do it.”
Folor disappeared into the house. Raef slumped to the ground outside the door.
“Ho, Raef!” someone called.
Raef looked up to see DeAlsím walking along the road toward Raef’s hut. Raef stood and walked to the road to meet DeAlsím. Raef’s mother stepped out of the house.
“DeAlsím,” said Malta, “what a surprise! What brings you here?”
“My master released me after mid sun meal, so I came to visit Raef.”
“Well, that is very thoughtful of you, DeAlsím,” Malta said, “Raef has had a hard time with friends lately.”
His mother smiled down at him.
“Raef, go along with DeAlsím. Irah and I are off to distribute alms. We may also stop by the Healing Lodge. I hear Prime Keeper Bremen is ill.”
Irah emerged from the house with her alms basket and started down the road with Raef’s mother. DeAlsím waited until they were out of sight then motioned Raef to follow. DeAlsím led them out behind the house and into the forest. The sound of a whet stone scraping against an iron blade came from the house where Folor was working. Raef followed DeAlsím silently into the trees. He was pretty sure he knew where DeAlsím was taking him. Raef felt his stomach flutter, but he did not turn back. DeAlsím seemed very excited, though he said nothing.
DeAlsím walked straight for the deep forest. Before long they passed the large tree marking the old boundary of Raef’s roaming range. DeAlsím seemed to know the area well, and they soon came upon the overgrown path that led down into the ravine. Raef felt his stomach quiver more forcefully as they followed the faint path downward. The air felt cool and damp on his face. Once they were on the ravine floor DeAlsím rushed ahead and burst into the hidden clearing. Raef followed but entered the clearing more cautiously. The dragon was there, sitting up and blocking much of the sunlight. DeAlsím walked right up to the dragon’s chest, then turned to face Raef. The dragon’s head loomed over the greenling.
“Raef, meet Rail!”
Raef stood nervously, keeping to the opposite edge of the clearing. Rail was enormous. Its mouth could easily engulf an adult whole. The dragon lowered its immense head to the ground, its sickly pink mouth drooping open to expose its fangs.
“Can it really talk?” Raef asked DeAlsím.
“Of course, brave one,” said Rail.
The dragon’s voiced was impossibly deep, vibrating the air itself, though it was speaking quietly. Raef felt a shiver go up his spine.
“But I only speak to those who are worthy,” the resonating voice continued.
Raef shivered. DeAlsím stepped back to Rail and reached a hand up on the side of the dragon’s neck.
“Come over and touch it,” said DeAlsím.
Raef’s stomach sank. Rail seemed really ugly to him. Its sides looked oily, even slimy. Those long dragon hairs hanging down in its eyes and all down its neck and spine were scary, not comforting. And its open mouth drooled and looked kind of rotten inside. But DeAlsím was running a hand over the scales and smiling. Reluctantly, Raef walked slowly across the grassy clearing, staying clear of Rail’s great mouth and walking up to its side. Up close, the scales were more frightening. Each scale was a great, platter-sized thing that heaved with the dragon’s breathing. DeAlsím walked over to Raef, took his wrist and pressed Raef’s hand onto a scale. To Raef’s surprise, it was not wet or oily at all. It was cool and very smooth, nearly like glass. The light reflecting off the polished surface only made it look wet and oily. Raef smiled weakly in relief. But he was still frightened to be so close, actually touching the dragon. The dragon curled its neck so that its head came nearer.
“See,” Rail said, “I will not hurt you at all.”
Raef wrinkled his nose. Rail’s breath was foul. It had a rotten-sweet smell to it. DeAlsím smiled and seemed not to notice.
DeAlsím let go of Raef’s wrist and ran to the center of the clearing, stopped, then ran up to one of the dragon’s claws. The dragon began to lift the huge claw, but DeAlsím ran away, laughing. He did this over and over, getting close, but not touching the dragon. Rail occasionally extended a claw towards DeAlsím, but never quite touched him. Raef found it a little strange that DeAlsím, who was a greenling, was playing a game that Raef thought was for smaller ones than even he. Raef stood next to Rail’s side and watched DeAlsím and the talons.
Raef sensed something over him so he looked up to find the dragon’s great head bent over him. Its eyes were fixed on Raef. Raef felt his stomach grow cold but slowly relaxed as he studied the beast’s face. In those green, catlike eyes, Raef did not see malice. There was no mocking, or anger in its gaze. This great beast that could crush any full grown man looked down on Raef and…it seemed to smile, if dragons can smile.
Raef’s fear subsided a little. He could still hear DeAlsím laughing and playing silly games, but the dragon only looked at Raef. Raef slowly reached out his hand toward one of Rail’s dark scales. His hand looked so small next to the glimmering plate. Raef carefully placed his palm against it. The dragon quivered at his touch. Raef held his palm against the scale and looked up. The dragon seemed to smile down on him. Raef smiled too.
Tired of standing, Raef removed his hand and sat on the grass next to Rail. He felt the dragon move so its side pressed gently against Raef’s back. DeAlsím finally collapsed in the grass. Rail moved its long neck over the greenling and bent over to nuzzle DeAlsím’s head with its huge snout. DeAlsím smiled up at the beast. Then Rail slowly curled its neck back over Raef, lowering its head down over him. Raef tensed, but kept still. He felt warm breath wash over him and then something touched his head. Rails snout was very soft, not like its hard scales. When the dragon sniffed, Raef’s hair was pulled up against the dragon’s snout. The dragon’s breath didn’t seem quite so bad now, Raef was more used to it. Raef looked up and smiled at Rail as it continued to nuzzle his head.
Erif slapped the water with his sword. The ripples drove the image of the youngling and dragon away.
“You see!” Erif said, “it is too late for him now!”
“Not if he doesn’t want it to be,” said Zul.
“That is a lie!”
Erif stood up and paced back and forth, swatting the air with the long sword.
“I hate coming up here and watching this,” Erif said. “Why do you make me do it?”
“To remind you why you are training. To give you reason to survive out here.”
“Tama is the only reason I need to endure this place.”
“You know very well what I mean,” said Zul. “This has to be personal.”
Erif stopped pacing, poked the tip of his sword into the sand and leaned on it. He was tired from his training. Why did Zul have to wait until he had so little strength left to show him these depressing visions?
“Are you ready to see more?” Zul asked.
There was no response from Zul. When Erif looked up, the spirit was gone. Erif exhaled slowly, then looked back at the water. The image was gone, but Erif knew Raef was still there. And the dragon had the youngling right where it wanted him.
PART II – SECRETS
Raef bounded into the house, but came up short at the feet of his father, who was standing rather imposingly just inside the door.
“What is this?” Folor asked, holding a bench up by one leg. One of the four legs was wrapped with twine.
“It’s the broken bench, I mended it, like you asked.”
“This is your idea of mending a bench?”
Folor gave the bound leg a sharp twist and the twine broke allowing the broken leg to fall to the ground. Raef felt the color drain from his face.
“If anyone had sat on this, it would have broken, and they would have been hurt.” Folor said, “You needed to cut a new leg, not tie the broken one together!”
Raef’s eyes teared up, “You just said to mend it; I didn’t know you wanted me to replace the leg.”
Folor threw the broken bench across the room, and it crashed against the wall.
“Raef, you have ten seasons now; I shouldn’t have to explain everything to you. I meant ‘mend the bench,’ not ‘mend the leg.’ Is that not obvious?”
Raef looked at the ground.
“And where were you, anyway? You should have been home long before now.”
“Outside, playing with Domik.”
Domik was a youngling his age whose family had moved to the village earlier in the season. They were Intercessors like Raef’s family, but Domik’s father was a kitchener, preparing food for the poor and for some ceremonies.
“Playing!” Folor exploded, “You good for nothing welcher,” Folor slapped his hand on the meal table. “I give you one small task, and you do it as poorly as possible so you can run off and play.”
“No, Father! I … I didn’t know how to mend it.”
Folor seemed not to hear, “When I had your seasons I worked all sun’s journey long after lessons in the herb garden and then again each late sun assisting the scribes for extra money to help our family!”
Raef stood in front if his father, silently crying.
“Get out there and find a proper branch for a leg. Cut it to length, carve it into shape, then pound it into the socket. Is that clear enough!”
Folor tossed the two broken pieces of the bench leg to Raef.
“Gone with you!”
Raef dashed out of the house and down the road until he was out of sight of his home. He slowed and realized he was crying aloud, so he tried to stop. Younglings of ten seasons were not to cry out loud, especially the males. He wiped his face with a sleeve and walked to the Intercessor stable. The Intercessors, like each of the other classes, oversaw a small complex of buildings used in their work. The Ceremonial Lodge was, of course, the largest but that was only for observances. The Keep was where the Keepers, scribes and their assistants worked, and it was next to the Ceremonial Lodge. Next to the Keep was the kitchen, apothecary and pantry together in one structure, then the dormery where male apprentices lived, and finally the stables. The Healing and Training Lodges were down the road near the village square. The stable, in addition to holding the Intercessors’ horses and carts, was where the common tools were kept. Any Intercessor family could ask to use the tools, but as the son of a Keeper, Raef would not need to ask to borrow them.
Raef entered the back door of the stable, hoping no one would see him because they might notice that he had been crying. He smelled the sharp scent of animal dung as he entered. He found a whittling knife and a small saw and took them from the bench where the tools were kept. He snuck out the back door again before anyone saw him. Raef cut between houses rather than use the roads until he was in the forest, still trying to avoid being seen.
Once under the cover of trees he started to cry again, even though he did not want to. He could not stop crying this time. At least no one would see him here. He took his time finding a suitable branch to make the leg; he was in no hurry to go back home. Still crying as he worked, he cut the branch with the saw and did the whittling in the forest too, using the broken leg as a template. It would have been easier in the stable where there was a workbench, but he would rather be alone.
He didn’t know why his father was angry with him so often. Raef was fairly sure other younglings his age were not expected to do as much as he was. Certainly Domik was expected to do very little besides attending daily lessons. It wasn’t Raef’s fault his father grew up in a time of hardship where he had to work even as a youngling. Raef tried to concentrate on whittling, being sure to leave the top end a little wider than the original so it would stick in its socket.
When the leg looked as close to the original as he could make it, Raef left the forest, returned the tools to the stable, picked up a wooden mallet, and went home. He sighed relief when he saw Folor was not in the house. The bench was still laying against the far wall where his father had thrown it. Raef dragged it back to the table. Raef did the best he could fitting the new leg to the bench, then pounded it in with the mallet. He was careful not to hit so hard that it split the new log or the bench. Raef looked the bench over. He saw nothing wrong with it but was still afraid it would not meet his father’s approval. He didn’t have to wait long to find out. Folor came in to inspect his work just as he finished.
“This is fine,” Folor said, upon inspecting the bench, “but I want you to remember not to leave a job half done, only to go play. Come out back.”
Raef began to cry quietly again as he followed his father outside and behind the house. Behind the house there was a privy and a low shed where the firewood was allowed to dry. The wood shed was also where Folor kept a leather strap for punishment. Raef loved to sit and whittle bits of wood here, but he had many memories of humiliating whippings as well. This would be one more to add to them. He took his beating then ran to the stable to return the mallet. Raef tossed the mallet on the bench, not pausing to put it away properly, then ran straight for the woods.
Once behind the cover of trees he went to the deepest part of the woods he knew, his hidden place in the ravine. He was glad to see that Rail was there, waiting. Raef ran to Rail and buried his face in the great dragon’s neck. As he cried he felt a talon gently encircle him.
“It’s okay now, Raef,” the dragon said, “I am here for you. I will always be here for you.”
Raef looked up at Rail through tears.
“How can you always be here? You live in the mountains.”
“I can see your village from the sky. I come here any time I see you walking down the path to our secret place.”
Raef pressed a check to the soft underside of the dragon’s neck. He remembered being afraid of Rail when he was younger. That was seasons ago. Rail was his friend. Raef had visited Rail with DeAlsím many times, but DeAlsím had gone missing a season past. The rumors were that he ran away to Moss Rock to find easier work as he was a lazy greenling. Raef missed him. Chaz and the other Warriors almost never spoke to Raef anymore, and he was still getting to know his new friend, Domik. It was a lonely time, but Rail had been here for him. Raef felt the dragon nuzzle him, and he smiled.
“What shall we play,” the great dragon asked.
“Can I climb on your tail?” said Raef.
The dragon rolled its eyes, “You only want to climb on my tail?”
Raef grinned wide, “Not just climb. You know!”
Raef ran to the end of the dragon’s tail. Rail arched its tail so that the middle of it was high in the air. Raef giggled and began to climb, holding on to the hairy main. Raef reached the highest point then lay down and wrapped himself tightly around it.
“Okay, I’m ready!”
“Ready for what?” the dragon asked.
“Move your tail!”
Rail slowly lifted its long tail and began to move it up and down slowly.
“No, faster!” cried Raef.
The dragon complied and began to move its tail up and down fast enough to make Raef’s hair fly in the breeze.
“Go in circles!” Raef yelled.
The dragon began to spin its tail in circles and Raef laughed with glee. This was much more fun than the childish games DeAlsím used to play with Rail.
“Wait, let me get off a moment,” Raef said.
The dragon slowed its tail and set it on the ground. Raef slid off and walked to the end of Rail’s tail, near the very tip. Raef paused a moment, feeling his stomach flutter nervously. Then he wrapped himself around the tip of the tail, so his feet were right at the end.
“Okay,” Raef said, “do it now!”
Raef felt himself zoom into the air, much higher than before. He had to keep his eyes closed or it would be too frightening. He could hardly breath he was moving so fast. He hung on with all the strength he had, afraid he might suddenly fly off.
“This is really high!”
“You aren’t even looking,” the dragon said calmly, “come, open your eyes.”
Raef opened one eye and saw he was far above the ground, very far above it. He let out a squeak and closed it again. Raef felt himself falling down, then swooping back up again. This end of Rail’s tail moved much faster than the middle. Finally, after two more swings on the dragon’s tail, Raef opened both eyes and dared to look. The trees seemed to rush by in a blur as he was flung up and down. His whole body tingled.
“Okay, Rail, let me down a moment.”
The dragon slowed its huge tail and slowly lowered Raef to the ground. Raef let go and rolled off onto the ground, lying on his back. He was still panting fast.
“That was really great!”
Rail curled its long neck around to face the youngling. It stuck out a long tongue and licked the top of Raef’s head.
“Stop it!” Raef said with a giggle.
“Are you done?” the dragon asked.
Raef stood up slowly and took a deep breath. Then he eyed Rail with a mischievous grin.
“Let’s do it again, but make me go in circles this time!”
When Raef finally walked out of the forest, it was nearly dark. He realized he had lost track of time while playing with Rail. He was suddenly worried about getting in trouble, especially after being whipped once already. Raef began to walk quickly down the path to home. He began to feel guilt settle over him from visiting Rail again. The dragon, that is. He felt guilty now even thinking its name. None of his friends visited the dragon, at least that he knew of. Chaz and his Warrior friends seemed to truly hate the dragon. Raef could only imagine what they would say to him if they ever discovered that he played with the dragon. And his father! Folor only spoke of the dragon as pure evil, how could Raef keep returning to something that was evil? Raef had not dared tell Domik, his newest friend, about the dragon. Domik and his family were Intercessors, dedicated to spiritual matters of the village. Certainly Domik would never purposefully visit a dragon.
Raef walked faster until he emerged from the trees behind his home. He tried to sneak in the door, but his mother saw him as she was setting the table for last meal.
“Raef, get washed up,” she said, “its time for last meal.”
The privacy curtain around his parents’ bed opened, and Raef saw Folor emerge from behind it, wearing his regular clothes now rather than his red Keeper robe.
“Ready to eat?” Folor asked.
“Yes, sir,” said Raef.
He walked quickly across the room to the washbasin to clean up. He was relieved that neither of his parents seemed to have noticed how long he’d been gone, but he still had a tight feeling in his stomach. After washing he came to the table, taking his place by his sister on the newly repaired bench, and pulled his eating knife from his sash. His sister passed their mug and he took a drink. The others began an animated conversation about something that was going on in the village. Raef cut a piece of meat and took a spoon full of pottage from the serving pot to put on his trencher. Raef didn’t bother listening to find out what his family was so excited about. He had a hard time looking any of them in the eye.
After last meal his sister Irah washed the pot and wooden serving plank while Raef took the used trenchers outside. Now that he was older it was his job to take these stale pieces of bread to give to the poor for food. The used trenchers were soaked in meat and vegetable juice, which was better food for the poor than just hard, stale bread. It was dark, but the light from the windows of nearby houses lit the road well enough to see. Raef walked past the Ceremonial Lodge then on to the Common Hall. This is where some of the poorer Laborers and orphans begged for food during late sun. A group of small younglings approached him, and he tossed the used trenchers to them. They snatched them up and ran off together, gnawing on the hard bread as they went. Raef thought it a bit rude of them not even to say, “Thank you.” He turned back toward home but took his time walking.
When it was time for bed and his parents and sister were behind their privacy curtains, Raef changed into his night robe and lay on his bed on the floor. Memories of Folor yelling at him and spinning on the dragon’s tail swirled together in his mind in a confusing fog. It was hard to fall asleep. When he did, he did not sleep well, waking twice with nightmares. He woke the next sunrise with his upper body hanging off of the bed onto the floor and his covers all twisted up around him.
Erif returned to camp from the pool in the hills. The vision had stopped for a moment, but he knew he may not have much time before it began again. He tossed open a wooden supply box, digging into it’s depths.
“Aha!” he said, “I knew you were in here.”
Erif pulled a cylindrical object from the box and untied the strings around each end. He gingerly unwrapped it; a long piece of parchment, one of the blanks he had for writing to Tama. Usually he cut off a small piece to make a letter from, but this time he curled it back up, snatched up a quill and inkwell, and ran back to the path that led into the hills.
“I’ve got to write this down. The villages need to understand this.”
Erif hurried back to the small pool of water. He new more visions were coming.
Raef untangled himself from his blankets and started to get ready for another sun. He still felt a little bad about the last sun, visiting the dragon and all, but he put that out of his mind and decided to try harder to be good. He was relieved to find his father was in fairly good spirits during first meal. After eating he ran outside to play until it was time for lessons. He used a stick to swat at a ball, trying to make it go down the road without falling into the ruts. His father came out of the house shortly after, dressed in his red robe, off to the Ceremonial Lodge to bless the village workers who stopped by each sunrise for homage. Raef was glad he was not yet a greenling, who were required to attend the sunrise ritual with the adults. Soon his new friend Domik came to meet him, and they walked towards the meadow. Domik had ten seasons, just like Raef, but he was quite a bit shorter and had straw colored hair.
“So, what did you do sunrise past, after you left?” Domik asked.
“Nothing,” Raef said, starting to feel guilty again about the dragon.
“Sounds terribly exciting.”
“I got in trouble for not fixing a bench properly. Father was really angry.”
Domik looked a little embarrassed, as if he didn’t know what to say.
“Well, what do you want to do? After lessons, I mean,” said Domik.
“I dunno, I probably need to check at home first, you know, so I don’t get in trouble again.”
Raef and Domik lay out in the meadow all sunrise, just talking, until it was time for lessons. They walked to the Training Lodge together and arrived just as the smaller younglings were being released from lessons. Raef liked having a longer sunrise to play now that he had more seasons, but now he had to return home immediately after lessons for mid sun meal. They approached the Training Lodge just as the younger students were leaving.
“Ho, Raef! Ho, Domik!” said a youngling of five seasons.
“Ho, Nilo,” said Raef, with as little enthusiasm as possible.
Raef hurried past Nilo, hoping the youngling would continue home. Nilo was the son of the family that lived next to Raef.
“Wait, Raef!” said the smaller youngling, turning to follow Raef and Domik. “Will you be home after lessons?”
Raef let out a loud sigh, “I probably have to work after lessons.”
“I could help!”
Domik looked at Raef and laughed.
“Goodbye, Nilo,” said Raef.
“See you later!” said Nilo.
“I see you have a new friend,” said Domik.
“He’s been like that ever since he started going to lessons this season,” said Raef, “I wish he would find someone his own size to bother.”
Raef entered the lodge and sat next to Domik. Chaz, Keever and Liet sat on the other side of the room. There were no females, of course; they did not attend lessons but stayed home to help their mothers. The Training Lodge, run by the Intercessor class, was the only place younglings of different classes mixed. Once they were greenlings they would become apprentices in their own sector and see even less of each other. But here youngling Intercessors, Merchants and Warriors sat side by side. Labor younglings were out in the fields with their parents as they had no need for lessons.
Domik and Raef stood out as Intercessors with their hair hanging below their shoulders. The Merchant younglings’ hair brushed the tops of their shoulders, as would the Labor younglings, had they been present. The Warriors’ hair was cut very short, even shorter now that they were old enough to go along on hunts with their fathers, and they wore necklaces of animal teeth and claws, showing off their skills. While the rest of the village males wore wool trousers and linen shirts, Warriors wore deerskin leggings and often no shirts at all during warm months. In battle, of course, the adults wore thick leather and sometimes metal armor chest pieces.
The Warriors in the room looked over at Raef and Domik with condescending glances. Raef tried to ignore them. The instructor, as always, was an Intercessor, who paid more attention to Raef, son of a Keeper, than he would like. It only made the Warrior younglings treat him worse.
Raef and Domik ran to Raef’s home after lessons to see if he could stay out and play just a bit longer. As he approached his home he saw Nilo sitting by his front door. Raef was annoyed to see him. He walked faster and brushed past the smaller youngling and into his house. Domik waited outside. Raef started to ask his mother if he could go out again, but she cut him off.
“Raef, go to the Keep to fetch your father. He’s been gone all sunrise and should come home. It’s time for mid sun meal.”
Raef slumped and turned to go back outside. He told Domik and Nilo, who were still waiting outside the door, that he couldn’t play, and they both turned and left in separate directions. Raef began back down the trail towards the center of the village, turning south at the road to the Ceremonial Lodge. Folor was in the Keep. Raef knew going to the Keep to fetch his father was never a short trip. Folor would want to finish talking with some other Keeper, asking Raef to wait. And wait, and wait some more. Folor talked a lot, sometimes. Raef consoled himself in that he would at least be rid of Nilo for a while.
Raef arrived at the Keep and quietly opened the door. Anyone who was not a Keeper or at least apprentice was really not supposed to enter without invitation, but Raef could because he was a Keeper’s son. The Keep was the most ornate building in the Intercessor sector and was where the Keepers held their internal meetings. Raef pulled open the heavy door and walked into the entry hall. A heavy curtain separated the hall from the Keeper’s meeting room. Raef peeked around the curtain and found his father deep in some discussion with the other Keepers. He was surprised to see so many Keepers all together at once. It looked like every Keeper in the village was there, even Keeper Bremen, the Prime Keeper of Fir Hollow.
“Raef,” said Folor, “wait in the hall for me. We have important business and are not yet finished.”
“But mother said…”
“Wait in the hall for me. I will be done shortly.”
Raef let the curtain shut and sat impatiently on a bench in the entry hall. He knew what “shortly” meant to his father. He hated waiting. He decided to try to listen and see what all the Keepers were going on about. He got up again and put his ear to the curtain so he could hear better.
“The Merchants of Pine Creek are underselling our Merchants.” Prime Keeper Bremen said. “Some of our villagers have been traveling to their markets to buy produce and meat.”
“Fir Hollow Merchants won’t tolerate that,” Keeper Dimmel said, “they are likely to do something foolish sooner or later.”
Dimmel was younger than Folor, but very out spoken.
“To keep our own villagers from purchasing elsewhere, our Merchants have had to lower the price of produce to barely sustainable levels,” said Prime Bremen.
“We’ll have a riot on our hands if we don’t find a way to stop this,” Dimmel responded.
“But isn’t this a matter for the Nobles?” asked Keeper Chaummer, one of the older Keepers. “We oversee spiritual matters, heal the sick, train the younglings, and keep historical records. We do not resolve village disputes.”
“As Intercessors we also strive to keep the peace,” said Prime Bremen, “and if we can find a means to achieve it, the Nobles would want us to do so.”
Raef heard grunts of approval.
“Then that is what we are here to do,” Raef heard his father’s voice say.
Folor always seemed calm and in control.
“Fellow Keepers,” Folor continued, “this is really not surprising considering the weather patterns,” Folor said.
“Weather patterns!” another said, “What in all the Province does that have to do with this?”
“Folor, we are Keepers, not scholars of the sky,” said another voice.
“But I have studied with the Cloudsmen,” said Folor.
Raef wondered what a Cloudsmen was.
“That too?” said Dimmel’s voice, “What haven’t you studied?”
“Dimmel,” Bremen said, “Folor is well schooled. That is why he is here. We are lucky to have him in a small village like Fir Hollow. Let us consider his advice.”
Dimmel made a “furrump” noise. Raef smirked a little. He didn’t like Dimmel. Dimmel was too sure of himself, but had little to contribute. He knew his father would quiet Dimmel. He grew very still to listen.
“This is the second season of heavy rain,” said Folor, “and the season before that was wetter than normal as well. That is why there are so many crops and the prices are so low. But, it is very rare to have more than three seasons in a row with this much rain in this part of the Great Province. There is a high chance that next season will be dry. I have checked the historical records, I’m quite sure of it. We could convince the village Nobles to have the Laborers store their excess grain for next season when supplies will be short. They will fetch a very good price then.”
“But, how will we manage the loss of sales this year?” Dimmel asked. “With the price of produce already so low, selling even less will leave our farmers destitute!”
“If we can convince both villages to store their surplus, the excess will be gone, and prices will go back up to sustain us. If Pine Creek refuses to cooperate, we could send the Fir Hollow Merchants to Salt Marsh. Food is always in more demand there. We could sell enough there to get by this year, let our villagers buy from Pine Creek this year, and profit highly the next with what our Merchants store up. Every village will likely need extra food next year.”
“Salt Marsh is a long journey,” Prime Bremen said, “all the way to the southern coast.”
“Precisely.” said Folor, “That’s why so few travel there to sell. In fact, we could send other Merchants as well. Make a caravan out of it. Have them bring back some ocean fish for Fir Hollow, since we rarely get that here. It could be good for all of us.”
There was a long silence. Raef smiled. He tried to imagine the faces of the other Keepers.
“Very well,” said Prime Bremen, “we have multiple possibilities. They all sound possible, though I know nothing of storing grain or the Merchant world. I’m sure, however, that a meeting with the Nobles and Merchants will show if there is interest.”
Raef heard bench legs sliding across the floor. They were standing up.
“Until tomorrow, brother Keepers,” Prime Keeper Bremen said.
Raef threw open the curtain and bounded up to his father. Folor put a hand up to silence Raef while he said something else to Prime Bremen. Raef bounced impatiently, waiting for his father to be done. Then Folor walked, and Raef followed him outside.
On the way home, Folor explained the nuances of seasonal and long-term weather patterns to Raef. Raef pretended to be interested, but could not follow most of it. As they walked, Raef noticed how others they passed nodded in deference to Folor.
“You studied with Cloud-men?” Raef asked, interrupting Folor mid sentence.
“Cloudsmen,” corrected Folor, “Yes, I did. That was before you were born.”
“Where, here in Fir Hollow?”
Folor stopped, took Raef by the shoulders, and turned him to face northwest.
“See in the distance, where the land is much higher than here?”
“Yes,” said Raef.
“That is where Summit City and Krellit are.”
“I learned about Summit City in the Training Lodge. That’s where the Province Overseers live.”
“And beyond that is the city of Krellit. That is where the most learned scholars in all the Great Province live. That is where the Cloudsmen live and study the skies.”
“And you went there?”
“Yes, when I was an apprentice.”
“Then why are you a Keeper? Why not be a historian or soothsayer?”
Folor chuckled, “A Cloudsman is not a fortune teller, they predict the weather. Fir Hollow is too small to need someone who only foretells the weather. Besides, I want to be a Keeper. I help oversee all the activities of the Intercessors.”
“And you keep Fir Hollow and Pine Creek from fighting!” Raef said.
Folor smiled at Raef.
“So, you were listening in, were you?”
“I just wanted to hear what it was all about, father.”
“That’s fine, son. Well, I don’t think our Merchants would have started any kind of physical fight. That’s just Dimmel being dramatic,” Folor winked at Raef, “He’s good at that. No, the more important thing is to find a way to all work together instead of competing all the time.”
Raef turned to the south and looked over the mountains in the distance. Three mountain peaks in a neat row, the tallest with a white peak all year, the shortest with a blunted top. The Three Sisters.
“Father, are there cities on the any of the Three Sisters?”
“No, Raef, those mountains are very deep in the forest. No one lives on them or even near them. Besides, who would want to live up in that cold?”
Folor began to walk towards home. Raef glanced east to the dark jagged peaks of Black Rock. That was much farther away than the summit or the Three Sisters. Raef started to ask if anyone lived near Black Rock, but decided against it.
Raef had to walk fast to keep up with his father’s strides. As they neared home, they came upon Domik’s house. Domik was in the road in front of his home kicking a small ball back and forth.
“Father,” Raef asked, “can Domik come over for last meal this sunset?”
“We’ll have to ask Mother, but I’m sure it will be all right. Why don’t the two of you cut some firewood after mid sun meal in preparation?”
“Okay!” said Raef.
Raef ran to tell Domik. Shortly after mid sun meal Raef went to get Domik and to deliver an invitation to his family to eat with them that sunset. Afterward the two younglings ran to Raef’s home and went straight to the shed out back where the firewood was kept. Domik set a log on end while Raef strained to lift the iron axe. It was nearly all he could do lift it over the log and drop it, blade down, on the up-ended log. The blade stuck into the log, but came nowhere near splitting it. Domik laughed. Raef tried to pull the axe up, but it was stuck. Now Raef started to laugh. Between the two of them, they dislodged the axe. Domik took a turn. He was shorter than Raef by quite a bit, but was a little stronger. A crack formed halfway down into the log. They took turns and split three logs before Folor came out to check on them.
“This is hard!” said Raef.
Folor smiled. He was usually nicer when Raef’s friends were over.
“Let me have a swing at one.” Folor said.
Folor swung the axe with one arm, splitting a large log clean in half. Raef smiled in awe. Taking the axe in both hands, Folor deftly split three more logs in no time.
“You two bring these inside,” said Folor, “I must attend to my duties. I will see you both at last meal.”
Raef and Domik kicked a ball through the streets of the Intercessor sector until late sun, then returned to Raef’s home. Domik’s parents were already there. Domik’s father seemed nervous and bowed a lot.
Folor told jokes at last meal, making Raef and Domik laugh. Domik’s parents laughed as well, but Irah and Malta only rolled their eyes at Folor’s antics. After the meal Raef and Domik took the used trenchers to the village square to give to the street younglings. Raef did not mind with Domik along. They returned to find the benches had been pushed against the walls and the adults sitting and visiting as Raef’s mother stoked the central fire for more light. Folor bragged to Domik’s parents about how good Raef was at his lessons and how Raef was such an outdoorsman. Raef winced at his father’s remarks. He was not remarkable at all, certainly not more than Domik.
“Raef is almost never home,” Folor bragged, “he’s always exploring out in the forest. He’s never gotten lost once!”
Raef was embarrassed. What would Father think if he knew what I was doing out in the woods?
Domik’s family stayed until past sunset and then left for their home. Raef waited for his family to go behind their privacy curtains before changing into his night robe. He was tired, but that night Raef found it hard to sleep. When he did sleep, it was to dreams of being chased by Chaz, then by the entire village.
Raef woke the next sunrise in a sweat, all tangled up in his blankets. He dressed and came to the table to eat bread and cheese. He could hear his father outside talking to others. His mother was helping his sister Irah clean and line a basket before heading to the Intercessor kitchen for alms to give to the poor. Raef ducked out of the house silently to go to find Domik.
Raef looked back over his shoulder as he left the house to make sure his mother did not see him leave and nearly ran into a massive black horse that stood in the road. Raef jumped back in panic. The gleaming horse twitched its muscular leg and Raef flinched. He slowly backed away from the animal. Folor came up from behind him and threw a saddle on the horse. Two other men on horseback, one who was Raef’s instructor at the Training Lodge, were waiting in the road.
“Where’d this horse come from?” asked Raef, backing even further away from the beast.
“I borrowed it from the Warrior stable,” replied Folor, “The horses in the Intercessor stable are too slow. Now, I am off to Pine Creek. I won’t be back for a few suns. Mind your mother while I’m gone.”
“Yes, father,” said Raef.
Folor snapped the reins, and the great horse whinnied before leaping ahead. Raef jumped at the sound of the horse and found himself clinging to his own arms as it thundered down the road with his father on its back. The other two horsemen were right behind. Raef watched them disappear down the road in a trail of dust.
Erif stood on the beach and looked at the dark figure in the distance. He had thought his eyes were playing tricks on him at first, but he had moved a little closer and saw that they were not. A good distance down the beach stood a horse. Erif had been on this forsaken island for nearly two seasons and had never seen a horse, or any animal close to the size of a horse, for that matter. All the other animals on the island were either food or enemies to ward off. This one was different. If he could manage to tame it, this could become his new transportation. Then Zul could order him all over the island, and he wouldn’t care.
Erif quickly ran back to camp and gathered all the rope he had laying around. It wasn’t impressive to look at, just stuff he’d fashioned from plant fibers and vines over the cycles, but it was strong. He ran back to the beach and was relieved to see the horse was still there.
Slowly, and as casually as he could, he walked towards the figure down the beach. When he halved the distance between them, the horse moved farther down the beach.
“It’s a stallion,” Erif whispered to himself, “and an impressive one at that.”
Erif continued walking, trying not to speed up, though he was anxious to get the stallion before it ran off. Once again, he halved the distance between them, and once again the animal walked farther down the beach.
Erif began to smile. He knew this beach well. If the stallion kept calm and kept moving down the beach, it would eventually trap itself. The land to Erif’s right was already rising and further down it became a nearly sheer rock cliff three times his own height. At the end of the beach the rock cliff curved out to sea, blocking the way entirely. That only left two ways the horse could escape: the ocean on one side or around Erif on the narrow beach. This would be the closest he could come to cornering the stallion. Not that Erif had ever caught, much less tamed a wild horse, but it was that or remain limited to distances he could walk in a sun’s journey.
Erif was pleased to see that the animal never tried to go inland, but kept walking down the beach. Soon it was too late, as the rock wall was higher than the horse would be able to jump. Erif slowed, to let the stallion calm a bit. This was hard for Erif. He was not a particularly patient man. After what seemed like an eternity, Erif arrived at the end of the beach to find the large dark stallion waiting near the rock wall.
“Well, fellow,” said Erif, “you’ve kind of trapped yourself, haven’t you.”
The stallion snorted quietly.
“That’s it, just keep calm. I’m not here to hurt you.”
Erif sat and began tying the ropes end to end. He continued to talk calmly to the big horse.
“What I would like to propose is a partnership of sorts. You help carry me around from time to time, and I will gather food for you. What do you say? There’s not much grass on this rock, but I know where it is. I’ll even share some of my grain with you.”
The horse snorted again, a little louder this time.
“Now, now, don’t get all upset. I’m not going to give up, you know. If I don’t catch you before sunset, it will be another sun soon. Might as well get it over with now.”
The stallion dipped his head twice. Erif finished the rope, making a lasso at one end, but remained seated and talked until the sun began to go down. The horse seemed to calm a little in the process. Finally, Erif stood. The horse snorted. Erif slowly walked towards the horse, talking calmly as he went.
As he neared the animal, however, he became a little unsure this was such a wise idea. This was a large horse, and a stallion at that. This horse could likely drag him to the other side of the island and back without breaking a sweat. Erif felt his heart pounding wildly. He knew he would have to act very fast, then hang on for all he was worth.
The stallion pulled its ears back, not a good sign, Erif knew, but he kept approaching. Erif watched the animal’s legs, so he would know when it tensed to spring away. He wasn’t quite as close as he hoped when he saw its muscles tense. Erif slung the lasso at the stallion’s head. He didn’t know if it was luck, all the practice he’d done last season with a rope, or Zul’s help, but he roped the stallion on the first try. That was the easy part.
The stallion bolted around him and shot down the beach. Erif was jerked off his feet and flew through the air several paces before landing in the sand. Fortunately, he had a shirt on. Luckily, this was loose sand, not packed earth or stone. It still hurt like everything. The dark horse dragged Erif through the sand so fast it sprayed out at his sides as he slid down the beach. Erif had to close his eyes to keep the sand out. He wanted to see if there were any rocks coming, but he couldn’t do anything about it if there were. Every muscle in his body tensed as he rode the sand behind the wild horse. His heart raced. He did not let go, however. He was committed. He begged Zul to help and the stallion began to slow. Was that a coincidence, he wondered? He still wasn’t always sure about Zul.
The horse slowed to a slow trot and Erif was able to get up and jog behind it, rope still in hand. He felt as if he’d been slugged in the chest.
“See, ol’ fellow,” Erif panted, “this is not so bad. We’re just taking a little exercise down the beach. Lovely sunset for it, wouldn’t you say?”
The stallion’s eyes were open wide as it watched Erif running behind.
“Come now, horse, I’m not so scary. You’re the big one, after all.”
The horse slowed to a walk. Erif slowed and stayed as far back as the rope allowed.
“I’ll bet you’re hungry. I just happen to have some grain back at the camp. It was this weeks supply, but I’d be willing to give it all to you if you come back with me.”
The stallion snorted.
“I’ll bet you’ve never had a bucket of pure grain. Ah, yes, that’s the luxury domestic horses get. There is an upside, you see.”
Erif followed the stallion in circles on the beach until it was nearly dark. Somehow, he managed to coax it back to his camp where he tied it securely to a tree. It wouldn’t let him feed it from his hand, but when he left a bucket of grain, it did finally come to eat when Erif was not so near.
“Well, it’s going to be interesting to see if I can tame you enough to ride but we won’t try that for a few suns yet.”
Erif cleaned and bandaged his raw chest then tried to sleep. It was difficult, because of the excitement of catching a horse. But when he did sleep, he slept well.
The next sunrise, Erif awoke to the smell of a fire. He jumped up, expecting to find trouble, but instead found Zul seated on a log tending his campfire.
“What are you doing here, Zul?”
“Making first meal. What else would I be doing this early in the sun’s journey?”
“First meal?” said Erif, wiping the sleep from his eyes, “but spirits don’t eat!”
“It’s not for me, it’s for you.”
Erif cocked his head and folded his arms, “Since when do spirits make first meal for men?”
“Well, I don’t think I’ve actually ever done that before,” said the old spirit, putting a pan of something onto the fire, “but isn’t life about new experiences? You know, adventure.”
Erif stood and stretched, “I didn’t know spirits sought adventure.”
“Speaking of adventure, I see you had quite a bit of excitement sunset past,” said Zul, ignoring his comment and jerking a thumb towards the stallion standing near by.
Erif smiled, “You should have seen it! I was afraid it would drag me up into the hills!”
“I did see it, Erif, or did you forget…”
“…that you see everything, yes, I know,” said Erif.
“That was very brave of you,” said Zul, “A bit reckless, but brave.”
Erif sat on a log across the fire from Zul. Zul handed him a pan of fried fish.
“Now, hurry and eat, I have someplace to go.”
“But I haven’t broken the horse in to ride yet! We’re not going half way across the island again, are we?”
Zul smiled, “I won’t make you go far this sunrise.”
Erif ate, gave another bucket of grain to the stallion, and followed the old spirit. Zul lead him down the beach to a lose circle of rocks in the sand. Erif did not recall seeing the rocks here before. As he approached, he saw that the rocks circled a sunken area in the sand that was filled with water.
“It’s time to see some more,” said Zul.
Erif grew somber as the old spirit waved his staff over the water. Ripples formed from the center and the water grew cloudy. When the ripples receded, Erif saw an image of a youngling in bed, being woken by his mother. It was Raef.
“Raef, Raef,” said Malta, “get up, son.”
Raef stirred slowly and sat up.
“Uhn…,” muttered Raef as he rubbed his eyes and stretched, “I don’t have lessons for three suns; the instructor went with Father to Pine Creek.”
“I know, Raef, but Irah and I were asked to go over to Moss Rock for a sun or two to help the healers. There’s been a sickness of some sort and there are too many sick for the Intercessor in Moss Rock to care for.”
Raef flopped back on his bed, “I don’t want to go to Moss Rock! I want to stay here with my friends!”
“You are staying here, Raef, that’s what I was about to say.”
Raef sat up, suddenly very awake, “I’m staying here all by myself!”
“No, dear, you will be staying with Rocecé’s family while we’re gone.”
“Rocecé? But Rocecé’s family are not Intercessors! His father is a smith, and they live way over on the other side of the village.”
The thought of staying in a home in the Labor and Merchant sector was somehow frightening to Raef.
“It’s only for a few suns, Raef, and you know their family. We see them at ceremony and they have visited us at our home before. It’s not like you don’t know him.”
“But, Mother, Rocecé is an apprentice, with sixteen seasons, not a youngling like me. He has to work all sun long. I would have nothing to do the whole time!”
“Raef, it has already been arranged. Don’t worry, you’ll have fun. It will be something new.”
His mother stood and went to the pot hanging over the central fire. Raef sighed and got off his bed to change. He was disappointed he couldn’t see Domik for a while, but he began to think that perhaps it would not be so bad. Rocecé greeted Raef frequently at ceremony. His father knew Raef’s father well, and they visited together often. Rocecé worked with his father at a smithery, something Raef knew nothing about. But it sounded interesting. If Raef was lucky he would be allowed to tag along to watch Rocecé work.
After first meal his mother wrapped his night robe in a blanket and tied it with twine for Raef to take with him.
“Don’t forget your spoon,” said his mother, “I imagine they do not have an extra for you.”
Raef took his spoon from the table and tucked in his tie strap next to his knife. Raef walked down the road with his mother and sister to the square where the road north to Pine Creek and Moss Rock began. Raef waved goodbye and continued on. He passed through the square, lined with tent-like booths where vendors and Merchants were selling food, clothing, shoes and anything else one could imagine buying. On the far side of the square were a few permanent shops, including the smithery where the blacksmiths worked.
There was a loud banging coming from inside, which scared Raef just a little. Raef walked carefully through the door and immediately saw Rocecé’s father, Cint. Cint was a short man but very sturdy. He smiled a lot, and Raef had never seen him cross. Rocecé’s father smiled through a dirty face and pointed toward the back of the small building. Raef walked carefully toward the loud banging noises, passing other men with blackened faces, and finally saw Rocecé, who was hitting a piece of metal with a hammer. Rocecé looked up and saw Raef.
“Ho, Raef!” Rocecé called.
“Ho, Rocecé!” said Raef.
Rocecé put the hammer down and began removing a heavy apron he wore. Though still a greenling his face was already lined a bit from a hard life. Rocecé was scarcely taller than Raef, but his arms bulged, and he had a face no one would confuse with a youngling.
“Come, come, lets go to the house. My mother has prepared some food.”
“But I ate just before I came.”
“That’s okay, we can always eat more, no?” said Rocecé.
Raef carried his wrapped blanket and followed Rocecé down the narrow street behind the shop. Behind the smithery a stream ran parallel to the row of shops, dividing the village in half, east and west. Raef and Rocecé walked across a wooden bridge, one of several that crossed the stream, and down a dirt road. Raef noticed that the roads were narrower here and there was a ditch that had been dug all along one side. A stench from the ditch that told him it was used as an open privy. The road had pits in it that were in need of repair. A home on his left had several places were the mud had broken away exposing sticks that wind could easily blow through. Younglings ran here and there, dirty and some barely dressed. Raef walked closer to Rocecé.
Raef felt lost winding through the narrow roads in the Labor sector and was relieved when Rocecé announced they were home. The house was very small, and it was hard for Raef to imagine a family of four living inside it. Rocecé had a sister a bit younger than he, but older than Raef. Raef followed Rocecé into the house. It was dark inside with a very small fire pit in the middle, a tiny table, no visible washbasin and three beds, each with its own tattered privacy curtain. Raef wondered where he would sleep.
Rocecé’s mother was short and quite fat. She was even shorter than Raef, who had only ten seasons. She greeted Raef with a broad smile, hugged him too tightly, patted his cheek, then told him to sit. Raef put his blanket on the floor and sat at the small table. He did not see Rocecé’s sister, but Rocecé sat next to Raef, pulling his knife from his trouser tie strap. Raef reached for his knife and spoon tied to his side. Rocecé’s mother brought a black pot to the table, gave each of them a trencher, and served pottage. Raef sniffed the pottage on his trencher when he could not identify its contents by its appearance. It smelled of cabbage gone slightly bad and potatoes. Raef managed to eat it out of courtesy and was glad he was not a picky eater. He noticed that Rocecé picked up his trencher and began to eat it. He looked at Rocecé’s mother and saw her do the same with her trencher. Raef shrugged to himself and picked up his stale bread and ate. It was tough, but he managed.
After eating Rocecé stood and pointed to one of the beds.
“Put your things on my bed. You will sleep there with me.”
Raef eyed the bed, trying to determine if the two of them could both fit. It was wider than his own, so he imagined it would be large enough. He walked to the bed and tossed his bedding on the straw mattress.
On the wall above the bed hung a wolf skin and several smaller skins, probably squirrel and rabbit. Raef’s father never hunted much and they had no skins hanging anywhere in his own house. While Raef had never been interested in hunting, the animal skins seemed wild and exciting somehow.
“Here, get on the bed,” said Rocecé.
Raef jumped on the bed, and Rocecé sat next to him, closing the curtain around them. Rocecé held a finger to his lips, then reached between the bed and the wall, pulling something out.
“Do you know what this is?” whispered Rocecé. He held up a long, thick strand.
Raef felt a chill at the sight of the dragon hair. He nodded his head. What was a greenling, well, nearly a man actually, doing with a dragon hair? Especially a greenling who attends ceremony.
“I know where we can find more of them,” said Rocecé, still talking very quiet.
Raef wondered if Rocecé had simply found the dragon hair while out hunting or if he actually visited the dragon. Did Rocecé know Rail?
Rocecé hid the hair again and pulled the curtain open. Raef followed as Rocecé left the house. The older greenling went to the edge of the road and stood with his arms crossed. Raef stood next to Rocecé and crossed his own arms, looking in the same direction as Rocecé was looking, which Raef discovered was at nothing in particular.
Raef spoke in a hushed voice, “Do you, well, you know, go to see the dragon?”
Rocecé’s eyes lit up and looked down at Raef.
“You know about visiting the dragon?”
“You, a Keeper’s son?”
Raef smiled and felt his face flush.
“Have you ever seen it?” asked Rocecé.
Raef felt his face grow hot and nodded slowly. He hoped Rocecé would not become alarmed.
“I as well!” Rocecé whispered, “lots of times.”
Raef grinned. He had never expected this.
“Come on,” said Rocecé, “let’s go see if it is there now.”
Rocecé led them down a road going farther west, then out of the village and into the western forest.
“But, this isn’t where Rail hides,” said Raef.
Rocecé stopped and looked down at him, “You even know its name!” Rocecé shook his head and smiled, “Raef, the dragon has lots of hiding places. This is one of them.”
There was no trail that Raef could see. Raef followed Rocecé through bushes and dense bunches of maple saplings deeper and deeper into the unfamiliar woods. Raef began to worry because they had been gone so long. He wondered if Rocecé’s mother would worry. But then, Rocecé was nearly a man. Finally, they came to a rather large clearing between the trees. Rocecé went to the center and sat. Raef follwed and sat next to him.
“Rail will be along soon enough. Sometimes I have to wait a while for it to see me out here.”
“The place I see the dragon is much smaller than this,” said Raef, “It’s kind of crowded.”
They waited quite awhile, until Raef grew tired and almost fell asleep. A strong wind blew down on them and woke him up with a start.
“The dragon is here!” said Rocecé.
Rail landed just in front of the pair. It bowed its great head twice, once in front of each of them.
“Ah, young Raef,” said Rail, “I see you have discovered brother Rocecé is one of us.”
Raef smiled and nodded. He looked at Rocecé who was grinning but otherwise just sitting and looking at Rail.
“Watch what I can do!” said Raef.
He ran to the dragon’s tail and wrapped himself around its end. Rail lifted its tail slowly, then began to swing it in circles, faster and faster until Raef was laughing hysterically.
“That’s pretty good,” said Rocecé, “now it’s my turn.”
Rail put Raef down, who staggered around out of balance until he fell, laughing in a heap. Rocecé got on the dragon’s tail, and Rail lifted him into the air. Raef sat up and watched as Rocecé spun around in circles on the end of Rail’s tail. Rail spun Rocecé so fast it frightened Raef to watch, but Rocecé seemed barely amused. Next they took turns climbing on the dragon’s neck, asking it to sit up, and sliding down it’s back and tail to the ground.
“Hey, come over hear,” said Rocecé, as he walked under the dragon’s head.
“Go ahead, Rail,” said Rocecé.
The dragon lowered its head and let down its long tongue, drooling with smelly saliva, and sloppily licked Rocecé on top of the head. Raef cringed a little. Then the dragon ran its tongue part way down Rocecé’s back. Raef scrunched up his face at the sight.
“Uck, that is disgusting, Rocecé.”
“No it’s not.”
“It got wet stuff all over you!”
“Just a little on my head.”
“It is nothing. Come on, get over here.”
Rail had licked Raef on the head once or twice, but only just barely, and Raef didn’t like even that. Raef had never purposefully let Rail lick him. He didn’t know why the dragon even wanted to do that. Maybe it was like a cat licking its kittens or something. Rocecé straightened up, his muscles standing out on his arms, waving for Raef to stand next to him. He didn’t want Rocecé to think he was weak, so he sighed and slowly walked over next to Rocecé. Rocecé smiled at him. Raef squeezed his eyes shut and scrunched down a little. Raef felt something warm touch his head.
“Ahhhk,” Raef muttered. Then he felt the warm wet tongue touch the back of his neck, and he jumped. “Ick, ick, ick!” said Raef, jumping around in circles.
“Here, I’ll show you something I bet you haven’t done,” said Rocecé.
Raef stood back to watch, wiping the back of his neck with his hand. Rail lowered its head to the ground and opened its mouth wide, so that it’s lower jaw touched the ground. Rocecé unlaced and removed his boots, and to Raef’s amazement, stepped inside the dragon’s mouth. The dragon’s fangs framed Rocecé on each side.
“Rocecé, what are you doing!” Raef said.
Rocecé only smiled, then he sat down right on the dragon’s tongue. Raef felt the blood drain from his face.
“Okay!” said Rocecé, waving slowly to Raef.
Raef’s stomach went cold as he watched Rail close its mouth and huge fangs around Rocecé until Rocecé was gone and the dragon’s black lips pressed together. Raef’s mouth hung open in shock.
Then Rail slowly opened its mouth to reveal Rocecé still sitting inside. Rocecé was kind of wet from dragon spit.
“No harm!” said Rocecé, throwing his arms up.
Raef tried to recover from his shock, finding himself nearly out of breath. Rocecé stood and stepped out of the beast’s fanged mouth.
“You are completely crazy!” said Raef.
The sickly smell of dragon breath overpowered Raef as Rocecé stood next to him.
“Ug, and that is disgusting!”
“No its not, its brave,” said Rocecé.
Raef wrinkled his nose.
“Come on, you try it,” said Rocecé.
“Nu-uh,” said Raef, “I’m not getting in there.”
“Come on Raef, you’re not a little youngling anymore. You can do it.”
The dragon opened its mouth a little, and Raef stared into it. As well as he knew Rail, this felt truly scary to him. And the smell, Raef could not imagine sitting in there. He just wanted to swing by Rail’s tail some more.
“Come on!” said Rocecé.
Rocecé stepped over near Rail’s head, and the dragon let its huge mouth fall farther open. Strings of dragon saliva drooled down from its fangs, and its gums were lined with razor sharp teeth as long as Raef’s hand.
“Come on, Raef, you can do it. Just get in for a moment.”
Raef took a tiny step forward and pulled his shoulders in tight. He didn’t know. He didn’t want to. Rocecé bent down, lifted one of Raef’s feet, unlaced the ties around his leg, and slipped off his boot.
“Just do it for one moment, that’s all,” said Rocecé.
Raef felt his heart pounding. Rocecé removed his other boot, then stood up. The air felt dead still. Raef looked back into the dragon’s mouth. It was smelly in there, and it was wet and lined with teeth. Raef’s stomach was tied in knots. He trembled a little, took a deep breath and stepped quickly inside Rail’s mouth. The slimy tongue wet his feet, and he cringed. He turned quickly, closed his eyes and sat with a splat, holding his nose.
“Hurry, quick!” said Raef.
He sensed the dark surround him, and the sounds of nature in the forest went silent. He was inside. Then he could hear Rocecé laughing and he opened his eyes to see the mouth opening in front of him. He jumped out as fast as he could. His feet and seat were wet, as was a spot on his shoulder.
“There, I did it,” said Raef, wiping dragon spit off his shoulder and shaking his head.
“Yes, you did!” said Rocecé, “I didn’t do that until I had fourteen seasons!”
“Then why did you make me do it?”
“Because I knew you could!”
Raef appreciated the compliment, but still felt queasy from the experience.
“Can we take rides on Rail’s tail now?” Raef asked.
“Sure, you go first,” said Rocecé.
They rode the dragon’s tail several more times, and then Rail said it had to go. Others were waiting, Rail said. Raef stood by Rocecé and watched the great dragon fly out of sight. Others waiting? There were others?
“Do you come here a lot?” asked Raef as he watched the great beast lift into the air.
“As many suns as I can,” said Rocecé, “How about you? How often do you see Rail?”
“I don’t know, every few sun’s journeys, I guess.”
They put their shoes back on and turned to walk back to Rocecé’s house. Raef was subdued and quiet. He shook away the memory of sitting in the dragon’s mouth. His stomach was getting tight again. Raef looked at Rocecé. He walked as if he were so sure of himself. Raef wished he could walk like that.
When they returned to Rocecé’s home, it was time for last meal and Cint and Rocecé’s sister were home. Rocecé’s mother never asked where they had been. She only fed the family, smiling the whole time. It was a very tight fit with Raef, Rocecé, and Rocecé’s sister all on one short bench. After last meal they sat around the fire inside and listened to Rocecé’s father, Cint, tell funny stories that had happened at the smithery over the seasons.
That night Raef slept next to Rocecé and found the bed just barely big enough for both of them. Raef had always wanted to have his own privacy curtain, but found sleeping behind one to be confining, especially with no window visible. Rocecé whispered stories about the dragon and told coarse jokes that Raef knew his parents would never approve of. Raef listened while he admired the animal skins on the wall. It was all somehow exciting to Raef.
The next sunrise Rocecé did not take Raef to the smithery with him. Rocecé said the shop was small and hot. Raef still wanted to go. He spent the sunrise trying to find younglings with his seasons to play with in the streets. All the Labor younglings were out in the fields working, but a few Merchant younglings remained home. He was a little taken back by their crude language and how they relieved themselves in plain sight in the ditches by the road.
Rocecé’s family returned for mid sun meal, and Rocecé took Raef out to see Rail again for a bit before returning to work. He never brought up sitting in Rail’s mouth, much to Raef’s relief. Raef did dare to ask Rail to spin him on its tail a little faster, however. Not as fast as Rocecé, though.
On the third sun, it was Raef who asked if they could go see the dragon after mid sun meal. Rocecé seemed happy to take him. They didn’t stay very long. That night Raef’s stomach began to feel tight, as it often did after seeing the dragon. He pretended to laugh at Rocecé’s jokes and stories that night, but he didn’t really want to listen.
He was glad when on the fourth sunrise Rocecé’s mother told him that his mother had likely returned and he could go home. It was late sun when he returned to the east side of the village where he lived. He was happy to be back in the Intercessors sector, where it was cleaner, more polite, and people had the decency to relieve themselves in closed privies. When he approached his home, his mother came out to greet him.
“Raef, you’re home!” Malta said.
“Yes, mother!” Raef said, running to hug her.
“I’d better get ready for lessons,” he said, stepping back.
“Oh, sorry Raef, but the men are still not back from Pine Creek. Lessons will not begin until sunrise next.”
Raef was a bit disappointed.
“Don’t be sad,” said his mother, “go out and play. You do not get this many suns free from lessons in a row very often.”
Raef left his bedroll with his mother and ran back down the street. His little neighbor, Nilo, ran up out of nowhere calling after him, but Raef dodged him and continued on to Domik’s home. As he ran down the road he came across Chaz, Keever and Liet. They saw him and ran toward him. They had no shirts on but wore leather straps diagonally across their chests with arrows behind in a quiver. Their faces were painted with colored stripes.
“Ho, Raef,” said Chaz, “you want to come hunting with us?”
Raef stopped and pondered this a moment. He was quite surprised by the invitation.
“Hunting what?” asked Raef.
“Rabbits!” said Liet, “Keever’s father is meeting us with the bows down by the creek.”
It kind of sounded exciting, especially if he could have paint on his face. Then he tried to imagine himself spearing and gutting furry little rabbits and he felt a bit sick. What if he couldn’t do it?
“Naw,” said Raef.
“Don’t tell me you are afraid of a rabbit,” said Liet.
“No, it’s not that.”
“Oh,” said Liet, nudging Chaz and Keever, “is hunting a little too manly for you?”
Chaz and Liet laughed.
“What? No, I…I’m an Intercessor, not a Warrior.”
“Then go play with ceremonial candles or something!” said Liet as he ran toward the forest.
Chaz and Keever followed Liet, laughing as they went. Raef hung his head and continued walking towards Domik’s home. He spent the afternoon with his friend, forgetting to watch the sun and almost returning home late for last meal.
Folor was home when Raef arrived, so Raef went immediately to wash his hands and arms for last meal. Raef sat mostly silent at last meal, listening to the stories his father told of negotiations at Pine Creek, which apparently went well. Raef did not care to listen closely enough to understand the complicated details.
After the meal Raef began collecting the used trenchers to take them to the poor. He remembered how at Rocecé’s home they ate them as part of the meal. His mother and sister were cleaning the cooking pot, and Folor had pulled a bench up against the front wall to sit and rest. Raef noticed his hands were greasy from the meat. Adults did not eat with their hands, but he still sometimes did rather than use the knife to hold meat to his mouth. Raef left the stack of trenchers on the corner of the table and walked to the washbasin. As he passed his mother and sister, he heard his mother gasp.
“Raef, what is that?” his mother asked.
Before he could turn around, Raef felt his mother pull something off the back of his shirt. He turned to see his mother holding up a thick, long strand. It was a dragon hair. Raef turned cold.
“What is it?” he heard his father ask, as he stood from the bench.
“Where did this come from?” his mother asked.
Raef looked up at his father as he approached and watched his face turn dark and stern. Raef’s mind raced to come up with and excuse. He blurted out the best he could come up.
“It was DeAlsím! He showed me!”
Folor took the hair from Malta, and Raef ran to his bed and hid under his blanket. He felt the whole Province crashing in on him. He heard his father’s heavy steps toward his bed, then he felt his bed sag as Folor sat on it.
“Raef,” Folor said calmly, “it’s okay, you don’t have to be afraid.”
Raef was too ashamed to uncover his head.
“Raef, I understand. You were just curious, that’s all. What did you do, find an old dragon nest? Did DeAlsím show you one, seasons ago perhaps, and you went back to look again?”
Raef hadn’t expected his father to be calm.
“Raef, don’t worry, younglings get curious about the dragon. Curiosity is understandable. Sometimes younglings go looking for signs of a dragon, hoping to spot one in the distance, or find where it has been lying. It’s just normal curiosity.”
Raef couldn’t understand why his father was making up excuses for him. None of this made any sense, but he began to relax, even though he was still quite confused. Raef felt Folor’s weight lift off the bed. He uncovered his head, and looked sheepishly up at his father.
“You’re older now, Raef,” Folor said, “so you should probably stop going back where ever you found that dragon hair. Okay? That’s for little younglings, not older ones like yourself. Older younglings know better.”
Raef nodded his head.
“Good,” Folor said, “now, you can come out and finish your chores whenever you’re ready. You don’t have to stay in your bed unless you want to.”
Folor walked back to the bench and sat down. The suspicious looks on his mother’s and sister’s faces faded, and they turned back to their work. Raef lay on his back and looked at the ceiling. He was greatly relieved, but he realized that his father did not understand at all. Raef was not curious about dragons; he already knew all about the dragon. Raef had not looked for dragon signs; he had talked to the dragon. He even crawled on top of it! No, his father did not know what kind of youngling Raef really was. But Zul knew. The Great Spirit knew everything.
The next sunrise Raef woke early and spied his father standing before the washbasin going through the slow motions of a ritual washing all Keepers did. When Raef was smaller, he did not understand what Folor was doing when he caught him doing these rituals. Even now Raef did not understand the importance of them, and he was rarely up early enough to catch his father mid ritual like this. Raef watched as Folor pointed his hands down while looking upwards, then wet his hands and lift them up while looking down.
When Folor was done Raef got up and changed out of his night robe, facing the wall. His mother had prepared an oatmeal pottage for first meal, one of Raef’s favorites.
After first meal Raef went outside with his ball to wait for lessons. He thought about seeing if Domik could play, but for some reason he could not explain he did not want to see anyone. He shuffled down the road, kicking the ball as he went. He thought of the first time he went to see the dragon with DeAlsím. That was four seasons past. Since then, Raef realized he had gone to see Rail more and more frequently, several times a moon cycle, and now he had visited Rail three sun’s journeys in a row. Sure, it was Rocecé’s idea the first two times, but Raef had asked Rocecé to come the third. Raef stopped kicking the ball, leaving it in the road for some other younglings to find, and hung his head as he walked.
Raef barely spoke to Domik at lessons and went home immediately after. He was surprised to see his father home already.
“Good, you are home early,” said Folor, “it is new moon meditation after mid sun meal.”
“Not meditation!” said Raef, slumping onto a bench.
He had forgotten. He had lost track of the sun journeys with everyone having been gone. He watched his father pull on his red Keeper’s robe and carry his other clothes to the chest near his bed. Raef got up and shuffled to the washbasin. He tried to smile, but found he could not.
Raef ate silently with his family, trying this time to use his knife properly and not touch his food with his hands. The trenchers were put in a pile to wait until after last meal when Raef would take them to the poor. The women cleaned up as Folor waited on the bench. Raef stood and paced impatiently.
How could he go to meditation now? He sniffed his clothes. He still smelled like dragon a little. He went to his bed and threw off his clothes, changing into a tan robe he had gotten on the celebration of his tenth season. It was a bit small now that he was nearing his eleventh season, but it was the nicest thing he had to wear. He returned to the washbasin and scrubbed hard to get Rail off him.
Raef finished washing and looked into the murky water of the basin. He had never seen his father do a ritual washing from beginning to end so he didn’t know exactly how it was performed. But he could guess. He washed his hands, feet and face again. He held his arms up, then pointed them down, not sure what this was supposed to mean. He combed his long hair carefully and applied a little of the special oil his father used to it. It may not be perfect, but it was similar to what he had seen his father do.
“Let’s go, Raef,” his mother called.
When Raef approached the table his entire family fell silent looking at him.
“Well, you sure look nice,” his sister said.
“You took long enough,” said Folor, “Let’s go.”
The family walked to the Ceremonial Lodge together. Folor was not facilitating meditations this time, so he stood to the side at the front. The rest of the family sat in the fourth row of benches, right in front of the row that began the Merchants section. They waited quietly for everyone else to arrive. It was getting quite full this celebration. When it appeared no one else was coming, Prime Keeper Bremen walked to the front to speak. Raef was too preoccupied to listen. When Keeper Bremen began the meditation, Raef closed his eyes and tried hard to focus. He had never tried to really meditate before. He had always just sort of sat still and let his imagination take him away someplace exciting.
Zul, he thought, are you there?
There was nothing, as usual.
Zul, I really need to talk to you!
Raef tried to think harder, or hold his head different ways, to see if that helped.
Then he just began to cry silently.
Zul, please, I need your help.
He thought he could almost see some kind of image in his mind. It was kind of foggy, but it looked like a very old man.
I am so sorry, Raef thought to the image, I’ve behaved very badly. I don’t want to be like this, but… Raef couldn’t say any more.
The image of the old man’s mouth did not move, but Raef thought he heard the spirit’s voice.
Raef nearly jumped when he heard it. He looked around, but everyone else held their eyes closed in silence. He was sure he had heard something. He closed his eyes again.
You heard me? Raef asked in his mind.
“I have always heard you,” came the voice.
You heard me! I cannot believe it, you heard me! Are you Zul, the Great Spirit?
“The dragon,” came the voice again.
I know, Raef thought, I have to stop seeing the dragon. I have behaved so badly.
Raef felt the tears on his cheek.
Zul, I don’t want to be like this anymore. I want to be something good. I will do what ever you want. I want…I want to be a Keeper, like my father.
He could still see the image, though it was growing fainter. He could hear nothing, though. Raef dared to ask the question he was most afraid to ask. He was afraid, because he thought Zul would say “no”.
Will you take me?
Raef then felt a warmth come over him, as if the Great Spirit himself were embracing him.
“You will be mine, and I will teach you, ” the spirit-voice said. Raef was certain he had heard it this time.
In a rush Raef felt his sadness leave him. He felt light, happy inside. Raef opened his eyes. He knew he was too young to speak in ceremony, but he had to tell someone. As the others meditated, Raef quietly got up and walked down to the front to Prime Bremen. The old Keeper opened his eyes and looked down at Raef. For a moment, Raef was afraid to address the highest ranked Keeper. He gathered his courage.
“I want to be a Keeper,” whispered Raef.
Others began to open their eyes and look.
“Many young ones wish to be Keepers,” Prime Bremen said, smiling, “perhaps one sun’s journey …”
“No,” said Raef, “I saw Zul, in my head. Then I heard a voice. His mouth never moved, but I still heard him, and he said he would accept me and…I know I’m supposed to be a Keeper!”
Keeper Bremen’s face grew serious. He leaned a little closer to Raef.
“What, exactly, did the voice tell you? Try to remember.”
“It said, well it said some stuff to me, then…oh, he said that I would be his and he would teach me.”
Prime Keeper Bremen’s eyes grew wide just for an instant, then his face grew calm, and he slowly straightened up. The Prime Keeper looked into the distance and seemed to be lost in thought. Slowly, the old Keeper’s face melted into a pleased smile.
“This is wonderful news, Raef. The Spirit has spoken to you and called you. This is very rare, almost unheard of for a youngling. I cannot dismiss such a thing coming from the Great Spirit. However, I must ask you if you are ready to begin now. To become a Keeper, you will have to begin training. You will have to start your apprenticeship early. You would not go to youngling lessons with your friends, but train in the Keep. And apprenticeship lasts sunrise to sunset, not half a sunrise as your lessons do now. Your life will change from this point on. Are you sure this is what you want?”
Raef had not even considered this. Would he miss seeing Domik as much? He sure wouldn’t miss seeing Chaz, Keever, and Liet at lessons.
“You can always decide to wait and start your apprenticeship when you are a greenling, like the other younglings,” said Bremen.
Raef remembered his shame from the dragon.
“No,” said Raef, “I want to begin now.”
Keeper Bremen placed a hand on Raef’s shoulder and turned the youngling to face the gathering.
“Excuse me for interrupting,” Keeper Bremen said, “but we have had something very unexpected happen. Something quite unusual.”
The village murmured amongst themselves but quickly became quiet. Raef noticed how many eyes were looking at him. He felt a little uncomfortable. But Bremen gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“We have all been in meditation for some time, asking for Zul to speak to us. We all recognize we are in perilous times and have been seeking guidance. Tonight, the spirit has answered, but not from where we were looking.”
Keeper Bremen looked down at Raef, “We should know by now that when the Great Spirit answers it often does through the unexpected.”
Raef thought the village looked confused. Bremen smiled and took a deep breath. Raef thought the Prime Keeper looked a little nervous.
“Tonight Zul did speak, but to only one of us. Zul spoke to this youngling. To Raef.”
The village began to murmur again, but Raef could see they were smiling.
“Fellow brothers and sisters,” Keeper Bremen said, “The Great Spirit has spoken to this youngling, the son of Folor.”
Prime Bremen looked down at Raef, “How many seasons do you have, young one.”
Bremen stood up and faced the gathering again, “Zul has called this youngling of ten seasons to be our next Keeper.”
Murmurs broke into applause and laughter. Keeper Bremen continued to talk, but Raef no longer heard him. He felt only joy. Soon he felt his father on one side, and his mother on the other. He took their hands.
“It is rare for Zul to speak to one so young,” said Prime Bremen, “This youngling is surely specially chosen to do great things. This is a time of celebration!”
And there was celebration that sun’s journey at the Ceremonial Lodge, a spontaneous celebration that lasted until mid moon. All the Keepers spoke to him, asking what he had seen and heard in his vision. Other Intercessors, the healers, scribes, herbalists, historians, kitcheners, sacrists and almoners all clasped his hands and spoke to him as if they had always been his best friend. Then the Merchants and Laborers and even the Nobles wanted to greet him. Raef felt overwhelmed.
But Raef was happy. In fact, he had never been so happy. He was not just happy because of all the attention; he knew he had done the right thing. He was done with the dragon. He had a new life to live now.
At home, after everyone had gone to bed, Folor came and sat on the edge of Raef’s bed. Raef was still awake, far too excited to sleep.
“I’m proud of you, son,” Folor said.
“Thanks,” Raef replied.
Folor gave Raef’s shoulder a squeeze and left. When Raef finally did fall asleep, he slept in peace, for the first time in many sun’s journeys, free of any feeling of guilt.
PART III – APPRENTICE
Erif swung his long sword in the air as he stood on the rocks on the highest hill on the island. The tip of his sword glanced off a rock as he tried to swing it in a circle before him.
“Practice on the beach,” said Zul, “you have yet to master the length of the long sword you made. Do that where you will not damage the blade, then return to the rocks to work on your footing again.”
“You are right,” said Erif.
He went to his horse and untied it. He had yet to name the stallion. It was not completely tame, but he could ride it now. It helped on these long trips to the hilltop pool. Erif threw himself onto the horse, and it bucked its head.
“Easy, now,” said Erif, “I just want to go to camp. No more trips after that until next sunrise.”
Erif pulled the makeshift bridle to the left and turned the big horse toward the trail. After three steps the horse took off at a run. Erif leaned forward and grinned. The stallion never seemed to want to walk with Erif riding. Erif had finally stopped trying to make it slow down and just learned to ride at speed. It wasn’t easy without a saddle, but Erif had long enough legs to hang on. The horse knew it was headed for camp, and always ran faster on its way home.
Back at camp Erif gave the horse some grain. Once the stallion seemed settled, he took his sword and walked to the beach. Erif didn’t even bother to eat. He was motivated to train. This new sword was taking much longer than he had anticipated to master.
On the beach he took a stance and extended the long sword in front of him. It felt twice as heavy as a normal sword. He would have to build strength to handle it well. He swung the sword through the basic defense moves. The tip dug into the sand twice as he circled. Erif muttered to himself. He had mastered a shorter sword after he first arrived on the island, but this longer sword kept hitting the ground or a nearby object when he practiced deflecting attacks. He almost felt like he was starting over again.
Zul appeared before him.
“It is about time you showed up.”
The old spirit smiled. With a wave of his hand Zul formed a ghostly image similar to the dragon. The image struck, and Erif slashed his sword through a vaporous arm. He would need this longer sword to deflect the dragon’s talons. A shorter, standard sword would not be able to reach beyond the dragon’s long talons to inflict the needed damage, it would only be useful for defense, if that. Zul caused the vaporous form to attack again, and Erif continued his practice. He only grazed the sand once this time while deflecting a strike. As Zul increased the intensity of the training Erif continued to go through the moves, learning to feel where his arms needed to be with this longer sword.
Raef woke slowly, until he remembered the night before. He was going to be an apprentice. And not just any apprentice, an apprentice Keeper! All younglings could request to apprentice with any adult within their own class, and in many cases these requests were granted. Keeper apprentices were different. A sign from the Great Spirit is required to even apprentice for a Keeper. Raef could have been an apprentice to any Intercessor, but to be an apprentice Keeper was special. And at only ten seasons! Well, nearly eleven, as his celebration would be later this cycle.
Raef stood up and noticed the window shutters were already open and the sun showed one quarter sky. He turned quickly to see the privacy curtains opened, his father and sister gone, and his mother cutting up vegetables for mid sun meal.
“Mother, why did you let me sleep in so long!”
His mother turned to him and smiled.
“You needed sleep after how late you were up last night. Besides, you have no lessons to attend this sunrise. You are an apprentice now.”
“Already? I…I thought it would take a little longer.”
“Some of the Keepers will be by in a bit. You should change out of your night robe.”
Raef waited until his mother turned back to her work, then he faced the wall, changed into his trousers and put on a linen shirt. He put his shoes on, trying to lace them neatly up his calves, and knotted his tie straps.
“I saved something for you to eat,” his mother said.
Raef sat at the table where a mug of weak beer and a piece of bread was laid out for him. His legs bounced up and down as he ate, shaking the bench and making it squeak. His mother giggled to herself.
Just as he finished eating, he heard the sound of men talking and laughing at the door. He turned to see Prime Keeper Bremen, Keeper Dimmel and his father enter. Bremen was smiling particularly wide.
Raef stood to greet them, and Folor removed the benches from around the table and set them facing each other near the center of the room. A third bench was retrieved from it’s place along the front wall to make sort of a triangle. The three Keepers sat, motioning for Raef to join them. Dimmel pulled a folded cloth of blue out of a cloth sack he had been carrying.
“This is for you,” said Bremen, “your apprentice Keeper robe.”
Dimmel handed the robe to Raef.
“You may put it on now,” said Raef’s father.
Raef stood, put his arms through the long sleeves and pulled the robe around himself. It was very new looking and bright blue, though a bit long for him. He could not help but smile, and he felt his face grow hot as he blushed.
“Blue is for apprentices,” said Keeper Bremen, “You will receive a red robe at the end of your training, but that will be several seasons from now. You will serve as an apprentice, then a novice until that time.”
Raef realized he was still standing and quickly sat again.
“You will begin your apprenticeship under me,” said Keeper Dimmel, “Come to the Keep after mid sun meal, and we will begin.”
Raef was a bit disappointed to serve under Keeper Dimmel, but he was too excited to feel badly about it. Keeper Dimmel continued talking, but Raef’s mind was racing with too many questions to hear.
“Where will I…will I live in the dormery?”
Prime Bremen smiled, “No, no. You are too young for that. You will stay here with your family until you have thirteen seasons like the other apprentice Intercessors.”
Keeper Dimmel began to explain something, but Raef interrupted again.
“I am no longer to attend youngling lessons with the others?”
“No,” said Dimmel, “you are an apprentice. Anything you need to learn I will teach you.”
“Are you to instruct me all sun’s journey long?”
“I will give instruction each sunrise. After mid sun meal you will assist other Intercessors with their work, spending at least one moon cycle in each of the Intercessor trades. This is how you will learn the role of each kind of Intercessor in the village. You must know this in order to oversee them in the future.”
There was a silent pause.
“Do you have more questions, or can I speak again?” said Keeper Dimmel.
Raef felt a little embarrassed. He smiled, then looked at the ground.
“Let us all return to our homes for mid sun meal,” said Keeper Bremen, “then Raef can come to the Keep afterwards, and we can continue.”
Prime Bremen and Keeper Dimmel stood and excused themselves. Raef stood, looking to his father.
“Mid sun meal will not be ready for a while,” said Folor, “why don’t you go outside and see your friends for a bit while we are waiting.”
Raef smiled, then dashed out the door and down the road. He had to be careful not to trip on his long robe. When he was half way to the training lodge he saw Domik coming down the road toward him, just out of youngling lessons. Domik spotted him, then stood still in his tracks.
“You have a Keeper’s robe already?”
“It’s only an apprentice robe. But I start my apprenticeship this sunrise!”
“I still can’t believe you are going to be a Keeper. You just seem…so normal.”
“I won’t have to go to lessons anymore, I get to study with the Keepers in the Keep!”
“You mean, the actual Keep, not the Ceremonial Lodge?”
“Yes! Is that not amazing?”
As they were talking, Chaz, Liet and Keever came down the road toward them.
“Ho, Raef,” said Liet, “what are you two doing, playing Keeper?”
“Why weren’t you in lessons, and why are you dressed like that?” asked Keever.
“I’m an apprentice Keeper,” said Raef.
Liet stopped walking and blinked.
“For real?” asked Chaz.
“Yes, for real,” said Domik, “he was chosen, sun’s journey past, at new moon meditation. He’s an apprentice to the Keepers and serves in the Keep, so he won’t go to lessons with us anymore.”
Keever looked puzzled and remained silent.
“But, you have only ten seasons!” said Chaz.
“Eleven this cycle,” said Raef.
“Ten, eleven, whatever,” said Chaz. “Apprentices are greenlings, not youngling like us.”
“He was chosen in a vision,” said Domik. “That happens for Keepers hardly ever, but it can happen.”
The three young Warriors stood in silence for several moments.
“Really,” Chaz said, “you are a Keeper?”
“Apprentice Keeper,” said Raef.
“I can’t believe it,” said Liet.
Raef turned and began to walk toward Domik’s home. Domik ran to catch up. The other three remained still, watching them leave.
“I don’t know if I’ll like lessons without you,” said Domik.
“I know. I’ll miss you too.”
“Can you play afterwards?”
“After mid sun meal I have to serve. I help the other Intercessors.”
“Oh, well maybe we can see each other during late sun.”
“I hope so. I hope my father will allow it.”
Raef returned home for mid sun meal. He was feeling a bit somber after realizing how little he would see Domik, but he began to get excited about his apprenticeship again.
“Father,” he said at the table, “why is Dimmel to teach me? Is he not a bit, you know, not so smart?”
Folor laughed, “Dimmel is plenty smart. He just gets ahead of himself sometimes. He’s actually very nice. Besides, he was already chosen to train the next apprentice. We simply had not expected one so soon.”
Raef shrugged and continued eating.
“Don’t worry, son, I think you will enjoy Keeper Dimmel.”
Raef finished eating then left the house with his father. They walked together to the Ceremonial Lodge where Folor paused.
“I need to speak with the herbalists then I have business at the Healing Lodge,” said Folor, “I will meet you at home for last meal. Go on to the Keep; Keeper Dimmel will be waiting for you.”
Raef waved to his father as he left, then walked towards the ornate structure that was The Keep. He had never entered it without his father, and then he had only been in the entry hall or meeting room. He noticed that his hand was trembling a bit as he pulled open the door. Keeper Dimmel was waiting in the entry hall.
“Greetings, apprentice Raef,” said Dimmel.
“Uh, greetings Master Dimmel.”
“Just ‘Keeper’ Dimmel, Raef. The title, ‘Master’ is for Laborers and Merchants.”
“Think nothing of it. Come this way.”
Dimmel lead him down a narrow hallway to the inner rooms of the Keep. Raef had never been allowed in these rooms, even though his father was a Keeper. These were sacred rooms, he knew. Dimmel took him through a door where a silver bowl of water sat on a pedestal in the center of a small room.
“First, you will learn the rituals of washing,” Dimmel said.
“There are more than one?”
Dimmel laughed, “The son of Folor does not know there are three rites of washing? Do not worry, I didn’t even begin to go to ceremony until I had fifteen seasons.”
“Really,” Raef said, “you mean, you didn’t grow up an Intercessor?”
“Spirits no,” Dimmel said, “My family were practically nomads in the forest. They, well, I suppose we all believed in all kinds of mystical nonsense. But, I met a greenlia and was so taken with her I followed her back to her village. She and her family were Intercessors. We married, and I became her father’s apprentice. I was chosen to be a Keeper when I had eighteen seasons.”
Raef stared up at Dimmel, “I never knew that.”
“There are lots of things you don’t know, young apprentice, but you are in the right place to learn.”
“Okay, so what are the washing rituals for?”
Dimmel put his hand in the water and playfully flicked some at Raef.
“For getting clean!”
Raef laughed, then straightened up and tried to remove his smile.
“Instruction number one as my apprentice. Do not wear a forlorn appearance. Do not be incessantly serious. That is not part of a Keeper’s job.”
“It seems like it sometimes.”
“Well, it is not supposed to be. The Province is hard enough without adding our own darkness on top of it.”
Raef relaxed his posture.
“The first ritual of washing is the New Leaf. It is like a new beginning. It is a way of starting the sunrise clean.”
“But, I already wash myself. Maybe not every sun’s journey, but…”
“No, no, this is not like a bath, it is a symbol of what we are doing in our inner self.”
“You clean your body in your bath. New Leaf is a symbol of cleaning your heart and mind-returning our selves to be like a new leaf bud, completely free of anything soiled.”
Raef remembered the dragon. He understood.
“The second is Open Flower, the preparation for meditation. This frees our mind from anything that could take our attention away from the spirits.”
“Okay,” said Raef, not completely sure he understood.
“The last is for sorrow and remorse, or the washing of the Broken Stem.”
“Why would you wash when you were sad? I used to hate washing. Washing when you’re sad might make some people even more sad.”
Dimmel laughed loudly.
“It is so good to have an apprentice that is such a blank slate. For now I will simply show you how each is done.”
Dimmel had Raef stand before the silver washbasin, his hands to his sides. Dimmel moved Raef’s arms so his hands pointed down and lifted Raef’s chin upward.
“Now you silently tell the spirits you are releasing anything evil you have been holding onto.”
Raef tried to do that, but he wasn’t sure he did it correctly. Then Dimmel had him wet his hands and lift them upwards while looking at the water in the basin.”
“Now you have washed off anything evil and have lifted your hands to show the spirits. You look into the basin to focus only on what is clean and good.”
Dimmel showed Raef the other washings, Open Flower and Broken Stem, but Raef knew he would not remember the details of each.
“Do not worry, apprentice,” said Dimmel, “there are many more rituals, but you have many seasons to learn them.”
Afterwards, Dimmel took Raef to another room that had a map of the Great Province painted on one wall. Dimmel began to teach Raef the ancient history of the Province, of the great war between the spirits, and how mankind had been sent to live in the forest. Raef had learned history in the teaching lodge, but he had not heard all of this.
“So, the…the…” Raef was afraid to say it in front of a Keeper, “the dragon. The other spirits sent it away to live in the forbidden mountain.”
“On the other side of the mountains, to keep it away from mankind, who it wanted to destroy.”
But the dragon was not trapped on the other side of the mountains. It came very near the village. Raef did not know how to ask why this was true without giving away his secret. Then he had an idea.
“But…but it is said the dragon eats villagers. How can it do that if it cannot get here?”
Dimmel’s face grew sad.
“Yes, the dragon has broken free somehow. Zul protects us and keeps it away, but the spirits are still at war, and sometimes the beast does get through to harm the villagers.”
This was even more confusing to Raef. If Zul could not stop the dragon all of the time, then was Rail capable of defeating the Great Spirit? And Raef knew that the dragon was near the village nearly every sun’s journey. Did the Keepers know about this? Were the spirits weaker than the villagers imagined and the dragon more powerful? Raef became very confused.
“You have sat still for some time now,” said Dimmel, “this is enough this sunset.”
“But, sun’s journey is not over yet.”
“Yes, I had arranged to have you assist the sacrists with the cleaning of the Ceremonial Lodge. Wait here while I see if they have arrived yet.”
Dimmel left, and Raef sat staring at the map on the wall. Fir Hollow was just a small village in the middle of a vast forest. Pine Creek was to the north and Moss Rock north of that. To the west the map showed rivers merging to form a larger river that lead to the ocean. Raef had never seen any of that. At the far north end of the Great Province an elevated plateau were Summit City, the ruling city of the entire Province and Krellit, the city of learning. South of Fir Hollow were the Three Sisters: Big Sister, Middle Sister, and the flat-toped Little Sister, all in a row with no villages near them. West of the mountains the map indicated a dry region with few trees. Raef could not imagine such a place. A single large city, called Midland, was located in the center of this dry area. Farther south was the south coast with Salt Marsh, Two Rivers and Crest Ridge. To the east of all of this was a vast forest, empty of villages. Beyond that was a mountain range painted black on the map, and in the middle of the range was the tallest and widest mountain of all, Black Rock. That, Raef knew, was where the dragon lived.
“They are ready for you.”
Raef jumped at the sound of Keeper Dimmel’s voice. He got up and followed Dimmel back down the narrow hallway to the entry hall and outside. The bright sun made Raef’s eyes blink after being in the dark inner rooms of the Keep. He followed Keeper Dimmel into the Ceremonial Lodge where Raef saw several young men cleaning with brooms and rags. One of them motioned to him. Raef removed his blue robe and laid it over a bench.
“He may go when you leave,” said Dimmel to the man.
Raef approached the young man. He looked to have twenty-five seasons or so, Raef imagined. He had a thin, scraggly, short beard, and his long hair was not well kept. His clothes were worn and ragged.
“Take this broom, youngling, and sweep this part of the floor. I’ll be over there, sweeping as well. We have to get this whole room cleaned for next sunrise homage.”
Raef took the broom, a little offended by the “youngling” remark after being called an apprentice since sunrise. He began to sweep and glanced at the man, who was also sweeping some distance away. The man did not look very happy, which Raef though odd for an Intercessor. Then again, being a sacrist, whose job it was to clean the buildings in the Intercessor sector, was perhaps not the most fulfilling position to have, even if one was an Intercessor.
Raef was allowed to return home in plenty of time for last meal. After eating he took all the trenchers used since mid sun meal and ran out to meet Domik. Together they brought the used bread to the square to give to the poor, then stayed to play ball with a group of Merchant younglings who were playing in the square. As darkness fell the younglings returned to their homes, Raef and Domik to the Intercessor sector. Raef dropped Domik off at his house and continued toward his own, gazing east to the dark peaks of Black Rock. Raef imagined that Rail was there now, alone in its lair. He tried to imagine what it must be like.
The next sunrise Raef attended his first sunrise homage ceremony in the Ceremonial Lodge. Raef joined other Intercessor apprentices waving fir branches at the entrance of the lodge as villagers came for their sunrise blessing and homage. The village men and greenling apprentices walked single file around the benches to the front where the Keepers stood in line. The men and greenlings passed in front of the Keepers as the Keepers chanted an incantation of protection and productivity over each. Rocecé and his father, Cint, smiled and nodded to Raef as they passed. Domik’s father came as well, smiling kindly to Raef as he passed. The sunrise ceremony was not a short one since every man and greenling had to pass through the procession on the way to labor. Every one except the Warriors, that is. The Warriors had their own rituals, and they did not speak of them with others.
Afterwards, Raef joined Dimmel in the Keep for training on matters of the spirit world. After mid sun meal Raef left his robe at home and went to the Ceremonial Lodge to find the sacrist who he was assigned to for the rest of the moon cycle. They cleaned the Intercessor kitchen that afternoon. Raef found this more unpleasant as the kitchen was full of spilled food, some rather foul looking by now, to clean up. Raef was assigned the worst things to clean up.
The suns passed, and Raef began to feel accustomed to his new role. He liked walking through the streets each sunrise in his blue robe. Adults nodded to him as he passed. He was only able to see Domik and his other friends during late sun, but his father no longer gave him extra chores around the house, so sunsets were his own.
Summer Solstice celebration arrived, marking the arrival of summer. It was one of the largest celebrations of the entire season. There was no meditation, only celebration. Raef stood beside the Keepers in his new apprentice robe as Prime Keeper Bremen led the chanting. Ceremonial chants were in an ancient tongue that only Keepers knew, but for the first time Raef knew the words and could chant along. Laborers burned small bowls of seed as the Keepers chanted a blessing over the growing season. The square filled with dancing and feasting at mid sun.
The village was alive with activity, farming and tending to calves and new lambs. Merchants were busy repairing and replacing clothing, shoes and tools from the villagers that wore out over the winter and spring. The sun was out, drying out the land after a wet spring and everyone seemed to smile. But Raef was smiling for another reason. He was ending his tenth season and was to celebrate the beginning of his eleventh that sunset.
After mid sun meal Raef did not report to his apprentice duties with the sacrists. Instead, his mother brought him to the tailor where he was measured for a new set of clothes. His old ones were nearly worn out and were too short at the arms and legs. His feet had grown as well, so after the tailor took his measurements, his mother took him to the cordwainer to have his feet measured for new shoes. He was excited that the cordwainer had some tan deer hide for the uppers of the shoes. Deer hide was softer, and Raef preferred the lighter color to the dark cowhide shoes he now wore.
After all the measuring was done Raef’s mother stopped by a baker’s booth where she bought a sugar cake for him. On the way home they passed Domik’s home, and Domik was sitting out front.
“Could I stay and play with Domik until last meal?”
“I think that would be all right,” said his mother.
Raef ran up to Domik, who was holding a large metal hoop.
“Ho, Domik, do you want to play hoops?” asked Raef.
“Sure,” said Domik, picking up a stick and starting to roll the hoop down the street.
Raef chased after Domik until the hoop fell over. Then Raef picked up the hoop and rolled it back the other direction. They took turns until Domik’s father called him in. Raef waved goodbye to his friend and returned home. Last meal was on the table when he arrived.
“I prepared your favorite,” said his mother as Raef entered the room.
“Pork? Is it pork?”
It was indeed, and the aroma of Raef’s favorite food filled the air. Raef pulled his knife from its scabbard at his side and began to cut a piece.
“Raef, where are your manners!” said Folor. “Wait until your mother and I are served.”
Raef pulled his knife back. It was okay, his celebration was this sunset, and he would not let anything ruin it. He waited for his parents to cut off some pork and even waited for his sister, just to be safe, before reaching for the meat himself. He cut a large piece and put it on his trencher. He immediately cut a piece and put it in his mouth.
“Raef, don’t shove so much in your mouth at once,” said Folor, “you are not an animal.”
“Sorry,” Raef tried to say through a full mouth. He felt grease run down his chin.
He spooned some pottage onto his trencher. It was potato and vegetables. He saw peas in it, and he didn’t like peas, but he mixed them in with the rest so it wouldn’t taste as bad. He reached his knife towards the salt cellar and dipped it in.
“Raef!” said Folor, “clean your knife before putting it in the salt! The rest of us eat from the same cellar.”
Raef pulled back his knife and wiped it on the table cloth.
“Not on the table cloth!” Folor said, “your mother just washed that.”
Raef wiped his knife on a clean edge of his trencher, then dipped it in the salt and mixed it into his pottage. He sighed, he didn’t understand why his father was in such a mood, especially on his celebration.
The rest of the meal went better, and Raef got up and washed his face and hands, for they had gotten rather greasy.
“Should I wear my apprentice robe?” Raef asked no one in particular.
“That is only for work,” said his mother, “just wear what you have on.”
When the family was ready they went outside and made their way to the village center to a tavern a few houses south of the square. The tailor and cordwainer had already delivered Raef’s new clothes and shoes, and Domik’s family was waiting. Dimmel’s family arrived next followed by Nilo and his family. Dimmel and his wife had a small s of only four seasons named Daz, who Raef had never met. Very small younglings do not attend ceremonies, so Raef had not seen the youngling before. Raef was glad Dimmel had brought him as the small youngling would hopefully keep Nilo occupied. Raef took his new clothing and went behind the bar to change. He was especially fond of his deerskin shoes. The laces went all the way up to his knees.
Raef’s father bought some small meat pies, spiced venison strips and little cakes for everyone. They sat around the largest tables, telling stories and singing silly songs. Domik’s father sang one that Raef had not heard before.
The pig, the pig, what wallows about
He spied a fig in a jug so stout
He’ll never reach inside, thinks I
But I did not know how a pig will try
To the jug it mashed ‘till its nose stretched out
That’s how the pig got a long ol’ snout!
Raef thought it a bit foolish, but the adults all laughed loudly, so he laughed with them.
As the sunset approached the families with smaller younglings left leaving only Raef and Domik’s families. Raef had never been to the tavern this late, and he noticed a group of rowdy greenlings enter and order beers. They looked to have at least sixteen seasons and were obviously Laborers from their dirty clothes and coarse language. The innkeeper tried to get them to be quiet, but they were in no mood to settle down. Folor and Domik’s father seemed to hardly notice, but Raef felt nervous.
“Why are they away from home so late and causing all this commotion?” Raef asked his mother quietly.
“They are older greenlings,” said his mother, “nearly men. They won’t be living at home any longer but live as apprentices somewhere. They are just letting off some steam, probably after a long sun’s journey working.”
One of the greenling laughed loudly, slapping one of the others very hard on the back. The one receiving the slap punched the first hard in the arm. Raef’s eyes opened wide, expecting to see a fight, but the two greenlings only laughed and took large swigs of beer.
“I wish they would be more quiet,” said Raef.
When Raef and Domik’s familes finally left, another group of older greenlings and some young men had come into the tavern, and it was so loud Raef could barely hear his parents talking. Out in the streets he could hear laughing and cursing coming from roving bands of young villagers. As they left the square and entered the Intercessor sector it grew quieter. They passed the night watchmen in the street, who bowed slightly to Folor. Once home, Raef’s sister took his old clothes and shoes and put them in a pile by the door.
“I’ll take these to someone on the east side of the village while I’m on my rounds next sunrise,” she said.
“I thought an almoness only distributes food,” said Raef.
“You really are a new apprentice,” said Irah, “An almoness can distribute anything needed by the poor.”
Raef waited for everyone else to close their privacy curtain, then he changed out of his new clothes, folding them carefully on the floor by his bed, and put on his night robe. His night robe, he realized, was a bit old and getting too small for him. He decided it was okay because he had gotten new clothes and new shoes on his celebration. A new night robe could wait a bit.
He lay face up on his straw bed, looking at the moonlight through the open window. He liked summer because the windows were left open at night. He suddenly remembered something. He turned on his side, reached down to the floor, and stuck his hand under the straw. He pulled out a long strand and held it up in the moonlight. It was one of Rail’s hairs. He had forgotten all about it. He used to take it out at night and look at it. In the moonlight it sparkled as if it were magical. He realized he should have thrown it out in the forest when he had become an apprentice Keeper. As he watched the moonlight play off the long strand, he decided it would be okay to keep it. It wasn’t the same as going to see the dragon and no one would ever know anyway. He found himself smiling at the dragon hair.
Raef woke early the next sunrise and, seeing his parents privacy curtain still closed, had some bread. He put on his new clothes and blue robe and went out for an early walk before attending sunrise homage. He wasn’t really looking forward to instruction from Dimmel. They had been getting quite dull lately. He decided to take a long detour through the very center of the village square. Other younglings ran along the paths, playing while they could before lessons. When he arrived at the square, he found it full of activity. The Merchants and Laborers started their sunrise early. Even before sunrise homage, they were setting up booths and preparing for the early shoppers.
The square was lined on all four sides with Merchant booths. Even a few early rising shoppers had arrived, looking over what was already on display. He paused and listened to all the commotion around him. Among all the sounds of the square, he thought he heard a woman scream. He had just barely heard it above the din of the Merchants and was not even sure it had been a scream. Then he heard another scream, then another. Villagers all around him began looking and pointing in his direction, but not at him exactly. Raef slowly turned and looked behind him. All he saw were panicked villagers. A man near Raef dropped a bundle of cloth he was carrying, yelled, and ran frantically from the square. Raef was bewildered.
“The dragon! It’s back! The dragon is back!” someone cried.
Raef looked up as everyone around him scattered. Over the trees, a dark image swooped down into the village. The wind from the great beast’s wings blew over Merchant stands. Then the dragon spiraled slowly upwards, directly over the square.
“What are you doing?” Raef mumbled to himself.
The dragon leveled out high above the ground and began to circle the village square. In no time several Warriors arrived, leather armor on their chests and carrying spears and swords. Prime Rodon, the father of Chaz, was leading them. The rest of the villagers hid behind houses and shops, peaking their heads out to watch. Raef stood in the center of the square, gazing up at Rail. He had never seen Rail so near the village like this, and he was completely confused. It was like he was watching an odd dream.
Rail dove down, directly at the group of Warriors, talons sprung. The Warriors flashed their blades. Rail swooped down low over the Warriors and blew by them, their sleek blades clattering uselessly against its black talons. The dragon arched back up, and made lazy loops in the sky. The Warriors reformed into a ball bristling with pointed steel. But instead of attacking them, Rail dove onto a building, crushing the roof of poles and sticks. The dragon rose into the air, clasping a claw full of large poles. It hurled them at the Warriors, bowling down most where they stood. Rodon remained standing, poised and defiant. The crowd now formed a circle around the edge of the square, watching the action from a distance.
Rail threw itself high into the sky then dropped on Rodon. Rodon’s sword glanced off the dragon’s scaly neck, but Rail’s talon slashed through the Warriors armor and cut deep into the man’s side. Raef watched Chaz’s father collapse in a bloody heap. The dragon looped upward. Raef looked up in disbelief at his old friend in the sky.
“Rail!” Raef shouted.
Rail seemed to pause, mid air. The dragon looked down at Raef. Then with a burst of its leather wings, the dragon shot away to the east; out over the trees, toward Black Rock in the distance. Raef stood, shocked and confused as the villagers rushed past him to reach the fallen Prime Warrior.
The square was once again filled with noise, but this time there was no order, only panic. Soon the healers arrived to aid Rodon. Raef shook his head to clear his shock. He looked over at Rodon and was astonished at how much blood was on the ground around the man. Raef heard Chaz’s voice. It sounded higher pitched than normal. Raef turned to see Chaz running toward the square. The youngling ran to his father’s side and knelt down by him. Chaz was crying. Raef had not seen Chaz cry in a very long time.
As the healers lifted him, Prime Rodon reached and touched Chaz’s face.
“Father, don’t die, Father!” Chaz sobbed.
“I love you, son,” Rodon said.
Rodon had tears as well. The Prime Warrior was crying. Raef was not used to seeing men cry.
“I love you too, Father” Chaz said.
The healers rushed Rodon away.
Raef felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see his mother. She looked very frightened.
“Raef, why didn’t you come when I called?”
“I was yelling for you. Raef, you were out in the open! That dragon could have killed you!”
“Rail won’t hurt me,” said Raef.
His mother stepped back; her eyes opened wide and a look of shock came over her face.
“What did you call it?” his mother whispered.
“Uh, the dragon,” said Raef.
Malta gave Raef a penetrating look. He felt as if she could see right through him. Then she looked afraid.
“Raef,” she said carefully, “you are wearing a Keeper’s robe. The dragon hates Keepers. I don’t want to lose my son to that beast.”
Raef felt his face drain of color.
“Mother, it’s alright, the dragon doesn’t kill younglings.”
Malta took Raef by both shoulders and bent down face to face with him.
“Who told you that? The dragon takes anyone it can.”
They were silent several moments, each one searching the other. Raef tried to change the subject.
“Will Rodon be okay?”
Malta paused, then seemed to relax a little.
“It looked very serious,” Malta said, straightening up and releasing Raef, “I hope the healers can save him.”
Raef turned from his mother and walked to the bloody spot where Prime Rodon had been. Chaz was still there, bent over the pool of blood, crying. Several adult Warriors were consoling him. Raef felt his mother tug his arm. He let her lead him away, though he continued to watch Chaz. Raef realized he didn’t feel much of anything. It seemed somehow that he should.
The village was in near chaos. The sunrise homage never took place. Instead, the Keepers gathered in the square to appeal to the spirits. Few villagers went to work, but stayed in the square or outside the Healing Lodge where Prime Rodon was. The Warriors were everywhere, riding through the streets on horseback carrying spears. All the Warrior apprentices, though they had yet to be initiated in the tournaments, were out as well, riding or marching through the streets, looking a little small to be carrying swords and spears. Parents tried to corral their younglings inside, but many had escaped, probably through windows, to wander the streets and see all the commotion. Raef stood just outside the square, behind his father, and watched. At sunset the village called a meditation. Villagers had to sit on the floor because the Ceremonial Lodge was so full.
That night Raef saw it all again in a dream. Only this time, it was his father, Folor, who faced Rail in the square. There he stood, red robe flowing majestically in the breeze. Rail fell from the sky and slashed Folor in half. In his dream, Raef saw himself rush to his dying father’s side.
“Don’t worry, Father, I will take care of Mother and Irah.”
His father smiled and closed his eyes in death. Raef stood and went to his mother and sister and walked them home. Malta and Irah were both crying. In his dream, Raef did not shed a tear.
Keeper Dimmel did not call Raef for lessons after sunrise homage the next sun’s journey. The Keepers were busy consoling the village and had apparently forgotten about him. It was just as well to Raef, he had personal matters to settle.
After the Keepers left the Ceremonial Lodge, Raef made straight for the forest and his old secret place. The dragon was there, waiting. Raef realized he had his blue robe on, over his clothes. He took the robe off and tossed it aside before entered the clearing.
“Rail, why did you hurt Prime Rodon?” Raef said, angrily, “You cut his whole side open. He might die!”
The old dragon sat up.
“He is a Warrior. His job is to kill me. If he wants a fight, he will get one.”
“Rodon was not even in the square when you arrived.”
“I came to see you; it was the Warriors who made the first threat.”
“Why…” Raef could hardly think what to say, “why would you come where everyone can see you?”
“Why should I not?”
“But, you can’t…I can’t let people know…and you practically killed my friend’s father!”
The dragon lowered its great head and brought it close to Raef.
“Raef, Prime Warrior Rodon is my enemy,” Rail said, “and I do not believe that Chaz is really your friend.”
Raef looked at the ground, unable to look the dragon in the eye.
“Do you hurt young ones?” Raef asked, “Young like me?”
Rail draped a talon over Raef’s shoulder.
“You are my friend,” the dragon said, “I would never harm you. And I harm no younglings. I have honor.”
Raef looked angrily up at the dragon. But the dragon only smiled back. Raef knew this was all his own fault, but it was too messy. He didn’t know how to fix it.
“How about when I get older?” Raef asked, glaring back at the beast.
“You are my friend. You always will be. I do not hurt my friends, not those who are one of us.”
Raef looked at the ground, arms crossed, and paced in circles in the grass.
“Raef, what kind of reunion is this?” said Rail softly, “I haven’t seen you in over a cycle. How have you been?”
“Why does that matter?” said Raef, throwing his arms in the air, “everything is ruined! They’ll kick me out of the village.”
“Why should they do that?”
“Because I said your name out loud! My mother heard me, probably other villagers too. I am not supposed to know your name!”
The dragon grinned, “It will all be fine. I assure you. Wait and see what the villagers do.”
“Okay! How could it be okay?”
“It will be, I assure you.”
“How do you know?”
“I am very old. Nothing is new to me.”
Raef stopped pacing and hung his head. He hoped Rail was right.
“Come, let’s play. You can ride my tail.”
Raef stood still. He suddenly realized he shouldn’t even be here.
“I am a Keeper now, Rail.”
“Oh, is that so?” said Rail.
“Stop pretending to be surprised. Besides, I don’t play anymore. I’m too old for that now.”
“Nonsense! You will never be too old to play with me.”
He didn’t want to, but he began to feel a warmth grow inside him. An old familiar comfort.
“Are you mad at me, that I’m a Keeper?” asked Raef, “Mother says you hate Keepers.”
“Now, how would she know that?” Rail put a talon to its chin, “I do not recall ever discussing the matter with her.”
Raef giggled in spite of himself, then shook his head and tried to look stern. The dragon lowered its head and nuzzled its soft nose against Raef’s cheek.
“Raef, aren’t you Keepers lovers of peace?”
“There it is. Let us be at peace!” said the dragon.
Rail nuzzled Raef again. Raef let out a long sigh and leaned his head against the dragon’s snout.
“Now, just you try to catch my tail,” the dragon said, stepping back.
“I won’t,” said Raef.
“But who in this Great Province knows you like I do? Who among all the Keepers cares about how you feel like I? Is there anyone?”
Raef remembered Chaz and Rodon and how they cried together. He felt a tear on his own cheek, not of love, but of sorrow that no one cried for him. The dragon gently stuck out its long tongue and flicked the tear away. The warmth of its tongue sent shivers down Raef’s spine. Raef backed away again, wiping the wetness from his cheek with his sleeve. He began to feel the familiar warmth growing inside his chest. It frightened him that he could not make it stop.
“Maybe I’ll come back later, or something,” said Raef, feeling very conflicted.
He felt the dragon’s tail against his back. It’s furry upper edge caressed him. Raef felt himself relax and lean back. The tail wrapped loosely around him. Raef gave in. He pushed the tail off and ran to Rail’s snout and hugged it. Raef pressed his cheek against the side of the dragon’s nostril. A rush of warmth shot through his body.
Raef had no idea how long he played with Rail before the dragon left and flew back to the dark mountain. As Raef exited the clearing, he saw his robe. His face burned with shame. Keepers were not friends of the dragon. He slowly pulled the robe over his clothes and walked home in silence.
Erif backed away as the image of Raef walking through the forest faded. Erif walked to the edge of the hill and looked to the ocean in the distance. He heard his horse snort behind him where it was tied to a stubby tree. He sensed the presence of the Great Spirit at his side, then felt a warm hand on his shoulder.
“What do you feel?” asked the old spirit.
“I feel…” Erif searched himself for the answer, “determined. I feel determined to do whatever it takes.”
“Good,” said the spirit, coming to stand next to him.
“I don’t want to talk right now,” said Erif, “I think it is time to practice again.”
“As you wish.”
Erif went to the stallion and drew the long sword from its scabbard hung on the horse’s side. Erif stretched, then walked out in the middle of the rocky top of the hill.
“One dragon, if you please,” said Erif.
Zul waved a hand and a smoky likeness of Rail appeared before Erif. Erif pointed his sword at the dragon’s neck and charged. The cloudy dragon swiped a claw at Erif, but he curved his sword to deflect it, then swooped the sword under, bringing it up at the base of the beast’s neck.
“Well done,” said Zul.
Erif did not stop training until it was too dark to see.
“I’ve only seen it happen once before,” said Folor, “when I had fourteen seasons. The dragon attacked my village.”
The family sat around the table, eating last meal.
“It did?” said Raef, his mouth half full of potatoes, “right here in Fir Hollow?”
“No, not here, back when I lived in Crest Ridge, down on the south coast. It was the first time I’d seen the dragon, and the first time in a generation it had attacked Crest Ridge.”
Raef leaned forward.
“The Prime Noble froze at the sight of the dragon,” Folor continued, “and it dove right for him. I ran toward the Noble and reached him just in time to knock him down before the dragon got him. Then the dragon just flew away. We could never figure out why. We were very lucky no one was hurt that time.”
“You must have been a hero in Crest Ridge,” said Irah.
Folor smiled, then looked at Raef.
“You were brave too, Raef,” he said. “Mother told me how you stood, fearless, out in the open, while the others ran. You were not afraid of that old lizard!”
“He is brave, Father,” Irah said, “I know he will be a great Keeper one season.”
Folor began telling more stories of his youth. They were as fantastic as ever, but Raef had stopped listening. He did not feel brave, he felt ashamed. He was not afraid of the dragon, that was true, but not for the reasons his father imagined. What would his father think if he really knew?
That night, Raef called out to Zul in his mind. It was not the time for meditation, but he needed to talk to the spirit.
Zul, he called out, but he heard or saw nothing. Help me stay away from Rail, he thought, into the darkness.
He heard nothing in reply. He tried to sleep, but only tossed and turned. When he finally fell asleep, late at night, he did not sleep well.
The Keepers did not forget Raef next sunrise. They called for Raef early, before Raef normally woke. Folor had already left, so Raef dressed and put on his blue robe and tried to get his messy hair to lay down flat. He was not entirely successful. Raef ran to the Ceremonial Lodge to meet the other Keepers. They left one of the lesser Keepers to do sunrise homage while the rest, including Raef, went to the medicine lodge to see Prime Rodon. A Healer was drawing water from the well out front when they approached.
“How is Rodon?” Prime Bremen asked the healer.
“It is still too early to tell. His wound is great, and three ribs are broken.”
Raef felt uneasy as they entered the medicine lodge. It smelled of strong herbs and foul wounds. They passed several sick and injured before reaching Rodon. The man was covered with sweat and he was trembling. The gash on his side went from his ribs to his pelvis. It had been sewn shut, but was still swollen and had an angry red color. It bled from the edges. Rodon managed to smile.
“Ah, good men,” he said hoarsely, “It is good to see you. And young Raef, look at you, already wearing a Keeper’s robe.”
Raef looked at his feet.
“I will tell Chaz you came. He will be glad,” Rodon said.
“You must rest now,” Prime Bremen said, “we will be outside, meditating for your healing.”
Rodon tried to smile again. It looked more like a grimace. Raef followed the Keepers out. The Keepers sat in a semi-circle, Raef at the end beside his father.
“Raef, we are going to meditate for Rodon’s healing,” Dimmel said.
“How long does that take?”
Raef was immediately embarrassed that he had asked in a way that sounded like he didn’t really want to meditate. Keeper Dimmel smiled, so Raef knew it was okay.
“We must be patient with the spirits,” said Prime Bremen, “We will medidate until the sun reaches one third sky.”
Bremen drew water from the well and, using the water in the bucket, performed the ritual washing of Open Flower. Raef watched as the bucket was passed and each Keeper did the same. Open Flower was to clear the mind of distraction and be open to the spirits. Raef was a bit confused because it seemed more appropriate to perform the washing of Broken Stem for sorrow. His father passed the bucket to him, then closed his eyes in meditation. Raef was glad no one was watching as he did the Open Flower washing because he was still not very good at it.
Raef sighed quietly. He was not sure he could sit still until the sun reached one third sky. But, when he closed his eyes, Zul appeared almost immediately. The spirit did not seem to see Raef, however. Instead, in his mind he saw Zul, the old spirit himself, go to Rodon’s side. Zul touched the wound and it glowed, white-hot. Rodon groaned, but then the wound was gone. Rodon was smiling easily now. Zul looked over his shoulder at Raef. The spirit gazed at Raef a long time. It was as if Zul was peering into his soul. Raef became afraid. What did Zul see inside him? The image faded. Raef felt something gently shaking him. He opened his eyes to find his father shaking his shoulder.
“Raef, it is time to go.” Folor said.
“Already?” Raef rubbed his eyes. He felt as if he’d been asleep. “I just started.”
“Look,” said Folor, “the sun is at one third journey.”
Raef stood up, his legs feeling tight and cramped. The other Keepers were already leaving. It didn’t seem possible that so much time had gone by so fast, but his body felt as if it had. Raef followed the others. His legs felt stiff. As they walked in silence, he realized they were not heading towards the Ceremonial Lodge.
“Where are we going?” Raef whispered to his father.
“To console Prime Rodon’s family.”
Raef turned pale. He didn’t want to see them. Chaz might be there. He did not know why, but he did not want to see Chaz.
“We will visit with Rodon’s wife. And, since you are Chaz’s age, you will visit with him.”
“But Chaz doesn’t even like me,” said Raef.
“Nonsense, of course he does,” Folor said, “And even if he didn’t, as Keepers, we are here to serve everyone, not just to those who are like ourselves.”
Raef followed obediently. All too soon they arrived at Chaz’s home. Chaz’s mother opened the door when Prime Bremen called from the street. She did not speak as she let them in. Once inside, the Keepers converged on the mother. Raef was pointed to the curtain that lead to Chaz’s room. He hadn’t been in Chaz’s room for many seasons. Raef slowly walked to the curtain and called softly. He heard a quiet voice say to come in. He pulled the curtain aside and went in.
Chaz was sitting on his bed, looking much meeker than normal. His eyes were red. He looked almost frail. Seeing Chaz like this was unsettling. Raef stepped in and let the curtain fall behind him. He looked around the room. It was even more impressive than before. Two short metal swords had replaced the wooden toys and a small spear hung menacingly on the wall. Raef looked down at his blue robe. It must look silly to Chaz. Raef pulled off his robe and tossed it on the floor then moved to sit next to Chaz on the bed. He didn’t know what to say.
Chaz looked up at Raef. There was fear in his eyes. Raef suddenly felt sad for Chaz. Chaz tried to smile, but his lip quivered.
“Sorry about your father,” Raef finally managed.
Chaz said nothing.
“We went to see him. I know you probably don’t believe in what we do, but we did a healing meditation for him.”
“Thanks,” said Chaz, staring at the floor.
“In my meditation, I saw the Great Spirit Zul heal your father. I think everything is going to be okay.”
Chaz looked sadly at Raef.
“I’m not making it up, I really saw it! Zul touched your father’s side, and the cut went away!”
Chaz looked away and said nothing.
Raef didn’t know what to do next. He hoped he hadn’t made things worse. He looked around the room again and noticed the same arrowhead collection from Chaz’s early seasons was still on a shelf. There was also a clear round stone, in a very prominent place next to the arrowheads.
“Chaz,” Raef said, “you still have that stone I gave you.”
Chaz got up, waked to the shelf, and picked up the stone. He held it to the window to see the light shine through it.
“I look in the streams every chance I get since you gave it to me,” Chaz said. “I have never found another like it.”
“I found it when I was fishing with my father,” Raef said.
“I remember,” said Chaz, “it has always been my favorite treasure.”
Raef smiled at the word “treasure.” It was not something an older youngling would normally say in public. Folor opened the curtain, and Chaz put the stone down.
“Greetings, Keeper Folor,” said Chaz.
Raef was surprise to hear Chaz address his father with such respect.
“Greetings, young Chaz. I am very sorry your father was hurt. We will do all we can to help him.”
Chaz looked at the floor.
“We should go now, Raef,” Folor said.
Raef picked up his robe to go.
“Raef,” Chaz said, looking up again, “thanks.”
The next sunrise, Raef got up, performed the New Leaf washing, and did his meditation before going to the Ceremonial Lodge. After sunrise homage, Keeper Dimmel only kept him a short time, so Raef went to the Healing Lodge to meditate for Rodon again. It began to rain, but Raef remained, meditating, until what seemed to him the right amount of time had passed. By the time he got home, he was soaked to the skin. He shivered even after he dried off and changed.
Each sunrise, for several sun journeys, Raef went to meditate for Rodon’s healing. Keeper Dimmel allowed him to meditate for Rodon each sunrise rather than study at the Keep. Chaz saw him once, when he came to visit Rodon while Raef was meditating outside. Raef did not know why he felt so compelled to do this, but it seemed right. He was not just doing it for Rodon, he was doing it for Chaz too. He did not want Chaz to lose his father, even if he had not always been a good friend.
The first few sun journeys after the attack, Rodon seemed to get worse and the healers were convinced he would die. Raef refused to believe it, however, and told the Keepers that he was sure Zul would heal Rodon. The Intercessors worked hard to save him. The scribes brought out ancient texts for the herbalists to study. The herbalists tried all the healing mixtures, even the ancient ones no longer used. On the fifth sun’s journey, Rodon did begin to improve. Raef was relieved, but he also began to grow tired of meditating so long every sun journey.
By the seventh sun journey, it became clear that Rodon would be fine. His wound was pale instead of angry red. The swelling had gone away and he was able to eat. Raef was so happy that he hugged Chaz when he came to visit the Healing Lodge. Chaz stepped away, looking angry for a moment, but then smiled at Raef and hugged him back. On the eighth sun journey Keeper Dimmel called Raef back to normal apprentice duty.
In the mean time, Raef had become fairly well known in the village. Between his lack of fear when the dragon attacked and his persistence in meditating for Prime Warrior Rodon, who had in fact been healed, everyone seemed to believe Raef was someone special. At least the adults did. The other younglings did not seem to appreciate the attention Raef received. In fact the teasing he received from younglings in the streets grew worse, but at least the adults seemed to notice him now. Raef was becoming quite certain that he was going to become a great Keeper one season.
But not everything was going so well. Raef made it ten whole sun journeys since his last visit with Rail before he began to think about the dragon again. He started pulling out his dragon hair at night to look at it, but he was determined to do no more than that. When he was helping Keeper Dimmel his mind wandered, imagining he was playing with the dragon. He kept getting into trouble for not paying attention. By the end of the moon cycle, Raef could scarcely think of anything but the dragon. Even when he was with Domik after last meal, Domik would get upset with him.
“Raef!” Domik would say when Raef did not answer, “Raef, I asked you if you wanted to go to the square and play ball!”
“Oh, sorry Domik.”
“Are you even listening to me?” asked Domik.
Raef could not help it. He began to miss the dragon’s majesty and power, and how it nuzzled him with its soft snout. Swinging on that great tail was far more fun than any game of ball.
On the last sun journey of moon cycle, Raef could stand it no longer. He had to see Rail. But right after last meal, Domik called at his door to see if he could play.
“Go on, out with you!” said Raef’s mother.
“Let’s see who is in the square tonight,” said Domik.
“I…I don’t really want to go to the square,” said Raef, closing the door behind him as he came outside.
“That’s okay,” said Domik, “it was getting a little dull anyway. Most of the younglings there are too young for us anyway.”
They walked down the road in silence. Raef tried to think of a polite way to get rid of his friend.
“Are you angry with me?” asked Domik.
“No, why would you say that?”
“It is as if…as if you do not want to be with me or something. You have kind of been that way for a few sun journeys.”
Raef felt badly. He did not want Domik to feel that way.
“No, it’s not that I just…I just want to do something different.”
“So, what do you want to do?”
An idea came to Raef. An idea that seemed impossible, but if it were possible would be very exciting.
“Well…I know something, but I doubt you’d want to go along.”
“Raef, why would I not want to go?”
“Well, it’s kind of dangerous. I don’t know if you…”
“I can do anything you can.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I’d have to show you.”
“Alright, then show me.”
Raef turned and they began walking into the forest. Domik skipped alongside Raef, acting excited. Raef began to feel a bit afraid. Domik was an Intercessor. What would he say if he found out Raef knew the dragon? But it would be very fun indeed to have a friend to come along to play with Rail.
“This is getting pretty far into the woods,” Domik said.
“Well, if you’re afraid…”
“No, no, I’m coming.”
They found the old path, now well used, and followed it down the ravine, to the edge of the hidden clearing. Raef’s excitement and fear reached a peak as they came up behind a tree at the secret clearing’s edge.
“You have to promise never to tell.” Raef said.
Domik held out his fist, his thumb extended.
“Promise,” he said.
Raef reached over and pressed his thumb against Domik’s thumb, sealing the oath.
“Now, we stay hidden behind this tree,” said Raef.
“Be very quiet and look out into the meadow.”
Domik peeked around the tree trunk, and Raef peeked around the other side. Rail was there, stretching its vast wings in the low sun. Raef knew that Rail had noticed them coming and had arrived ahead of them. He also knew Rail would put on a show for them, acting as if it didn’t know it was being watched. Rail would be pleased Raef had brought someone else to play. But Raef would not tell Domik any of this.
“The dragon!” Domik whispered.
“This is where it hides,” Raef whispered.
“How often have you seen it here?”
“A few times.”
The dragon stretched and spread its vast wings out over the surrounding trees.
“It’s so huge!”
Rail stretched out his long neck and opened his mouth. Sword sized teeth flashed in the sun.
“Spirits of the Province,” whispered Domik.
“What do you think?”
“It is so…so enormous. And it has hair all down its back. I never expected that.”
Raef was relieved that Domik did not suggest they tell their parents about the place. He had been worried Domik would say something like that. Raef watched Domik’s face. His friend seemed amazed, not revolted. He decided to take a final risk.
“I’ll show you something even more amazing, if you promise not to tell.”
“I already promised,” said Domik, “and you know I would never tell on you.”
“Okay,” said Raef, “be ready to be surprised.”
Raef walked around the tree and across the middle of the clearing to Rail. He heard a gasp behind him. Rail lowered its snout to Raef. Raef patted it. Then Raef removed his shoes, climbed up the dragon’s side to the top of its back and walked back to the dragon’s tail. Rail arched its back so that Raef was high in the air, letting its tail droop down to the ground.
“Watch this!” Raef called out.
Raef sat and slid down the tail and rolled onto the grass. He lay laughing on the ground.
“Come on, Domik! It won’t hurt you!”
After a long silence, Domik slowly crept from behind the tree. He looked frightened now, but curious too. Raef ran to his friend and dragged him to the dragon’s claws. Raef put Domik’s hand on a large talon. Domik’s eyes grew huge.
“It won’t hurt you at all, I promise.”
Rail bent its huge head down in front of them. Domik drew back a little and scrunched up his nose.
“Domik,” said Raef, “this is Rail.”
Domik turned to Raef, “It has a name?”
The dragon lowered its huge head in front Raef’s friend.
“Of course I have a name,” said the dragon, “how else would you know how to call me?”
Domik jumped back, his eyes and mouth wide. Raef fell over on the ground laughing.
Raef continued to laugh and roll in the grass.
Rail turned its paw and extended the tip of a black talon to Domik. Raef composed himself and stood up.
“Go ahead, shake its claw,” said Raef.
“Here, I’ll show you,” said Raef, and he reached out to take Rail’s talon.
“No, I’ll do it,” said Domik, and he grabbed the shiny claw.
“I’m Domik,” he said, his voice catching.
“Any friend of Raef is a friend of mine,” said Rail, bowing its head.
“Great spirits,” said Domik.
The two played with the dragon until it was dusk. The dragon said goodbye to them and spread its wings. Before leaving, Rail nuzzled Raef with its great snout and Raef patted its nose. Domik said nothing, just stared at the beast. Then Rail leapt into the sky with a single swoosh of its wings. The air blew Domik to the ground, but Raef had known to brace himself.
“What did you think?” asked Raef.
Domik stood up and dusted off.
“It was okay,” he said.
They began the long walk back to the village. Raef looked over at his friend. Domik’s eyes had a distant, vacant look. Raef tried to strike up a conversation, but Domik would hardly respond. Domik started walking faster, and Raef had to hurry to keep up. When they reached the edge of the village Domik turned to walk toward his home.
“See you sunrise!” Raef called after him.
Domik did not respond, he simply kept walking.
The water in the pool stirred again and the image of the younglings vanished. Erif stuck his sword into the sand and turned to face the open sea. He slowly took in a deep breath and let it out.
“I cannot force my will,” said Zul, “but I will show him another way.”
“The dragon has too strong a hold on him now.”
“He will listen in time.”
“Why do you make him go through all this before you speak to him?”
Zul put a hand on Erif’s shoulder.
“I have tried to speak to him. Like all mankind, he refuses to listen until misery overwhelms him. It is sad, and I wish it were not true, but it is so.”
Erif looked at the ground.
“Raef is still becoming ready to listen to me. He is still too lost in his own delusions. It will take some time to get through to him.”
“Are you certain it’s not too late?” asked Erif.
“I know the future, remember?”
Raef stared at the ceiling while lying on his bed. It was night, but clouds blocked the moonlight from coming in his window. Raef pulled the dragon hair out to look at it. It had been two moon cycles since he first brought Domik to see Rail. Since then he had done all his ritual washings every sunrise and had meditated after every mid sun meal. He was apprenticing with the herbalists in the afternoons, which he liked far better than cleaning with the sacrists. Keeper Dimmel was very pleased with his work in the Keep as well. In spite of all of this, Raef had talked Domik into seeing Rail again. And not just once, but many times. They had even gone this sunset before last meal.
Raef sighed. He didn’t know what to do. He remembered his father’s words from when he had ten seasons and had been caught with a dragon hair stuck to his shirt, “younglings get curious about the dragon.” Though he was an apprentice, Raef was still just a youngling. An older youngling, but still a youngling. He was certain other younglings did the same, visit the dragon that is. Even Rail said so.
An idea came to him. Maybe it was okay for a youngling to go play with the dragon. It was just curiosity, after all. Maybe it was only bad for older people to see the dragon. That was it! He could play with the dragon until he had thirteen seasons, when he was a greenling. He would have too many seasons after that, of course, but for now it would be okay. Especially if he only saw the dragon now and then, not all the time. Yes, that would be acceptable.
Raef held up the dragon hair and for a moment the clouds parted just enough for the moonlight to shine through, making the long strand sparkle and shine.
PART V – YOUNGLING’S END
Cool tidewater swirled around Erif’s ankles as he stood on the beach. The supply ship was sailing out of sight, carrying his last letters to Tama. Erif held her latest letters in his hand. He had already read them. Letters declaring her love, but also her sorrow from his absence. She was not doing well. It was hard enough raising the children alone, but she was living in a remote mountain village, far from her home and extended family. She was hurting, and there was nothing Erif could do to help her. He was forbidden to return for two more seasons. Erif sank to his knees in the wet sand.
“This is too long.”
He remembered her soft smile and gentle touch.
“How will I last two more seasons? How will she last two more seasons?”
He heard nothing but the wind in response. Zul had not appeared to him for over a moon cycle. He was not sure why.
“Zul, I need to see you…see anyone. Do you have any idea how lonely I feel?”
Again, there was nothing. He let himself fall back into the shallow surf. The surf dragged him slowly over the sand. Sand filled his wet clothes. He didn’t care. He had reached the end of what he could endure. His tears joined the ocean. The waves pushed him up on the beach and left him there. He did not move.
“Why did you let them send me here?” Erif said to the sky. “The dragon is still loose. Who knows how many the Province has lost to it. They need help now, not two seasons from now. And Tama, what has she done to deserve this? Why can we not at least be together?”
Erif heard only the roar of the ocean.
“Is this how you treat those who are devoted to you? Abandon them?”
Erif grew quiet. He was exhausted. He found himself drifting to sleep. He knew he was dangerously close to the moving tide, but he did not have the energy to care. He let himself drift into sleep as his body was moved by the waves.
Some time later he drifted back to consciousness at the sensation of something warm touching his face. Erif sat up with a jolt. A lone, scrawny coyote skittered away. It was dusk. Erif touched his face, and it felt wet. The coyote had licked him. It stood several paces away now, just looking at him and trembling. Erif found himself laughing at the coyote. It looked pathetic.
“You are awfully tame,” Erif said.
The coyote whimpered and backed away a little.
“You look half starved to death, I am surprised you did not try to have me for last meal instead of licking me.”
The coyote took one step forward and trembled. The tip of its tail curved upward, giving it a tame appearance, in spite of its ragged condition. It also had faint spots in its fur, something Erif had never seen on a coyote.
“Well, it looks like I am not the only miserable thing left out on this island.”
Erif stood slowly, dripping of wet sand. He looked down at himself and laughed.
“Look at me, will you? How did I let myself get into this state?”
The coyote cautiously came closer.
“You must have been tamed before. Did someone leave you out here?”
He reached down to pet the coyote, but it backed away.
“Yeah, me too. It is hard to trust once you have been abandoned. Come on, then, I have food back at the camp, and you look starved.”
Erif walked to camp and the coyote followed at a distance. When they arrived the Stallion became uneasy.
“I do not think she will hurt you,” said Erif, patting the stallion’s side.
Erif removed his clothes, wrapped himself in a cloth, and hung his clothes nearby to dry. He stoked the fire and put a rabbit he had killed earlier on the fire to roast. The coyote sat nearby, whimpering at the smell. When it was ready, Erif threw a small bit of meat to the dog. It bolted the food down in an instant.
“If you want more, you have to come closer,” Erif said as he ate.
The coyote crept slowly closer until it stood at arms reach from Erif. He handed it another bite, which it ate from his hand.
“There you go, girl.”
They continued to eat, Erif feeding the coyote from his hand. After the food was gone, the coyote cautiously strained its neck forward and licked Erif’s hand.
“You are welcome.”
The coyote came closer and licked his hand again. Erif tried to pet its head, but it moved away.
As the sun set Erif lay down; the coyote relaxed and came even closer. Soon the animal was curled up next to Erif. Erif scratched between its ears and this time it did not back away.
“How did you get so tame out here?”
Erif closed his eyes in meditation. His old teacher, Zul, was there, visible in his mind.
“You are back!” said Erif.
“I was never gone,” said Zul.
“I know, I know…I still missed you.”
Erif was silent a moment before continuing. “I am sorry I yelled at you back on the beach. It’s just … well, this is really hard for me.”
“I know,” said Zul.
“Thank you for the coyote.”
The face in Erif’s vision smiled.
“Why have you been gone so long?”
“Just because you cannot see me does not mean I am not here.”
“Yes, I know, I only wish you would stay within my perception more often. You brought me here, to train, after all.”
“Erif, I did not bring you here, you put yourself here.”
“Yes, yes, you are right. I cannot blame anyone for that.”
The Great Spirit faded from Erif’s mind. Erif opened his eyes and looked down at the coyote next to him. She licked his hand.
Raef ambled down the path toward the village center in late afternoon to fetch water. He was now apprenticing in the stables, a role he did not appreciate at all, and was spending the afternoon fetching water for the animals. Summer was approaching, and it had been an unusually warm spring. Raef had removed his shirt and left it back at the stable because of the many trips back and forth to the stream in the hot sun.
Raef would enter his thirteenth season within the moon cycle and would pass through the rite of Youngling’s End to be recognized as a greenling. He had grown considerably taller this season but, unlike his even taller father, Raef was painfully thin. He had never had muscles to speak of, but now what little he had was stretched even thinner over his long frame.
He turned a corner, empty bucket in hand, and came across Chaz and Liet. Liet was already a Warrior apprentice and wore a leather strap around his head where one season he would display his markings of rank. Chaz would be a greenling soon, but for now wore no apprentice headband. Liet looked at Raef, stopped, and began to laugh.
“Chaz, look!” Liet said, pointing at Raef, “a walking skeleton!”
Raef looked down at himself. His elbows poked out from his bony arms and every one of his ribs showed through his skin.
“Quick, call the undertaker,” called Liet, “one of the corpses has escaped!”
Liet laughed the hardest, but even Chaz laughed a little. Raef glared at Chaz for a moment before fixing his eyes straight ahead and walking past. Raef searched his mind to find something pleasant to focus on. He was excited that he soon arrive at Youngling’s End. He would move to the Intercessor dormery and stay with the other greenlings. Domik, who was just a bit younger, would join him at the dormery soon after.
Raef fetched water from the stream, then walked toward the stable. The bucket was large and very heavy when full. He tried not to grimace as he carried the bucket on the long trip back. Anyone his height should not struggle to carry a bucket of water. He put the bucket down to rest when he was alone on the road. His arms were sapped of strength. He saw another man coming, and he picked up the bucket, trying not to let it show how hard it was for him to lift it.
Raef returned to the stable and dumped the bucket in the horse trough. The stable master released him for the afternoon, so Raef put his shirt back on and left. Raef walked back into the late afternoon sun and sighed. Tonight was full moon meditation. He would be present to assist the Keepers during the ceremony. Rocecé would be there, of course, but Domik was not quite a greenling and would not attend. At the moment, Raef regretted taking on his apprenticeship early. He could be playing with Domik, maybe even visiting Rail together. Raef sighed again and walked towards his home.
Raef wiped the sweat from his face and arms at the washbasin once he was home. His mother dipped a spoon in the pot hanging over the fire and lifted it to her mouth. His sister, Irah, was putting stale trenchers on the table. Raef went to his bed and picked up his blue robe off the floor where it was neatly folded. It was a new robe because he had outgrown his first one. He noticed his trousers no longer reached his ankles, leaving a bare strip of skin between his worn shoes and trousers. The leather laces from his shoes only wrapped up to mid-calf now. He knew he would get new clothing soon. He put his robe on, which nearly reached the ground, hiding the worn and ill-fitting clothing.
Folor came in, and they all sat for last meal. Raef now had his own mug and no longer had to share with his sister. Irah had nineteen seasons and was now a woman. She had so far refused all suitors so was still living at home. Raef wondered why she had turned down so many. He pulled his knife from his tie strap and cut some meat for himself. He remembered to wipe his knife on the edge of his trencher before dipping it in the salt cellar. The pottage was mostly cabbage, which was not his favorite, but Raef did not complain.
After last meal Raef collected the soiled trenchers and left the house to take them to the poor. He felt he had too many seasons for such a task, but it had remained his to do. His father certainly would never be seen handing out used trenchers. Irah should be doing this, he thought, she was an almoness anyway, and handing out food to the poor was her job. As he walked towards the Common Hall he came across young Nilo, playing in the street with a ball. Nilo saw him and ran to join him.
“Ho, Nilo,” mumbled Raef.
“Taking alms to the poor?”
“This is not alms, just old trenchers.”
“It is food for the poor, is it not?” said Nilo, “The same thing, really.”
Raef said nothing in reply.
“I already took ours. I can show you a good place to bring them if you want.”
“No, Nilo, I know where to take them. I have been doing this for many seasons, remember.”
They walked to the Common Hall, and Raef handed the soiled, stale bread to a pair of younglings that looked like brothers. The two took the bread and ran off. Raef turned back toward home with Nilo still following behind.
“You have your blue robe on,” said Nilo, “Is there a ceremony tonight?”
“Yes. You should know that; your father will be attending.”
“I never remember when the ceremonies are.”
“It is full moon, Nilo. Have you not noticed the moon becoming full the last few nights?”
Raef sighed. They returned to Raef’s home, and Raef paused at the door. He watched Nilo continue to the next house where his family lived. Nilo had eight seasons now, but Raef still found him tedious. Raef could not remember if he had been this way when he had eight seasons.
The family came out of the house to go to the Ceremonial Lodge. Because it was late spring it was still quite light outside as they walked. They entered the lodge, and Raef followed his father toward the front. He noticed Rocecé sitting near the back and nodded as he passed. Raef took a seat off to the side on a stool. Like the Keepers, Raef faced the villagers. Raef was the only apprentice Keeper in the village. The rest of the Intercessor apprentices were to become scribes or healers or, if they were less fortunate, gardeners and stable hands. Only Raef sat at the front, the rest sat with the Intercessors in the rows just behind the village Nobles.
The Keepers sat in a row on tall wooden stools. They waited until it seemed everyone had arrived, and Prime Keeper Bremen stood. Prime Bremen led the villagers in a chant. Raef chanted along, no longer needing to concentrate to remember the words. Afterwards Raef and Keeper Dimmel stood, each walking to opposite sides of the room. The two of them picked up branches of fir trees and slowly walked down each side of the room toward the back, waving the branches slowly toward the people sitting between them. Raef’s father lit perfumed candles. Raef and Keeper Dimmel stood at the back two corners, and Keeper Bremen began another chant.
The meditation began after the second chant was over. Raef lifted his head upwards and closed his eyes. He could hear the quiet squeaking of the long benches as the greenlings in attendance tried to sit still. It was warm inside the lodge, with so many villagers crowded together after a hot afternoon. Raef wiggled his toes and noticed his shoes were too tight. He felt an itch on his leg, but as an apprentice Keeper he knew he could not move to scratch it.
Raef found himself thinking of Rocecé. Rocecé was a man now with nineteen seasons. Raef began to wonder why Rocecé was not yet married. Rocecé was a rather crude man and not particularly good looking, Raef realized. To make matters worse, Rocecé only seemed interested in the most attractive and wealthy women in the village, who, Raef realized, would never accept a marriage proposal from a ill-mannered blacksmith. Raef still visited Rocecé, perhaps once every moon cycle or two, and they went to see the dragon together. Raef found himself wondering why a grown man would still be visiting the dragon.
Raef opened his eyes at the sound of Keeper Bremen’s voice. As the Prime Keeper began the final chant, Raef picked up his fir branch, began to wave it, and slowly walked back to the front of the room.
When the ceremony was over, Raef stood at the front of the room with the Keepers as the villagers left. Those at the front, the Nobles and Intercessors, left first while the Merchants and Laborers remained seated. When everyone was finally gone, Prime Keeper Bremen lead the Keepers out of the lodge with Reaf following at the end of the line. Once outside, Keeper Dimmel handed Raef a key, and Raef locked the door to the Ceremonial Lodge, then gave the key to Keeper Dimmel. Raef was not sure why he was not allowed to keep the key, since it was now his job to lock and unlock the lodge. Or, since Dimmel was the keeper of the keys, why did he not lock and unlock the door himself? The Keepers had many rituals, and not all of them made sense to Raef.
Raef walked home with his father. It had grown dark during the ceremony, and the night watchman was already out beginning his watch. Raef and his father did not speak. Folor was usually somber after ceremonies. They entered the house, Raef after his father, and Folor sat at the table. Raef’s mother put a mug of ale down in front of Folor.
Raef walked to his bed, still a straw mattress on the floor. He still had no privacy curtain. Malta was folding the table cloth, Folor was drinking from his mug, and Irah was sitting on her bed, already in her night robe, her curtain open, humming a tune to herself. Raef faced the wall and began removing his clothing to change into his night robe. Though he was not quite a greenling, he thought he should have a privacy curtain.
Raef sat next to his father after changing. His mother gave him a mug of weak beer. He felt restless waiting for his family to retire. He had done nothing but work since sunrise. He wanted some time for himself. In a few sunsets he would be a greenling. Even though he was an apprentice now, he knew the Keepers would ask him to work longer when he was actually a greenling. When his parents and sister finally went behind their privacy curtains, Raef went to his bed and lay down. He was not ready to sleep. His legs wiggled as he tried to lay still. He looked out the open window above his bed. The full moon shined bright.
When Folor began to snore and Reaf still had not fallen asleep, he sat up on his bed and looked out the window. He could easily see the road under the yellow moon. He quietly stood and leaned out the open window. The night air was cool, but not cold. It felt good on his face after so much hot sun. The night watchman walked by, heading towards the village center. Raef suddenly had an idea.
Raef had never snuck out of his house at night. That was something ill-educated younglings did. But he found himself pushing up on the windowsill with his arms until he could get his leg over it. It made a bit of noise when his leg rubbed on the wooden sill, so once he was up he leapt through all at once. He landed almost silently on the grass outside his window. He looked at himself. He was in his night robe and was barefoot. But who would see? he thought. This was not like the Labor sector where roving bands of greenlings caused problems at night. Everyone was asleep. He kept close to the wall and snuck around to the back. The forest was near the back of his house. Raef took another look around to be sure no one could see him, then dashed into the forest.
It was darker in the trees, but the full moon was sufficient to light up the forest enough for Raef to see the trails. He felt the soil and soft fir needles beneath his bare feet as he made his way deeper into the woods. He came to his secret path and followed it down into the ravine. He realized no one would hear him this far away so he picked up his speed, nearly running, as he made his way to the small clearing.
Raef broke into the clearing and ran to the middle of it. He looked straight up and spun slowly around. The round moon was high in the sky above him. There were no clouds and the stars seemed to glimmer especially bright. There were millions of them. He took a deep breath of the night air. Rail was not there. Raef sat in the tall grass and waited. He sat a long time, but the dragon never came. As he waited, he looked around the perimeter of the clearing. He thought he saw something sparkling here and there in the bushes and ferns that lined the tiny meadow. He smiled, thinking it to be nothing more than his imagination. But he soon realized that the sparkles remained in fixed position, not moving about as would be the case if he only imagined it. Raef stood and walked over to one of the sparkly spots. He came to a very large fern with something sparkling on one frond. He reached out and felt something long and stringy. He picked it up and held it closer. It was a dragon hair. Raef held it skyward and watched the moonlight dance over its glassy surface. During the light these were hard to find, but here in the moonlight they glistened and gave themselves away. Raef tossed the thick hair into the night air and watched it sparkle as it floated to the ground. It seemed to be magical as it danced in the air. He thought about taking it home, but he already had a dragon hair under his mattress. It would be too risky to bring another one into the house.
Raef searched the sky but still saw no dragon. Perhaps it did not visit villages at night. It might even be that Rail could not see well in the dark. In any case, it was clear that the dragon was not coming. Raef hung his head for a moment, then began the long walk home.
The next sunrise Raef woke and did the New Leaf washing at the washbasin. He ate some bread and put on his robe before his father got up. As the rest of the family began to wake, Raef left to meet Keeper Dimmel. He was tired after being up late and was still yawning when he entered the Keep. Raef could see Dimmel meditating in the next room, but the key was in the entry hall on a small table. Raef took the key, left the Keep and went to the Ceremonial Lodge to unlock the door. The other Keepers would arrive soon and sunrise homage would begin. Raef picked up a fir branch from inside the lodge and waited for the other apprentices to arrive from the dormery.
After homage Raef followed Dimmel to the apothecary, which was really just a separate room off of the kitchen. The herbalists were mixing up something for the Healing Lodge. When they were finished, Raef carried the ceramic bowl of herbs and oils as Dimmel lead the way to the Healing Lodge. One of the healers took the bowl from Raef as Keeper Dimmel began to bless each of the infirm. Raef waited until Dimmel moved on to the next bed and then he waved a single small fir branch over the patient. Raef did not know any of the infirm men or women in the Healing Lodge. They were all Laborers save for one Merchant. It appeared that most of them had suffered accidents with large cuts on their arms or legs. He knew them from ceremony but had never spoken to any of them. Dimmel acted as if he knew each individual well, smiling kindly as he blessed them, but Raef knew the Keeper did not know them any better than he. After spending quite some time at the Healing Lodge Dimmel went to meet with the other Keepers, instructing Raef to make more perfumed candles. Raef went to the kitchen. Melting wax required fire and fire was restricted to the kitchen so as not to burn down the Ceremonial Lodge or the Keep. Raef hung the candle pot over the fire with a hook, trying to stay out of the way of the kitcheners. He waited for the wax to melt, then began dipping string into the wax. He noticed the wax was not very fragrant, so he added some spice to it.
He did not finish until time for mid sun meal. He left the candles in the kitchen to harden and went home to eat. After eating Raef returned to the Keep to find Keeper Dimmel.
“Have you finished with the candles?” asked the Keeper when Raef entered the Keep.
“There are enough for next ceremony at the end of the cycle. I can make more now if you like.”
“No, that will be fine. Will you be off to the stables then?”
“Forgive me, Keeper Dimmel, but the stables are really quite tiresome.”
Dimmel smiled, then stood and walked to a window to look out.
“You are near Youngling’s End, are you not?” asked Dimmel.
“Yes, Keeper Dimmel. I am to be a greenling in only four sunsets.”
“You have given up three seasons of playing with your friends after mid sun to be an apprentice. Perhaps this afternoon you should go play. To be a youngling while you still can.”
“Really! Can I?”
Dimmel turned to face Raef again.
“Yes, go and play.”
Raef turned and started for the door.
“Just leave your robe here,” said Dimmel, “you can get it again next sunrise.”
Raef threw his robe on a bench and ran out the door. He ran down the street to Domik’s house. Domik would be done with lessons and have finished mid sun meal. He found Domik sitting under a tree in front of his house, wearing a blank expression.
“Ho, Domik!” Raef said.
Raef plopped down next to Domik and looked at his friend.
“Keeper Dimmel gave me the rest of the sun off. I can play if you want!”
“Alright,” Domik said, with a shrug.
“Come on, then,” said Raef, getting back up.
Domik slowly rose and Raef started down the road towards the north edge of the village. Raef kicked a pebble as they walked, kicking it again every few steps and trying to keep it on the path. Domik paused.
“Where are we going?” asked Domik.
“Just to the forest,” said Raef, “there is nothing to do here.”
Domik hesitated, but then followed. They reached the edge of the forest and walked into the trees. Raef meandered through the forest, moving farther from the village until they came across the old secret path. Domik stopped again.
“What is wrong?” asked Raef.
“Where are you going?”
“To see Rail, what did you think?”
Domik looked at his feet.
“I do not want to go there,” said Domik, “not any more.”
“Come on, Domik, what else is there to do?”
“But, why do you not want to see the dragon?”
Domik looked back toward the village. “We should not be going there. We are Intercessors.”
“But we’ve gone a hundred times!”
Domik looked at Raef. “We were younglings. You are a greenling in four sunsets and I will be next cycle.”
“But you went just a few sunsets past!” Raef said.
“I know, but…I do not want to now. It does not feel right.”
Raef hung his head and scuffed his shoe on the ground.
“Come to the square with me,” said Domik.
“Nah, the square is dull,” said Raef.
There was a long, awkward silence between them.
“Well, I need to go,” said Domik.
“Wait,” said Raef.
Domik walked quickly away, and Raef followed. Raef had to walk fast to keep up. They entered the village again, and Domik turned to walk west, away from their homes.
“Domik, where are you going?”
“To the square. Maybe we can find someone to play ball.”
Raef stopped, “I already said I didn’t want to go to the square.”
“Then don’t go,” said Domik, walking away.
Raef slumped to the ground, sitting on the edge of the road.
“I am almost a greenling,” he said out loud, “I have one sunset of freedom, and my best friend abandons me.”
Raef looked up to see Nilo walking toward him.
“Damn the spirits,” Raef mumbled to himself.
Nilo sat on the ground next to him, looking up and grinning.
“How come you are not working with the Keepers?”
“They gave me the rest of the sun off.”
“Oh, then maybe we can do something!”
“Nilo, I am almost a greenling,” said Raef, standing up.
Raef turned and headed back to the forest.
“Where ya going, Raef?” Nilo asked.
“Into the deep, dark and dangerous forest,” said Raef.
“I wanna go,” said Nilo.
“You are too small. Besides, your mother would not want you out in the forest.”
“She would let me, if I was with you.”
Raef ignored the youngling and continued into the forest. Nilo followed him. They walked a ways into the woods and Raef sat on the ground, his back against a large tree. Nilo plopped down next to him.
“What do you wanna do?” asked Nilo.
Raef closed his eyes and imagined himself flying off Rail’s snout. It was something new he had discovered last season. It was more fun than anything. But he was not even sure the dragon would come this early after mid sun meal. It was not their usual time to meet. Raef usually visited Rail after last meal, just before dark. The dragon visited other people in other secret places, Raef knew. Still, Rail might come. But first he had to get rid of Nilo.
“I need to go somewhere…alone,” said Raef.
“Let me come, please!”
Raef sighed, “Nilo, it is too scary for you, okay?”
“I will not be scared, I promise.”
Raef looked down at Nilo and tried to imagine the youngling with the dragon. Raef had been frightened the first time he saw the dragon, but then, he had only six seasons. Nilo had eight. At eight seasons Raef was visiting the dragon regularly.
“Nilo,” said Raef, “what do you know about the dragon?”
“Well,” said Nilo, very matter of factly, “it is supposed to be dangerous, and we are supposed to stay away from it.”
“Have you ever seen it?” Raef asked.
Nilo shook his head.
“What if it is not dangerous? What if our parents just don’t want us to see it?”
“Would you be scared to see the dragon?” asked Raef, “I mean, if you could hide behind something and watch it.”
“I dunno, maybe.”
“How about if I was there with you?”
“No,” said Nilo, “I would never be afraid if you were there.”
Nilo sat still and squinted his eyes as if in thought. Then he leaned close to Raef to whisper.
“Have you ever seen the dragon?”
“Maybe,” said Raef.
Nilo’s eyes grew wide, “Can you show me?”
“Shh,” said Raef, “not so loud.”
Nilo grew quiet but fidgeted in apparent excitement.
“I have a secret place I sometimes go,” said Raef, “I will show you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.”
“Of course I promise!” said Nilo, jumping up.
Raef stood up and headed for the secret trail. Nilo stayed close to Raef’s side. When they dropped down into the ravine Nilo began to look nervous.
“This is really far from home,” said Nilo.
“Kind of,” said Raef, “are you scared?”
“No, no, no. You are with me, so I am okay.”
They approached the clearing, and Raef could see that Rail was not there. He walked out into the middle of the clearing.
“I never knew there was a meadow way out here,” said Nilo.
“This is nothing,” said Raef, as he gazed into the sky.
Raef’s heart skipped when he spotted a black dot way up in the sky. He waved and it seemed to circle back toward them.
“Come on,” said Raef, “we can hide back here.”
Raef led Nilo behind the same clump of fern that Raef hid behind many seasons ago. Nilo seemed confused at first, but when he finally noticed the dragon flying down out of the sky he ducked down and grew silent. Rail landed in the center of the clearing and stretched its wings out nearly touching the trees on either side of the meadow.
“Look at it!” Raef whispered into Nilo’s ear.
“Is it not amazing?” asked Raef.
“It is more amazing than I ever imagined!” whispered Nilo.
The dragon craned its neck skyward, then yawned wide, baring its long teeth. Then it lay down and stretched out its claws, showing off its black talons.
“It is more huge than I thought,” said Nilo.
“You wanna know a secret?” asked Raef.
“Okay,” said Nilo.
“The dragon is nice.”
“Yes, it is nice, kind even, especially to younglings.”
Nilo gave Raef a confused look.
“Nu-uh,” said Nilo, “I don’t believe you.”
“I am telling the truth.”
Nilo peeked through the fern again. Raef observed how the youngling peered keenly at the beast, calming a little and making no move to run.
“Okay, I will prove it to you,” said Raef.
Raef slowly stood up and walked around the ferns into the meadow. Rail looked at him, and Raef held a finger up to his mouth. The dragon winked its huge eye. As Raef approached the dragon lowered its head to the ground and lifted its wings. It looked like it was bowing to Raef. Raef turned to face the ferns and motioned for Nilo to come. After a long pause, the youngling appeared at the meadow’s edge.
“It won’t hurt you,” said Raef, “come stand by me.”
Nilo walked slowly up to Raef. He was shaking, and his eyes were wide, staring intently at the dragon behind Raef.
“Remember you said you would not be afraid?”
Nilo gave a timid nod.
“Then show me you are not afraid. I will walk up and touch the dragon and then come back here. If it doesn’t do anything to me, then you have to go next.”
“You would really touch it?”
“Yes, but if I do you have to do it next.”
Nilo’s eyes opened round. He nodded slowly.
Raef held out his hand and stuck his thumb out, “You gotta promise first.”
Nilo gave a nervous grin and pressed his tumb against Raef’s. Raef turned back to the dragon and walked slowly up to its neck. As dramatically as he could, he slowly reached out and placed his palm on a large shiny scale. The dragon gave a low snort and shivered like a horse. Raef heard Nilo gasp behind him. Then Raef returned to Nilo’s side.
“Okay, you wanted to come out here, now it is your turn.”
“You have to come with me.”
Raef put his hand on Nilo’s shoulder and walked him to the dragon’s side. Raef reached out and put his hand on one of Rail’s slick scales.
“Go ahead, it’s okay.”
Nilo looked up at Raef, still grinning weakly, then reached out and placed his hand firmly on the same scale. The dragon snorted softly and shivered again. Nilo giggled.
“It let me touch it!” Nilo said.
“I told you. Here, let me show you something else.”
Nilo followed closely as Raef walked up to the dragon’s snout. Raef put his hand on the edge of one nostril.
“Feel this, it’s soft right here.”
Nilo carefully reached out and put his hand next to Raef’s.
“It is soft. And it isn’t even trying to hurt us or anything!”
Raef nodded to Rail.
“I would never hurt you,” said the dragon.
Nilo jumped back, but Raef held his shoulder to keep the youngling from running away.
“It…it talked!” said Nilo.
“That is another secret about the dragon.”
“Rail, this is my friend, Nilo,” said Raef.
Nilo looked up at Raef and smiled broadly.
“Hello, Nilo,” said Rail.
Nilo stuck his hand out to the dragon, “Ho, dragon!”
“Rail, its name is Rail,” said Raef.
Rail held out a talon and Nilo held it.
“Ho, Rail,” Nilo said.
Raef laughed, he had never seen anyone address Rail this way.
“Watch this!” said Raef.
He ran to Rail’s tail and threw a leg over its midpoint. Rail arched its tail upwards and Raef slid down the end to the ground.
“I wanna try!” said Nilo.
“It goes kind of high,” said Raef, remembering being a little afraid to do this when he was younger.
“I don’t care,” said Nilo, who was already climbing up to where Raef had sat.
Rail arched his tail higher than before. Raef was a little worried, but Nilo grinned and slid all the way to the ground, laughing.
“That was fun!” said Nilo.
“Okay, watch this!”
Raef walked to the end of Rail’s tail, lay on it, and hung on.
“Go slow at first,” Raef said.
Rail lifted his tail until Raef was nearly as tall as the fir trees surrounding them. Then the dragon began to move its tail in circles through the air.
“I wanna try!” yelled Nilo.
“Faster!” yelled Raef.
Soon he was being spun through the air at dizzying speeds. Nilo got on next and was brave enough to go quite fast, although not as fast as Raef.
“Okay, if you can do that, watch this!” said Raef, removing his shoes.
Rail lowered its huge head, and Raef climbed onto its snout. Raef lay flat on his back along the dragon’s long snout, the top of his head nearly between the dragon’s eyes. This was probably too scary for Nilo. Raef had only done this for the last season, but it was now his favorite game. He could at least show Nilo.
Rail flicked its head up and Raef flew into the air, half as high as the tallest trees. Raef did a somersault in the air, then fell and the dragon deftly caught him on the top of its furry head.
“Higher than that, Rail!” said Raef.
Raef slid from between the beast’s spiny ear spikes down to the dragon’s snout and lay down again. Rail tossed him higher, and he cleared the tops of the trees. Raef spread his arms as if he were flying as he fell. The dragon lifted its head to meet Raef half way down. When Raef contacted the dragon’s furry head, the beast quickly lowered its head with the youngling on top, then gradually slowed the decent until it stopped just above the ground.
“That was really high!” said Raef.
“Woah-ho!” shouted Nilo, “that was amazing!”
Raef slid off Rail’s head onto the ground.
“Do you want to try it? Maybe just a short jump?”
“Okay,” said Nilo, biting his finger.
Nilo removed his shoes and Raef helped him climb up on Rail’s snout. Nilo lay flat on his back, his legs and arms twitching.
“Just let the dragon do everything,” said Raef, “you just let go.”
“Okay,” said Nilo. He covered his eyes with his hands. “Ready!”
Rail gave Nilo a small shove and the youngling flew several spans into the air. Nilo shrieked as his arms and legs flailed in the air. He landed with a flop face down on Rail’s head. Nilo sat up and laughed loudly.
“Again!” he shouted.
Nilo took two more turns flying off Rail’s nose, going higher each time, finally reaching the very top of the tall firs. Nilo then slid to the ground and lay flat in the grass, breathing hard and smiling.
“You are very brave for just eight seasons,” said Raef.
“I would love to stay,” said the beast, “but I have others to see before sunset.”
“Thanks, Rail,” said Raef.
The dragon bent over the two, lowered its tongue and licked the top of Raef’s head.
“Rail!” Raef said, wiping his hair with his hands. He did not like it when the dragon did that.
“My turn,” said Nilo.
Nilo sat up, and the dragon licked his head. The youngling giggled.
“It kind of smells bad,” said Nilo.
“Not to me,” said Raef, “but I still don’t like it when it licks my head.”
Nilo stood up and the two youngling stepped back as the great dragon lifted its wings high. Raef braced himself as Rail threw its wings down and shot into the air. The wind blew Raef’s hair back but knocked Nilo to the ground.
“Wow, it makes a lot of wind!” said Nilo.
“Yes, it does.”
They put their shoes on and returned to the trail. Nilo stayed close to Raef’s side as they walked up out of the ravine. When they reached the end of the secret trail, Raed stopped and searched Nilo and himself for any stray dragon hairs that might still be stuck to them. Nilo became unusually quiet.
“Well?” said Raef.
“I suppose I kind of liked it,” said Nilo.
“You suppose? You were laughing the whole time.”
“Well, yes, but…it was the dragon. Will we be in trouble?”
“No, no,” said Raef, “lots of younglings visit the dragon.”
That was not entirely true. At least, Raef did not know if it was true. Nilo looked a bit worried.
“Nilo, don’t worry about it. No one will find out. Come on, we should get home.”
Nilo followed silently as Raef led the way back to the village. Nilo was never silent.
“You wanna come out here again?” asked Raef.
Nilo shrugged without looking up at Raef.
“You could come with me if you want.”
“You want me to come with you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well, I would go again, if it was with you.”
Raef put his hand on Nilo’s shoulder as they walked. Nilo finally looked up at Raef and smiled. Raef walked him home.
Youngling’s End is the first of three great celebrations in one’s life in the Great Province. The second is Greenling’s End, and the last is Marriage. Youngling’s End is much more than the passing of another season; it is the passing of all things youngling and the entrance into the world of greenlings and greenlias. Greenlias remain living at home until marriage, but for males becoming a greenling is the most profound experience of their life to that point.
Laborer greenlings usually remain at home, working with their own fathers until they marry. But Laborers marry quite young, sometimes very shortly after becoming greenling, as they need to learn few skills before they can begin working in earnest and support a family. Other greenlings leave their parents’ home after Youngling’s End. Merchant greenlings go to live with their master while they serve as an apprentice. Noble greenlings, like Merchants, move in with their new masters, but often do so in another village or even a city. The highest honor to a Noble greenlings is to be accepted by a Noble Master in Summit City. But Warrior and Intercessor greenlings move from their homes to stay in dormeries. The Warrior sector and Intercessor sector each have a dormery where greenlings live together under the care of a Dormer and Dormeress until marriage as an older greenling or adulthood, whichever comes first. Moving into a dormery was something Raef was very excited about.
Raef woke on the first sunrise of his thirteenth season with great anticipation. He got up and dressed quickly, before anyone else woke. After dressing he paused to look down on his bed. He smiled, knowing he would never sleep on it again. He did his New Leaf washing, ate some bread, then put on his robe and left for the Keep. He retrieved the key on the small table in the entry hall and took it to open the Ceremonial Lodge. He was early, so he decided to throw out the old fir branches they had been using in daily homage and cut some new ones. He took the old branches, which were beginning to turn brown, and ran to the forest. Raef dumped the old branches and quickly cut some new ones with his eating knife. He did not want to be late to homage, not this sun’s journey.
When Raef returned, the other apprentices were at the lodge looking for the fir branches. He handed the new ones out and they made two lines between which the villagers would pass as they held the branches high. Soon the Keepers arrived and walked between Raef and the other apprentices in their long red robes. When Keeper Dimmel passed through, Raef gently swatted him with his branch. It was not appropriate behavior for an apprentice, but the villagers were not there to see, so it brought no shame to the Keeper. Dimmel smiled at Raef.
After homage, Dimmel released Raef to prepare for Youngling’s End. Raef’s mother, Malta, took him to get new clothes for the last time. Raef noticed that she was a bit teary eyed, which he didn’t understand on such a happy occasion. Raef was measured for new trousers, for which he selected brown wool, a new white linen shirt, and new shoes. He was disappointed that there was no deer hide available, but he asked them to be cut with pointy tips at the end, a new fashion that had become popular in the village, especially among greenlings.
After purchasing new clothing, Raef went to the meadow where the older Intercessor younglings, including his friend, Domik, were gathering. Many younglings Raef did not know as they had too few seasons for him to remember from when he attended the Training Lodge. They played tag together in the grass until they were too tired to run any longer. Raef and Domik’s mothers arrived with baskets of sweet cakes and a cask of weak beer for the younglings. Then Raef’s father arrived, just before mid sun meal, and other families with smaller younglings, including Nilo’s, began to arrive from all over the village. When the word gets out that someone is celebrating Youngling’s End, it is polite for other younglings, even from other classes, to show up and see them off. The exception being Warrior families as they rarely attend any celebrations or ceremonies that are not within their own Warrior class. Chaz did show up, however, coming to greet Raef one last time as a younglings. Raef was surprised and happy to see him.
Families had brought dried meat, bread, and other food that could be eaten by hand. Raef’s father and mother told funny stories of him growing up, making everyone laugh. Raef watched Chaz, who was sitting near him, and noticed that when Chaz laughed it was not to make fun, but to laugh with him. Then Folor became somber and told the story of Raef standing up to the dragon when it attacked the Warriors. Folor recounted how Raef meditated for many suns afterward until Prime Rodon recovered from wounds everyone had expected to be terminal. Chaz looked away during this story. After the stories were over, the younglings got up for the traditional foot race. As they walked to the line Folor had drawn in the dirt, Chaz came to Raef’s side and put his arm around him. The youngling Warrior said nothing; he only smiled kindly at Raef, something he had not done for many seasons.
It is poor manners to outrun the one celebrating Youngling’s End at his or her own race. There was no chance of that happening, however as Raef’s long legs made it easy for him to win the short race even if the others actually tried to win. His mother yelled the starting signal, and Folor stood at the finish line to proclaim the winner. Raef was two spans ahead of the runner up.
After the race, Raef turned to all the younglings, Chaz, Nilo and Domik included, and waved goodbye to them. He then walked with his parents to the square. They stopped in the middle of the square, and his father patted him on the shoulder.
“You are a good son,” said Folor, “do well as a greenling.”
Raef’s mother hugged him tightly. She was crying a little. Raef hugged her back. He had to admit he would miss living in the same home as his mother.
“I will miss you,” said his mother.
“I will be living not far from the house, mother,” Raef said, “and I will see you frequently.”
His mother smiled, tears still in her eyes. Raef stepped away from his parents, smiled, then turned south, heading for the tavern. Raef didn’t really like taverns much. This was the closest tavern to the Intercessor sector and was said to be the quietest tavern in the village, but he did not like places where men became rowdy. Taverns were rowdy places.
Raef, still wearing his blue robe, entered the tavern. It was the same one where he had celebrated his eleventh season. Prime Keeper Bremen, Keeper Dimmel and Keeper Chaummer were there, all in their bright red robes. His father would not attend because, as was tradition, at Youngling’s End a father releases his son to enter the greenling world on his own.
Keeper Dimmel lifted a mug as Raef entered. Five other greenlings, all apprentice Intercessors, were sitting at a second table, and they gave a great cheer, lifting their own mugs. Raef joined the apprentices, who all slapped him heartily on the back. A little too hard, Raef thought. He was as tall as most of them, but looked much younger and was by far the slimmest of them all.
Raef was well acquainted with the Intercessor apprentices. They were Xoh, Mijo, Denol, Breem and Kommel. The youngest was Mijo who had fifteen seasons. Raef had been working alongside most them during sunrise homage for three seasons. But none of these greenlings were to become Keepers. They would, in fact, serve under Raef in time. But for now they were all apprentices, and even though Raef was finally a greenling like them, he was still the youngest. They teased him quite a bit, when the Keepers were not around, and he suspected it would probably get worse in the dormery. But they were not intentionally malicious, not like the Warriors had been when he was a youngling.
Keeper Bremen came up behind Raef and banged a large wooden mug down in front of Raef.
“No more weak beer for you,” said Prime Bremen, “have some ale like the rest of us!”
“Here, here!” cried the other five apprentices, raising their mugs in the air. Raef lifted his mug, and the five greenlings banged theirs against his, sloshing a fair amount of ale onto the table.
Raef took a drink, finding it stronger than he anticipated. Someone slapped him on the back, and he nearly spit out what was in his mouth. The innkeeper brought out wonderful smelling sausages and breads and even some cheese, a rare treat. The older greenlings began to devour them immediately. Raef giggled at the rudeness of the apprentices, who usually tried to impress adults around them with their properness. He looked at the Keepers, who were laughing as well. He shrugged and snagged two sausages, some cheese and a piece of bread. Raef was not bashful about eating, and he was not going to let these greenlings, even if they were older, make him go hungry.
The innkeeper continued to bring out more food and more ale as they talked and joked together. Raef was careful with the strong ale, but he noticed the other greenlings had begun to laugh too hard at things that were not particularly funny. The Keepers did not seem to care. They remained at the tavern until late afternoon, at which time Raef was full and tired of the hot, noisy room. They all left together, but the Keepers headed to their homes while the apprentices took Raef with them.
“Come on, Raef!” said Denol, one of the older greenlings, “we gotta show you some fun.”
“I am already an apprentice,” said Raef, “I do not need your help with that.”
“No, no, no,” said Xoh, “you need to come with us.”
Raef saw there was no point in arguing, so he let them drag him back to the square. A traveling band of minstrels were playing and singing at one corner of the square. A small crowd had circled around to sing along. The greenlings drug Raef to the circle, and they began to sing along loudly and badly. Raef wanted to hide, but they held him by each arm, trying to get him to sing. Minstrels were not a particularly highly esteemed group and as a result generally took ridicule in stride. When the greenlings sang too loud the minstrels smiled and tried to play louder, as if to accompany the rude apprentices. The young Intercessors began to stick out their tongues at the minstrels and make up silly words to the common songs and eventually it was obvious that even the minstrels were becoming annoyed with the greenling Intercessors.
After staying longer than Raef had liked, the group left the minstrels and dragged Raef through the streets of the Intercessor sector.
“Hello there, lovely!” said Breem as they passed a greenlia in the street.
As was proper for a female, the greenlia did not look up at them, but passed silently by.
“Now that’s a shy one,” said Kommel.
“You are all terrible,” said Raef.
“Oh, come, come, young Keeper,” said Denol, “we have to behave proper each sun’s journey. Everything we do is supervised, even in the dormery. We are allowed just a few times a season to be free of our masters, and we will act how we please when we are.”
The group calmed down a bit, but continued to roam the streets until dark. Raef was glad when they finally headed for the dormery. The dormery was in the middle of the cluster of Intercessor lodges, between the kitchen and the stables.
“Sweet smell on one side, foul on the other!” said Mijo.
The Intercessor class was the smallest other than the Nobles. As a result there were not many apprentice Intercessors at any one time. For this reason the dormery, while much larger than a normal home, was small for a lodge.
Raef entered the dormery in the center where the only doorway was. The center area, apparently for eating, had a fire pit in the middle and a very long table with benches off to one side. To the left was a wall and doorway to where the Dormer and Dormeress slept. To the right, just beyond the table and bench, was a long area that was obviously where the apprentices slept. No wall separated the eating and sleeping areas, but Raef noticed a curtain pulled against one wall between the closest bed and the table. A pole ran along the ceiling for it to run on so the sleeping section could be separated from the eating section. Sort of a giant privacy curtain behind which all the apprentices slept.
The sleeping section was at least twice as long as the eating section, four beds lining each of the two long walls. The feet of the beds faced the center isle with the head of each against the walls. The entire structure had only one window, positioned on the far wall of the sleeping area. Unfortunately, just beyond the lone window was the horse stable.
The beds had straw mattresses. Unlike Raef’s home, the mattresses did not lay on the floor, but were raised up on wooden boxes. Beside the head of each bed was a small table where the greenlings had folded their extra clothing. And the clothing was folded very neatly, Raef noticed. The beds were all neatly made as well and the floor swept clean.
“I didn’t expect it to be so…clean,” said Raef.
“The Dormeress beats us if we are messy,” said Xoh.
“I do not beat you!” came a woman’s voice as the Dormeress came out of her quarters. She was a squat woman with peppered hair and a ruddy but smiling face.
“Don’t believe a word any of them say,” she said to Raef. “My name is Neena, and I am the Dormeress.”
“Good to meet you, Neena,” said Raef.
“And what,” said Neena, turning to the others, “possessed you to think you could stay out so late?”
“This is Youngling’s End for master Raef!” said Denol, “It would be rude to make him turn in early.”
“I will turn you in early, you bunch of brutes!”
Neena grabbed a long stick that had been leaning against the wall and took a swat at Denol. The greenling laughed and jumped out of range. Neena gave him a fierce look back.
“Ready for bed, now, all of you!”
Neena’s face melted into a smile, and she turned back to Raef.
“Wait one moment, apprentice Raef, I have a package for you.”
Neena disappeared into her room and reappeared quickly with a package wrapped in twine. Raef took it and opened it. It was his new trousers, shirt and shoes along with his old night robe. He smiled. Neena threatened the other greenlings again then returned to her room. Raef wondered where the Dormer was. Breem showed Raef which was to be his bed. It was the third bed from the door. Reaf noticed the last two beds, nearest the window, were empty. He started to ask why the six greenlings were crowded together at the end nearest the fire rather than spread out among all eight beds until he caught the scent of the stables coming through the window. Denol pulled the privacy curtain closed and the greenlings began changing into their night robes, not bothering to turn and face the wall as they dressed. Raef turned away from them to change. These beds were longer than his old bed at home. That would be nice, as tall as he had become. The beds looked odd sitting so tall. He sat on his new bed and noticed how strange it felt to sit on a mattress so high off the ground. When he stretched out on it, however, he decided he liked the feeling of being off the floor. It made him feel…older.
It was hard to get to sleep that night. Some of the greenlings snored, though not as loud as his father. It was strange to have people sleeping so close to him. The greenling on his left side was close enough he could have reached out and touched him across the isle. He felt crowded even though he had plenty of room on his bed. He could also smell the faint odor of horse manure coming through the open window. That would take getting used to. Raef rolled over, trying to get comfortable.
He listened to the night sounds coming from the window. It sounded different, somehow. Then he realized he was farther from the forest. It was harder to hear the tree frogs here. His old home had been right on the edge of the forest. The dormery was not. Between him and the forest were the Ceremonial Lodge, the Healing Lodge, and at least two houses. He didn’t know why, but that bothered him. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
Raef woke up the next sunrise not feeling well. The other greenlings did not look well either, eyes barely open and groaning frequently, but they got up right away and began to dress. Raef sat up and felt nearly ill. He belched and tasted sausages and ale. Too much sausages and ale, he imagined. Raef could hear someone on the other side of the curtain. It sounded like someone was placing a pot on the table.
“Get up, hurry!” said Mijo, the youngest besides Raef. “Neena gets her stick out if we don’t wake right away.”
Raef pulled his feet out of bed and was surprised when his feet fell below him before hitting the floor. That’s right, he remembered, this bed was raised off the floor. He stood and removed his night robe and reached for his clothes. He smiled as he picked up his new shirt. He liked wearing well fitting clothes each time he reached a new season. As soon as he laced up his second shoe the curtain was pulled open and all the greenlings moved to the table. A man, who Raef assumed was the Dormer, was stoking the fire as Neena poured something into bowls.
Raef joined the others all around the long table and Neena pushed a bowl of porridge in his direction. He grabbed for a spoon, but there was none. The other greenlings had spoons and were eating.
“Where is my spoon?” asked Raef.
“You did not bring your own?” asked Neena.
“I…I thought there would be one here.”
“Certainly you were given a spoon at birth, young master Raef,” said Neena.
“No, Raef’s family eat with their hands,” said Xoh, one of the greenlings.
“I did not think to bring it with me,” said Raef.
A couple of the greenlings giggled. Neena gave them a stern look.
“Well, you will just have to make do this sunrise. Be sure to fetch your spoon by mid sun meal, you will need it.”
Raef stared at his bowl. He didn’t know what to do. It would be rude to pick it up and drink from it. The other greenlings ate and watched him. He shrugged and waited for Neena to turn around, then picked up his bowl and drank some porridge. His face scrunched up at the taste. It was not as good as his mother’s. Kommel let out a muffled laugh. Neena spun around and swatted him on the back with her switch.
“Ow!” said Kommel, “Sorry, sorry.”
“You greenlings will grow to be courteous young men,” said Neena, swatting Kommel on the head with the palm of her hand, “or you won’t make it out of this dormery alive.”
Raef could tell she was joking. Sort of. But she had obviously lied about not beating them. Raef finished, put his robe on and left for the Keep. Once in the Keep he went to the cleansing room that contained the pedestal and ceremonial washing bowl. Raef walked to the silver washbasin in the center of the little room and performed the New Leaf washing ritual. He had not done so back in the dormery because such rituals were not for the lower Intercessors to see. Then he went to the entry hall, removed the key from its hook on the wall and left the Keep. When he arrived at the Ceremonial Lodge to unlock it the other apprentices were there waiting, each wearing a sand-colored robe, the garment worn by all Intercessor apprentices. All apprentices not destined to be Keepers.
“She will give you a few sun’s journeys, maybe a whole cycle, before she starts beating you as well,” said Denol.
“Do not ever cross her, I mean really cross her,” said Mijo.
“I crossed her once,” said Breem, “I could not sit for three sunsets after that beating!”
The greenlings laughed. Raef smiled weakly and unlocked the door. Raef led the greenlings into the lodge to fetch the fir branches. Armed with branches they exited the lodge and formed two lines of three, with room to pass between for the men and greenlings who would soon arrive. Denol and Breem stood across from each other, closest to the door as they were the eldest. Next were Xoh and Kommel and finally Raef who stood across from Mijo. All smiles and fidgeting stopped when the Keepers arrived.
After sunrise homage Raef locked the Ceremonial Lodge door and went to the Keep to return the key. Dimmel was waiting for him in the entry hall.
“What am I to do this sun’s journey?” asked Raef as he handed Dimmel the key.
“You are to report to Keeper Folor who is serving in the Healing Lodge.”
“And after mid sun meal?”
Dimmel furrowed his brow quizzically at Raef.
“Am I to continue serving at the stable after mid sun meals?”
“No, apprentice Raef. You have served in all the areas of Intercessor life and, since you have entered the seasons of greenlings, you will only apprentice under a Keeper from now on.”
Raef smiled, “Yes, Keeper Dimmel.”
Raef turned and left the Keep, trying to control his excitement and not skip like a youngling. Raef walked to the other side of the Ceremonial Lodge where the Healing Lodge was located. He entered the door to the long structure. He looked down the long rows of beds, mostly empty he noticed, but did not see his father. Raef walked to the Healer, a short, balding man who wore an earthy woolen robe.
“Have you seen my…uh…Keeper Folor?”
“Keeper Folor has not yet arrived,” said the Healer, his bushy gray eyebrows lifting.
Raef turned and left the lodge. He paused outside. It was not like his father to be late anywhere, especially if it was related to his service as Keeper. Raef began walking east down the street leading to his father’s home. When he was nearly there he stopped. Folor would not be home. He had already come to sunrise homage, there would be no reason for him to return home again until mid sun meal. Raef turned again and headed back to the Ceremonial Lodge. Perhaps Folor was in the Keep. Raef walked to the Keep and entered. He heard no one, but searched each room to be sure. A couple of scribes were working in the back room, but Folor was nowhere to be found. The only other Intercessor structure was the stables, but Raef could not imagine why Folor would go there. Then he remembered; the apothecary, of course! Folor might have gone to the apothecary, where herbal remedies are prepared for the ill. Raef walked faster around the Ceremonial Lodge once more to reach the kitchen and apothecary on the south side. Raef entered the main door, walked through the kitchen and found his father mashing herbs in a clay mortar while two younger herbalists, who looked very nervous, brought herbs and stood by fidgeting.
“Raef, where in all the Province have you been!” said Folor.
Raef blushed. His father was to refer to him as “apprentice Raef” in front of others.
“Keeper Folor, I went to the Healing Lodge as instructed.”
“Apprentice Raef,” said Folor, “why would I go to the Healing Lodge before first preparing the remedy?”
“I, I did not know you were going to the Healing Lodge to apply a remedy.”
“For the love of the spirits, why else would I go to the Healing Lodge?”
Raef stood silently as Folor mashed the herbs forcefully with a stone pestle. The two herbalists stepped back and looked at the floor.
“Now that you have finally graced us with your presence, fetch me some lungwort.”
Raef looked at the herbalists who lifted their palms upward and shook their heads.
“I do not think there is any lungwort in the apothecary,” said Raef.
Folor stopped mashing and glared at Raef.
“Why would I ask you to fetch lungwort if there were already some in the apothecary! You are an apprentice, and seasoned at that. Go to the herb garden!”
Raef turned and ran out the door. He could feel his face burning. He walked the short distance to the herb garden and looked down the neat rows of plants. He could not remember. He had served in the herb garden, yet another task he was not good at, but he had never learned the names of the herbs. He knew lemon balm, with roundish, well-veined leaves, and he was fairly certain marjoram was the lacey-leaved plant, but he could not remember which of the other plants was lungwort. Raef stood and stared at the garden, feeling panicked. There were four other kinds besides the two he knew. He grabbed two sprigs of a plant with small oval leaves and ran back to the apothecary. Folor was still grinding herbs, now nearly a paste. Raef held out the plant. Folor stopped and looked. His face turned red.
“Apprentice Raef,” Folor said slowly, “that is fever few. Have you learned nothing in the three seasons you have served as apprentice?”
“I…I don’t know what…”
“Lungwort is the plant with leaves shaped like LUNGS! It is the easiest of all herbs to identify!”
Raef turned and ran out of the building and back to the herb garden. His father had never yelled at him in front of others before.
“Lungs, lungs, why can’t I remember something so simple!” Raef said to himself.
He easily spotted the lungwort and picked several sprigs, then returned to his father’s side in the apothecary. Folor took the leaves without speaking, dropped them into the mortar, and began grinding them to paste with the pestle.
“More oil,” said Folor.
One of the herbalists rapidly snatched a clay pitcher from a nearby table and handed it to Raef. The herbalist gave Raef an empathetic smile.
“Pour a little in for me,” said Folor.
Raef paused. He did not want to do the pouring. He would make a mistake for sure. He held the pitcher over the mortar and gently poured a thin trickle.
“More, more than that, Raef.”
Raef tipped the pitcher to increase the stream of oil.
“That is enough,” said Folor.
Raef pulled the pitcher to his chest and watched his father grind the oil and herbs into a greenish brown paste. Folor put the stone pestle down and picked up the mortar.
“Come, apprentice Raef,” said Folor.
Raef followed his father out of the apothecary and kitchen, around the Ceremonial Lodge and to the Healing Lodge. They entered and Folor paused. One of the healing assistants noticed them and came to them.
“Healer Nonim is this way, Keeper Folor,” said the assistant.
They were led down a row of beds to the Healer who Raef had met earlier. The short, balding man bowed.
“I will show you to the man I spoke of two sunsets past,” said the Healer.
Nonim lead Folor and Raef through the rows of beds until they came to a very ill looking man. He was sweating profusely and was wheezing loudly. His eyes stared blankly at the ceiling.
“We have given him lungwort each sunrise, yet he does not improve.”
Folor bent over the ill man and opened his mouth to look inside.
“Additional herbs are needed for this kind of illness,” said Folor.
“As you say, Keeper Folor,” said Nonim.
Folor took a large pinch of the herbal mash and put it in the ill man’s mouth. The ill man made a sour face.
“You must eat it,” said Folor.
The man swallowed, with difficulty, and Healer Nonim gave him a cup of water to drink. Then Folor handed the mortar to Raef and turned the man onto his chest, moving him so his head leaned off the bed.
“Keeper Folor,” said Nonim, “laying on his chest makes it difficult for him to breathe.”
“It is necessary,” said Folor.
Then Folor pulled the man’s shirt up, exposing his back, and began clapping his flat palm against the ill man’s back. One of the assistant healers came to see what the noise was. Folor moved his hand a little before each strike, slowly covering the ill man’s entire back with dull slaps. The ill man began to cough.
“Bring a pot,” said Folor.
Nonim motioned to the assistant, who stepped quickly away, then returned with a shallow clay pot.
“Put it under him on the floor,” said Folor.
The assistant healer placed the pot on the floor under the ill man’s face. The ill man coughed violently and spit out a yellowish liquid. Raef found it vile and had to look away. Folor continued slapping the man’s back until he stopped coughing.
“You may turn him over now,” said Folor. “Give him more of the herbal mixture each sunrise and perform the back remedy sunrise, mid sun, and sunset.”
The Healer and assistant got the man on his back again and covered him with a blanket. The man closed his eyes and appeared to be going to sleep.
“As you wish, Keeper Folor,” said Ninom.
Folor turned and walked towards the door. Raef followed, confused by what he had seen inside the Healing Lodge.
“How do you know what herbs to give him?” Raef asked, “You are not a Healer.”
“When I was in Krellit, the city of learning, I studied with the Master Healers for three seasons.”
“But, father, I thought you studied with the Cloudsmen in Krellit.”
“I did, for two seasons before I studied with the Master Healers.”
“Why did Healer Ninom not know what to do for the ill man?”
“Ninom learned his skills from the Healer before him. He did not study in Krellit. In fact, I do not believe anyone in Fir Hollow has even been to Krellit, much less studied in the great City of Learning.”
Raef had more questions for his father. How had he become a Keeper? How long had Folor lived in Krellit? How did he end up in a small village like Fir Hollow? But Raef decided not to ask any other questions. He was not certain of his father’s patience for such things at the moment.
Raef followed his father on his rounds until mid sun meal. Raef took a brief trip to his old home to retrieve his spoon. After mid sun meal Raef went back to assisting Keeper Dimmel. Dimmel released Raef when the sun reached three quarters sky, but the other Intercessor apprentices had service yet to do. Raef realized there might be time to visit the dragon and began to head towards the forest. He stopped short, remembering his oath to himself that he would cease visiting the dragon upon becoming a greenling.
Raef began pacing back and forth. He could not imagine not seeing Rail again. He had not even said goodbye to it. Raef put his hands on top of his head as he continued pacing. He was a greenling now, and living in the dormery, an Intercessor dormery at that. He began to feel a bit panicked. He did not think he could stop visiting Rail, not yet.
He didn’t really feel much different than he had as a youngling. He had imagined something would change when he reached thirteen seasons. Alas, he felt no different at all. He did not feel nearly a man as greenling were supposed to be. He still wanted to play ball and tag, though those were youngling games. He was not a man, after all. No, he reasoned, he was not a man at all. He was, perhaps, not the youngling he had been, but he was still quite young. He had just thirteen seasons, and barely that.
Perhaps he had been wrong, vowing no to visit the dragon after he reached thirteen seasons. Perhaps a greenling did not have too many seasons to visit the dragon. DeAlsím and Rocecé had visited the dragon often as greenling. Yes, Raef reasoned, he could wait until he was a man to stop seeing the dragon. A small, barely perceptible tinge of unease flittered in the back of Raef’s mind, but he brushed it aside.
Raef started for the forest, then paused. He turned in the direction of his old home and walked toward it. When he neared the house, he went behind it, along the forest edge, and walked past his old home. Behind the next house a youngling was playing, apparently fighting some imaginary foe. The youngling noticed Raef and paused.
“Ho, Nilo. Would you like to come into the forest with me?”
Nilo looked into the forest, appearing to be deep in thought. After several moments of silence, he looked up at Raef again, his eyebrows furrowed slightly. The youngling’s face slowly relaxed and became expressionless. Nilo nodded and followed Raef into the trees.
As the moon cycles past Raef found it fairly easy to adapt to the life of a greenling. The Dormer and Dormess were never angry as long as Raef obeyed the rules. Unlike the other Intercessor apprentices, Raef tried to obey the rules even when he was not being watched. Raef was good at following rules. The other Intercessor greenlings did not take long to stop teasing Raef. He imagined they knew he would be their master in a few seasons, even if he was the youngest of them now. He was glad they treated him as an equal, but he imagined it was mostly due to them wanting him to remember them fondly once he became a Keeper.
Domik became a greenling mid summer and moved into the dormery. Domik had requested to apprentice as a scribe, which was a respectable position among the Intercessors. Raef was happy that his friend was accepted by the scribes as an apprentice. Raef no longer asked Domik to come with him on his visits to the dragon, but he suspected that Domik was going to see Rail alone for Raef had seen the greenling emerging from the forest at odd times with a look of guilt on his face.
As fall came and winter approached, Raef’s life developed a comfortable routine. Each sunrise he woke early and ate with the other apprentices. He left first to have time to do his ceremonial New Leaf washing in the Keep. Then he retrieved the key and opened the Ceremonial Lodge. He could now do his part of the sunrise homage without thought or concentration. Afterward he would assist the Keepers, usually Keeper Dimmel, though he assisted all of them at one time or another. Raef was a bit surprised at how seldom he was asked to assist his father, however. In fact, Raef did not speak much with his father as a greenling, something that he had not expected. Then there were the New Moon and Full Moon ceremonies to assist with, but they had become routine as well. The Keepers were quick to allow him time alone to meditate when he requested it, which was quite often. From time to time he did try to meditate, but he found that he was rarely able to see the Great Spirit during meditation and he never heard Zul’s voice any longer. Most often, Raef used these times to steal away to see Rail, alone or with Nilo or Rocecé.
When winter arrived Raef was asked to begin meeting with Prime Keeper Bremen for advanced training as a Keeper. Raef did not know what that meant, but he was excited and pleased to have the Prime Keeper’s attention. The sunrise his advanced training was to begin Raef made his way to the village square after homage on a mission to purchase more wax for the candles. He was to make candles before mid sun then meet with Prime Bremen after mid sun meal. Raef patted the pouch tied to his belt and heard the coins jingle. He smiled to himself, pleased that he was now entrusted with handling purchases for the Keepers. He entered the square and smiled at people as he passed them.
“Oh, my!” he heard a woman nearby say.
Raef glanced in the direction of the voice and saw a woman walking quickly away from him. That was odd, Raef thought. He wondered what he had done to cause the woman to act in such a way. He stopped and looked self-consciously around him. He noticed several people glancing nervously in his direction and some that began walking away from him. Raef inspected his robe, to be sure there was no dragon hair hanging off him he had somehow forgotten to remove. There was nothing. In fact, his robe had been newly washed and looked cleaner than normal.
He looked up and noticed people were pointing in his direction. A tingle of fear went up his spine. What was he doing, he wondered, to be drawing such attention? The entire square seemed to have stopped all activity and were looking in his direction, even the women, who were not to look directly at men or greenlings in public. Someone behind him screamed and Raef turned swiftly. Then he noticed that the villagers were not looking at him, they were looking above him. Raef looked up to see the dragon diving from the sky at a steep angle, straight at him.
“Rail!” Raef shouted above the other screams, “What are you doing?”
As fast as lightning the dragon extended a claw and swept Raef off his feet. The blow to his chest knocked the wind out of him. Raef gasped repeatedly but was unable to draw a breath. His head spun as the ground below him shrunk. With great effort he was finally able to suck in a breath of air and his head stopped spinning. He heard screams below, and he looked down. A group of Warriors were gathering. Raef saw Chaz among them, now wearing an apprentice Warrior headband.
“Raef!” yelled Chaz.
Raef turned away. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing, which was still difficult. By the time he could breathe regularly his village was barely visible behind him. Raef strained to look over Rail’s claw. They were high in the air, so far above the trees he could scarcely make out any details below. Raef looked forward and saw the dark form of Black Rock Mountain straight ahead.
“Rail,” said Raef, “Why did you do that? You took me in front of the whole village, everyone saw!”
The dragon did not answer. Raef suddenly became very worried that he had misjudged the dragon.
“Are you … are you going to eat me?”
“I told you dragons do not eat younglings.”
“I am not a youngling any longer.”
“I am not going to eat you.”
“Then, why did you take me?”
“Because it is time for you to join the rest.”
“The rest of what?”
The dragon bent its head down and peered at Raef.
“You have done well,” the dragon rumbled, “I am taking you home with me.”
“Home? You mean, Black Rock? Rail, I cannot go to Black Rock. I am a Keeper!”
“You are a Dragon Child,” Rail said smoothly, “it is what you were born to be. And now you are finally ready to join me and learn the secrets of Black Rock.”
A Dragon Child? There are others? Something he was born to be? Learn the dragon’s secrets? For a moment, Raef was intrigued. Then he remembered.
“Rail, I cannot do this. My mother, my family, my friends; I cannot leave them!”
“Your family and the Keepers do not know you as I do. And your friends, those we know together, they will join us in time.”
“Master Raef, remember who I am. I know you. Are you not curious what lies on the other side?”
Raef grew silent. Far below his dangling feet, the tops of trees flew by. There was a stream, or a river perhaps. From here it looked like a thin blue ribbon. To his left, a light green patch among the trees. A meadow. Everything looked so tiny from up here. Raef faced forward, feeling the wind in his face. His hair pulled back behind him, whipping in the strong breeze. The dark mountain loomed ahead, its craggy peaks jutting far above the trees. The mountain was dark, nearly black, without a single tree sprouting from it. He was afraid, but Rail was right, he did want to see what lay beyond.
Raef wrapped his arms over the top black talon that gripped him, watching the dark mountain loom closer. He could not imagine what lay ahead. He wondered if he would be afraid. Raef felt his insides twist up in knots. He looked down as they passed over the jagged peaks of Black Rock.
HOW TO HELP THE AUTHOR
If you enjoyed reading Raef’s adventure in The Shadow of Black Rock, your rating would be highly appreciated. Just go to your favorite bookseller and leave a review—even a single sentence or two will help!
John W Fort
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John W Fort earned an MST in Science Education at Portland State University and taught biology, chemistry and physics for nine years. Afterward he has entertained a number of careers to pursue numerous creative interests.
Diagnosed as hyperactive and attention deficit as a child, rather than seek a cure he embraces the oddity and mental frenzy it provides. John loves conversation and debate, but it is recommended that others only join him when under the influence of high doses of coffee—preferably espresso.
He lives with his wife and two children in Oregon.
Find out more at
Thanks to Chris Swayzee and Keith Naber for encouraging me through this project. Your ongoing encouragement and support made this book possible. You are true friends who keep me going when I want to give up.
The dragons in my life are little threat with friends like the two of you.
ABOUT THE FORBIDDEN SCROLL SERIES
I realized I liked creative writing in sixth grade, and imagined then that I might one day write an entire book. The idea of The Forbidden Scrolls came to me during a time in my life when I was separated from my family, much like Erif finds himself in this series. I reflected on how life can go wrong without us realizing it until too late and wanted to write about that, but it just seemed so heavy as a non-fiction topic. That’s when the idea of creating a fictional story set in medieval times to express my thoughts occured to me.
The original manuscript for what became books 1 and 2 of The Forbidden Scrolls was actually written by hand over the span of two or three years. It took nearly 10 years before I published it and began working on the rest of the series.
The books I’ve written so far in the series include:
Book 1: The Shadow of Black Rock
Book 2: The Other Side of Black Rock
Book 3: Under the Burning Sun
The series will continue…
Book 1 of The Forbidden Scroll series. A young boy growing up in a medieval world finds himself torn between the duties of his religious cast and a forbidden dragon that befriends him. The beast is nothing like the village elders have taught—acting more like friend than foe—yet to be found with it would mean expulsion from the village. The boy discovers more questions than answers in his studies as an apprentice. His confusion deepens the more he visits the dragon that defies all his masters teach. The answers can only lie beyond the forbidden mountain that overshadows the village—Black Rock, the home of the beast itself.