The Children of Iron and Earth
There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. There were times - sometimes entire months - when you could safely make the crossing without seeing a single one of them. There were times when the road through the Valley would be filled with merchants and travelers, and you could forget that it was dangerous. And yet, a voice whispered into the corner of my mind, scraping and clawing its way deeper, and yet...
I pressed two fingers to the flat iron disc sewn onto my left cuff, and brought it to my mouth.
“Of iron,” I said to the attendant at the door. My voice sounded hollow.
“Of the earth, and of your blood,” the attendant replied, echoing the gesture with the disc on her own sleeve. But where mine was a solid circle, hers was an empty ring.
And yet nothing, I tried to assure myself, hurrying out of the laboratory. There aren’t always dragons in the Valley. I folded my sleeve down over the solid circle of iron and moved away from the attendant’s cloyingly supportive gaze and the hushed murmuring of the scholars behind me. My shoes started to make a scraping sound as I descended the steps, so I must have been unsteady on my feet. My legs felt numb. Was it cowardly to feel apprehensive? Would someone else be walking proudly down these steps, ready and eager for adventure?
Adventure, mocked that little voice, or death?
My pulse was uncomfortably fast. Death was inevitable for my kind. It was necessary. But to burn?
“Are you alright, Ano?” asked the second attendant, stationed at the bottom of the stairs.
I swallowed and tasted smoke. She would ask what was wrong, and I needed to get outside. My skin was so hot. “I’m fine.” My voice was quieter than I wanted it to be. “Of iron,” I mumbled out quickly, lifting the disc on my arm to my mouth again.
“Earth, and your blood.”
My teeth ground together, but I didn’t say anything else. It always came down to that. My blood. My stupid, sacred blood.
The wind snapped at my cloak as I pushed through the doors, carrying the cold smell of snow and the fainter smell of the evergreens that grew up the mountainside. I strode to the very edge of the fenced terrace, undaunted by the dizzying drop below. It was too familiar to elicit a reaction after all these years, and the stone rail too solid. I barely noticed the master as he came to stand at my side, placing his gloved hands on the railing and leaning out beside me. He said nothing for a long time.
“Harson, Prea, and Krughar will accompany you. They’re packing now. Is there anything personal you’d like to bring?” I studied the downward curve of his shoulders, the slight tremor in his grip on the stone railing.
“You don’t think I’ll be coming back.”
“Your blood didn’t call you there for sight-seeing ...”
“No,” I agreed. I pulled in a long breath, savouring the sting of the cold as it hit my lungs. “What do you think is the reason?”
He gave a wry chuckle and shrugged apologetically. “I’m not a philosopher. You can ask the priests in the village what their gods say about destiny and the dragons.” He pressed my hand between his gloved palms. “Scholars have spent a long time figuring out practical uses for a phoenix's blood, but there is so much that we don’t know about your kind, Ano.” It was discomforting that even less was known about dragons, beyond being unforgivingly territorial.
“Dragon fire is a horrible way to die,” I said.
“Yes. But there are not always dragons in the Valley.” It didn’t sound as feeble when he said it. “Whatever power calls the dragons to that valley is also calling to you.” He squeezed my hand and gave me a poke in the ribs.
“What would happen if I didn’t go?”
“Ano,” he said quietly, turning to face me, “your blood is starting to make a transition, so you will die even if you stay here.”
I swallowed. In my bones, I knew it to be true. I knew that the roiling, impatient press on my mind and the itch in my veins would continue to grow until it was unbearable. The experiments and the tests had confirmed what my instincts determined weeks ago. The only surprise came when my blood spattered on the map and pooled unnaturally, skittering and steaming as it circled the Valley. My first transition was imminent, but to make it by being burned alive in dragonfire… I shut down the thought. There were not always dragons in the Valley.
“Have you… seen it happen before?” I asked him. “The -” I wanted to say death. “The transition of a phoenix?”
His eyes darkened, but he nodded.
“Afterwards, will I remember you? Will I remember any of this?”
“It is possible that you will remember it all. It could also be that you only remember bits and pieces. But it could be that you are reborn with no memories at all.”
The rebirth was unpredictable. There was also no telling what species I would be. “If I don’t remember my way home, nobody will recognize me to bring me back…”
A muscle flexed along the old man’s jaw, and a crease appeared between his brows.
“I don’t need any personal effects packed,” I said. “If I remember who I was, then I’ll come back for them.”
A hawk gave a call from somewhere down the mountain, drawing my attention away from the quiet man next to me. Maybe I’ll transition into something with wings. The only other phoenix I’d known had wings. I’d begged him to stay. He’d tried, I think. I didn’t remember that part. I remembered his wings crumbling to ash one day, and I remembered screaming when he leapt to his death.
“I’m afraid.” I finally admitted.
The master of scholars was quiet for so long that I turned to see if he was still there. He flashed a rare grin that sparkled with the dark sense of humour we shared, then shrugged. “It’s frightening to face a dragon. But there aren’t always dragons in the Valley.”
* * *
He’d honoured my request to leave my things behind. A mule had been carefully packed by the practical minds of the three academics who would travel with me: bedrolls, clothes, food, and maps, but also a stack of books that might be useful on the trip, and an empty journal for each of them to log notes. Notes about me.
The only personal item that left the mountain academy with me was strapped to my arm by the master himself as he led us through a rarely used door in the side of the main wall. A palm-length ceremonial dagger made from black iron. We all recognized it.
“I gave him my word. It stays with you,” he said by way of explanation. I raced through a hundred reasonable arguments for why I didn’t want to take it, and heard the hundred better reasons he would insist that I did. I knew he’d win, so I didn’t bother to argue. By the time night fell on my first day outside the academy, I was glad he’d insisted. It was harder than I had anticipated to get a fire burning with flint, and my impatience won out.
Unsheathing the dagger, I pressed the blade into the skin near my ankle where I hoped nobody would notice. Not a serious wound, just enough to draw blood. The clever channel up the centre of the dagger held the blood as it welled up out of my skin. I focused inwards and willed a roaring blaze, letting my senses take over, conjuring the waves of heat that would radiate off the fire and ripple over and through me. My eyes closed while my mind filled with orange and red, and then I flicked the blood from the knife onto the pile of wood. When I opened my eyes, I could see the splatter of my blood where it had turned to liquid flame on its way off the knife, igniting the material in an abstract splatter.
Of iron. The words came into my head from habit, and my fingers twitched towards the iron disc on my sleeve. Of earth, and of blood. I cleaned the dagger and saw the pointed look from Harson as he returned from filling the canteens.
“Be careful about losing more blood. You will need your strength,” was all he said. How much strength does it take to burn? I curled closer to the fire and tried not to think about dragons.
It took six more nights before we reached a village along the road. The innkeeper waved when she saw the crest on our cloaks, and sent out a young boy to bring the mule safely to the stable. He skipped over with his hand outstretched for the lead rope, but stumbled back when he met my eyes.
“From the academy up the mountain, yes,” the innkeeper spoke over him. “Now get that mule in the barn and stop gawking” she barked. I tried and failed to ignore the boy’s stare. Harson and Prea noted it as well; Krughar had already followed where we’d been beckoned inside.
The kitchen was warm and cramped, bustling with the activity of preparing the evening meal. Fragrant steam rose from a bubbling pot, stirred with one hand by a cook who reached with the other to grab a handful of an herb that an assistant was skillfully chopping on the counter behind him. Even with their backs to each other, they shifted out of each other’s paths easily enough that I knew they’d worked in tight spaces as a team like this for several years. On the other side of the stove, two girls were buried in a world of their own, one scrubbing a pan in the sink while she whispered animatedly to the other, who was kneading out bread dough. None of the kitchen staff noticed us enter. I eyed the steaming pot and my mouth watered.
The innkeeper followed my gaze. “Go wash up. Dinner will be ready when you’re done.”
After a week of trekking down the mountain, the bath was so refreshing that I wanted to weep. For the first time since I’d stood on the balcony with the master of the scholars, my head felt clear. I hadn’t anticipated how hard I had to fight against the rising urgency of my transition; I thought it would take longer than this. And I thought I was stronger. There were close to two more weeks of winding switchback descents before we reached the Estod Valley. How bad would the struggle become to hold my body together by then? I considered drowning myself so I would never have to find out. I’m not going to drown. I’m going to burn. That, and it would be a shame to go out with an empty stomach.
Dinner was served on one long table with benches running down either side. I was safely pressed between two of my companions, but people were looking. What had the boy from the stable said to them? I squirmed uncomfortably, keeping my eyes on the food. The conversations moved faster than I could follow with my dizzy head, and the room was hot, much hotter this time of year than it had been at the higher altitudes I was accustomed to. Why didn’t anyone else seem bothered? “You must see some interesting things up at the academy,” someone said. My veins started to feel itchy. I clenched my hands into fists.
“What do you four study?” Not four, three. The three of them are studying me. My laughter felt like choking. I wondered how they’d answer, and then a different question was directed at me.
“How long will you be joining us?”
Pressure shoved against my mind, merciless as it urged me to move, to change. “Only tonight,” I said quickly.
“Why the rush? You in some kind of trouble with the school?”
“Not with the school, no.” It was out before I realised how it would sound. A few people turned to me challengingly; it wasn’t enough of an answer to let me stay here and eat at their table. I glanced at my companions, unfairly wishing someone would explain it for me. My pulse was like a beast shaking the bars of its cage, desperate for escape. “My blood,” I spat out. “I need to make it somewhere before I …” I still couldn’t say die “.. make a transition.” Someone gave a gasp on the other side of the table. “Something called my blood to the Estod Valley.” The other conversations halted. “I want to make it there to find out what it was.”
The cook put a callused finger under my chin and lifted my face. There was nothing striking about my build or colouring, and wrapped in the academy cloak I could pass for anyone. He squinted into my face, and turned me toward the light so he could zero in on the only feature that marked me for what I was. There was no mistaking my phoenix eyes, which flowed and swirled like an ancient molten liquid had been poured into each iris. He swore and pulled back as if I’d burned him. “Earth and blood…” The busy kitchen was now unbearably quiet. I lifted the iron circle in my sleeve to my lips. None of the people in the kitchen wore a circle, so the gesture looked odd and unpracticed when they returned it. I was suddenly struck with the knowledge that a whole world existed beyond the traditions in which I’d been raised, and my blood edged towards a frenzy that terrified me. Yes, demanded that primal piece of me, find something new; become something new. There was sweat between my toes. My pulse clanged against my ear drums.
“Is there somewhere I could rest?” I asked him, wondering if anyone noticed how badly I was sweating. He wiped his hands on the apron, and led me out of the kitchen with silent veneration still in his eyes.
* * *
I tried and failed to sleep that night, even after the full meal and with a pillow under my head. My phoenix blood refused to offer any rest for the body it had grown tired of living within. Prea was outside the door when I cracked it open, quietly writing in her journal. “I’m restless,” I told her. She nodded and followed me through the kitchen to the yard. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a priestess sitting on the grass.
“May I join your walk?” she asked.
I looked at her squarely with my swirling eyes, and she held my stare without flinching. Someone must have already told her what I was. I nodded. Prea eyed me curiously, but fell back several paces to give me some privacy with the priestess.
“Is it painful?” she asked, “What you’re going through?”
“Yes,” I acknowledged. “Whatever is within me doesn’t fit anymore.”
“Gods don’t fit in mortal skin.”
“I’m not a god.”
She smiled. “You’re immortal. To many - to me - that makes you a god.”
“I’m not immortal either. I’m dying.”
“You’ll enter the earth and then rise again. That’s quite different from the deaths of men.” She lifted her arm and kissed the circle that had been embroidered on her left sleeve as she mentioned my rebirth, watching me from the corner of her eye. A stone circle would be sewn there if she ascended high enough in the church, and the embroidery signaled her intention to do so. “Why didn’t you seek out the church when you arrived in town?”
“Someone told you I was here anyways.”
“Of course they did; your presence here is a great honour. I’d hoped to meet you, but I must say I’m surprised the scholars let you outside.”
“I’m not a prisoner.”
“... They take turns guarding your door,” she said with a pointed glance at Prea. Prea blushed and mumbled something before turning back to the inn and leaving me alone with the priestess, who hooked her arm with mine as we continued walking. "Now that it’s known you are here, you’d be wise to accept their offer to guard you..."
“They’re studying my transition,” I explained. “They aren’t guarding me.”
She reached out and gently pushed up the sleeve of my cloak. “They harmed you?! Why are you covered in scars?” A dark chuckle bubbled out of me, and I could see the answering wink that the head scholar would have shot my way. They very rarely used my arms to draw blood for experiments. If she thought the scars on my arm seemed grotesque, she would faint if she ever saw the rest of me.
“There’s only one way to get blood out of a body.” I told her. “It leaves scars.” Why did she look so queasy? I gestured at her sleeve. “How do you intend to earn your stone circle without adding a scar to a phoenix?”
She paled, “The blood for the ritual can come from an animal,” she said as we reached the well in the town square.
“No,” I corrected, lifting my arm so the iron disc faced her, “it can’t. You need phoenix magic even for a circle of stone. You need our blood for the ritual. We’re easier to hunt as animals” She was very quiet, and brought up the well bucket for a drink.
“What does your religion say about the dragons? What power calls them when they return to the Valley?”
She chewed her lip as she considered. “That’s a strange question. What calls men to age? It’s the same. They don’t need to be called… it’s their destiny.”
“I was told to ask what your gods say about destiny,” I mused as I took the bucket out of her hands, closing my eyes and channeling deeply into my purring veins. Please, it begged, let me out.
“The gods? But you are a god,” she reflected, her voice growing distant as a deafening roar filled my mind. “NO!” she yelled then, seeing but not understanding. The iron dagger pierced my palm, and I dropped my bleeding hand into the bucket of water. Destiny. I sent magic racing towards my palm, trying to comprehend what I was feeling by forming my magic into the shape of it. Death, rebirth, earth and iron. A gift. A curse. A change. I opened my eyes. A glowing, shimmering path swirled out from the wound, vague and shapeless. The water was very cold. I pulled my hand from the bucket, letting droplets of water, blood, and that iridescent light dribble down my fingers while the wound clotted. I pushed the bucket back into the well in frustration, dumping whatever I had manifested with it. It hit the bottom with a faint splash.
I held out my palm to the priestess. “Do you still want to earn your stone circle? Take it. I won’t live long enough for this to leave a scar.” She backed away, eyes bulging, so I brought the wound to my own mouth instead. It tasted like iron.
“What is your name?” I asked her.
“My name is Noka,” she told me. I pressed a finger against the wound in my hand, dragging out more blood, and traced onto the lip of the well: There is more than water in Noka’s well. And before it dried, I brought the iron circle in my sleeve to my mouth, letting my senses fill with the smell, the taste, the feel of the familiar metal, and then willing my blood to turn the script to solid iron, etched forever into the stones around the well.
* * *
The minor loss of blood allowed me to sleep when I got back to the inn, if only for a few hours. I’d experienced blood loss often enough through the scholar’s experiments that I knew the symptoms. The memory of my feet stumbling down the steps of the tower on the last day at the academy rose into my mind. I’d lost more blood that day than I had last night. A lot more. I hadn’t been as deep into my transition then; my body hadn’t been under as much strain. Now even the small amount of blood loss was making it difficult to keep a leash on the magic trying to rip its way out of my body. When we left at dawn my palm throbbed, and my head was pounding, but I was glad to be moving. They don’t need to be called. It’s their destiny.
I hoped it would get easier once I regained some strength, but the weight on my mind was crushing me. It won’t. There is nothing easy left. Each day I thought I’d reached the limit of what I could withstand. And then it got worse. Every. Day. I knew by the fourth day outside of the village that I was dying and that I should rest, but self-preservation cowered in the face of whatever was rising inside me. I refused to slow down. I stopped eating, and on the fifth day I stopped sleeping too. I couldn’t shake the urgency that radiated into every corner of me. Hurry, hurry hurry, it begged me between the screams to change, transform, and the frantic plea to let go! Let me out!
Krughar watched me vigilantly but kept his distance. Sometimes Prea or Harson would tell me I was moaning. Once they thought I was sobbing. I couldn’t hear it anymore. The torment was louder than the world outside myself. I had to make it. It was my destiny - this foolish race to see if the dragons would burn me before my phoenix blood ripped my body to ashes. There are not always dragons in the Valley.
On the eighth day I stopped caring if there were dragons. I stopped fearing what anything could do to me other than the writhing, violent thing already within me. And it was already doing its worst. I couldn’t fight it much longer. Prea asked about the priestess, asked if I wanted her to say a prayer for me. “No,” I told her, “the priestess thought I was a god. Who would she pray to?”
On the ninth day the mountain paths finally started flattening out, and I spied the final tunnel cut into the rock. I took off running. My companions fell further and further behind. My feet pounded along the stone passageway, eating up the ground faster than my body had ever moved. Because I was more than this body. Because I was setting myself free.
The end of the tunnel loomed, and dark smoke began billowing in from the valley. I didn’t slow, just surveyed the blackened land in front of me as I continued. There were dragons in the Valley. They raised molten, swirling eyes to watch me sprinting towards my destiny as my blood sang. Their eyes. A piece of me I was already forgetting thought it was important.
My throat was coated with the taste of fire. There was ash in my lungs. I’m burning. I raked the iron dagger down my forearms, then buried it in my thigh and continued running. Blood should have been running down my fingers, but I could feel it swirling all around me instead, lifting me and carrying me onwards to a destiny I still didn’t understand.
And then my first transformation began.
About the Creator
Canadian actress and story-teller with a degree in astrophysics.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
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