“It is time,” the Bone Master’s booming voice echoed through the lair. Hawk’s Bones, still swaddled in hide, were once again under his wing. “Hawk’s journey has brought him to the cairn where his memories will live, forever. Come; share your memories in celebration.”
Sparrow, 137, and 848 filed down the passage of dragons. They were Hawk’s family, but Troika did not move to join them until Leaf kicked him in the chest. “Get over there.” Leaf was becoming an annoyance.
Troika took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Stay low and keep quiet. I don’t think you’re supposed to be witnessing this.” He felt Leaf settle into her pouch before he stepped forward to join his siblings. As he moved along, he counted each Sapphire dragon. There were so few of them. Eighteen, no nineteen dragons lined the passage to the flame. No wonder the threat of rampaging fairies had terrorized the clan. The destruction of a single clutch could indeed send the clan into oblivion.
Wren reached out and cupped Troika’s shoulder when he drew near. She nodded silently as if to ease his fears before Kes steered her into position directly behind the Bone Master. Those few heartbeats of contact had been enough for Troika to sense the life that now awaited his mother. She was in the prime of life, but tradition held that she would live the remainder of her days alone. Troika wondered if that was necessary considering the diminished number of dragons, but it was not his concern. Once this ugly matter was complete, and Leaf had been presented to Aurora, he would go home. He had no desire to stay. These were not his memories.
“Your father was a good dragon, foolish but noble.” Quill had slipped next to Troika, but he stood slightly apart, unwilling to share his memories.
Troika wrinkled his brow. He had the nagging suspicion that Quill was fishing for information. “I suppose. It seems he was respected, but never having met him, I have only the memories of my mother to go on.”
Quill focused a golden eyeball on Troika. A wad of gristle was caught between his teeth, and exposed when he spoke. “Hawk’s death has diminished us all.” He attempted to smile, but Troika sensed something darker. “I suppose you’ll be leaving with the next sunset.”
Troika’s crest shot up. He could nearly taste the tension in Quill’s words. “I have more business to conduct before returning. This wasn’t my idea you know, but now that I’m here, I will complete my affairs.”
Quill’s tail drew around his haunches, and he sucked in his breath to create a soft buzz not unlike the purr of the barn cat. “I see. Well, this will be a season of gatherings. I guess this gives us a chance to learn more about one another.” The creepy smile had returned.
Troika was confused. He did not know what Quill wanted, but his scales were warning him to appear strong, confident, and at ease in the presence of this dragon. “Perhaps, but my business is with Aurora. She will determine the time of my departure.”
Smoke curled from Quill’s snout, and the purring continued. “I see. Aurora has much on her plate this season,” and he backed away.
“What was that about?” Leaf extracted herself from her pouch.
Troika could not stop watching as Quill rejoined the other Topaz males. “I have no idea, but I’m going to have to keep an eye on him.”
Just then, the chamber filled with the primal sounds of the females keening. 137 and 848 scrambled to step forward, but they bumped into his side, sending images of Hawk, alive and laughing at their hatchling antics into his brain.
“I think you’re supposed to go next.” Leaf was squawking again.
Troika lowered his head, and took large strides to push past the numbers to catch up with Wren. She brushed an unseen smudge from her cheek and took his hand. Together they walked down the passage ignoring the tears that followed them. Wren walked with her head high, but she was shaking. It did not matter that he did not have memories of Hawk, the clan did. His mother did. He stepped closer to her, and placed his wing around her shoulders.
She gave him a sad smile, but tears sparkled in her eyes. “He was proud of you. He raved for many seasons about Troika, the Promised One … hatched from his clutch.”
The keening that followed them up the passage had mellowed into a rich vibrato with the addition of the male voices. Their tone was lower, softer, soothing. Troika could feel Leaf twisting this way and that in an attempt to peek from her pouch, but the trollkin was at least content to stay silent. A few steps more, and the Bone Master stepped into the night with Troika and the others spilling out behind him. The moon, a mere sliver in the starry sky looked huge hanging so close to the mountain peak. A portion of the Eternal Flame burned next to a giant pile of stones, some small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, others larger than the largest dragon among them. The Bone Master approached the stones and placed the hide on the ground. He lowered his head and extended his palms to the night. A heartbeat later, he sent a plume of fire directly at the moon. When he recovered, he easily lifted a huge slab of stone away. Troika knew he would have struggled with the weight, but upon closer inspection, the stone appeared dimpled and freakishly lightweight. It was the source of the dust. He smiled inwardly at the complete circle the mountain played in the life of the clan.
Wren and Troika took up position near the gapping mouth into the pile of stones. He could not take his eyes off the opening. Thousands of bones glinted in the fire light. Countless dragons must already be entombed inside the chamber. He felt his mother sag against his side. Kes had joined them to help support her sister. Troika looked for Falcon. He should be here, close enough to say a proper farewell to his closest friend, but he was near the back, with his head low, his tail dragging the floor, and his dust-coated feathers in disarray.
After a time, the Bone Master reached down for Hawk’s bones. He paused, holding them close to his breast as he uttered incomprehensible words. Wren collapsed against Troika. After several heartbeats, the Bone Master shook his head, and unbound the hide. “No, it is not allowed.” He looked back over his shoulder at Wren and grimaced. One by one, he placed the bones inside with the others. Only the skull and a tiny bone remained on the hide.
Wren’s weight was threatening to collapse Troika’s quaking legs.
The Bone Master stared into the stones, or was it the bones? “Long ago, Hawk made a request of me.” He turned his head to the side. “And although I had my reservations at the time, I no longer have doubts.”
Wren stopped sobbing, but she kept her head on Troika’s shoulder. Kes began preening her sister’s feathers with grubby, chipped claws.
“He asked that if he should return to the cairn before his mate, that I give her this.” He turned, pressed the tiny bone into Wren’s hand, and wrapped her trembling fingers around it. “It is rare to grant such a request, but Hawk could be persuasive.” He placed his palm beneath Wren’s chin and lifted her eyes to his. “He said that he wanted you to have the first finger from his left hand, the one he used to stroke your plumage in quiet heartbeats—how could I refuse?” He turned to place the skull inside the cairn.
The overextended strings holding Wren upright snapped, and she dropped to the ground clutching the precious bone to her bare breast as the rest of the clan started singing a song without words, but bursting with emotion. The volume was low, but the intent was clear. Hawk’s memories were melding with the clan. He would live forever. A rumble joined the song. Falcon’s deep keening had joined the others.
The song built until the ground shook. Troika could feel their hearts synchronizing, Sparrow, Kes, Mama, even Leaf’s tiny heart; they all beat as one. His clutchmate’s hearts joined in, and the others as well, but one heartbeat remained out of step. Falcon was alone, adrift in his guilt. Troika had to wonder what was at the root of that emotion.
Time lost all meaning as Hawk’s memories flooded Troika’s mind. He watched Hawk take his first tentative flight just after his feathers had filled in, and felt his joy at finding love with Wren. Troika felt pride as the memories of Hawk’s first kill entered his mind, and revulsion at the bowls of salty fish that he had consumed as his final meal.
Now you know the secret of the Cairn. Imagine the secrets I’m still hiding.