What woke me up? It’s the dark of late night, so late that it is nearly early. Rain is hammering on the slate tiles of the roof and beating against the windowpane, but it was like that when I went to sleep, so I doubt that’s what has woken me.
My sleep-addled mind finally processes that I am alone in the bed. Where are Cai and Kirby? The bed feels cold and empty without them.
I throw the covers back and stride to the only other room in the cottage. The soft light from the corner lamp makes me blink.
Kirby is hunched over on the floor, rocking back and forth. Cai is kneeling beside him and rubbing his back.
“The eggs are coming?” I ask in astonishment.
I knew they were due, but somehow, facing the stark reality of them actually being on the way is frying my half-awake brain cells.
“Yes," says Cai, without looking at me. He sounds annoyed, but I guess I am stating the obvious.
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
Cai scowls. “Because you were supposed to rest and take the second shift.”
“We are taking shifts?” I say in surprise.
Actually, that sounds like a really good idea. It’s just like Cai to think of it. But what is my dragon’s reason for letting me snore away?
“Why didn’t you wake me?” I ask Zh.
“What Cai said,” she answers irritably.
Her mood is understandable. I can sense her concern, anxiety, and excitement. She is about to become a parent and her entire attention is on Ri right now. She doesn’t have time for me and I don’t mind at all. I drop the bond and give her the space she needs.
Kirby hisses in pain and picks up the pace of his rocking. That has to suck. Feeling your bonded dragon’s desire and pleasure is one thing, birthing pains are quite another. I’m so glad Zh is not the one laying eggs.
“Can we go down to him?” asks Kirby with gritted teeth.
“Is that what Ri wants?” says Cai.
Kirby stills for a moment. I recognise that gesture as, ‘I’m talking to my dragon.’ It only lasts a few seconds, and then Kirby nods. “He wants us all there.”
“All of us?” Cai asks softly.
His tone is calm and neutral, but I know him and I can hear his pain and uncertainty, and it breaks my heart. His magic is gone. He is unbonded. He is astonished that we still include him. Je still lets him ride, but not to fight, and the dragons still adore him. Cai is still a Rider. In all but name. And he can’t believe it.
Kirby lifts his head and fixes Cai with a look. I can’t see it from here, but I can guess. It’s something tender and caring and even just the thought of it soothes my soul.
“All of us,” he repeats softly.
A faint flush flashes quickly across Cai’s face and he nods. “Let’s get you dressed then.”
Yeah, my underwear and Kirby’s thin pyjamas really aren’t going to cut it for the walk to the old mine. Cai, on the other hand, looks suitably dressed. That bastard is always prepared. I have no idea how he does it.
I hurry back into the bedroom and start throwing on layers of clothes while Cai helps Kirby to dress. We work quickly and efficiently and in no time at all, we are ready.
We make it to the front door when Kirby doubles over and cries out. Cai rubs his back and flashes me a worried look.
“Guess I’m carrying you, Khaleesi,” I say with a grin.
Kirby grumbles at the nickname, but he allows me to scoop him up into a bridal carry. The feel of him in my arms is wonderful. He belongs in my embrace. He sighs and rests his head on my shoulder, and that small, trusting gesture speaks volumes about how comfortable he is with me, of how much he trusts me. It sends my heartbeat all over the place and fills me with an intense desire to never, ever do anything to cause him to lose faith in me.
It's just a shame that right now I have to carry him out into a storm. But it can't be helped. Time to take a deep breath and get on with it.
I step outside and the blast of cold and rain is bracing, but I’ve been a Dragonrider since I was a young teenager and the skies are more fierce than this. It is uncomfortable, but I can deal with it. It's not like I have a choice. Our dragons need us, their eggs are being born. I'm hardly going to let a bit of weather stop me.
Cai strides ahead with the torch. I grit my teeth and trudge along the tiny gravelled footpath that leads away from the cottage and up the mountain, towards the human entrance to the old coal mine.
It’s a ten-minute walk on a warm summer’s day. Like this, it is going to feel like forever. Kirby wriggles in my arms, angling himself more towards my chest, presumably in an effort to shield himself from the vile weather. His body wracks with another cramp, and I tighten my grip on him and pick up my pace. This can't be pleasant for him at all. And the only thing I can do about it is walk as fast as I can.
But the path is treacherous, and Cai's torch does not give off much light. If I go too fast, I might fall. It is frustrating as hell. We slog along in miserable silence for what feels like far too long, but now I can see the entrance to the mine, just up ahead. I barge past Cai and all but run the last few hundred feet. The path is wider here, and I know I can do it safely.
Stepping into the dank and dark mine is a huge relief. There is no rain in here, no biting wind. Cai catches up and shines the torch down the tunnel. The darkness seems to grin back at us. But the shadows smell of dragon and we have been here a thousand times. It is our dragons' home and our second one. There is nothing to fear here.
“I can make it from here,” says Kirby, so I set him down.
True to his word, he sets off at a brisk pace. He is keen to get to Ri. I follow hot on his heels in case I need to carry him again. But we make it to the chamber with no problems.
I can just about make out Ri lying on his bed of leaves and moss. Zh had been very proud of the sheets of soft moss she had found for Ri’s nest, and the sight of it makes me smile. Zh and Je have done a grand job in providing for their mate.
Kirby runs straight over to his dragon. He climbs up onto the bed and starts rubbing Ri’s flank and making soothing noises. His own shared pain seemingly forgotten. I'm glad for his sake.
Cai hands me the torch and gets to work lighting candles. He uses a match for the first one and then uses that to light others. Grief washes through me. Not so long ago, Cai would have been able to light all the candles with one snap of his fingers.
Doing it for him would be awful. Talk about rubbing it in his face. So all I can do is stand here holding the torch like some nearly useless lump. It feels horrible.
As I watch Cai work, I slowly realise that there are hundreds of candles down here, all shoved into every nook and cranny.
“Did you do this?” I ask him.
Has he really been sneakily buying candles and stashing them down here in preparation for tonight?
He doesn’t answer me, but his blush tells me everything. I grin and decide not to tease him. We all know he is far softer than he pretends to be.
At the opposite end of the chamber, Zh and Je are poking their heads in. The entrance is too small for them to fit through, but at least they can see.
Cai soon has the place looking like a magical cathedral. It’s beautiful. Almost breathtaking. A fitting place for a miracle to occur.
Excitement, pride and awe rushes through me. This night will go down in history. The night that live dragon eggs were born, for the first time in far too long. All thanks to Kirby.
I thank the universe every single day for bringing Kirby into our lives. But tonight, he feels like even more of a blessing. Even if he is not the chosen one, he is my chosen one. Cai and Kirby are the best people in the world and I’m so proud that they are mine.
Ri’s long and low rumble shatters my thoughts. He moves his tail and now I can see it. The tip of a golden dragon egg.
“Oh Zh!” I exclaim in glee, and the wave of love, pride, and joy that I receive in return nearly knocks me off my feet.
My dragon is a parent.
This is the best night ever.