Step off. Or not. It’s one of those decisions that hovers at your peripheral vision — are you ready? Wings unfurled at your back, that sensation of almost-moistness lingering — will they hold? There’s a time limit… go too early and you plummet to the bottom of the chasm, fall below the cloud cover, thin scream echoing; go too late and no egg will ever ripen in you, no fire ever form to forge new life. There’s delicate chemistry at work, all hinged on self-knowledge, self-trust balanced against cocky teenage arrogance and the thrust of exuberant display and strut.
The mists rise, pungent. Near the bend in the banded rose-and-ochre rock, newfound mates arc and circle.
Step off. Ignore the clamouring fear of fraud — what are you doing here at all? Egg-carrier with no interest in nesting? Or not. No shame in walking away, becoming one of the Keepers instead of a Mate.
And yet… there’s an edge. Desire. Those mists, calling.
Stretch out a wing – sunlight glints gold off purple and teal. Step off —
— and fall, for a vertiginous moment, into warm air and indigo mist that tingles — breathe in — and feel sparks deep inside, crackling — breathe out — and without thinking, bank right to realise — flight! — as the shudder of awareness and now and everything pools deep at the muscle where wing meets back and — breathe in — sparks, up-down up-down — breathe out — wheel down on a cry —
There is a moment when every tendon, every capillary, every bone feels that it is being reconfigured — searing pain, transformation without the kindness of a chrysalis. Reach out — wingtip to wingtip, tail to tongue, belly to back — breathe in. Breathe out.
To the left, a sudden tumbling, ungainly. Time halts as one body drops far too fast but at the last moment catches a claw on a ledge and scrabbles back to panting, whimpering stillness, cradling torn patagium and time resumes.
The rest of you carry on as if there had been no interruption; indeed, will barely acknowledge that it could have been any of you on that ledge — the wrong draft, a distracted breath into cold reedy air instead of filling spiced warmth.
The heat in your belly is growing insistent, drum-pulse needy now. Up-down, up-down. Slowly rise above the crags and look across the ravine — so many Drake, all the way to the horizon, vermillion and cobalt and pearl — up-down, up-down — there — wings fold in just so, and this dive is precise and graceful — wheel again —
And there he is — silver and violet and eyes like fire, wheeling next to you — up-down, up-down — breathe in together, sparks —
— and suddenly you are every Drake that has ever stepped into the unknown, overlaid a thousandfold through time; you are nesting, awaiting younglings; you are breathing fire to quicken your wife’s eggs; you are laying, crying out as the fourth egg passes too quickly; you are mating slow on the wing at dusk at the end of the War, injured; you are emerging reborn from fire back in the Phoenix-time, before… Breathe in. Sparks, crackling. Fire, then, not eggs? That makes fierce sense, and he seems to know it too — tangles tail, teasing, breathes in. Up-down, up-down. Too much to risk now to fall, steady beating of wings together: up-down, up-down. Breathe in. Sparks, crackle, heat. Breathe out — fire. Meld breath and soon bodies.
There’ll be time later to find out whether your new nest will need a third for younglings.