by David McLeod
I have been so engaged with Zosa and the war that I have forgotten my first calling: to be a translator. It was forcefully brought back to me when the male dragon told me that we did not share the words to explain why the dragons are said sometimes to kill boys who were unworthy of becoming dragon riders. I realized, only as I thought this, that Zosa and now this new dragon, were speaking to me in Elvish.
I asked Zosa why this was, and she told me that it was the language with which I had first addressed her, and the language that was in my mind at the time. I asked her if she knew other languages, and tried to speak to her in Argon's mother tongue (which I have learned is the language spoken by most humans on this continent), the language of the Builders Lodge, and others, but she was unable to understand. She thinks she remembers knowing other languages, but she isn't sure. I suppose if I live as long as she, I'll likely forget some things, too.
There was no shortage of volunteers to try to become dragon riders, not even when Phillip explained the risks. "The dragons cannot tell us how they select a rider, nor what causes them sometimes—according to legend—to kill candidates," he stressed.
"How were you chosen? Why were you not killed?" the boys asked.
"Neither Zosa nor I—nor this new dragon—knows the answer," Phillip said.
"What's it like, riding a dragon?"
"Is it worth it?"
"Would you risk it, again?"
"It is . . ." Phillip remembered something the Mark Twain of his Earth had written. "It is an ecstasy, and that's something that can't be put into words. It's like explaining music; you can't do that in words so that someone hears the music.
"But I did not know about the killing part," Phillip continued. "I knew we might die before I could talk to the dragon, but I did not know about the killing part."
"How will you select the candidates?" the king asked Phillip three days later.
"Me?" Phillip said. "Your Majesty, I assumed you—"
"You say you do not know the dragons' criteria," the king interrupted. "Yet you were chosen. Your companion, the boy Argon, is an empath. Logically, you should decide." The king frowned. "Yet, if you do not want the responsibility . . . "
The king didn't need to say the words that would have ended that sentence. It had been decided that twenty tweens would be selected to offer themselves. The number was based in part on Zosa's mist-shrouded memories, in part on stories culled from libraries during Phillip's journey, and in part on the king's unwillingness to risk more than twenty of his subjects. Whoever selected those twenty would forever bear the burden of any deaths.
Phillip sighed. "No, Your Majesty, it's not that. Well, it's partly the responsibility, but mostly it's that I was not sure if I were the best one to decide. You've shown me that I am. If any of them are to have a chance, I must be the one who gives it to them."
The king smiled, although it was a thin smile. "I cannot take that burden from you, Spartus; however, know this: these boys are sworn to me, and I to them. I will feel their deaths most keenly, whether they die today or in the battles that are coming. And I fear that."
What criteria shall I use? Phillip wondered. Not height or weight; the dragons are strong enough to easily lift even a troll. Zosa had proven this when she had swooped through a valley and grabbed in her talons a troll who was lying in ambush less than a hundred yards from the trail on which Phillip's companions rode. She had carried the troll thousands of feet into the air before releasing it to dash invisibly upon the ground.
I didn't ask you to do that, Phillip had said. His voice was filled with wonder and surprise. The dragon had replied, You no longer have to ask me to protect you—or those you love.
Phillip's mind returned to the here-and-now, and to his dilemma. What criteria? he wondered. His night was restless. When he woke, Argon and Maranon were cuddled, one on each side of him, and each had put an arm across his chest. Phillip smiled at one, and then the other. "Come," he said. "It is nearly tierce, and I told the king I'd begin then."
More than a thousand elven tweens stood in ranks upon the plain. Their places had been established by lot. Phillip might not examine them all; he would stop when 20 had been selected. If he had not found 20 when he reached the last of the candidates, then whatever lesser number he had selected would present themselves to the dragon for selection. The king greeted Phillip, who bowed. He and the king had come to an understanding, and, more important, a feeling of mutual respect. The king returned the bow.
Argon stood with Phillip. Javari, Maranon, Kyle, and Brendan waited with Prince Justin's companions. In the excitement of the moment, none of them noticed that the prince was not among his cohort.
Zosa had flown at first light to seek her breakfast. Phillip sensed her return, and looked to the crags south of the plain. _Zosa! _he exclaimed.
I cannot help you, Zosa said. Phillip thought he felt concern, even sadness in her voice.
I know, Phillip said. He grinned. Good breakfast? He felt, rather than heard, her burp.
Phillip and Argon walked, slowly, hand in hand, along the ranks of candidates. They'd agreed to a series of finger and hand movements to signal approval or disapproval. After disappointing the first 25 boys, Phillip stopped in front of a handsome, blue-haired boy. This one? he signaled Argon. He felt Argon's hesitation, and then a firm Yes signal. Phillip put his left hand on the boy's right shoulder. "Go, stand before your king," he said.
The boy's eyes widened at Phillip's touch. "Thank you, Spartus," he said, softly but firmly before sprinting from the formation to stand facing the king. He bowed.
The king acknowledge the bow. "Turn and watch," he said.
Argon rejected the next boy Phillip selected. Phillip was startled, but controlled his face. The boy had no hint that he'd been found wanting.
Phillip and Argon had reached the halfway mark, and had found only seven candidates, when Argon squeezed Phillip's hand so hard it hurt. That's not one of our signals, Phillip thought. What is it about this boy? He looked closely, puzzled. Then, his eyes penetrated the illusion. "Justin!" he whispered. "You're not a tween; you're not supposed to be here!"
"Please, Phillip," the boy said. "I know you can't resist me." He grinned, but only for an instant before becoming serious. "At least, look at me, or whatever you do. please?"
Phillip's vision blurred and his heart pounded. Then, he felt Argon's signal. No.
"Justin, I have looked. I'm sorry. Not this time; not today."
Justin's face fell, but he spoke without a tremor. "Thank you, Spartus."
Sext had passed. By the shadows, nones was approaching when Phillip and Argon reached the last boy. Eighteen, so far, Phillip thought. One more . . . Argon's Yes came before Phillip asked, surprising him. He looked at Argon—something he had eschewed until now. Yes, Argon signaled, again. Phillip did not hesitate further, but put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Go, stand before your king."
The next morning, Phillip held his breath—nor was he the only one to do so. He sat alone on Zosa. Argon stood beside them. Across a rift valley, a group of elven boys stood at the edge of a cliff. Of the thousand who had been willing to risk their lives to be a dragon rider, these had been chosen.
Now, the 19 boys who had been selected stood—
"Phillip!" Argon called to him. "There are twenty boys!"
Zosa! Can you see? Phillip asked. He didn't doubt Argon, but he hoped that the boy had miscounted. As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew Argon had been right.
The 20th is Justin, Zosa said. Phillip looked where the dragon indicated. The 19 candidates were spaced evenly upon the edge of the cliff, perhaps 20 yards apart. But there, on the left, some 50 yards from the next boy, a lone figure stood on a precipice.
Zosa, we must remove him, Phillip thought.
It is much too late, came the dragon's reply. A shadow eclipsed the sun and then flames rolled across the sky. The male dragon announced his presence.
Oh, shit, was all Phillip could think as he watched the male dragon turning and twisting through the air, bringing him close to each of the boys, one by one, examining them. Against the bright sky, his long neck and tail seemed to form knots and circles, necklaces of gems when the sun caught his scales and reflected from them a bright fire.
The dragon changed the pattern of his flight and made a series of lazy circles over the end of the line of boys farthest from Justin. He moved down the line, toward Justin. When he reached Justin, his turns tightened so that it appeared that the dragon had caught his tail in his mouth.
No! Zosa cried. She swept her wings and leapt into the air. Phillip held tightly to the dragon, even though he was firmly strapped in. The male dragon dove toward Justin. Zosa flew dangerously close. Her wings created turbulence in both the air and the magical field. Select your rider! she called. You may not harm this one.
The male dragon faltered, stalled by the turbulence. He tucked in his wings and dropped until he could regain lift. You have the right of it, he said to Zosa. This one is no ancient enemy.
Air currents from the dragons' wings hurled dust and scree; Justin was blown from his perch; Phillip was blinded. Hold out your arms, Zosa ordered.
Phillip felt Justin land in his arms, and pulled the boy close to his chest. He sensed Zosa's feet pushing, scrabbling against the side of the cliff and felt her struggle to fly. The dust cleared, and they were airborne.
The spectators watched so closely the drama that only a few saw the male dragon land beside Jonathan, the boy with the blue hair, the first of those chosen by Phillip and Argon.
"Phillip," the king said. "You saved the life of my son." Phillip and the king were alone in the king's tent.
"I'm not sure he ever was in danger, Your Majesty," Phillip replied. "Zosa is very good at what she does. And, the male—Farengeld is his name—said that Justin was not an ancient enemy."
The king's raised eyebrows prompted Phillip to continue.
"We didn't know why the dragons might kill unsuitable candidates; neither Zosa nor Farengeld could tell us why, nor do any of our legends. Farengeld may have uncovered the reason when he said that Justin was not an ancient enemy. That term is one Zosa used before; however, she was uncertain of what it meant.
"My people have legends of ancient enemies who were powerful and fearful enough to cause us to abandon fertile lands and migrate to inhospitable country, people who were so evil that they caused our brothers, the Hopituh Shi-nu-mu, to build their homes on high plateaus in the desert.
"I think that the dragons can sense a person who has in a previous life served evil. I think that they will kill that person should he seek to become a dragon rider. I think that Farengeld saw that Justin was not such a person."