Tom’s dragon gets a name and we learn a little more about both of them as they prepare for the great tournament, in this preview of my fantasy novel, the Dragons of Orion.
There was silence from the other kids when Tom and his dragon emerged from the cave. Tom let the dragon walk out in front of him, but it kept tripping over its rather large wings so he bent down and opened his arms and the dragon crawled up into them. It was so warm and surprisingly soft. It was not a very big dragon so it was light. The heads, which seemed to be moving all in different directions made it difficult for Tom to navigate down the small set of steps to the other kids, but somehow he didn’t fall while holding the dragon.
He saw out of the corner of his eye one of Nan Sasha’s acolytes leading the two children without dragons away.
“Um, Nan Sasha?” Tiff asked, still holding her water dragon. “What, what kind of dragon does Tom have?”
Everyone was staring at Tom and his dragon.
“It is a special dragon,” Nan Sasha replied, though as Tom caught her eye peering through the waving heads of his dragon, he was sure she herself had no idea what his dragon was.
“Do you think it’ll live?” Merrick asked.
“Hush, Merrick!” Nan Sasha commanded and Merrick scowled. “Now, we must go out and greet the crowd. The dragons have not ever seen this many people, nor have they ever been outside. They have a tendency to get defensive, even aggressive. You must do your best to keep them calm and under control. Consider this, your first test as future dragon riders.”
The children followed Nan Sasha and her first acolyte back to the entrance of the cave where the throng of people had waited. The second acolyte joined them and whispered something to Nan Sasha, who nodded. Then the Nannie of Dragons walked out into the light of the day and announced, “We have our riders!”
And the people applauded and cheered.
Merrick and the earth dragon came out first.
“Tell us your dragon’s name,” Nan Sasha commanded.
Merrick sputtered in surprise, “Borf.”
And the people cheered, though there were some snickering.
Tiff was next and she proclaimed her dragon “Seidon” after whispering the name to the dragon first. People cheered.
Nye was next. He said, “Helio.”
Tom and his dragon, still in his arms had watched this from the shadows of the cave. The other children had been able to control their dragons well, though Borf did snarl a little after the people applauded.
“And now for Thomas, I mean, just Tom… Er, Tom Brace,” Nan Sasha said turning and beckoning Tom to come out with his dragon.
Tom moved out into the light and there were some gasps from the crowd and then everyone went silent staring at Tom and his dragon. Two of the heads tried to hide, while one of the one-eyed heads hissed out at the crowd and the blind head snapped its jaws in the air. With the heads twisting and pulling and pushing and the body squirming, Tom had to tighten his grip and then one of the heads, he wasn’t sure which, snapped at his face. He jerked his head back and went down, the dragon on top of him. There were gasps and shouts and laughter, but Tom was used to that. The dragon, however, was not. It, or they were, twisting and making a variety of hissing and whining noises and snapping their jaws.
Tom let up on the pressure he was putting on the body and said quietly. “It’s all right. It’s all right, uh, Four. We’re in this together. You’re all right.”
And to his amazement, the heads stopped making noise and turned their snouts to him like they were waiting for him to say it louder. He smiled at Four.
“The name, quick!” Nan Sasha said.
“Four. They are, Four,” Tom said. And Four flicked their tail twice and Tom was able to stand up with his dragon.
“It’s accurate,” Margie, the second acolyte chirped.
“Ok, very good. Tom and Four, everyone,” Nan Sasha said and the people applauded lightly as Tom took his place in line with the other children. He caught his brother’s eye and they shared a moment of relief.
“And now our riders and their dragons begin their journey. Let us all hope among these children stands the next Tournament Champion!” Nan Sasha said and the crowd made the blessing sign of the dragon wings. “May all of them find glory in this pursuit.”
Again, the sign of the dragon wings was lifted to the heavens and at just that moment one of Four’s one-eyed heads attempted to roar, but it came out a screech, which drew chuckles from the crowd and, Tom noticed, a glare from Merrick.
Nan Sasha walked to the children and dragons.
“Well done,” she said to Merrick, Nye and Tiff. She looked at Tom and Four and patted “there-there” on Tom’s shoulder.
“Let’s head to the coaches, which will take you to the academy and your new lives,” Nan Sasha said.
A VICTORY OF SORTS
Tom collapsed in a sweaty mess onto the grass. He was gasping for air while Four came and sat calmly down next to him.
“Last again, Brace,” tut-tutted Bannock D’Mere, the Master Trainer.
Tom looked up at the huge and muscle-bound Bannock standing with the other racers. He gasped out an apology to the instructor while the other racers shook their heads or rolled their eyes.
“Well, on to the arena,” D’Mere ordered jogging off with the others in tow.
Tom sighed, rolled over and looked up into the blue sky. A puffy little white cloud was floating lazily across it. Suddenly, Frank pushed his head into Tom’s view and snuffled at him.
“I’m all right, thank’s, Frank,” Tom told him, reaching up to touch the blind head of his four-headed dragon.
Ursula bobbed her head at him and chirped, bringing her one good eye to regard him. “Yes, it was a bit of a dirty trick by Merrick and Borf, but it’s no excuse. I’ll just have to do better.”
A third head, the only one with two good eyes, poked into Tom’s view and hissed at him. “We can’t cheat the way they do, Ollie. It’s just not right. We’ll just have to be better prepared for their tricks.”
Four’s last head, Richard made a rumbling sound but remained aloof from the others. Well, as aloof as he could being one of four heads on a single body.
“Richard’s right, we better catch up,” Tom sighed, getting up from the ground. He and his dragon started to jog after his classmates and their instructor, heading to the large arena at the center of the Academy grounds.
It had been three weeks since all of them had entered the academy. The training was difficult. They either walked or ran everywhere and they ate in the academy mess hall. It was the first time the other kids had ever been away from their parents, while Tom… well, both his parents were off on the Continent.
Besides living apart from their families, there was also the classes and training. D’Mere oversaw most the physical training, but Tom and the others had to take lessons from the dracologist and learn about their dragon’s biology, their nutritional, health and developmental needs as well as learning how they, as dragon riders, would change as a result of being bonded to dragons. Some of it was quite scary including that most dragon riders only lived about 10 years longer after their dragons died.
Tiff had joked, “Wonder why they didn’t share that information before the trials, eh?”
There were classes in strategy as well as spirituality.
Tom and Four had been consistent in every class, that is consistently last. They had in their first three weeks, according to almost all the instructors, “floundered, failed, been disgraced, embarrassed and were mostly hopeless.”
But in that time, Tom had grown closer to Four, so close he now saw the individual personalities in the four heads of his dragon and had given them each names.
Richard was the leader and very competitive. He was the one who seemed most upset they weren’t doing better. Ursula was extremely fair-minded with an over-developed sense of justice. Ollie was a bit silly and could be timid at times, but if you really needed him to do something he’d try as hard as he could. He also had a pretty good sense of humor and was willing to bend the rules if need be. And then there was Frank. Frank was the blind one and was most like Tom himself. Frank was kind and a bit cautious about things, though he could also be stubborn. Frank could smell things a mile away and he was also the only head that actually ever ate anything.
Eating was one of Four’s strong suits. And, much to the surprise of just about everyone but Tom and Four, Four’s health had improved markedly since the two had chosen each other and now the sickly dragon was growing stronger.
The Chief Dracologist Sam Cairn’s initial assessment of Four had been dreadful, confiding to Tom that the dragon would be lucky to be alive in a week. But each day, Four surprised Cairn and grew stronger and Cairn became more and more intrigued by the dragon. There were times that Tom and Four were late getting to lessons with D’mere because Cairn was examining Four. Of course, D’Mere never accepted that as an excuse and Tom was given demerits for it.
Now three weeks since the choosing, Four was the second biggest dragon of the group and had the biggest wings of any of their brothers. Four still had that sickly color about them, but it didn’t seem to be indicative of any illness according to Cairn.
That’s about where the good news ended for Four and Tom, who were last in every other measure at the academy. Tom felt bad about his performance, but the Philosophy and Spirituality Instructor, Ms. Bern noted that he was doing well in her class.
Tom had the good grace to not point out to Ms. Bern that Philosophy and Spirituality did not count towards rankings.
Tom and Four finally made their entrance into the Arena and joined the line up of the other competitors. Borf, Merrick’s black earth dragon, snapped at Four, causing Ollie and Frank to jerk away from him, but Richard snapped back.
“Control your dragon, Tom!” D’Mere bellowed, eliciting a chuckle from Merrick and a yawn from Borf.
“Butts are for sitting, not excuses!” D’Mere cut him off. “Now, today we’ll be going over some easy combat techniques.”
“Yes, Tiff?” D’Mere called on the partner of Seidon, the green water dragon.
“I thought combat was no longer part of the competition. Why are we learning it?” she asked.
“It has not been part of the competition, but it is not expressly banned and there are times during the different challenges where you’ll need these skills Remember your history, Tiff…. (Tom’s hand shot up for he knew what D’Mere meant, but Instructor D’Mere ignored Tom) “These games were instituted to keep the Great Guardians ready for future wars. It was the Island Guardians who stopped the Continent’s Armada and saved Orion from subjugation. So we celebrate them, but also keep them ready. And…” D’Mere’s jaw tightened briefly before he continued, “And the Griffin’s, have always favored combat and have a strong team this tournament and they will likely turn to combat to try and create an advantage. They’ve done it in past. Thomas Brace was the captain of a dragon team of six and the Griffins selected combat and so injured three dragons that by the end of the competition, it was just Brace and Seneschel the fire dragon left. That they won was a testament to Seneschel’s fire and Thomas Brace’s skill in all disciplines.”
Tom felt the others looking at him and Four, but he just looked up into the sky and puffed out a little air.
“So we must be ready to fight. It can be part of any level of the competition. Any other questions?”
“Let’s do this!” Merrick said clapping his hands once, and drawing a tiny roar from Borf.
“That’s the spirit! All right then, Tiff and Nye, take your dragons and pair off and wait for instruction over there. Merrick and Tom, have your dragons face each other.”
“Can’t I face Tiff and Seidon?” Merrick protested. “Borf might snap all the necks of that thing.”
Richard let out a low growl and lunged with Ollie and Ursula also striking at Borf and Merrick. Frank, however had recoiled and threw his three siblings’ assault off and they fell over. Tom dove for Four and dragged the kicking and snapping dragon away from the now laughing Merrick and Borf, which had extended his wings in an aggressive fashion.
“Calm down,” Tom whispered to Four. “You have to all work together, or it goes all wobbly.”
Richard snapped one last time but then grumbled an agreement with Tom.
“Well, at least it’s got some fight in it,” D’Mere said. “But two demerits for that undisciplined outburst. Now, Merrick, this will be good for Tom and It.”
Tom hated the way D’Mere called Four “It.”
“Ok, so here’s how this works,” D’Mere said. “Your dragons will be fighting. It’s natural for them, but, you as their riders must also keep their attacks disciplined. Once your dragon has scored a hit, which knocks the other dragon down, you will then command your dragon to release and return to you. You can win by scoring five points. If your dragon does not release on your command, it nullifies the point. If your dragon surrenders, then you also can lose. You can also surrender…Yes, Merrick?”
“Can the riders score points on each other?” Merrick asked with a malicious smile while looking at Tom.
“Actually, yes they can. But for this first contest, we are only interested in how you direct your dragons and seeing how your dragons react to threats,” D’Mere said. “So refrain from hitting each other.”
Merrick seemed disappointed.
“Ok, so you understand how it works?” D’Mere asked.
Tom nodded while Merrick barked out his affirmative.
“Remember, we got to work together,” Tom said kneeling in front of Four. “Follow Richard’s lead, all of you. You can do this. Borf is strong, but he’s got a short neck, so you might be able to get points by hitting him from a distance.”
Richard growled his agreement at this strategy.
“Dragon Riders and Dragons? Ready?” D’Mere asked.
Tom stood up and nodded. Merrick nodded and D’Mere shouted, “Fight!”
Merrick yelled, “Get them Borf!” And Borf, with surprising speed, scrambled across the field. “Get out of the way!” Tom shouted, but Frank tried to move in one direction while Richard and the rest of the heads went in another, which allowed Borf to plow into Four sending them spinning over backwards in a dusty cloud of wings, heads and legs.
Tom started forward. Borf looked out of control, and something was wrong with Four.
“Fantastic, Borf! Yes!” Merrick shouted. “Now return!”
But things took an awful turn at that point. Borf, wings wide and jaws open and threatening stood over Four. Frank and Ollie both cowered. Ursula, however, snapped at Borf. Tom grew concerned because Richard was not active.
“Control your dragon, Merrick!” D’Mere commanded.
Tom could see Borf was not responding, so he rushed to his dragon and Borf snarled at Tom.
“Borf! Borf, No!” Merrick yelled, but Borf ignored the command and spun quickly around swinging his bulky tail and sweeping Tom’s legs out from under him. Tom landed smack on his back knocking the wind out of him. Before he could even breath, Borf was on top of him, snarling maliciously.
Tiff was screaming, Merrick was yelling “No!” D’Mere was yelling instructions at Merrick. Tom was sure his life was over as he felt and smelt Borf’s hot breath in his face.
But suddenly a deep roar rolled through the stadium and then a flash of green passed over Tom and Borf was gone.
Tom sat up to see Four, their two front legs pinning Borf on his back to the ground, all four heads were taut with rage and hissing at the earth dragon. Four’s wings were spread wide and then Borf closed its eyes and extended its neck, a sign of surrender for a dragon.
“Call him off! Call him off!” Merrick was pleading.
Tom shook his head to clear it and called, “Four! Four! It’s fine. I’m all right! Let Borf go!”
Frank turned in Tom’s direction and sniffed then brushed his head against Ursula. Four slowly backed off of Borf and let the dragon crawl back to Merrick.
Four came waddling on their hind legs to Tom and the heads all sniffed and prodded him to make sure he was indeed whole.
“I’m fine, really. Thank you,” Tom told his dragon.
Tom noticed the arena was silent. D’Mere came to Tom and Four and knelt down beside them.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said as he first looked at Tom and then at Four. “This dragon might be special after all. I mean besides all the heads.”