"I don't know why we couldn't do this somewhere warm. Your tower is the perfect spot." Ariella rubbed her gloved hands together before thrusting them deep into her pockets. A frigid wind scoured the barren rock face of the volcano sapping heat from anything it touched. Even the bright sunshine failed to bring any warmth to the day. The monastery that had been Ariella's home during part of her training was further up the slope, joined to the city by a winding set of steps known as the pilgrim's path. Ariella had walked it many times before but today was the first time she wouldn't go all the way. The monastery was no longer a welcoming place for her, now she would just be another penitent seeking the dragon god Gorphin's blessing.
The Vale of Alungar opened up to the south. Once a desolate landscape scoured by the molten rock pouring from the volcano it was now home to tens of thousands of Rell and Ariella's countryfolk. Towers of black rock thrust above the mass of tightly packed houses, landmarks in a dense maze of streets and bridges. It was chaotic but it was their home or at least it had felt that way, once.
"The tower isn't the cosy place you think it is. Besides I wanted to get a view of the monastery. It's been years since I was last up here and I wasn't contemplating robbing it then," Rell said but from his spot hunkered down behind the low wall, he couldn't see much beyond the steps. The wind was incessant, barreling down from the high peaks and testing the will of any seeking to climb. Rell had given up being blown about and taken a break the first chance he could. Ariella braced a shoulder against a wooden prayer post unmoved in the face of the gale except for a few whisps of hair that had escaped her tightly bound top knots. Flags fluttered over her head, cracking in the clear blue sky. "I forgot how big the volcano was."
"It's a volcano, they aren't small." Ariella glanced at the craggy peaks where a plume of smoke rose before drifting over the valley. "I should be in there."
"What's it like?" Rell rubbed at his leg, wincing as he found a bruise. It wasn't the only one he woke up with and as the day progressed he kept finding more.
"Huge. Behind the public areas, there's a network of caves that extends all the way to a fire chamber deep in the mountain. The dragon eggs are stored on shelves in cradles marked with their name. An initiates main job is to turn them daily and retrieve those ready to hatch. Did you know that they dream while they wait?"
"The eggs?" Rell perked up. "How can you tell?"
"You can hear them talking in their sleep." Ariella smiled wistfully as she remembered running a hand over the mottled shells. "Some of them, those getting ready to hatch, make a squeaking sound. That's when they get taken into the inner temple, closer to the Gorphin. Only those accepted into the order can go inside but you can feel the heat seeping through the walls. We'd pour buckets of water over the priests before they took the eggs inside and when they came out they'd be steaming. Spend too long inside and the only way you're getting out is if someone drags you." Ariella closed her eyes and muttered a prayer as she pressed her forehead to the wind-scoured timber. "They sacrifice their lives for the dragons. I was ready to be one of them."
"Why do it if it's so dangerous?" Rell patted a pocket searching for a bottle. The fresh air had cleared his head but it was the spiced wine that was keeping him going. He raised his head to get a look at the path winding back and forth across the flank of the volcano. The monastery was only a few hundred yards away but with the circuitous route and headwind it may as well be a mile. "I'm feeling tired just looking at it."
"Why join, or why get so close to the fire chamber?"
"Both." Rell brushed his hair back. The queasiness had passed but his skin still felt dirty. "The eggs, why keep them up there?"
"Magic. The closer the eggs are to the dragon god the more of it they absorb. The same happens to the riders. They pray to Gorphin and those deemed worthy are blessed with unimaginable power." Tired of Rell's fidgeting Ariella let the bottle slip part way out of her coat pocket but shook her head when he reached for it. "After we're done scouting."
"Gorphin," Rell snorted as he tucked his bare hands into his armpits. "I'm sure someone told me this but is Gorphin an actual dragon or is it the volcano? I've never been clear on that."
"You never paid attention during the sermons. Too busy playing cards in the back row. I should have done a better job raising you." Ariella slid her hand through the air mimicking a fish in water. "The dragon god swims in a burning lake, feeding on the magic coming up from below. Humans are simple creatures, some more so than others, and that means we can't harness magic, only the gods can. Gorphin shares the ether with us, with its children."
A group of grey-robed pilgrims approached huddled together against the howling wind. Ariella raised a hand to her forehead and offered a prayer in greeting as they passed. Rell attempted to imitate her but gave up and simply watched them pass. "What's with the funny clothes?"
"They're pilgrim robes. The penitent wear them to get into the monastery."
"Why aren't we wearing them?" Rell asked from his spot on the floor.
"Because we're not asking for forgiveness. Anyway, if I went in I'd be recognised." An idea came to Ariella but she kept it to herself.
"Aren't you worried about making Gorphin angry? You are planning on stealing one of its children."
"It's not theft," Ariella said with all seriousness. "Segarin belongs to Lady Mira. We're just returning her property."
"I'm sure that excuse will work when we're hauled before the judge."
"If we do this right, by the time they notice an egg is missing we'll be over the pass.”
"Hiding under rocks as a hundred dragons flap over our heads. Not even a rabbit can hide from them."
"Sabler seems confident we can do it."
"Sabler's got ice in his veins."
"Have you seen what you needed to see?" The route to the monastery was clear now that the last of the pilgrims had gone down. Ariella dragged Rell to his feet and propped him up behind the prayer post before he could be blown away. "We need to put some fat on you."
"This is an exposed way to escape if it all goes wrong," Rell noted as he studied the terrain. The path followed along a ridgeline void of vegetation for half a mile as the gullies sloped down to the edge of the city. A few pine trees clung to life, their tortured limbs twisting over the black rocks. The city of dragons was a place of stone and fire, not of flowers and plants. "It's too dangerous to leave the path higher up. One wrong step and we'll break our legs."
"What brought this on, Rell? You were cold to the idea last night and now you're planning it out. That's a bit of a change of heart." Ariella studied her brother's face carefully searching for the truth she knew he was hiding.
"You'd rather I let you do this on your own?" Rell snapped but softened at Ariella's frown. His brown hair whipped across his dark eyes annoying him enough that he clamped a hand on his forehead to hold it back. "I read a bit when I got home last night. Do you know why the explorer Amar Sing left on his expedition?"
“Your hero? No idea.” Ariella sat on the low stone wall letting the wind beat against her back. On the other side, the lava field fell away sharply. They were alone on the monastery path except for a few monks praying at the bottom and the gaggle of pilgrims making their way up.
“He was in debt. His father had died and left the family bankrupt. As the eldest son, it was all his responsibility. He wrote about it reluctantly but I think he wanted to set the record straight. Apologise to his family, that sort of thing. Instead of staying and trying to settle up with the banks he packed a bag and embarked on the greatest adventure of the age, not through any driving purpose but because he didn’t want to do what others expected of him.
"That could be you, Rell. That's what I was trying to tell you. We can leave this place and go and see the world. We're not prisoners. Father barely knows who we are, we have nothing to keep us here.” Ariella took her brother by the shoulders. She stood tall while her brother slouched in his usual manner, even more on that morning she thought.
"Alright, I already said that I was on board. You don't have to keep on." Rell shrugged her off and turned to study the lava field. The wind pushed against him but he held onto the post. A ridgeline snaked out from the wall to a cluster of buildings over two hundred yards away. The first part was shallow but it soon formed a ravine. Rell imagined him and Ariella traversing it in the dark, using the steep walls as a guide. "At least we wouldn't get lost. If we were being chased this is where I'd want to leave the steps. We could avoid any guards at the bottom and get lost in that neighbourhood." Rell nodded to the squat buildings that filled the ravines. Walls of black rock ran across the streets but tunnels had been cut through allowing people and carts to move about with ease. "Do you know it?"
"No, but it looks quiet enough. It's a good route. We can stash our packs at the bottom and pick them up on our way through. Well spotted, Rell. I knew you'd make a good criminal."
"You said we weren't stealing anything," Rell said as Ariella started the walk down. "Ari, I'm not cut out for a life of crime. I'm far too lazy."