The continued preview of my latest work, a fantasy novel about a most unique dragon and a boy with a lot to prove.
Nan Sasha glanced at Tom when he made it to the top of the steps and indicated the boy should stand at the end of the line of the other trial finishers. She had been giving a speech about the trial winners and the choosing and how important it was to support them as they prepared for the contest. She also reported that the other islands would be sending their best teams in the last century to face the dragons, so they must be ready to do their best.
“Thank you. We have four dragons this year,” Nan Sasha concluded at the end.
People were surprised and cheered but there were smatterings of concerned chatter as it dawned on some in the crowd that two kids would go away empty handed. Four dragons was not a big team, but smaller clutches of dragons had won in the past. Many in the crowd raised their hands making the dragon wings sign of blessing.
“We shall return after the choosing and introduce you to our dragon riders,” Nan Sasha said and more people made the sign of the dragon wings.
“Come,” Nan Sasha commanded and went into the temple with the kids following.
The tunnel into the temple was roughly carved and ancient. Torches hung in brackets flickering light off the walls. Tom felt like they were descending down into the earth. They entered a great cavern and Nan Sasha paused. Standing in the cavern were statues of men and women.
“This is the Hall of Champions,” Nan Sasha said. “Here we have commemorated all our Dragon riders who won the Great Guardian Tournament. Many of their names you know. Bard Eran, the first champion,” she said, gesturing to the figure of a slim young man nearest them. “Here is Mara Firebrand, who, with the water dragon Fin, led the dragons to a great victory.”
The trial winners were gazing at the statues, knowing that if they won, they too would get a statue in the hall.
Nan Sasha looked directly at Tom. “Here are Jayce, Megan and Thomas Brace, the only members of a single family to ever have more than one champion.”
Tom looked at his ancestors. They all looked more like his father and brothers than himself. He fixed his eyes on the statue of Grandfather Brace and he imagined doubt flickered within the stone eyes.
“Well, let’s get to it,” Nan Sasha said. “This way.”
She led them to a huge wooden door on iron hinges. She pushed on it and it easily swung open revealing an even bigger hall beyond. “Hawa’s Den,” she proclaimed.
Everyone felt awed by the space. It smelled like burnt wood and damp soil. Here is where Hawa nested. Here is where she laid the clutch of eggs that had produced the dragons of water, fire, earth and air for generations.
Tom noticed, however, that there were no eggs in sight. Instead, there was a small cave in the back of the cavern.
“Come,” Nan Sasha beckoned again. And they followed her to the small cave. Three small steps led up into its entrance.
“You will enter the nursery in the order you finished the trial. Inside, you will see the dragons. They are still infants, but they are very smart. You will have to choose which one you feel the most connected to and then approach that dragon. If the dragon accepts you, you and the dragon will emerge together. If the dragon does not accept you, you will return to wait until the choosing is finished.”
Tom sighed in relief. There were four dragons and six trial winners. He would be going last, so there was little chance of him having to continue. He could return to being just Tom and not having to worry about the race. He might instead be able to help find his mom.
“Merrick Stone,” Nan Sasha called.
Merrick, the biggest and strongest of the children strode forward. He was the same height as Tom, but Merrick was broader and looked and moved like an athlete. He had easily won the trials. Everyone loved the kid, though Tom thought Merrick arrogant and sometimes mean.
“I am ready,” Merrick said confidently, his voice echoing through the cavern.
Merrick went up the steps and disappeared into the cave.
“How long does it take?” Tom asked Nan Sasha who was waiting with them outside the cave.
Tiff Rivers, the girl who finished third, shushed Tom. But Nan Sasha merely smiled at him and shrugged, indicating it would take as long as it takes.
But Merrick was out in less than two minutes. Trailing behind him was a large bowling ball of a dragon that was black as rich soil.
“Ah, an earth dragon, very powerful, very strong,” Nan Sasha said to a beaming Merrick.
“We knew right away that we were meant for each other,” Merrick said. “He was the biggest one in there.” He and his dragon made their way down the steps and stood off to the side.
Nan Sasha called the next boy in, who spent nearly 30 minutes inside the nursery only to emerge with tears in his eyes and without a dragon.
“It was so beautiful. I would have loved him, but he rejected me. He kept turning his back on me,” the boy sobbed. Nan Sasha gave the boy a hug.
“I know, it’s hard. But you will get over it in time,” she said, escorting the boy to a place on a bench against the wall.
“Tiff Rivers,” Nan Sasha called.
Tiff swallowed, then lifted her head high and marched up the steps and into the cave. She came out in 15 minutes and had tears of joy in her eyes as she carried a light green water dragon in her arms. The dragon itself flicked its tongue against her face, and Tiff giggled.
“Very good, Tiff,” Nan Sasha said. “A water dragon. They are very adaptable, smart and fierce. Take your place with Merrick.”
Merrick and Tiff were sitting off to the side of the steps with their dragons.
Only two left, Tom thought to himself and there’s three of us. While he hoped he would not have to go in the cave, something stirred in him. It was seeing Tiff with her dragon. It made Tom’s heart ache a little. It was strange to feel a loss of something you never had.
Nan Sasha called in the next trial winner, Nye Thorn. Nye was a quiet boy on the smallish side as people said. But Tom always liked Nye because he seemed thoughtful and kind. Nye emerged soon doing his best to carry a gleaming red dragon.
“The dragon of fire,” Nan Sasha said with some surprise. “Swift, powerful but, sometimes unpredictable. They demand loyalty — total loyalty. You will have your hands full with that one, Nye.”
Nye nodded and smiled.
“Ashe Navar,” she called the next boy, who resolutely went up the steps.
Tom waited. He was surprised that he was holding his breath and let it out with a woosh.
Ashe emerged shortly and he looked angry.
“I did not choose,” he declared and walked to the bench where the boy who had been rejected was sitting. Nan Sasha let a sad look trail after the boy and then she called out, “Thomas Brace.”
“Uh, it’s just Tom,” Tom replied, a little shaken by Ashe’s decision to not pick a dragon.
“What?” Nan Sasha said. “Aren’t you named after your grandfather?”
“Uh, yeah, but it’s my mom’s dad I’m named after. He was just Tom, too.”
“What was his full name?” Nan Sasha asked in surprise.
“Tom Ziplama,” Tom replied.
“The one from bugland?” she said.
“He came from Bastim Island,” Tom said. defensively.
“Oh, my. I’m sorry. I should have remembered…”
“My grandpa came by himself across the sea to our island after Bastim sank. He started a new life for himself. He was a very brave man and worked hard,” Tom said defensively. “People loved him at the docks where he built boats. I’m sure if he had the chance to be in the tournament he’d have won it!”
Tom’s last pronouncement echoed through the chamber and he realized with some shame that he had been yelling at the Nannie of Dragons and the Reigning Sovereign of Orion. “I’m sorry, Nan Sasha. I, I…”
“Oh don’t worry about it, Tom. And I didn’t mean anything by it. I think I knew something of him. I did assume you were named after your grandfather Brace. He was one of the greatest dragon riders ever. His win was legendary….” Nan Sasha said, blushing a little with embarrassment. “I remember it. Unbelievable what he had to overcome.”
Silence hung in the air and finally Tom broke it.
“I guess I should go take a look at that dragon, then.”
“Yes, please do,” Nan Sasha said.
As Tom mounted the first step, she added, “Tom, try to keep an open mind.”
“Sure,” he replied and walked up the steps and into the cave.
The cave was not as big as he thought it would be, but it was warm. The walls glowed and gave off a natural, amber light. He looked around but did not see any source for the soft glow, nor did he actually see a dragon.
“Hello?” he said.
He heard something scrape against the stone floor in a corner of the cave and he squinted in that direction. There was something there. It was small and it was hard to distinguish from the wall.
“Oh, there you are,” he said, walking slowly toward the little dragon curled up in the corner. As he got closer, he could see that it was a strange color — not like any of the colors of the four dragons he had studied. This dragon’s scales were the color of tarnished silver. And there was something different about it. It lifted its head to regard him warily. It’s tongue flicked out and tasted the air. But then, something moved behind that head. It was another dragon! Tom was about to yell out to Nan Sasha that there were two dragons in here, until he realized what he was really seeing.
“What are you?” Tom said aloud.
The little dragon, about the size of a medium-sized dog, struggled to rise out of its curled up position in the corner and now, Tom could see it in full. He took a step back and his legs felt weak, but he somehow stayed standing.
There were four heads and necks sprouted from one body. The heads were ugly and each malformed in some way. They bobbed and swayed as they tried to make their body move toward Tom and he stared at them.
One head was round with a strong, wide, bottom jaw, but the upper part of the snout was split and there were no eyes at least that were discernible.
Two of the heads each only had one eye and a single ear. Though there was some sort of deformities that could have been the malformed other eyes on their heads. They also had stubby snouts that appeared to be almost half formed. The final head had two large eyes and a very long, pointed snout. Its ears were tiny. Tom took another step back, keeping his eyes on the four-headed beast.
He wanted to run, but was afraid if he turned and ran this thing would get him from behind. So he started to edge backward and the dragon stopped. So he stopped and looked at it as it balanced on its hind feet, trying to keep its heads still, but not quite managing it. The four good eyes of the dragon stared at him. There was defiance in one of them, a curiosity in another and the two clearest eyes were scared.
Then, the blind head, opened its mouth and squeaked. It surprised Tom. It was so clearly a call for help but it was also a bit funny — so Tom’s fear completely melted away.
Without realizing what he was doing, Tom took a step toward the dragon and said, “I choose you… if you will have me?”
All the heads took turns squeaking and chirping then clumsily tottered to Tom. Tom knelt down and reached out his hand to each of the heads and they each nuzzled it.
“Well, I guess we’re stuck with each other,” Tom said.
And one of the heads, made a sound that Tom thought was either laughter or a growl.
“Let’s go,” Tom said.