The sun rose to its highest, fixed in place staring down at the settlement isolated in grassland that seemed to reach out forever, beyond the sun. The settlement stood alone, a small island in the middle of a green sea. Large cones pointed into the sky woven out of colourful fabrics and dark leather. Strong ropes and posts prevented them from falling down. The tepees huddled together, finding comfort in their closeness, keeping the isolation of their world at bay.
The community that inhabited this fabricated island were hard working folk, close to the earth. Their skin baked by the sun, the same terracotta that they moulded their pottery from.
Joska froze over the clay jug he was shaping when he heard the child’s cry.
“Strangers! Strangers in our land!”
Joska leapt to his feet and ran outside.
On the horizon, a red scar slashed the landscape. Forearmed soldiers sat a horse, banners like red fire trailed behind them. The men tensed ready for the impending clash.
As the sun shifted towards the east, The trail of fire scorched its way to the front of their village.
The man at the head of the host rode forward to meet the wise man, like a coal skipping from a firepit.
The strangers appeared as giants, cased in red battle Armour with ornate helms. The fourth stranger among them held a banner with a great winged serpent flying high above the sun. The people of the community formed a circle around the wise man and the strangers. Joska craned his neck in a better attempt to see or hear the exchange between The wise man and the strangers.
“Grassland tribe! The emperor has need! All of his people are being called upon to enter a grand contest!”
Joska listened with interest, leaning forward.
“The emperor requires every tribe, village, town and city in his empire to produce for him a dragon.”
A gasp rippled across the circle at the mention of dragon. Dragons were creatures of legend and strife. No dragon had been required in the tribes living memory (expect perhaps the wise man’s).
“The dragon will be brought to the capitol city in one year’s time. The man who brings the most blessed dragon will receive reward no man dreamed of. But the people who bring no dragon… will be punished!”
The hair on Joska’s neck prickled, electrified by these words.
After a moment of silence, the wise man spoke.
“Very well. The emperor will have a dragon from us a year from now.” He turned to the community “One of you must create a dragon for the emperor. This will not be an easy task, and will be most difficult even for the most seasoned and experienced of us, but one of you must do this great task.”
He bowed to the stranger
“We give the emperor our thanks.”
The stranger huffed and called to his men. They had other communities to visit before their work would be done. The host left, snaking to the south like a great serpent.
Joska ran over to the wise man. He was a man possessed.
“Wise man! Wise man! Tell me all you know of dragon craft! I must make a dragon for the emperor!”
The wise man cocked his head. “Must you, Joska!”
“I will be the one to prove myself to the emperor and receive his reward!” Joska said feverishly. The idea came to him suddenly. He was the youngest (and smallest) of seven brothers and had had no way to distinguish himself, until now.
“Joska, you do not know what you wish for. You are too young, you do not know what you will give, what it will take.”
Joska had stopped listening after the words ‘too young.’ He was a man grown was he not?
“I will craft a dragon wise man, and I will be the youngest to do so.”
“As you will Joska” The wise man said shaking his head slightly, sadness in his eyes and hearts. Young men burnt too hot, and many burned up too soon. He hoped Joska would not be one of them.
Joska spent many days and nights forming the clay into the shape of an egg, slapping clay down, balling it, stacking it, smoothing it.
The clay would not hold.
Joska then tried to layer the clay. Forming a ball, letting it dry and coating it in clay. He repeated this process for over a fortnight.
The clay would not hold.
Joska was angry. He remembered the stories. Dragons of earth, Dragons of red, Dragons of dirt. Dragons of blood. Dragons of fire. Dragons of spirit.
Perhaps the clay alone would not be enough?
Joska experimented with adding dust and dirt, mud and rocks and grass to the clay.
Each time, the clay would not hold.
Joska hunted a rabbit and poured its life blood into the clay.
The clay would not hold.
Furious, he cried out, flinging the wasted bloodied, dirty clay to the ground.
The wise man walked into Joska’s tent, finding him crouched, clutching his head. Shattered pot and wet clay surrounding him.
Joska looked up at the wise man. The wise man’s eyes were full of concern and even a little pity.
“You are making yourself sick, Joska. Our community worries for you. I see you will not give up your quest to craft a dragon for the emperor so it seems I must help you so you can finish this.”
Joska listened intently now. He was angry that the wise man had held out on him, but he was far too hungry for the secret to let that anger matter now.
“Joska, no ordinary clay will do. You must ride a moon away to the purple mountains and take the clay from there. Then you must take that clay far, far away, to a city in the east. There they can burn fires hot enough to birth dragons.”
Joska leapt up, already moving to grab his things. He would go tonight.
"But Joska... You do not know what you risk. Headstrong youth blinded by desire. Look closely and beaware the spirits watch us all."
Joska did not look up.
The purple mountainous reached high into the sky, towering above the large body of water it sat behind and the trees that huddled around it. Joska had never seen such sights. The water was as wide and large as his grasslands.
It took him three days and nights to circle the lake until he was at the mountains feet. Dwarfed by the trees that surrounded him, Joska was a grain of sand to the mountain. One breath and he would blow away, never to be seen again.
Joska camped for a week, hunting animals and finding the most rich, vibrant red clay he had ever laid hands on. It was as if the land had bled heavily into it. He collected as many jugs of the clay as he could feasibly carry on his back and after another night of rest by the sparkling water he began his journey to the city in the east.
The sun beat down on him with each step he took and the bloodied clay weighed heavily on his spine. He was dirty and often coated in sweat. When he slept he only dozed and he dozed fitfully. Each step took him further from home, further form the familiar, from his people.
By the time he reached the city, Joska had grown taller and broader, the journey through the sun having hardened him.
Joska worked at the potter’s house for four moons, each attempt to forge a dragon worse than the last.
Shaping the form of an egg on the potters wheel with his hands before firing his masterpiece in the kiln. The kiln burnt hot, it’s fiery breathing bursting out in sharp breaths.
It was done.
The egg was a solid lump of clay, the size of a small child.
Once cooled, the clay was cold and heavy. There was no life beating inside.
Joska fired it again. Perhaps the clay had not been heated enough?
Once again, the clay was lifeless.
He tried blood again, taking choice animals from the butchers. No creature, big or small, could hatch a dragon.
He tried different ceramic materials. Porcelain, earthware and stoneware. None could hatch a dragon.
It was close to another moon passing and near time for the emperor to call the men who had made dragons to the capitol. Joska was down to one jar of the clay he had dug from the purple mountains and would soon wear out his welcome at the potter’s house.
Joska spun the wheel one last time.
Joska lit the Kiln one last time.
The clay was cold.
Joska could not hatch a dragon.
Joska cried, pounding the table he had coated in clay so many times. He smashed pots and vases and flung tools. He grabbed the egg -
Heat radiated from the egg. Something moved inside.
Joska dropped egg.
He gasped. The egg rolled away from him and hit the wall.
Joska rushed over and crouched down by the egg. He checked it for damage. The egg was chipped slightly, but still warm. Something twitched inside.
Joska let out a big laugh and could not stop laughing for several minutes. He sat on the floor and held the egg on his lap.
With each passing day the egg grew hotter. By day three, the egg could not be held by any man and was instead houses in the kiln, putting the potter’s work on pause. He did not care. He made more money charging pedestrians to see the dragon egg than he had ever made from his pots.
By the tenth day, no man could be within four feet of the kiln, it radiated too much heat. The potter grew anxious that he would lose him Kiln, his way of making a living. Joska reassured him confidently that he would buy him ten kilns with the riches he would be rewarded by the emperor.
On the thirteenth day, the kiln exploded.
On the thirteenth night, a noise like none this land had heard (in the last hundred years) cried out into the dark.
Joska had hatched a dragon.
The dragon was smoke made solid. His ashen scales twinkled when light shone on them and his eyes were two bright coals.
The dragon slept most of the journey to the emperor’s seat, content to bask in the sun as it beamed rays its way (and needed to be fed regularly so he did not become overly interested in the oxen who pulled the cart).
After another full moon had passed, Joska and his entourage (and the dragon) arrived at the capitol, the emperor’s seat. The capitol was carved of jade and ebony, each structure a work of art, crafted over centuries. This was not what drew Joska’s attention first.
The capitol’s hub was filled with dragons.
So many dragons.
Gold dragons, silver dragons, jet and cerulean and emerald and crimson and topaz dragons. The emperor’s treasures brought to life; Beasts carved from precious jewels. The dragons varied in size and shape. Large claws. Two legs, four. Wide wings and multiple tails. One tail. No tail. Arrow heads and axe head. One dragon’s head could almost have been described as an ornate battering ram.
Joska’s dragon, forged of clay and coal and fire, appeared dull in comparison.
Joska drew his oxen sheepishly towards the dragon pit and called the dragon down. The dragon stretched and hopped daintily down from the back of the wagon. The dragon was eight foot high and had the build of a great cat with a serpent’s head and neck. He was smaller than most, but perhaps better formed in some aspects. Joska had not expected so many men to come forward with dragons. He held onto hope that he would be the one to receive the emperor’s favour for his efforts.
Music began. Grand and ceremonial. All men stood to attention. A man garbed in fine robes came into the midst of the dragon pits, accompanied by soldiers. Joska saw this man and felt it must be the emperor himself.
The emperor surveyed the dragons, counting at least sixty and nodded to himself.
“The emperor offers gratitude in acceptance of your tribute!”
But, wasn’t he the emperor?
“Seize the beasts!”
The soldiers rushed forward taking the chains of the dragons to hand.
Joska was confused, he tried to stop the soldiers, to ask about his reward. He was struck in the face.
Cut on his forehead, Joska wiped the blood from his eyes, restored his vision.
Men around him were being beaten and dragons led away.
His oxen screamed. Two dragons had come loose, twins born of pearls, and were roasting them alive, feasting on their flesh. The soldiers tried to pull them away, shouting at them. One was burned.
Joska ran from the capitol.
Joska returned to his community, over a year after having left it. He returned shame faced and spoke a word to no one. The wise man said nothing, only touched his shoulder. Joska picked up where he left off, making pottery for the village, digging up clay, crafting. He taught boys and girl how to make pottery and was silent in the face of the other men’s mocking. The taunts died down after a time.
A moon after he had returned, Joska found the wise man and spoke to him. He told him all that had happened to him and of his hatred for the emperor and his men.
The wise man listened, taking in the words of the young man, and the fire flaring in his dark eyes.
“Do you hate the black smith and the farmer also? Your fellow man? The women who birth future soldiers? Children who grow to march to war? All is necessary to war. You are but one grain of sand in an hour glass boy.”
Joska thought about the wise man’s words for a long time. And he went back to his pottery and did his part for the community. He made pots, dug clay and taught children. His dragon made appearances in his dreams, smoke brought to life and burning coals for eyes….
After several years, civil unrest came to the lands. The islanders adrift in their grassland sea heard about the unrest for many moons before it came to them. The sun was blocked out by great, dark wings.
A crimson serpent snaked from the east, banners streaming behind them like fire. Smoke filled their homeland.
The horses screamed. Children cried. The sea of grass was on fire. Flames everywhere. Ash and cries everywhere.
Joska was face to face with the dragon.