by: Bruce Jakeway
Dar!at huffed as he climbed. This was higher than he had every climbed before, and he wanted to go yet higher before noonday. Suddenly he was on the ground and felt a sharp pain in his lower leg. He could see blood slowly dripping out of the wound and coagulating. “Dragon’s teeth,” he murmured. He quickly scolded himself for the curse and looked around to assure himself that he hadn’t been heard. It was becoming harder to explain away his injuries, especially since no one was allowed to climb the mountains. Ignoring the pain, he got up he pressed upward.
He saw a ledge just above him and scrambled up, then sat down, partially obscured, to catch his breath. It had been just over two months ago that his family had moved to this valley. There was only one road in and it was tightly controlled. Right from the first day, Dar!at felt very oppressed. He couldn’t figure it out. At first his family was excited to be here, his father especially, but little by little things had changed, they changed, and he wanted no part. Little things. An unkind word here, a rude gesture there. After a while there were lots of changes, and he did not like them. And the air was so heavy. He’d never been anywhere like it.
About nine months ago a stranger had walked into town. He was a surly, wizened man, not someone you’d go out of your way to befriend. He minded his own business, just staying in the central square, not even going inside for the night. As people walked through the square, they began to turn their heads to look at him. Soon the whole town was whispering about him. No one could figure out where he was from. But no one had the courage to approach him and talk with him.
Ten days later he abruptly started speaking, calling people to come and listen to what he had to say. Almost everyone within earshot spun around to look at the stranger. A few people started to gather around him and soon he had quite a crowd. Dar!at’s father wasn’t near the square that day, but came as soon as he heard the stranger wanted to talk, he quickly gathered his things and joined the throng.
“For the past ten days,” he started, “I have observed you in this town. You go about your daily business, yet you seem empty. I have come to tell you that there is a life to be had outside of drab existence.”
A few people started to complain about his disparagement of their town: “How dare you insult our town. We’ve been here for hundreds of year, and we will remain for hundreds more.” Some even walked away.
Others were more agreeable: “He’s right. Nothing happens here. I’m still doing the same job as my father was, and his father before. There’s a big world out there, and I’m not just talking about Southland or even Beauclair.” Dar!at’s father chimed in, “Here him out. He’s a stranger. The least we can do is to be hospitable to him.”
“Have you considered becoming a dragon knight?” the stranger continued.
Upon hearing the word “dragon”, at least half the assembly started grumbling and even more left. “Dragons are evil creatures,” they shouted. “My father was killed by one.” “My house was razed by a dragon when I was a child. I don’t want to hear any more.”
Dar!at’s father lingered as the stranger continued: “Yes, dragons are very powerful, but they can be controlled, and used for good. Dragon knights learn all these secrets and more.” At that, a dragon swooped down out of the sky and everyone ran for cover. The stranger walked over to the dragon, stepped on to his back as the dragon stood up and flew off. Those that had watched from a safe distance remarked that there was no fire from the dragon, nor had the tail or talons wreaked any destruction. Maybe the stranger was right after all. Maybe you could control a dragon.
The stranger was the talk of town in the weeks that followed. Some of the townsfolk were wary: dragons cannot be trusted regardless of what the stranger said. Others pointed out that they had never seen a dragon so docile. Perhaps there is truth in what the stranger had said. Dar!at’s mother was ambivalent towards the stranger. “I’m not too sure what to make of the stranger. I was born here and I want to die here.”
Dar!at himself had not seen the stranger, but he was not immune to the talk of the town, eagerly sitting down each evening to hear stories of the stranger. His father loved to recount the events and his account slowly grew more fanciful until one evening there came a knock on the door. Dar!at father opened it. The stranger was back.
Dar!at’s father and the stranger talked long into the evening, well after Dar!at was in bed. Dar!at was excited to see this stranger his father had talked about, so in the morning he ran to his father. “What did he say, Dad?”
“He said that I had the makings of a dragon knight! We have five days to be at the port where we will set sail to the other side of the world! I must hurry to wind up my affairs.”
“Where did you put the stranger to bed?” Dar!at’s mother asked.
“He left once we were through,” Dar!at’s father replied. “I tried to convince him to stay, but he insisted he had to leave. I’ll see if others in town know his whereabouts.”
Dar!at’s father left, not returning until supper. “No one else saw him and it’s odd that there is no trace of his visit anywhere. Still, there are three other families who will be joining us on our voyage to dragon knight training. We have to hurry.” Dar!at and his siblings danced with glee. Dar!at’s mother, outnumbered, put up a weak argument, but knew better than to oppose the rest of the family. Begrudgingly, she started to pack up their belongings.
Three days later, the four families found an ox cart to take them on a two-day journey to the port. The fathers all talked excitedly about being dragon knights, how they would tame dragons, and how their countrymen would look upon them as heroes. They couldn’t wait to prove the naysayers wrong. Dar!at’s mother kept to herself, as did one of the other mothers. Dar!at could sense his mother’s apprehension, but didn’t share it. The other two mothers chatted excitedly about the upcoming ventures and their brave husbands. At first Dar!at enjoyed having the other families around, and especially the other children. They would sit together and play games, even hopping off the cart from time to time, much to the consternation of their parents. But in general the air amongst the children was light, looking forward to new adventure. However, as the trip progressed he found the other children’s enthusiasm surprising. With all the fearful dragon stories he heard growing up, why this sudden optimism? His siblings dismissed his misgivings, so he withdrew more to himself, looking back to the horizon, reminiscing about his friends who he would not see for a long time.
They arrived early at the port, so had a few hours to spend looking around. Most had not been to the port before, including all of Dar!at’s family. Dar!at himself was in awe at the large boats, masts, and rigging. The hubbub and bustle of the port mesmerized him. All too soon it was time to board. The ship was ready, just as the stranger promised. They were shown on board. It was not a large ship, but there was enough room for all and the stores they would need for such a long journey. Dar!at soon found other families traveling whose fathers followed the lure of dragon knight fame. There were even single men seeking the same fame and fortune. He found himself second-guessing his misgivings with all the optimism on board. Nights were filled with stories of what life as a dragon knight would be. Although the cabins were damp and cramped, but everyone was allowed to go on deck so long as they didn’t get in the way of the crew. This provided plenty of room for all. All the men took their turn fishing and the wives prepared the food. There was ample to go around. Dar!at rarely had fish at home, and some of the species were foreign to him. By the end of the voyage he had started to enjoy fish.
They made landfall in good time. A caravan of ox carts was awaiting the voyagers on the other side, so Dar!at had little time to explore this strange new port. Even the language was unintelligible to him, and he was glad to be safe in the entourage of knights-to-be. The voyage to the knight training school was longer than the first ox-cart ride to the port. Camp was set each night and stories of future bravery continued on from the boat, with each person trying to outdo the other. Dar!at listened intently, but soon realized this was all prideful boasting: he was sure they did not know what they were getting into.
Eventually the road entered into mountains. The route became increasingly perilous, with hairpin turns and sharp precipices leading to creek beds far below. Dar!at generally kept to himself, remarking how difficult it might be to retrace their steps should he decide to leave. Everyone cowered when they saw their first dragon overhead. However, as the journey continued, dragon sighting were more frequent. With no fire raining down on them, the travelers became less timid. The old stories of dragons burning villages were soon scorned. Dar!at was not so sure, but like his mother, he did not say anything. Eventually, the road entered a valley and they were through the gates of the camp.
The first night there was much frivolity, feasting, and boasting. Other than the newcomers, Dar!at was surprised that there were mostly women and children looking after the camp. He looked out of the window across the field and saw a pit of dragons. Fear crept back in. What was his family doing?
Knight training commenced in earnest the following day. The men were introduced to the dragons. There were lessons in aerial acrobatics, dragon care, dragon bonding, dragon knight history, and a strange course on dragon knight future. The children were left to the care of their mothers. Given Dar!at’s reserved nature on the trip to the training camp, the other children left him alone, which suited Dar!at just fine. No one was allowed to go up the mountains, but Dar!at found inexorably drawn to them. It was only in the mountains he found solitude and space to think.
The sun started to set and Dar!at scrambled down. He did not want anyone to know how high he had climbed. Dinner would be ready soon and he did not want to be missed, even though it was in the oppressed valley. He made it down the mountain in time for dinner, but caught a few glances of people looking at the new injury to his leg. He sat beside his mother and quickly ate up his food.
The next day he clambered back up to this ledge. From high above the valley he could see the writhing dragon pit. Today the knights were to get their first ride on a dragon. They were all very excited. Dar!at squinted to try to pick out his father. He saw his father get on a dragon. “How could you control such a beast?” he thought. “It would likely control you.” Dar!at explored the ledge. Behind the ledge was a shallow cave with a solid rock wall. It was just the place to retreat from the sun and to hide from those that might be searching for him.
Day after day Dar!at returned to the ledge. Day after day the knights mounted the dragons to learn the finer points of aerial acrobatics. Night after night, the boasting around the dinner table grew. Dar!at grew increasingly unimpressed with the rudeness, boasting, and lack of courtesy. The trainees were even becoming somewhat hostile to each other.
Given these circumstances, Dar!at preferred his mountain perch. But every time he returned with a new injury, the stares got worse. Even his family started to berate him for his carelessness. Then one evening as he looked over at his father, he did a double take. It almost looked like he was growing claws and scales. Soon thereafter, his father announced that in the interest of increased bonding with the dragons, he would be sleeping in the dragon pit. Dar!at looked at his mother and a chill went up his spine. “Dragons don’t control you,” he remarked to himself. “You become a dragon.”
Dar!at had a restless sleep that night. He was seeing his whole family change, and he didn’t like it. The next morning after breakfast he hurried out the door. His father met him as he left. “I came here to become a dragon knight and that is what I have become. Have you seen me riding the dragons?” he boasted. Dar!at nodded, slowly.
“Where did you get all those scrapes?” his father demanded as he looked at his legs. He could see seething anger behind his eyes. “None of the other kids get hurt like you. Have you been going into the mountain like you were told not to?” his father sneered.
Dar!at did not answer and looked away. He could not bear his father’s gaze. He ran outside to get away from his father, who did not follow. The air around the camp was stale and foreboding. His mind began to cloud with anger towards his father. He longed to get up the mountain and out of the haze in the valley but it would be more difficult with his father watching him. He crept beside the camp buildings doing his best to stay in the shadows. In the distance the other children left the dining hall to play. Some even went over to the dragon pit to watch the day’s lessons. He slunk back into the shadows and continued on his cautious retreat to the mountains. Having reached the mountains, he slowly picked his way up, avoiding additional scrapes yet all the while remaining hidden. He was grateful to be out of valley fog. He finally pulled himself on to the ledge only to see his father, in the form of a dragon, waiting for him.
“What are you doing?” his father bellowed. Wisps of smoke rose from his nostrils. Dar!at stumbled backward into the cave as his father approached him. He could hear the distant taunts of the other dragons in the valley below him. “I brought you here to start a new life and you bring shame on me. Can’t you just play with the other kids?”
“Father, don’t you see what is happening to you?” Dar!at replied. “You’re not my father any more. You’ve changed. You’re not a dragon knight. You’ve become a dragon! You’re full of anger and hate. You don’t care about me, or our family. You’re just following your ruinous dream into self-destruction.”
At this his father became incensed and took flight. He did a big loop in the sky and quickly flew towards him, spewing fire. Dar!at, sure that he was going to die, inched backward with his hands behind him to feel the cave back, and closed his eyes. He kept creeping backward, and backward, and backward, but the intense heat never came. Puzzled and frightened, he cautiously opened his eyes. Instead of fire from the mouth of a dragon, there was a rock wall in front of him. He turned around slowly and blinked several times to get his bearings. There was a path to his left and right, and a rock wall behind him.
Suddenly a goat bounded up to him and said, “Quick. Follow me! We don’t have a moment to lose.”
“Where am I? Where are we going? What’s the rush?” answered Dar!at. Suddenly it hit him and he blurted out, “I’m talking to a goat.”
The goat answered, “You are on a Path in the Faerie realms. Yes, they do exist,” he replied to an incredulous look. “We’re off to meet the Prince of Farthestshore, so hurry. We can’t be late. And yes, of course, you are talking with a goat.”
Dar!at followed the goat who was once again bounding along. “But didn’t I get burnt up in the fire? And the cave, it wasn’t a cave?” Dar!at was still trying to process all that had gone on in the last few minutes.
“Look at you. Do you look burnt? There is an entrance to the Paths at the back of the cave. But hurry, the dragons may yet find the entrance, too. They’ll see you aren’t there and look for you. They know of the Paths, but I don’t think they know of this one. Your sudden disappearance may lead them to conclude there is a Path there. But the Prince has other plans for you.”
Dar!at had heard legends of the Prince of Farthestshore, but in all the stories he seemed distant and uninterested in people. So the Prince’s sudden interest in Dar!at confounded him. Still, accounts of the Prince had always fascinated him, so he followed the goat. The Path curved sharply, and went down somewhat steeply. The goat was nimble on his hooves, but Dar!at had a harder time following, stumbling a few times. Soon however, the Path spilled out into a clearing.
“Good,” announced the goat. “We’re here just in time.”
With that Dar!at saw what he took to be the Prince riding up on a white stallion. He stopped right in front of Dar!at. The goat bowed and Dar!at followed suit.
“Dar!at, I’ve seen all that has happened to you these past few months. Your family has changed. Your father is a dragon and the rest of your family is under the spell of dragons. And your brother may yet become a dragon. However, if you follow me, you can learn to fight the dragons, and perhaps even become a knight.”
“But my father… I can’t fight him.”
“You may not have to. There is still hope for him. But it’s more important that you train and follow me. What say you?”
“I will,” replied Dar!at. “I will,” he replied more confidently. “I will.”