Tal’on vaulted onto Graf’tal’s haunches, finding purchase with his claws between the plates of his senior’s scales.
“Careful there youngling,” Graf’tal chided. He curled his long neck around and spied the young wingless dragon, his charge, with a shinny pair of obsidian black eyes rimmed and flecked with gold. “Why can’t you mount like any normal youngling?” He snorted smoke into the face of the lizard looking Tal’on on his back. “You scramble like a hatchling.”
“I would board properly by wing if we were not always the last to leave the ground,” Tal’on shot back as he finally made it up Graf’tal’s back and settled on the dragon’s shoulders with his scaly legs wrapped around Graf’tal’s neck and his tail lying out along the dragon’s spine.
“And whose fault is that?” the dragon asked. “I am not the one still shoving food in my maw because I slept in too late…again.”
Tal’on pointed toward the other elder dragons, on wing with their charges, as they drew further away from the cave.
“Alright,” he conceded. “My fault, I take full blame. Now, let’s go before we miss out on Jump practice.”
Tal’on emphasized his desire to be off by kicking his heels into Graf’tal’s chest. The old dragon promptly sat down.
“Not going anywhere if you treat me like that.” He huffed another cloud of smoke over his shoulder at Tal’on.
Tal’on waved a clawed hand at the smoke and squint his eyes at the stubborn expression on the dragon’s face. He was not going to get anywhere acting like a hatchling. He needed to use his brain to get Graf’tal to cooperate. The old dragon was a teacher and used to dealing with insolent younglings. He had been doing it for centuries.
Tal’on stretched himself out over Graf’tal’s long neck and ran his hands from the dragon’s chin to his chest. The old dragon rumbled in contentment sending a soft vibration throughout his body.
“I’m sorry,” Tal’on apologized. “I am not myself this morning.”
Graf’tal’s deep purr ceased immediately as he tried to turn his head in order to see the youngling on his back.
“It is not your time yet,” Graf’tal said in a worried tone, “unless, you are an Early.” He sniffed at Tal’on.
When the youngling leaned over to look his elder in the eye, Graf’tal licked his cheek. The old dragon savored the taste as his eyes squint shut in thought.
“Not yet,” he said, “but close. You will be an Early.”
“Really?” Tal’on almost squealed, the pitch of his normal speaking voice cracking into an octave higher register.
Graf’tal’s ears laid back flat against his head at the sound of the off key pitch in the youngling’s changing voice.
“Really,” he confirmed in his deep baritone.
Tal’on could hardly sit still. None of his friends had been confirmed to be Earlies. He would be the first to get his wings…the first to be able to fly and Jump without an elder…the first to go into stasis, which he had to admit was scary and took the shine off the other two earlier thoughts.
“When?’ Tal’on asked.
“Not today,” Graf’tal answered. “Today we learn more about Jumping.”
“And Jumping is what you did to get aboard my ship?” I asked interrupting Rudd’ard’s story.
“Yes,” the one I now knew as being a youngling, confirmed. “Adults can Jump through time and space. They need only picture the place they wish to be and it is done.”
“Space and time?” Jake asked skeptically.
“Yes,” Rudd’ard said, his brow wrinkling clear up to the stubs of his short horns.
“Through time?” Jake repeated.
“Through time,” Mul’drak said. The claws on his paws extended and he raked the floor of the cave in irritation.
“I’d like to see that,” Jake said. Anyone could tell Jake didn’t believe their claim of time travel in any way, shape, or form.
“Well, you’ll never get the chance,” Mul’drak growled with satisfaction. “Proved that point during the Fall. Had a Valdare stuck on my back, so I Jumped here for help. He was ripped right off by the void - his lifeless body probably still floating there. Humanoids can’t Jump.”
Jake stared, still disbelieving, at Mul’drak. The old dragon snorted in derision and lay his head back down on his paws. He had curled up beside Rudd’ard like a faithful Protect Dar-dolf.
“And you are a youngster,” Arr said looking to Rudd’ard to draw the conversation back to a friendlier tone.
“We say youngling, but yes, I will one day grow wings and fly like my Great companion here.”
Rudd’ard leaned over and stroked Mul’drak’s wedged head between his ears, ending with a scratch around the base of his horns. The dragon rumbled in something I could only interpret as a purr. It filled the cavern and echoed off the walls.
“The elders are our teachers, mentors, companions. We are all assigned to one when we mature beyond the hatchling age and into younglings. Prior to that we are with our parents, but our kin feel it is important for social skills to have the guidance of an elder, other than a parent, when one is introduced to our peers, and our ways.”
“What happened to Tal’on and Graf’tal?” I asked.
Rudd’ard lifted his hand from Mul’drak’s head and motioned toward the mouth of the cave.
“It happened right out there. Graf’tal was correct. Tal’on was an Early and it did not happen that day, but it did the next.” Rudd’ard shifted on his rock bench. Mul’drak nuzzled the younglings’ side until he forced his head gently under Rudd’ard’s arm. It was like the older dragon was trying to comfort the younger. “When the great ones Jump they lock minds with the youngling on their back. The youngling ‘sees’ what the teacher sees.”
I smiled as I imagined Arr was somehow connecting with this species’ minds. The pictures he said he was seeing were what Rudd’ard was explaining.
“The day Tal’on was lost was the beginning of the Valdare incursion into our world…our lives. Graf’tal blamed himself. He said he should have been more careful having already identified Tal’on as an Early, but really, if Graf’tal couldn’t have told how close he was, then certainly no one else could have either for Graf’tal was the oldest and most experienced Great among our kin.”
“It was a mistake that cost many lives and ultimately a planet as well,” Mul’drak mumbled.
“Graf’tal said he felt Tal’on firmly in his mind and on his back when he started the Jump home, but in the void it felt like the youngling was ripped from him.” Rudd’ard went on to explain. “When Graf’tal arrived here, Tal’on was not with him. We later found out the youngling landed abruptly on the Valdare planet, in a town square, during a celebration of some sort. As you can imagine, panic insured.”