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Dragon Rider

"Zale does something no other dragon rider has done before."
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Zale adjusted his brown, leather riding gear in front of the mirror. His eyes flicked to the top right corner of the mirror and his gaze was pulled to the vacant stone dragon bed near the room’s huge arched doorway. For six years, he and his dragon Sasha took off and landed from the ledge beyond the entrance.

His beloved dragon was killed in an accident two months ago. He returned his gaze to himself and studied the scars running down the right side of his face, and wished like he did every day, he had been killed as well.

Outside, dragons bellowed, and riders laughed and talked. Shadows passed over the entrance to his room as riders came and went, a reminder of what he no longer had.

These dormitory chambers were solely for riders and their dragons, and following Sasha's death, the Dragon Master informed him he had to depart. He was gentle but firm in his request.

Zale refused to leave and made an application to the Dragon Riders Guild for permission to present at the next hatching. After much deliberation and numerous arguments, permission was finally granted that morning.

Dragon riding was all Zale knew. He was orphaned at the age of ten and taken in by his uncle, Stark, who put him to work in the hatchery.

At the age of sixteen, he and thirteen other children the same age were taken to the hatchery one night when a clutch of eight eggs was ready to hatch. The eight baby dragons chose their riders that night, and Sasha chose him. The bond was instant the moment Zale heard her voice in his mind telling him her name.

Now his mind was empty, and all he had were his own thoughts which invariably turned back to the accident.

No one had ever presented again at a hatching before, so it was impossible to know if it would be successful or not. He would need to learn to bond with a new dragon, learn its quirks, and train it. Zale was going to have to start the process all over again if he was successful. Doubt crept into his heart as he remembered how difficult Sasha was to raise. For the first year, your life was ruled by your dragon’s needs. Day and night you had to tend to the dragon, and they always chose the most unexpected and inconvenient times to cause havoc.

Could he do it again?

They always presented teens to the baby dragons because they were young enough to grow and mature with their dragons. Adults tended to be too rigid in their ways to successfully raise a baby dragon.

He turned away from the mirror and paced the floor, rubbing his sweaty palms against his thighs. The next clutch was showing signs of hatching, and he waited for the call to go to the hatchery.

A knock at the door made him jump. It opened before he could say enter, and his friend Briana burst in.

‘Is it time?’ asked Zale.

‘No,’ said Briana. ‘I came to see if you are okay.’ Her curly blonde hair was piled on top of her head, with wispy strands framing her pretty face.

‘I would be if you hadn’t scared me to death,’ Zale said. His heart rate had kicked up a notch when the door opened, and now he had to try and calm his nerves again.

‘Sorry,’ Briana apologized, wringing her hands.

Her leather riding clothes fit her curves in all the right places, and he could not help but admire her. Briana received her dragon, Isa, the same night he received Sasha, and they had become firm friends, and sometimes friends with benefits when the mood took them.

‘I’m nervous for you,’ she said, ‘no-one has ever tried presenting a second time.’

‘Probably because riders usually die along with their dragons,’ he said. He ran his hands through his black hair and let out a gusty breath. ‘I don't know if it was good luck or bad luck I survived.’

‘Don't talk like that,’ she scolded.

‘I have a right to,’ he retorted. ‘When you have your dragon die in your arms, because of some stupid mistake, then you have the right to tell me how to feel.’

Tears glistened in her eyes as she looked up at him. ‘You forget I was right there next to you. I saw Sasha die too. She may not have been my dragon, but I feel her loss as well.’

Her tears tumbled down her cheeks, and Zale looked at his feet.

‘I know you were there,’ he said, ‘and I know you and Isa miss her. I shouldn't have said that.’ He owed Briana his life, and this was no way to repay her. She and Isa were flying above them when the accident happened and saw everything unfold, unable to stop it from happening.

Briana threw herself into his arms. ‘You’re such an idiot sometimes,’ she said.

‘I know,’ he said, hugging her back.

A knock at the door separated them.

‘Enter,’ Zale called.

A young man opened the door.

‘Your presence is required in the hatchery immediately,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ Zale said, as the boy left.

Zale’s heart pounded in his chest, and his palms became sweaty again.

‘I’m going to the viewing gallery,’ Briana said. She planted a kiss on his cheek. ‘Good luck.’

Briana turned and raced out the door, her footsteps echoing on the stone steps outside the door.

Zale glanced in the mirror and adjusted his tunic before following her.

At the bottom of the dormitory stairs, he turned left and hurried to the waiting room adjacent to the hatchery. When he entered, ten sets of eyes turned to him. He felt old, and out of place amongst the children. He stood a head taller than the tallest of them.

Again, he questioned his decision to do this.

The door at the other end of the room opened, and Stark entered. For a moment, their eyes locked. Stark had tried to talk him out of presenting again, saying he was setting himself up for disappointment.

‘Line up against the wall,’ Stark barked.

The children rushed to comply and stood ramrod straight against the wall, all terrified of the Dragon Master.

Zale stood straight, but relaxed, at the end of the line. He hoped to hell this worked, or he would be a laughingstock for the rest of his life in this town. Most people praised him for his bravery but doubted his chances of success.

What was the point of being brave if you were seen as an idiot?

‘When you enter the hatchery, line up against the left wall, a full arm width apart,’ said Stark, in a gruff voice. ‘Let the dragon approach you; you do not approach the dragon. Is that understood?’

‘Yes, Dragon Master,’ they all said.

‘Follow me,’ Stark ordered.

They filed out of the room after Stark, and into the hot hatchery. The heat hit each of them as they walked through the door. The light and heat in the chamber came from firepits lining the side and back walls.

Zale remembered working day and night to keep the pits alight. If the temperature dropped too low, then the eggs would not hatch.

Lining up against the wall, they spread out an arms width apart as instructed and inspected the depression in the floor where the eggs lay; five in all. Sasha had been a breeding female, and without her, the numbers were down.

They were on their way to the hatchery when the accident happened. A young rider, out on his dragon for the first time, was careless. He shot out of the dormitory without a care for what was going on around him and flew straight into them.

Sasha, being egg heavy, was unable to maneuver fast enough to get out of the way, and her wing snapped at the impact. Remembering the sound made his stomach churn, and Sasha’s scream still seemed to echo in his head, and often woke him out of his terrifying dream, drenched in sweat.

The young dragon broke its neck, and when he hit the ground, he crushed his rider, cutting off his shriek.

Zale was thrown free of Sasha before she hit the ground, and despite his injuries, he crawled to her and cradled her head as she died. Her thoughts slipped from his mind, giving way to an unbearable silence, that has driven the bravest rider insane.

He blinked away the tears that pooled in his eyes. As he did, he looked up and saw the gallery was packed with people. During a hatching, only the parents of the children came; this time it looked like the whole town was trying to squeeze their way in.

He was nervous before, but now he was terrified of failure. God, why was he putting himself through this?

Sweat ran down the side of Zale's face as they stood and waited. Further down the line, a girl fainted. She was quickly removed from the chamber and her chance at becoming a dragon rider was gone in that moment.

Zale focused on the eggs to distract himself from how hot he was, when one of them moved, his heart went to his throat.

This was it!

Silence fell in the chamber and all eyes were on the eggs. One after the other the five eggs moved. The sound of cracking echoed around the chamber, and excitement was thick in the air.

The first egg cracked open, and a small red, triangular-shaped head appeared, and the egg toppled over and shattered. The metre-long, red dragon spilled out onto the floor and gazed along the line of people. Still wet from being in the egg, the dragon left a slimy trail along the stone floor as it headed to a girl down the other end.

‘Oh,' she beamed, ‘his name’s Malik.’

‘Well done, my girl,’ said Stark. ‘Here's a cloth to dry, Malik.’

She took the cloth and sat on the floor with her dragon.

One down, four to go, thought Zale.

The next dragon to hatch was a blue female, named Zoe. She chose a boy standing not too far from Zale.

Three to go, he thought.

The third dragon was an orange male, named Azim. He chose a boy in the middle of the line.

Two to go, he thought.

His heart thundered in his chest and he could sense everyone's eyes on him, waiting for a reaction every time he failed.

The fourth was a red male, named Jarek. Zale thought for a moment he may have done it until a girl close to him announced the dragon's name.

He kept his features neutral as he waited for the last egg to hatch.

Last one, he thought. His last ever chance to fly again, his last ever chance to continue being a dragon rider, to feel whole. His mind turned to what else he could do with his life, and his heart sank. He knew no trade, and most Guild Master's refused to take on someone of his age. The only other thing he knew was working in the hatchery, but it would be painful to watch others be chosen. Their smiles would be like a knife through his heart.

His thoughts were broken when the remaining egg cracked and fell. The crowded gallery gasped when a rare black dragon spilled out onto the floor.

The dragon moved out of the pit and gazed at who was left. Its eyes stopped on the boy to Zale's right and moved towards him. The boy grinned, waiting for the dragon to tell him its name.

Zale closed his eyes, and tears fell unchecked down his cheeks.

‘His name is Aziel,’ Zale said.

A cheer went up around the gallery; Briana, the loudest of them all.

He opened his eyes and looked down at his new dragon.

Stark came over and handed him a cloth.

‘Well done,’ Stark said, a rare grin on his face.

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