Chapter One – The Pairing
The wyvern pens were in uproar.
Stavilor stalked among them, blue fire sparking from his fingertips. The wyverns snaked their necks and hissed at him, their long, forked and deadly tails thrashing wildly. Their wicked incisors grated on the wire of their cages; smoke billowed from their jaws. They had not been fed today.
Despite the chaos, Stavilor felt a glow of pride. Today would fulfil the first stage of his vision. Full twenty years ago, he had woken from a sudden trance, his mind filled with the urgency of a prophecy he felt sure came from Darga herself. The guardian deity of the little hamlet had spoken directly to him, and he must respond. And he had, despite the ridicule, despite the hardships. The vision still burned in his head at night, haunting his sleep, and he knew it would do so until the wyvern fleet was assembled, trained, and ready for battle. Images of fire and burning ran through his dreams, the hideous future scorching down from the north to tear at the heart of the countryside around them. He knew it was a vision of the fate that would one day overtake the village unless his dedication paid off.
But today brought that dream one step further. The boys were assembling in the Great Hall even now, mothers tugging on their Feast Day costumes, proud fathers chatting in corners. Their boys were destined to be heroes. But the air of excitement that pervaded the hamlet of Darga’s Thorpe was offset by an underlying tension that kept Stavilor moving nervously, tongue flickering like those of his beasts. Not everyone in believed today’s ceremony.
He strode through the enclosure, eyes peeled for trouble. It could start anywhere – even here, before the ceremony, enemies could be lying in wait to slip the catches and free the wyverns. A shiver ran through him at this thought. All his hard work, his patience, his years as an outcast – if it should come to that, he could never hold up his head again. He barked an order at the lad who had come to help him. ‘Rani, keep your eyes open! I want no trouble we haven’t seen coming!’
‘Yes, sir!’ Rani called back. Stavilor watched as the boy elaborately scanned the maze of pathways between the cages. ‘Keep watching! Wherever I am, you should be the other side of the enclosure. We need eyes in more than one place.’
‘Yes, sir!’ Rani glanced over at him, and moved off to the other side of the pens, head turning this way and that, searching for any sign of human activity. Stavilor shook his head. It seemed so unfair that Rani had not been chosen. He was so good with the beasts. But that in itself precluded him from the ceremony. The aim was to identify the one boy who could tune in to each individual wyvern. Like swans mating, men and wyverns paired for life – there could be no other partner for either. And Rani, Stavilor had noticed, was interested in a human partner of his own.
He turned sharply at a noise behind him. Beyond the last of the cages a small squadron of fighting men was marching out from the village, the copper wyvern medals they wore glinting in the thin winter sunlight. The guard of honour, thought Stavilor, and snorted. Since when had anyone cared to honour him? Well, perhaps now . . .
The guard halted just a few feet from where he stood. Strolling out to meet them, he felt a shiver in the air, and a trickle of doubt ran down his neck. Something felt wrong. Still, he did not falter, but went to greet Brachus, captain of the chieftain’s guard.
‘Brachus! Fine day!’
Brachus did not answer. He gave a curt nod, then his gaze slid past Stavilor, resting nervously on the shifting animals behind him. He cleared his throat. Taking up an officious stance, his eyes looking straight ahead, he began his formal announcement.
‘Know ye that by order of Chief Insep of Darga, the ceremony of the wyvern pairing has been officially withdrawn. It has been decreed that . . .’
‘What!?!’ Stavilor gasped and staggered back, reeling from the terrible news. It could not be, after all his hard work, cajoling, reasoning with the chief. ‘Why? How could …’
Brachus cleared his throat again. ‘If you will allow me? It has been decreed that the wyverns must be removed from the village by noon tomorrow, and their breeder and all who side with him must also leave Darga’s Thorpe, never to return.’
Stavilor could barely see through the sudden start of angry tears that rushed unbidden to his cheeks. Ruined! All of it! And by decree of the one person who had the power to do so. Their indecisive new chief. His tongue flickered faster. ‘But, Brachus, surely …’
Brachus looked at his toes, then back to the wyverns. ‘I did my best, Stavilor. He said Wachin had some blasted dream last night, that showed him, Insep, that is, being hunted down and killed by a wyvern. So now he’s scared. You know he’s been nervous of them since he ventured too near the cages as a kid and got that little scratch he’s so proud of, that he claims nearly killed him. It didn’t need much to convince him. You know how he insists on believing in such nonsense. He’s such a coward, he wouldn’t come close enough to tell you himself. He wanted them all killed. He also wanted you burned alive. At least you have your life. And if you can find a way to keep them, your wyverns as well.’
Stavilor blinked the tears away. ‘Thank you, old friend. It must have been hard to achieve so much. I have until noon tomorrow?’
‘That’s what we agreed. But you know the chief – he could change his mind at any time. I’d get out as soon as you can, Stavilor.’
‘But how am I to build a travelling cage in that time? How can I keep my wyverns?’
‘I don’t know. I was hoping you might have some way … but I couldn’t get you any more time. It wasn’t easy to get what I did.’
Stavilor smiled thinly at him. ‘I know. Thank you for your efforts. I truly appreciate what you have done for me. Perhaps one day I will find a way to repay you.’
Brachus grinned. ‘Aye, maybe. When I fall out of favour I will need someplace to hide! Try to let me know where you are, eh?’
‘I will keep you informed, Brachus. When I decide … What’s that?’
A sound of wailing and shouting had begun to rise from the village behind Brachus. Peering around the small group of guards, Stavilor saw a large body of people heading towards them. ‘Oh, no! They’re coming to release my wyverns! I’ve lost them!’ He crumpled and fell to his knees, the sobs coming freely now, a broken man where but minutes before he had felt his future certain and bright.
Brachus turned. ‘Not if I can help it,’ he said firmly. ‘The chief gave you until noon tomorrow, and I shall make sure you have that time! Guards!’
The guards turned to face the villagers, grounding their spears in front of them. Brachus marched to the front of the group to meet the first of the boys who were running towards the cages. ‘Halt!’ he cried, raising his arm. The boys skidded to a stop in front of him. ‘Prian, what is all this?’ Brachus demanded of the ringleader.
‘Brachus, please do not try to stop us. We have been chosen, and they wish to keep us here, away from our wyverns!’
‘Chosen? Stop what?’
‘They wish to stop us pairing with our wyverns. Please help!’
Brachus stepped back a pace. ‘You want to pair with them? What will you do then? You know that anyone who insists on staying with them will be banished!’
Prian glanced around at the other boys. ‘Yes, we know. But until we were chosen for the wyverns, we never really felt we belonged here anyway. We’ve been talking all night, even before we knew the ceremony was cancelled, and we all feel the same.’ The others nodded their agreement.
‘Well, if you’re sure. Pass through. We will try to give you the time you need. Guards! Form line!’
Prian grinned with relief, clapped Brachus on the shoulder, and led the boys through the manoeuvring guards. Stavilor, who had not heard the exchange, was still on his knees, quietly weeping and shaking his head. Prian took him by the shoulder and shook him.
‘Quickly, Master! The guards will hold them, but I don’t know for how long.’
‘What? Prian, what’s happening?’
‘We’ve come for the ceremony! Hurry, there’s not much time.’
Stavilor stumbled to his feet, eyes wide. ‘But your family, your homes – you will have to leave them all.’
‘We know. But we feel more at home with the wyverns. Please, Stavilor, take us with you! There’s no other way you can keep the wyverns, is there?’
Stavilor hesitated. ‘No, I don’t think there is, at such short notice. But are you all quite sure?’
Prian looked around at the assembled boys. They all nodded solemnly. ‘We talked about it last night, when we were preparing. This is what we all want.’
Stavilor threw up his hands. ‘Then I accept your offer.’ Heart racing, in sudden hope, he turned on his heel. ‘Come.’ He led them towards the cages, as the villagers, mostly parents of the boys and those opposed to the wyvern pairing, crashed against the line of guards behind him. They ran to the first pen and lined up in front of it. The wyvern inside threw itself at them, hissing, its head snaking from side to side, sniffing the air. Its movements grew slower, its head tilted, and it scanned the assembled boys. Then it threw itself full length on the floor of its cage, incisors pointing towards the smallest of the group.
‘Omion, this one is yours,’ said Stavilor, handing him a small diamond. ‘Step into the cage, and feed him.’
Omion took the proffered jewel and opened the cage. He glanced round at the others, then stepped gingerly in. The wyvern lifted its head and followed him. He held out his hand, and it moved in closer, sniffing him again. Then it opened its mouth and flicked its tongue out, catching the tiny diamond into its jaws without touching the hand it rested on. An enquiring tilt of the head seemed to be asking for something more. Omion turned to Stavilor. ‘What does he want now?’
‘His name. You must give him a name. And tell him yours.’
‘He shall be called Grint. That is your name, wyvern – Grint. And mine is Omion.’ The wyvern nodded sagely, for all the world as if he understood every word.
‘Good. Now lead him out and mount him. We may need reinforcements for the guards if we are to finish this ceremony. Don’t worry that you don’t know how to ride him – he’ll know what to do.’ Omion nodded solemnly.
The boys moved away from the door of the cage, led to the next one by Stavilor. Omion drew his new partner towards the line of guards, and mounted him, feeling carefully for control. They moved out together, man and wyvern, to serve and protect, as in ages past.