Heather stops outside an entrance to a cave and performs an exaggerated gesture.
You step in, a little uneasy. What does Heather know that you don't, you wonder.
"M'lani!" Heather shouts from behind you. You jump.
"'Kay, 'kay, 'm up," a voice mutters from down a small side tunnel. A few minutes later, a young man about nineteen years old appears, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
"Sands, what time is it?" he mumbles.
"Time you were awake," Heather says cheekily. "And feeding your dragon."
M'lani yawns again and you take a good look at him. He's about six feet tall, with black hair and blue eyes. There's something odd about his hair and you frown intently, trying to work out what. Suddenly you realise. There's a white streak in it.
"What happened to your hair?" you ask, curiosity getting the better of you. M'lani sighs.
"Ah, the folly of my youth. 'Tis now that I do repent such madness!"
"You what?" Heather says. "Oh, I remember! You used to share this cave with Alhena, didn't you?"
"Alhena?" you wonder.
"Yeah. She used to be obsessed with acting and melodrama," Heather explains to you. "Just get on with the story, will you?" she demands, turning back to M'lani.
M'lani sighs again, but you notice a twinkle in his eye and realise he's just having you on.
"First I want you to meet my dragon."
"M'lani!" Heather shrieks. "You impressed a dragon and you didn't even tell me?!"
The dragonrider grins.
"Strange as it may seem, Heather, I can survive here without you for more than five minutes at a time. Actually, I didn't tell you because I was too busy searching for eggs."
"Eggs?" Heather echoes skeptically. "I thought you'd given up looking for those since your accident."
M'lani grimaces slightly.
"Yeah...I had. But Oriods wanted a companion stroke playmate, so we went out and were lucky enough to stumble on a hidden cove and found a clutch. Most had already hatched by the time we arrived-but there were about five or six left. Oriods-oh, where's he got to?" M'lani's gaze unfocuses slightly and you relax, having gotten used to this from the other dragonriders you'd seen.
"There," M'lani says triumphantly. "I've persuaded him to put in an appearance, so hopefully the Terrible Trio are going to come along as well."
A small brown hatchling jogs into the room. He practically oozes confidence and goes up and butts you imperiously. You glance at M'lani for help.
"He just wants you to scratch along the back of his head...there!" M'lani says again as he shows you the correct spot. "For Oriods, that seems to be like the one spot on your back you can never quite reach."
Oriods leans into your hand and croons softly. Suddenly, you're startled into leaning back and overbalancing as three smaller creatures appear and start circling round your head.
"Hey, cut that out," you say, annoyed.
"C'mere, you lot," M'lani says goodnaturedly and stretches out an arm.A gold drace circles round and lands on it.
"This is Sakki," M'lani says. "And this one-" a brown drace lands on his other arm "is called Kar." He snorts. "Course, you can imagine how ecstatic Oriods was when he found out we'd impressed a brown, same as him. He's got what you might call a special bond with Kar, more so than Sakki or this little one..." M'lani juggles the draces, finally persuading Kar to join Sakki on his right arm and extends the other to the hovering green, "c'mon down, girl," he says to the little creature. "She's a little nervous," he explains to you, "as Sakki tends to be a little too bossy at times. Kar doesn't take too much, but Ria here," he indicates the green with his other arm, causing Sakki and Kar to voice a protest, "is so meek that you could get her to do anything. They're all from the Beaches"
::Don't stop scratching!
You glance down at Oriods, amazed beyond words that the dragon should have chosen to speak to you. M'lani and Heather both grin at your expression.
"Don't expect much more," M'lani warns you. "Oriods only communicates with other people when it's absolutely, one hundred percent necessary. Or when they dare to stop scratching him. I'd think he's picked up a few personality traits from Sakki-if dragons could be affected by such things."
"What about your story?" Heather demands.
"Okay. I was born in Aurel Hall nineteen reelays ago. It's a small Hall, specialises mostly in mining. Anyway, when I was about six, I decided I'd go hunting for firedrace eggs off our cove. Well, I found some-after three hours diligent and patient searching-perched on the top of a peak. It wasn't too high-only about two dragonlengths-so I decided to climb it. I got about halfway up there when the queen drace flew at me, screeching and clawing at my face. I lost my grip and fell onto a rock, cracking my head. After about three days of ointment, sending out for healers from all over Everond, ointment, having to drink some disgusting stuff, ointment, them shaving my head to have a closer look at my injury and ointment, I was okay again...barely. But when my hair grew again, it was white where I'd been injured. It was almost as if my body was trying to give me a message...'Let's not do that again, if you please'! It's so weird...the healers had only come across it once before."
"That's terrible," you say with feeling.
"Oh, and I lost the firedraces as well," M'lani finishes. "Mind you, though, Oriods here more than makes up for that!"
The draces squall in protest.
"Oh, and you guys, of course," M'lani adds with a wink at you. "I couldn't believe it when I impressed Oriods at Draconia Nest. I was chosen a few months ago. That was pretty strange really-I was helping my father with a statuette when a bronze dragonrider came in and announced there were some spots left open on two clutches and he was looking for likely candidates. Then he got a glazed look in his eye; you know how it is?"
You nod, remembering Shaula's conversations with Mamyds.
"Anyway," M'lani continues, "it turns out that the bronze had just told his rider that he thought I would make a good candidate, so I moved in here and you know the rest. I went to the sands, impressed Oriods (the first impression made in that hatching, incidentally) and we got to work finding draces and decorating this nest. Nice, don't you think?"
You hasten to agree. M'lani has crafted several pieces from metal and rock, interweaving some of them with imitation gems. One piece in particular, a large gargoyle crafted entirely of bronze, attracts your attention.
"I ordered that one specially from Scorpion Castle's Miner Hall in Draconia Nest whilst I was there inquiring about becoming a candidate. My uncle used to specialise in sculptures, so I wanted to have one in my nest," M'lani tells you. "Some people in Draconia Nest have said this looks a little like a 'firedrace without wings'. I wouldn't know; ever since my accident, I've never been too keen on those little creatures. The other sculptures and bits are a few little keepsakes from home," he adds, as you glance around the others. "I may be a candidate-but I did learn a few things about crafting," he says, with a justifiable smirk of pride, before he gets that look in his eyes again. "Oriods just told me he's hungry, so if you'll excuse me, I need to get some food for him."
"Sure," you say. Heather seizes your hand again.
"C'mon, let's go see T'nir!"