An egg starts to hatch. Out though a hole in the egg, a eye squints to get its first look at the outside world. A small beak pushes at hole, widening it. A tiny head pokes out. The egg falls over. The baby squeaks.
Quickly, a young female of the Parasaurolophus1 herd gallops off to get some horsetails for the new hatchling.
The eggshell cracks, a foot appears, wriggling its three toes. The baby squeaks again, pushing its way out of the egg.
The young female returns, and places the horsetails beside the anxious mother.
Then, the shell splits in two, and the baby tumbles out. With a low trumpet of satisfaction, the proud mother nuzzles her newest-born. The baby peeps, and returns the nuzzle. The mother licks him, ridding him of the eggsac and yolk.
“Vychan,” she says, nuzzling him. “You are my little Vychan.”
“Vy..chan,” he squeaks.
Vychan sat in his nest, waiting his mothers arrival with breakfast. His brothers and sisters played behind him, rolling and butting. He looked sadly back at his playful siblings. He could not join their game.
Because he was different. Different from all other youngsters, for while their scales were already changing colour from baby gold to youngster green, Vychan was still as yellow as the sun.
The other babies mocked him, called him names. The adults would come and stare at him, a note of wonder, or was it fear? in their voices. Calling him a esh-ra.
What was an esh-ra? He didn’t know.
He peered down the sloping side of the nest. It did not seem as high as usual.
Suddenly, whether by accident or on purpose, one of his siblings fell against him. With a squeak of panic, he toppled over the edge and fell down the slope, landing in a tiny golden heap at the bottom.
Vychan blinked, rolled over, and looked up at his nest. It seemed higher from down there.
He mewed, frightened. No one came. He mewed again.
Something moved in a clump of ferns beside him. A small green lizard walked out of the fronds, and across the barren earth of the nesting grounds.
Curious, Vychan followed it. He sniffed at it. The lizard took no notice. It walked off the nest site, into the forest beyond. He followed it into the ferns and shrubs. It walked on to a tree, and began to climb.
Vychan craned his neck to watch it vanish into the leaves.
He suddenly felt very much alone, and looked around fearfully. A small golden dinosaur would be easy to spot in the green ferns. He would be a quick meal for any passing predator.
He whimpered, and ran back towards the nesting grounds, stopping when he heard something breathing. He crouched low under a fern, hoping that whatever it was would go away.
It did not. Instead it spoke.
“Selig,” it whined. “Why can’t we go in now? I’m hungry.”
“Because, dimwitosaur,” a second voice hissed, “we have to wait for the Boss’s signal.”
“Well, I wish he would hurry up, or my stomach’ll give us away.”
Something moved nearby. Vychan saw it was a foot. A foot with a small curved claw on its second toe. He looked up, and saw the rest of the dinosaur above him. Not overly large, but its sharp teeth looked anything but friendly.
“If the boss don’t give the signal soon,” the voice continued, “I’m running out of this misfit pack.”
“Then you’d better be running fast, Fyffe. If the Boss finds you gone, you’ll be the crunch in his lunch.”
Fyffe gave no reply.
Vychan shivered in fear. He was surrounded by a pack of carnivores; they were about to attack his herd. There was a sudden roar from the other side of the nesting grounds. A massive Tyrannosaurus2 charged into the herd, the members of which trumpeted in panic and scattered. The youngsters squeaked in terror as they scrambled out of the nests.
They all headed towards him; towards the two smaller carnivores hidden beside him which ran out of the bushes, and leapt onto the back of a male that looked like it could be the herds’ leader. He bellowed in fear and pain as they slashed at him with their claws.
The large carnivore walked over, and almost casually sank its great teeth into the helpless adults’ neck.
The moan was cut horribly short, and he sank onto the ground.
Vychan’s eyes were wide as he watched the three tear at the carcass. He felt a rage building up inside of him; a rage so intent that it had to be let out. He ran out into the nesting grounds, shouting.
“You disgusting, evil-smelling brute!” He threw a pebble at the largest. “Pick on someone your own size!”
The pebble bounced of the boss’s head. The two smaller carnivore sniggered, and the Boss snarled at them.
“Laugh, will you?! If you don’t bring me that insulting pup, I’ll have you for dessert!”
Vychan turned and fled. He followed the trail of destruction left behind by his herd, but he could hear the two carnivores closing in on him. It would only be a matter of moments before he felt their sharp teeth and claws on his scales.
The ground was getting wetter, softer. He scrambled over the deep footprints of the adults. He heard a thud behind him.
“Get up, nincomdino!” Selig snapped.
“Hey, it ain’t my fault there was a pithole here.”
“Never mind that, it’s getting away!”
Vychan felt strangely relieved. The two chasing him were having as much trouble as he was.
The sky was getting darker, clouded. The air seemed to thicken as Vychan ran on. He was only a youngster, and no youngster was meant to run this far so fast in one day. He was exhausted.
He slipped, rolling into a puddle. The mud splashed over him, covering him in brown. He sank down, panting. The mud bubbled underneath him.
“Hey, where’d the little pipsqueak go?” Selig asked, from somewhere very close. Vychan held his breath.
“I dunno,” was the reply, “I was following you.”
“And look,” Fyffe continued, “it’s gonna storm any minute now. ‘N the boss’s probably hogged all our dinner.”
“Don’t let him catch you saying that.”
“Well, it’s the truth, the Boss’s nothing but a gorger.”
“Shut your jaws, Fyffe, if the boss heard you saying that...”
“Well he didn’t, he’s not here. And unless you tell him, he won’t know.”
“I’m not going to tell him. I value my skin high enough to want to keep it intact. Look, let’s go back and say the runt drowned.”
The two carnivores left.
Vychan let out his breath with a gasp, relief warming him. He climbed out of the puddle, shook the mud off, and looked up at the sky. The clouds were grey, almost purple, light flickered behind them. He had better find a place to rest. Some place safe.
There was a hollow log nearby, lying on a reed hummock. Vychan crept inside. He was so tired, that he fell asleep almost immediately.
He woke up as something cold and wet trickled down his beak. He blinked, and yawned. Another droplet of water trickled into his mouth. He peered outside.
A flash of lightning tore through the sky. Vychan screamed, and wriggled further back into the log.
Water touched his tail and legs. He looked around. Dirty brown water swirled and churned behind him. Vychan looked outside.
Water. Dirty, brown, mucky water. It flowed across the ground, crashed against the trees, uprooted the ferns. Branches and debris twirled past as the floodwater carried them downstream.
Something hit his log. It jerked forward, and rolled off the reed hummock.
Vychan started to cry for help, but he was dunked underwater. It came out in a flurry of bubbles. The hollow log smashed against a tree, and broke into pieces.
Vychan was hurled out into the flood.
The water came up in waves, ducking him under, filling his eyes, nose, mouth and ears with silt.
As he came to the surface he squealed, but it came out half-choked through all the mud. He rubbed at his eyes and the water ducked him again.
His heart raced as the water carried him away. He would die, he was sure.
“Eeelp!” he called as he rose up. “Eeeelp!”
There was no one to hear, despair clogged his mind.
A branch swirled by, he grabbed it, and clung to it tightly. It seemed to want to get rid of him. It dashed against trees, dived underwater, but Vychan hung on.
“Eeelp!” he cried again. Surely it was not hard to see a bright gold dinosaur in the middle of a brown sea?
“Hold on, little baby!” someone yelled.
There was a splash behind him. Something grabbed him in its mouth. He felt the prick of sharp teeth on his scales. He didn’t care. He’d rather be eaten alive than drown.
His rescuer swam back to dry land, with powerful strokes of its arms and legs.
When they were on firm ground, Vychan was lowered, and the teeth let go.
“Are you all right?” his rescuer asked.
Vychan tried to answer, but he could only mew. He felt a warm tongue licking him. Another dinosaur, only slightly larger than himself, bounced out of some bushes.
“Is he okay, Merryn? Is he? Is he? Is he?” it chattered.
“I think so, Cormac. But we’d better take him home, he’s a bit water-logged.”
Vychan felt the teeth prick again, and once more he was carried. Mud still choked his eyes and nose. He sneezed, and rubbed his eyes; it helped a little. He could see the trees on either side, and green moss on the ground below. Ahead of him was a black opening. They were heading for it.
“What’s the matter?” Cormac asked, prancing about down below.
Vychan looked at the black hole with fear-filled eyes.
“That?” Cormac said. “That’s our cave, not very large, but it’s home. Don’t worry, it’s as safe as any place.”
They ran in.
It was dry. Bracken fronds lay in two piles on one side of the cave, a couple of fish skeletons on the other.
Cormac grabbed some of the bracken, and made another pile. Then Merryn laid Vychan on it.
“There you go,” he said. “You’ll be warm in no time. Have a sleep, and then tomorrow we can talk.”
Vychan was only too happy to do so. He snuggled down into the makeshift nest, and was soon sleeping a peaceful sleep.
Vychan blinked his sleepy eyes, and looked around.
Except for a few fishbones and bracken, the cave was empty.
He stood up. His head pounded, and he yawned. It helped a little. It would be better if he could find something to eat.
How was he going to get food? He didn’t know what plants were edible or not. And by the look of the fishbones, he guessed his rescuers wouldn’t either.
A shadow snaked towards him, and he looked back at the entrance. Cormac stood, silhouetted, in the cave’s mouth.
“Hey, Merryn,” he called. “Goldenscales is awake.”
He walked over to Vychan.
“How are you?”
“All right, thank you.”
Cormac looked him up and down. “Bit young to be out on your own, aren’t you? Where’s your herd?”
“They ran away,” Vychan said. “Leader was killed by carnivores.”
“How come you didn’t run away with them?” asked Merryn as he walked in.
Vychan told them what had happened, about how he’d heard the carnivores but been to frightened to move, and of the attack, and finally the chase.
Merryn’s face went grim as he ended the tale.
“Them again, huh?” he said. “I share your feeling exact. My mother was taken by them.”
“My whole family,” Cormac squeaked sadly.
“Me and Cormac here, we met each other at the river and, I guess, sort of made a herd together.”
Vychan was staring at him. Cormac was a Segisaurus3, obviously, but he couldn’t even guess what Merryn was. As if reading his mind, Merryn said.
“I’m an Alxasaurus4. A fish eater. Corm here’s mildly poisonous but only eats bugs and rats, so you’ll be safe with us.”
Vychan sat down, not knowing what to say.
“How will I find my herd?” he blurted
“I don’t know. You’re too small to go out by yourself. You’ll be someones lunch in no time.”
“Or breakfast, or tea,” Cormac added.
“And anyway,” Merryn continued. “We were going to ask you if you’d like to stay with us. For a while, until you’re big enough.”
“Sure. You have to have friends. In this world you can’t live without them. So, what do you say?”
“I say, yes! Thank you,” he added quickly.
Vychan lay back on his bracken bed, thinking.
He’d grown a lot since that day, but he hadn’t grown any greener. He was still as golden as the sun.
And a bright and noticeable dinosaur doesn’t live very long. Predators spot it from miles away.
And that was going to be a problem.
If he couldn’t hide from predators, he would never live to see his herd.
And did he really want to go back?
No one really cared for him in his herd. And he’d just be cast out. Cast out because he was an esh-ra.
He should ask Merryn about it. Merryn knew a lot.
Merryn was fishing in the river. Usually Cormac was on the bank, to hold the fish down before they flipped back into the river, but Cormac had gone away a couple of days ago.
Vychan had been worried when he didn’t turn up, but Merryn had said there was nothing to worry about, he often disappeared for a while.
Merryns tail flicked, and he grabbed a fish. Holding it in his jaws, he waded back onto the shore, and ate his lunch. When he’d finished, he turned to Vychan
“Good morning, Goldenscales. Or should I say good afternoon.” Merryn grinned, his small, sharp teeth glinting in the suns rays. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Vychan replied. “ But I’d like to ask you something.”
“What’s an esh-ra?”
Merryn hesitated. His brown dappled head cocked on one side, and he looked steadily at him. Vychan began to feel a little uncomfortable under Merryns gaze.
“Where,” the Alxasaur asked finally. “Did you hear about that?”
“I heard it when I was in my nest. The adults kept talking about it and looking at me.”
“Oh. Well, there’s no such thing really, it’s only an old legend.” Merryn turned back to the river.
Vychan felt a little disappointed. He could tell that Merryn knew exactly what it was. He was going to ask more, when he felt a prickling go up his spine. He sat down and used a hind leg to scratch it, but it wouldn’t go away.
Merryn was watching him, a worried expression on his face.
“What’s the matter?”
Vychan opened his mouth to say “An itch,” but somehow the words changed, and instead he said: “Carnivores.”
“Ah, Teeth and Tails!” Merryn swore. “ Quick, we’ve gotta hide.”
“Too late. They’ve smelt us.” Again, it was not what he wanted to say.
Merryn muttered a few, more colourful, words. A bush shook not too far up the river and they turned toward it. A slender carnivore ran at them from behind, but then a second ran at the first, and knocked him down.
“Selig!” the one on the ground protested. “What in the world d’ya think you’re doing?”
“Look at him, Fyffe,” said the other. “Doesn’t he remind you of someone?”
The dromaeosaur on the ground stood up, and the two encircled Vychan and his fish-eating friend. Fyffe stared at him.
“Well, what do you know, it’s the little golden runt!”
“Yeah,” Selig nodded, “Small world, isn’t it?”
“But, Selig, he ain’t so little anymore.”
“Selig and Fyffe,” Merryn muttered. “ Now where have I heard those names before?”
“These are the two that chased me,” Vychan whispered.
“And killed my mother!” Merryn hissed.
“So, why aren’t they killing us?”
“Cause we’re going to take you to the boss, and he’s going to do it,” Selig grinned. “We got in a lot of trouble because of you, goldie. And I’m going to smile as you go down the bosses throat.”
“I’m not,” Fyffe said. “I hate it when the boss eats. All these bits of...”
Selig whirled around and slashed Fyffe across the face with his claws.
“Shut-up, Fyffe!” he snapped. Turning back to Vychan, Selig said: “ Right you two, you’re coming with us. If either of you make a move to escape, you’re dead.”
As Vychan and Merryn were herded away from the rainforest towards the mountains, a pair of small eyes watched them leave.
The cruel, craggy peaks rose sheer above them, as Vychan and Merryn were driven towards a small split in the mountainside.
Selig grinned as he pointed at it.
“In there, or we'll tear your scales off,” he said simply.
They went in, there wasn’t any other choice.
“Fyffe, you stay here,” Selig said. “I’ll go get the boss.”
“Aw, c’mon, Selig,” Fyffe whined. “I don’t wanna stay here.”
“You stay, or you’ll join them.”
Fyffe closed his mouth, and sat down at the entrance. The three watched as Selig ran off into the grasslands.
“I didn’t want to do this,” Fyffe mumbled. “But we Dromaeosaurs5 have to hunt in packs, so Selig says. Maybe that’s true, but why’d we have to join up with the Big Boss? He ate all but us, just cause they argued.”
“It’s a sad life,” Merryn agreed. “Why don’t you look for a new career some place else?”
Fyffe laughed bitterly.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “Sure, just toddle off and leave them, huh? Be hunted down and torn to pieces for deserting, I would. It’s not nice, the things they do to deserters.”
“Yes, that would be a problem,” Merryn nodded. “So you just stay and keep silent?”
“Uh huh. Nothing else to do. Eat, sleep, hunt. Sometimes I wish the Boss’d die of indigestion.” Fyffe looked around at Vychan. “Hey, goldie, how come you are that colour? Thought you’d be green by now.”
“He’s an esh-ra,” Merryn said quietly.
Fyffe stared at him.
“Claws and Carrion,” he said softly. “Hah! Whaddaya know? Mayhap you’ll put up a good struggle when the Boss try’s to eat ya.”
Vychan shivered. He had that strange itching feeling again. There was something large coming. Something very large.
“Your Boss is coming,” he said.
Fyffe stood up, and sniffed the air.
And then, the Boss came walking over towards them, Selig running along beside him, miniature against giant.
“So, this is the golden Parasaurolophus who insulted me,” the Boss said. “I’m glad that you could join me for lunch.”
“You got some dessert too, boss. An Alxasaur,” Selig said.
“You’re not going to get me without a fight,” Vychan said, quite calmly.
The Tyrannosaurus stared at him for a few, long moments, and then he began to laugh.
“You? Fight me?” he asked, before bursting out laughing again.
“Well, Boss, you going to take him up on his challenge.”
“Why not? The outcome will be exactly the same.”
“All right, then,” Vychan said. “We passed a volcanic plateau on our way here, we’ll fight there.”
The Boss lowered his head to look directly into Vychan's eyes.
“Either you’re the bravest plant-eater I’ve ever seen,” he snarled. “or you’re the daftest. Very well. The Plateau of Fire it is.”
Merryn watched as the Tyrannosaurus and Vychan walked away. It was a strange, unnerving site to see, a predator and it's prey strolling almost nonchalently toward the volcanic plateau, and one which depressed him for, esh-ra or no esh-ra, precognition could not beat brute-force. However, Merryn had not been left alone. Selig and Fyffe had remained to guard him, and their arguing was becoming a pain in the hindquarters.
"It's not fair," grumbled Fyffe. "I wanted to see the fight!"
"Why?" Selig asked curtly. "We both know how it's going to end, what's the point."
Selig stared at him.
"Why'd you say that?" he asked. "You bin eating something toxic again? Last time you did that, you kept seeing little purple rats everywhere you looked."
"No, I've not so much as sniffed anything toxic. I'm just saying that the little esh-ra might give the boss a run for his dinner."
"Esh-ra!?" Selig cried. "Are you out of yer mind? There are no more esh-ras, that's what makes hunting so easy now. No one to sense you when you're half a mile away."
"Oh he's an esh-ra, all right," Merryn said quietly. He'd just noticed something small moving in the bushes.
"You shut-up!" Selig snarled. "Else I might just take the first bite!"
Something small and black darted out of the bushes, and latched itself onto his tail.
"Yeeeowch!" Selig screamed, leaping to his feet and dancing around. "Fyffe, get this thing off me!"
"What thing?" Fyffe asked innocently, trying not to laugh. "I can't see anything. Have you been eating something toxic?"
Fyffe laughed so much he fell onto his side. Selig fell over too, kicking out with his legs, and lashing his tail against the mild poison that was running through his system. Cormac let go of him; Selig stopped thrashing but continued to scream curses at the two of them and at Fyffe.
"Come on, Merryn," Cormac said, "the fight's already started!"
The two of them ran off. Leaving behind them the two dromaeosaurs, both lying flat on the ground, but only one of whom was smiling.
Vychan dashed between the tyrannosaur's legs. He had to try to get him to lose his balance. Somehow.
It was strange. He could sense every move the carnivore was going to make, and be able to dodge it, almost like he'd been told.
He could no longer feel the itch which he had come to know meant there was danger. Perhaps he wasn't in any danger? Pretty silly thought, considering he was going to be eaten.
He ran up further into the Plateau, feeling the hot breath on his tail. He leapt over a small, boiling hot pool, and carried on running. There were more and more of these pools, fogging the rocky plateau with the steam that rose from them.
He headed for the very center.
There was a rumble beneath his feet. He kept running.
There was a huge explosion behind him, and the Boss howled in pain. Vychan felt scalding drops of liquid fall onto his scales.
A geyser had erupted behind him. He was lucky not to have been hit. The Boss, on the other hand, had got it full in the face.
Vychan could sense more geysers were going to blow. Not only that, but something else, larger, ahead of him.
He stopped suddenly, as he saw what he had sensed.
A great, bubbling pool of water, hotter than boiling, steam rising from it like early morning mist. The rocks around it were tinted with orange and green, and were wet and slippery.
There was a bellow behind him. He spun around.
The Boss's face had been horribly disfigured by the scalding water. The scales sagged, watery blisters were already forming around the eyes and nose. The flesh on one side of his face had been stripped almost totally away, and Vychan could see the jaw bones and muscles moving as the Boss spoke.
"Look into my face, golden one. It will be the last thing you see when I kill you. You've caused me pain, but I have still won."
He lunged forward, striking like a snake.
Vychan darted between the Boss's legs.
The Tyrannosaurus turned around. He slipped on the wet rocks. With a roar more of fury than of pain or fright, the Boss fell backwards.
Into the water.
Vychan turned and fled. The Boss's last screams of pain were muted by the awful hissing sound of searing meat.
He ran, away from the deadly pool, away from the geysers, away from the Plateau of Fire. He ran. And crashed straight into Merryn and Cormac. They tumbled over. Vychan lay on the ground, panting, his eyes closed.
"Vychan, you're alive!" Merryn cried. "We never thought you'd make it!"
"Neither did I," Vychan whispered, before he drifted slowly into sleep.
The sun was burning low over the golden grasses, as Vychan awoke. He saw Merryn and Cormac asleep beside him.
Then he heard something. A sound that lifted his heart high.
A low trumpeting from out in the grasslands.
He stood up, and looked about. There! On the horizon! A herd of Parasaurolophus was making it's way towards the forest, towards the nesting site. His herd. He knew he should go to them, but he couldn't leave his friends.
Vychan nuzzled Merryn.
"Hey, what..?" he asked sleepily.
There was another long trumpeting. Merryn's eyes snapped open, and he jumped to his feet.
"That's..." he began, and then he looked at Vychan. "That's your herd, isn't it?"
"Yes. They're going back to the nesting grounds."
"It's been almost a year, then," Merryn said. Cormac awoke, and trotted up beside him.
"What's going on, I can't see!"
"Vychan's herd has returned. He needs to go back to them."
"But what about you?" Vychan asked.
"We'll be fine. The river's not that far from the nesting grounds. And we can come visit."
"But I don't want to leave," Vychan said. "You guys are my only friends, my herd never liked me. You did. And yet, it is my herd. Perhaps they need an esh-ra."
"It's your choice," he said. "Me and Cormac are going now, if we don't see you again, we'll understand."
He turned, and disappeared into the grasslands, with little Cormac trotting behind him.
Vychan watched them go, and then looked back at his herd as they made their way to the forest.
He was torn between his friends and his family.
His herd had never cared much for him, but it was where he belonged, it was home. Wasn't it?
Was it really where he belonged? Could he really call it home?
The word conjured up pictures of a cave, dark, but warm inside, with scattered fishbones on the ground, and three beds of bracken in the center.
"Merryn! Cormac! Wait up! I'm coming home!"