Here begins the story of Tom Brace an unlikely dragon rider with a lot to live up to.
“Tom! Get up! You’re going to miss it!”
Tom’s eyes snapped open. He realized it was Bert, his brother banging on his bedroom door and not a voice in his dream. He rolled over and tried to get out of his bed, but then caught his legs in the sheets and fell to the floor. Tom crawled out of the tangle of sheets and unbolted his door to let his brother in.
His brother marched in.
“Of all days to oversleep!” Bert chastise, “Let’s get you ready.”
“I was dreaming of Mom.”
Bert stopped and put a hand on Tom’s shoulder. Their mother had been missing for almost a month and their father had left a week ago in search of her. Some people said she had run off, others that she had been kidnapped. There was no way to know for sure and it left the Brace family in almost chaos at a pivotal time for its youngest, member, Tom.
“It’s tough, but you’ve got to get to the choosing. She’d want you there,” Bert said.
“Fire and Water! Your room’s a mess,” Bert said after a moment and breaking the moment of consolation they were sharing.
“It’s not that bad…”
“Tom, just get dressed.”
Tom began to slip out his pajamas while Bert hunted up some clothes for him. A shirt hit Tom in the face and he fumbled at it, but did not catch it before it hit the floor.
“What were you thinking? How did you not have an alarm? Of all days!” Bert fumed. “Dad and Jeff will kill us both if you miss the choosing.”
Tom picked up the clothes Bert had tossed his way and slid into them. “Where’s my pack?”
“How would I know?” Bert said crossly, gesturing to the mess in the room.
Tom shook his head to clear the sleep away. He looked under his bed, but the pack wasn’t there. Kneeling on the floor beside his bed he scanned his room. There was no order to Tom Brace’s room.
It was his mom who always helped him get his room neat.
“Has dad sent word?” Tom asked Bert.
“Yes. Jeff said he got a message last night that dad is fine, but he hasn’t found her, yet.”
“Where is he now?” Tom asked.
“He’s… He’s on a ship heading to the Continent,” Bert said, his voice betraying some worry.
“Oh, no! Why is he there?” Tom said, still not fully dressed.
“Because he thinks that’s where Mom is, obviously. Look, Dad knows what he’s doing. He’s a warrior and tracker.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t go?” Tom said.
“Oh, no, you’re going. I promised I’d get you there and that’s what I’m going to do. If you didn’t want to do this, you shouldn’t have finished the trial.”
Tom sat down by his bed and sighed. How could he do this with both his parents gone. Now, Dad was looking for Mom in the most dangerous place in the world, the Continent.
“Hey, Tom,” Bert said and sat down next to him on the bed. “It’s going to be fine. Really. Dad and Mom would both want you to do this. They’re proud of you. We’re all really proud that you passed the trial. Surprised, but proud.”
Tom nodded his head. “Thanks, Bert,” he said.
Tom hadn’t really expected to pass the trial either. He had really only entered to fulfill the family legacy.
Despite his age, Tom Brace was taller than the average Dragon Islander but much thinner. He was 13 years old and was constantly explaining his name was “Just Tom, not Thomas.” It was tiresome to do so but he felt obligated. See, Tom, though he was the grandson of the Great Tournament Champion Thomas Brace, was actually named Tom for his maternal grandpa, who was himself, also just a Tom. And Tom, the boy, was more like his mother’s side of the family. While Tom’s father and brothers were stout, barrel-chested men with the grace and sure-footedness that their island seemed to breed, Tom was tall like his mom’s dad, but unlike grandpa Tom, little Tom was clumsy. His mom and grandpa both assured him he’d grow into his body, but Tom was dubious.
Despite his limitations, Tom figured he at least had to try to qualify for the tournament. He wasn’t a complete disaster at physical stuff, he just wasn’t as good as his brothers it took him more time to do things.
Like Bert, Tom was surprised he had qualified. The contest had been like an obstacle course, treasure hunt and a survival test all rolled into one. The worst part of it was the overnight. You could only bring the clothes on your back and a knife. He was amazed he finished at all. During the overnight, the shelter he built half collapsed. He couldn’t start a fire and he was so scared that he didn’t sleep at all. It was miserable. The other kids who finished ahead of him all seemed to have had fun doing the trial, while Tom was just glad it was over when he crossed the finish line.
It was really too bad Tom’s brothers hadn’t gotten the chance to do the trials and race— bad timing. The race only happened every twenty years and his brothers were too old when it came around. Even his father missed out on it.
Because of when the dragons hatched, only those who were between 12 and 14 years could participate from Dragon Island. The dragons would never be able to carry a full-sized adult in the short time they developed from hatching to the time they had to be in the tournament. And to be honest, the dragons never grew bigger than really large horses, so after a while, they couldn’t fly with their riders.
“What are you doing?” Bert asked, jarring Tom out of his head.
“Uh, just thinking,” Tom said. “Sorry. I remember? My pack’s by the door.”
“Ok, let’s go,” Bert said.
The brothers made their way through their house, Tom headed to the door, but Bert stopped him.
“Here, eat this on the way,” Bert said, handing Tom a gramalade. It was a protein pocket sandwich.
“Oh, thanks. I forgot I had to eat,” Tom said.
Bert shook his head.
Tom scarfed down the gramalade and found his pack. Then, they went outside and the two jogged up the hill toward Hawa’s Den where the choosing would take place.
When they reached the Den, Tom was dripping with sweat and felt nervous. Everyone was there, gathered at the foot of the steps that led up into the cavelike temple. Five kids the same age as Tom were standing at the entrance with the wizened figure of Nan Sasha, the Nannie of Dragons, the Sovereign. She was speaking to the crowd.
“Excuse me. Coming through,” Tom said, pushing his way through the crowd with Bert.
“Come on, we’ve got someone for the choosing. Make way,” Bert commanded. And people parted to let Tom pass.
Tom paused at the base of the stone steps. He gazed at the huge stone figure of Hawa, the first dragon, that was carved over the entrance. The wings seemed to hug the mouth of the cave and the giant head jutted out as if to keep watch on the town below. Tom tried to hurry up the stairs, but was looking into the stone eyes of the dragon and tripped. He didn’t quite break his fall completely and his chin hit one of the stone steps, skinning it. There were a few gasps and a some titters of laughter. Tom looked back at his brother who was shaking his head.
“Go on,” Bert mouthed and gestured for Tom to keep going.
Tom nodded. He took a breath and didn’t let himself cry. This would all be over soon. He was sure he would not get a dragon and then he could go help his dad find his mom.