by: Dennis R. Humphreys
There weren't always dragons in the valley of Ranrikar, neither were there humans always. The dragons came before man. Man came then with his families, his livestock and his agriculture. The six dragons that lived in the valley were wary of man from the beginning, and well they should have been, for certain men were intent to destroy the creatures, saying they feared the reptiles would eat everything they had, including their families.
A powerful woman in the town of Sto, who tended the wounds of those in the fearsome battles with the dragons and those needing her help in the normal course of life, Olianth, was also a prophetess. As the apparent last of the dragons expired from its wounds, so did the old woman as she was linked to it. She elicited her last prediction, uttered with her last breath.
“In three generations there will be born a boy who will save this valley from its enemies with the aid of a dragon. He will carry the mark of the dragon upon his right shoulder. He will set things on a straightened path that have begun to deviate this very day.”
The mark was a 'Y” shaped birthmark... a dragon's tongue.
One dragon escaped the notice of those hunting them. It survived the killings by hiding deep in a cave, coming out to hunt in the neighboring valley at night. In time, Manto, the last dragon, became too old to even fly. He stayed hidden and ate what he could near his home, living as well as expected.
“You have a son,” Tyla Lanto told her husband, as he entered the room with a large smile, where the mid-wife had just delivered their first child
“He carries the mark of the dragon on his right shoulder... the dragon's tongue,” the midwife informed Flox Lanto.
“Really? That' s just an old wives' tale. Sooner or later a baby would be born with a similar mark,” he said, picking up his son. He turned him over to look at the unmistakable mark. Still, he didn't believe in such things. “We will call him, Ilya, after my father.”
“Mark my words. I am descended from Olianth, my great-grandmother,” interjected the midwife. “Your son's destiny is to fulfill the prophecy of Olianth.”
Time in the valley moved slowly, almost imperceptibly. Such places, seem destined to remain the same for eternity. Numbers in the valley grew as its people became more prosperous. Flox Lanto's farm grew with his prosperity. The destiny of the town wasn't to remain the same. It was like a golden apple waiting to be plucked.
Early in life, Ilya's father took him hunting, teaching him how to hunt with a bow and a sling. Ilya liked the sling and was an excellent marksman. Ilya brought many rabbits home for the family to eat as he began hunting on his own.
The valley was lush. Two rivers ran through it, and at one point they collided. A marshy place, where waterfowl abounded, was created. Cattails grew, producing spikes swaying in the constant breeze. Ilya and his mother would collect them, so she could make pillows. There were fish in the river and one of Ilya's favorite pastimes, was to fish along its banks, where otter played.
“Where are you going today?” Ilya's mother asked as he prepared to leave.
“Towards the high rocks to hunt rabbit,” he told her as he shoved a few biscuits and dried meat into the sack.
“Be careful up there but have a good day,” she told him, as she rolled the dough to make biscuits for dinner
The place Ilya was going was not just to hunt rabbits. It was to search. He had been there before with his father and thought it might be interesting to explore it on his own. Much of the valley was fertile, lush with deep top soil but coming this way, it became rockier, making the walking more difficult. Climbing the hill, he spotted a large rabbit. Watching it closely, he carefully loaded his sling, and then swung it, letting the stone fly with great and accurate speed. He stowed the dead rabbit in his sack and then he continued his climb.
Reaching the top, he turned to appreciate the beauty of the valley. There were several shades of green. Turning back around he noticed an opening in the rock side... a good -sized cave. The ground in front was disturbed and appeared something lived inside. Ilya approached the opening, as a few squirrels that hid from him, now ran from him. The cave wasn't completely dark, for light filtered through natural openings in the thirty-foot ceiling. Near the cave opening was a pool of spring water where cattails grew.
Ilya cut some of them and bound them together into a torch that he could use to inspect the cave. He took his flint box to start a small fire with special shavings he carried. Piling these together, he gathered bits of small, dried wood to add when there was fire.
After a few attempts, a spark ignited the shavings. Pushing the other bits into them, he began a slightly larger fire. Plunging the cattails into it, they became his torch.
Entering the cave, he was wary of things wishing to avoid his intrusion. Moving deeper, there were animal bones along the way, old, whitened vestiges of things that either died there, or were drug there and killed. The later thought wasn't a welcomed one.
Cautiously he looked ahead, unable to see clearly from the patterns cast with his torch. Light and shadows danced in erratic fashions as he walked the rocky corridor. There was something ahead, so he stopped... perhaps some movement. Ilya cleared his throat to see if anything came of it Only complete silence ensued as he listened attentively. He cleared his throat again, and a booming voice emerged from the depth.
“Who goes there? Is someone here?” inquired the voice.
Ilya could only imagine it was a giant from one of the bedtime tales his mother told him. Most of them consumed small insolent children, it was warned, on a regular dietary basis. Turning to go, and avoid being anything's meal, he took two steps, when the voice shouted again, this time with a command.
“Stop boy. Don't go and make me come after you,” he cried, halting Ilya where he was. The boy turned, but could not see a thing. The voice's owner had the advantage. Fear made him want to run, but fear caused him to stay.
Ilya heard movement ahead of him, a shuffling sound rather than defined footsteps. Beams of light came from the cave ceiling, defined by the dust that rose in the beams descending to the ground. There was visible movement as a figure emerged from the shadows passing through the beams, where it was partially illuminated. Fear enveloped Ilya as he realized it was a large, reddish-colored dragon. Greater fear came over Ilya as he watched the creature move closer. Standing over him, he felt its exhaled breath.
“Don't be afraid boy. I am too old to fear. The few teeth left in my head would break chewing on your bones. I can't even fly anymore!” he explained to the boy.
Ilya turned to face the speaker. He looked at him stupefied.
“I thought there weren't any dragons left in this valley?” Ilya asked the beast.
“There aren't... I am the last. Humor me boy and put my mind at ease. Turn and lift your shirt that I may see your right shoulder,” the dragon requested.
Ilya turned around, doing what the dragon asked. He knew why he asked.
'”As I suspected. There are no coincidences in life. A women sorceress many years ago by the name of Olianth, saved me from death by making this cave invisible to anyone but the boy that carries the sign of the dragon. That boy would be part of the prophecy foretold. I shared that dream with her, dreamt by one of my kind,” he told the boy.
“Then the prophecy is true?” Ilya asked.
“It's true boy. What is your name?” he asked him.
“Ilya Lanto,” the boy revealed, feeling a little easier.
“Mine is Manto... the last of my kind,” he sighed, as if resigned to his pending end.
“How then could I be seen as saving my people from their enemies with the help of a dragon that can't even fly?” Ilya asked.
“I told you I am way too old. I have to shuffle for my food or drink. I'm afraid I wouldn't be worth my salt trying to get out of my own way, least of all escaping my own enemies,” he laughed.
“Then how?” the boy inquired.
“No matter how old and decrepit I get, I will not die as the last of my kind, until another dragon is born. That's the way of it,” he informed the boy, who now moved over to a large boulder to sit.
“How can that be if there are no dragons to parent offspring?” the boy asked unwittingly.
“All dragons are capable of laying eggs. Are you familiar with the marsh where two rivers meet in the valley?” he asked Ilya.
“Yes, very much. My mother and I go there often,” he explained.
“There is a large boulder in the shape of twin skulls. It peers upon an ancient mud hole surrounded by reeds. That mud hole is about twenty feet across and sinks to a depth of twenty-five feet. At the bottom of that hole lies the last dragon egg,” he enlightened the boy who now began to understand. Follow me Ilya to the front of the cave. There you will begin the first step in your journey, one of fulfillment,” the old dragon requested.
Ilya had no other questions so he followed the beast obediently as he shuffled, to discover what had to be done. They emerged from the cave into the blinding light..
“I will use my breath to incinerate this old log lying here. When it is completely consumed and only ash remains, take a few handfuls of it and put it away in your bag you carry. When you go to that mud hole, take a handful and sprinkle it on the surface of the mud. Kneel then and extend the palms of your hands over the mud's surface. You are to repeat these words...
'Ar isef rom thed ept hy efir edra keto a idm y co urse'.
Do not leave here until you know it perfectly, otherwise you will not have success,” he insisted.
The boy practiced over and over again with the dragon until it was memorized. In those days many could not write. They were depended on their memories to retain important information. It was easier to do so then and before long the boy had the incantation committed to memory.
“Ar isef rom thed ept hy efir edra keto a idm y co urse,” Ilya recited to the dragon's delight.
“Good... you have it. Keep the rest of that ash. You may need it. You'll know when you do. When the egg rises to the surface of the mud, take it and wash it clean. Wrap it in something and set it where no one can cause it mischief. There are those who would see what it is and destroy it,” he told the boy.
“What happens to you then?” the boy asked.
“Eventually I will die but not until the egg hatches and the dragon lives. How old are you Iliya?” the beast requested.
“I'm twelve,” he replied.
“A dragon grows quickly and it will be an adult in six years. Your soul will bond with it when your are eighteen, so care must be taken to make sure it reaches adulthood. Feed him and guide him to eat only at night and in another valley. Keep him from those devious eyes that might see him and be rid of him,” the beast warned. “That is when I will pass.”
“Will he speak like you?” Ilya asked, wondering how dragons could speak ever since he heard Manto's first words.
“I don't speak. You only sense me speaking,” the dragon informed him
Ilya thought he understood Manto's answer but accepted it without question. It really didn't matter if he understood.
“Before you go,” the beast began,” it's been ages since I had the pleasure of eating a rabbit. The one you carry would lighten my heart and help my empty stomach.”
Ilya looked at what was intended for dinner and smiled. He tossed it to the dragon and Manto caught it like a dog might catch a bone. In a few bites he swallowed it and Ilya swore he saw a smile creep over the reptile's face as he savored the lupine.
The marsh was perhaps four miles away, and Ilya made haste towards it. His path was unfolding before him and his heart quickened. Down the hill through the lusher part of the valley and then towards where it was even lusher, he trudged. The ground became damper the closer he got to the rivers, and where the abundant springs bubbled, throughout the area.
He knew the spot the dragon sent him, where the twin skulls claimed their eerie vigil over the mud pit. It was probably the final resting place for many creatures that fell into it. It was perhaps a tombstone, even a possible warning to other creatures passing by it of their pending epitaph.
When he arrived, the boulders were covered with honeysuckle vines, in a desperate attempt to hide, so Ilya tore the vines away and exposed their faces for what they were. Their darkened eye sockets were bleary reminders that life was fragile and part of an orderly balance.
Ilya knelt down at the edge of the pit. Withdrawing a handful of the ashes from his sack, he cast the gray dust over the surface and repeated the words the dragon taught him.
“Ar isef rom thed ept hy efir edra keto a idm y co urse,” he uttereded, as he extended his palms over the pit.
Ilya watched but nothing happened. Patiently he knelt, keeping his palms immobile. A bubble broke the surface, emerging well above where it was. Then another. As he watched something solid became apparent. It was the egg.
Ilya saw the things the dragon told him, were true. He reached across the mud, barely able to touch the egg. He managed to get the slippery object to the edge, where he was. It was perhaps a two foot long by ten-inch wide, oblong shape. It had the appearance of a large ant's egg. Turning it over to inspect it, he then carried it to a spring to wash it. It was a brilliant white with a tinted sky blue at either end. He had never seen anything like it. Taking his shirt off, he wrapped it around the egg to carry. It was a chilly day but the discomfort was immaterial.
Regardless of the prophecy, his parents might regard the egg as too dangerous a thing to possess. The egg's location might have to be kept secret from everyone but a few, as Manto warned. Just who could be trusted to help?
“Why are you not wearing you shirt son?” Ilya's father asked when he saw him coming.
“Father, the prophecy about the boy carrying the mark of the dragon and saving the people in this valley from their enemy, with the help of a dragon... you don't believe it, correct?” Ilya asked his father.
“That's correct. What does that have to do with you not wearing your shirt?” his father asked.
“I am explaining that. If I told you I met an old dragon, while I was hunting today, in a cave only visible to me because of an enchantment created by Olianth, a long time ago, to save that dragon, what would you say?” he asked his father.
“Either you have an active imagination or it is what it is,” he replied.
“If I told you he told me where to go to get the last dragon egg so I could raise the dragon and complete that prophecy... what would you say?” he asked his father further.
“I'd say if you could produce the egg, then I have reason to believe you and not suspect an over active imagination,” he told his son.
With that, Ilya placed his shirt wrapped around the egg, in front of his father. He untied the arms and unwrapped its contents. There laid the egg, sitting unveiled in front of Flox.
“Is that what I think it is?” the father asked disbelievingly. He looked closer and touched the shell.
“It is.... and everything I told you, is as I told you,” Ilya pronounced, as his mother came out of the house, bringing his father something to drink.
She slowed almost to a stop as she saw the egg, realizing what it was. She had never seen a dragon egg, nor had his father but it's shape was reptilian and it could only be one thing that size.
“I knew the prophecy was true. I knew it. The egg must be kept secret,” she said.
“She's right. There are those here, regardless of the prophesy's sensibility, would crush that egg. It has to be hidden. Take it to the barn. We'll see about keeping it there after it hatches or if we need to move it elsewhere for safe keeping... and ours. The same people that would destroy the egg would most likely turn on this family. Word of your birthmark is widespread, thanks to the mid-wife when you were born. No one needs to be reminded by the egg's appearance,” he warned both lya and his wife.
Ilya carried the egg to the barn and wrapped it in another blanket there. Then he took it to the far corner of the barn where he buried it in a pile of hay. It was invisible to anyone that might happen to look at it.
Common knowledge said a dragon egg took twenty-one days to hatch. Ilya wondered if being buried in the mud for generations, might have an effect on how long it took to hatch.
As he came from the barn, his mother called dinner They sat as a family to eat.
“I have no idea what a dragon eats but I'm sure because of their eventual size, it's a lot. There's plenty to hunt around here so you are going to have to teach it to only eat wild fare. If it ends up eating the cattle or horses around here, people will be out to find the beast and rid the valley of it,” he warned his son as his mother dished out the meal.
“The old dragon I met can't fly anymore so he only eats what he can find walking. He seems fine, so I think he doesn't just eat meat,” Ilya told him.
“Under the circumstances... maybe. They have the teeth of carnivores though, which tells me they eat flesh and that is their natural intent. Don't assume you're going to change their habits just to suit your needs. I think the answer is feeding them wild game. You'll have to start feeding him that early, after it hatches,” his father insisted.
Ilya understood. Keeping the dragon from developing a taste for domesticated animals would be a good beginning to keep him from devouring them when he got older. It would be important to develop his hunting abilities now to keep the creature fed. Doing it alone could be daunting. Even with his parent's help the prospect could be overwhelming until the hatchling dragon was old enough to hunt on its own.
The neighboring farm might be a possibility. There was a girl there by the name of Panya Dotari, a year younger than Ilya. She had a crush on Ilya forever, and would follow him constantly if distance permitted. Their families visited often and shared the work where several pairs of hands were needed. It was not unheard of for both families to be together three or four times a month at each others' homes..
Panya idolized him, so he was confident she would keep his secret. Perhaps she could help raise the dragon. Her parents, were firm believers in the prophecy and looked at Ilya as the future this growing community. They would probably like nothing better than to arrange the eventual marriage between him and their daughter, Panya.
The valley was bestowed with natural abundance and the community was getting richer as time went on, utilizing it. That said, there were always those jealous of your good fortune that would think nothing but to relieve you of it. Ilya would talk to Panya soon. The two families might be able to speak openly with each other about the prospect of helping fulfill the prophecy.
That opportunity materialized a week later. Ilya's father needed help removing several large boulders in the middle of a new field he was clearing. It was something he and his son couldn't do alone. It required the strong arms of another man and Ivas Dotari was the strongest man around at six foot seven. His arms were the size of his Flox's waist and he wore his curly black beard long, giving him the most intimidating of appearances. He had large feet with which he could stomp a victim to death if he didn't get the chance to mangle him with his massive hands.
When either of the families needed help, the other would appear early to make a day of it and be done with the work. Then they would attend to other things as well to make the day lighter. Everyone would then join in a supper, both women prepared, sharing in the comradery as well.
As soon as Panya appeared, so did her intense smile, when she saw Ilya. Panya began following Ilya immediately as he did his chores. Finally he turned on her and spoke, seeing it as good a time as any to mention the egg.
“Panya, if I tell you a secret, will you keep it?” he asked her. He could see she was pleased he was willing to share a secret with only her.
“Oh yes, Ilya. You know I will. You can tell me anything,” she answered him.
He didn't have to swear her to secrecy. It was a matter of trust, and she wasn't about to betray Ilya's trust. Betrayal might mean being shunned by him.
“Come with me, I'll show you,” he told her. They went to the barn where he took her to his make-shift nest. He told her of the old dragon Manto and how the egg magically arose from the bottom of the mud pit after sprinkling the ash and pronouncing the incantation.
Panya listened intently to the story Ilya unfolded. Perhaps more so, because she knew the importance of the story he shared. He trusted her enough to keep the secret he shared.
“Ilya, you are destined for greatness and I know you will be a leader of our people. Knowing you is the greatest honor bestowed on me,” she told him.
“Now you embarrass me, Panya, “ he monished her, “the reason I must share this with you is I think I will need help raising this dragon. Trying to do this on my own might compromise the secret so others discover it. Hunting to feed this creature by myself won't be enough. The dragon could be tempted to hunt farm animals on it's own until it's trained otherwise. He won't know well enough to stay away from people until he is older and knows who to trust,” he explained.
“I wonder if it will be a boy or a girl when born?” she questioned.
“Dragons are neither yet both. They all lay eggs and do not need mates,” he told her.
“Really? I didn't know that,” acknowledged Panya in wide eyed innocence that impressed Ilya in such a way in that moment, he began to look at her differently. Sometimes it only takes a momentary awakening to change your view of someone forever.
“Your parents should be told too don't you think? If you are going to help me, and living nearby... our families working together at times... it might be hard to hide a dragon” Ilya asked her point blank.
“They feel strongly about the prophecy. I hear them talking about it at night... your involvement and how the time draws near,” Panya answered.
“I'll tell my father what I plan. Unless he feels strongly that I shouldn't. Then we can talk about it at dinner” he told her.
Perhaps the shared secret made the difference between them. As they came out of the barn, they seemed to have a greater understanding. Ilya looked differently at Panya, and he felt differently about her now. They washed in the trough, by the fence before going into the house for something to eat. The boy would wait until dinner, with everyone present, to discuss the dragon.
The Lanto house was filled with the smells of his mother's cooking. Roast venison and the smell of fresh baked, yeasty bread was enough to make a full man hungry. The two families were ready to share the hearty dinner. Ilya had already mentioned to his father about talking with everyone at the table, of the dragon egg and his intent. Flox agreed with his son and thought it a smart thing to share the secret with the Dontari's.
As the food was passed, Flox Lanto began the conversation for his son.
“You know I never gave much thought to prophecy but Ilya has changed my mind recently. He has something important he wishes to share with our good friends,” Flox outlined.
Ilya told his story again. Nanya and Gangi Dontari listened attentively while Panya watched Ilya with admiration, bordering adoration. It was important being his friend but she had greater hopes for more in the future. The look in her parents eyes was one of intense wonder as they heard the prophecy unfolding. They accepted the responsibility of helping fulfilling Ilya's destiny without question.
In two weeks, as Ilya worked in the field close to the house, Panya came running from the barn yelling. Flox and Tyla Lanto looked up from their work hearing her excitement.
“It's time Ilya! The baby dragon is breaking through the shell,” she yelled. “I can see its beak!”
Ilya dropped his tool, and ran behind Panya to the barn. The epic moment was unfolding and Ilya's parents didn't want to miss it. They too dropped their implements to see.
As Ilya neared the nest he could hear the shell cracking from the newborn, as it struck the shell from inside with its beak. In a few weeks the beak would fall off, giving rise to a growing horn. There was the whimpering sound of a birthing dragon. Ilya dropped to his knees from a dead run, skidding to the hay to witness the arrival. Flox and Tyla Lanto appeared as well. They watched as the small reptile announced itself with a raspy squawk.
Ilya and Panya watched the creature feebly move towards Ilya. It perhaps sensed, this was the human it would pair with metaphysically when both came of age. They 'd be linked inseparably, through mind, soul and heart... their destinies entwined like the honeysuckle that hid the twin skull rock at the mud hole, where the egg appeared.
“I'll call him Nogard, from this moment,” he announced, and they all laughed when the reptile seemingly acknowledged the christening with a screech.
Over the next few years, the town of Sto underwent tremendous growth. Farms expanded and new farms arose. Trade increased with other neighboring valleys and towns. Many increased their wealth through the rising trade. Flox Lanto was one such person. His land holdings increased substantially and his farm produced an abundance.
It was late evening, towards sundown, when Nogard was spotted near the town of Sto. Flying well above it, the two passengers could not be seen riding northward over the Tsanth mountains on the far side of the valley of Ranrikar.
Ilya and Panya were the riders on the back of Nogard that evening, as they often were. The dragon was large enough and old enough to fend for himself. Nogard had been taught well by Ilya to stay away from the men in the valley, not knowing who were good and who might inflict harm.
In three days Ilya would be eighteen and of age. He would undergo a physical and mental change with Nogard. It would include some pain, uniting them. At the moment Ilya wasn't giving thought to that, as Panya rode in front of him. His mind wandered elsewhere as he kissed her neck and held onto her waist in a loving embrace, for she was soon to be his wife.