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It was the first day of 13th year Dragon Slaying class, and May was eagerly awaiting her first instructions. Would they be working on archery this year, or memorizing the dragons’ vulnerable spots? Whatever it was, she could hardly wait.
She, like all of her classmates, had been training since before she could walk for when she would face her first dragon. When she was four, she could slice all manners of vegetables with ease. When she was nine, she could beat any one of her teammates in fencing. And now, when she was thirteen, she was easily at the top of the class.
Their 13th year teacher, Captain Mag, strode briskly up to the waiting students. “All right. I’m sure you’re all wondering what we’re doing this year,” he said.
They all nodded in agreement – all except one boy, Tom, who just scowled. May wondered why he was so grouchy.
“It’s review,” Captain Mag announced, with such suddenness and shock that no one was prepared to hear it. “An increasing number of Dragon Riders have been seen, and they must be disposed of immediately. This is to be your last year training before you go out to serve her majesty, the Queen. So we must work extra hard this year, you understand? No dawdling, no messing around, no skipping or being late to classes – unless an emergency occurs.”
A girl by the name of Netty Rilles raised her hand.
“Yes?” Captain Mag asked, clearly impatient.
“I’m moving mid-semester. So I won’t be able to be here.”
He snorted. “Very well. Anything else?” When no one else interrupted, he continued, “Now then, let’s get started.”
After class, May caught up with Tom on his way home. “Are you okay?” she asked him, remembering his attitude earlier.
“Yes,” he replied tartly. “I’m fine. Now leave me alone.”
In May’s experience, whenever anyone said, ‘Leave me alone,’ it meant they needed company. Of course, she hadn’t had that much experience in the said topic, but she decided to ignore that fact for now. So she kept walking with Tom, until they had reached the end of the village. She realized she didn’t know where he lived. She stopped, but he kept walking.
“Tom,” she began, “where are you going?”
“None of your business,” he snapped, and increased his pace.
Suddenly a roar shook the earth, and May plugged her ears. When it was gone, she asked no one in particular, “What was that?”
“That was...Flame...” Tom said, not turning to look at her. “My...dog. He gets really cranky if I don’t feed him in time.”
“Dog?” May asked, in confusion. She had known Tom for nine years, and he had never ever mentioned having a dog. “Must be a big dog, to make that noise.”
“Uh...yeah,” Tom said. “He’s huge. Well, I’d best be getting back. I don’t want him to be even more cranky.” that having been said, he began to walk faster than ever in the same direction.
“Tom, the village is in the opposite direction.”
He snorted. “It’s not like I keep him in my house.”
“Right...” May said. Then she remembered hearing that sound before, and it didn’t belong to a dog. “That was no dog,” she murmured slowly.
“It...wasn’t?” Tom asked. There was fear in his voice. Was he...hiding something? Something big?
“No,” May whispered. “Tom, if I’m right, that was a dragon. And he certainly doesn’t belong to you.”
Tom whirled around. “I don’t have a dragon,” he muttered. “I never have, and I never will. Now go home, and mind your own business!” He strode off more determined than ever, and nothing stopped him this time.
May knew that Tom was hiding something. She knew that he didn’t want anyone to find something out. But what? And why was it so important?
“No,” she firmly told herself. “It’s not my business. I need to just go home.” she turned and walked towards her house, but but her curiosity got the better of her. She whirled around, and followed Tom.
May was still following her comrade when the sun began to sink below the horizon. Maybe I should just go home, she thought with a twinge of unease. I shouldn’t be this far away after dark. And I don’t know where he’s headed.
But she didn’t persuade herself completely to turn back, and she kept on walking, walking, walking.
Eventually Tom led her to a mountainside. It was familiar to her; she had often spent her free time exploring here when she was younger. She hadn’t come here in a while – several years – but it seemed alien to her. It was different, strange in a way she could not explain. Something was missing – it wasn’t complete.
Tom stopped walking. “I told you to go home,” he said coldly.
May was startled. “You knew?” she asked. But why had he never acknowledged her?
He turned around. “I don’t want you, May. Go away.”
“I want to see Flame!” she suddenly burst out, a sudden hit of inspiration.
“Flame. Your dog. That made the sound earlier.”
“Oh.” All of a sudden Tom seemed uncomfortable: he lost his attitude of irritation and began fidgeting nervously. “Well...you can’t. He doesn’t react kindly to strangers.”
May was exasperated. “Tom! I know you’re hiding something! Just let me see your huge dog, all right? Once can’t hurt!”
Tom took a step closer to her. Fire was burning in his eyes, as well as in his cheeks. “You want to know what I’m hiding?” he whispered. “You want to know about Flame?”
May nodded, though she was instantly unsure of her hasty words.
“Fine,” Tom muttered. “I’ll show you. Come on.”
And then he walked into the mountainside.
It took May a moment to understand what happened. Then she realized why everything seemed off. “Oh! I forgot about the cave.”
Tom popped back out, but not out of any cave. It seemed as if he was walking right out of the dirt.
He scowled at her perplexed expression. “My mother hid the cave so no one would find us.”
“But why wouldn’t you want anyone to...” May trailed off. She had a pretty good feeling she knew the answer. “And how could you mother hide the cave? No one can do that except–”
Tom nodded curtly. “She’s a witch.”
May couldn’t help herself – she blanched. She had been taught that witches, wizards, and creatures with magic in general were evil, and only used their powers for wicked deeds. But a classmate’s mother? Surely she was good…
“Come on,” Tom said roughly.
As he walked back into the cave, May followed, not far behind. It was a strange sensation, really. Her brain kept telling her that she was walking into a mountain, that she would bang her front on solid earth, but her nerves felt nothing except the usual chill of the cave. As soon as she was inside, though, she could see everything familiar.
Except that it wasn’t.
A plume of thick, gray smoke rose from behind a stalagmite, and May had a dreaded feeling she knew what caused it. She began to back out, but Tom grabbed her by the arm.
“You wanted to see it,” he said. “Now you’re going to see it.”
May steeled her chilled nerves and placed her hand on her sword hilt, ready to prepare for the inevitable.
“Flame,” Tom softly called. “Come out, Flame.”
Beyond the stalagmite, a bulk of red scales moved. A huge mass of red came into view, and it was most definitely not a dog.
May had been preparing her whole life for this moment, but now that it had come, she was petrified. She could hardly move, hardly lift her sword. Just do it! She thought frantically. Just lift your arm and strike!
But despite all her resolutions, May couldn’t do it. She sheathed her sword and ran.
Tom stayed by the cave opening with Flame, watching May run. Had it been right, what he did? Showing the best in Dragon Slaying class his biggest secret...His dragon? What she had been trained to hunt down and destroy? Had it been rash? Irresponsible?
He heard footsteps behind him. He didn’t need to look to know it was his mother, the witch. “You shouldn’t have told her your secret,” she said.
Tom tensed his muscles. “I know.”
“Then why did you do it?”
Tom sighed. “She was pestering me. Said she wanted to see my ‘dog’, Flame. So I showed her. And I told her about you.”
His mother frowned. Tom could feel the force of it on his back. “Will we have to move again, Tom?”
“I don’t know. I hope not. I hope she doesn’t tell.”
“All we can do is wait,” the witch said.
So Tom did.
The next day, at Dragon Slaying class, May was silent. She didn’t make an announcement that there was a dragon abroad, she didn’t even give a hint. Not a visible one, anyway. She seemed nervous, glancing at Tom every half-minute to watch him. He felt conspicuous.
She kept it up, and even missed a parry while looking at him. The whole class, not excepting Captain Mag, was shocked. As far as any of them remembered, May had not missed anything since she had the measles in 7th year.
“What is going on, May?” Captain Mag asked after she forgot to duck and ended up face flat on the ground.
“I-I’m just nervous,” she stammered. “There are only so many days in a year.” she glanced at Tom, but betrayed nothing.
He tried to smile at her, but judging by the look on her face, he failed.
After class Tom caught up with her before he could head home. “May–” he began, but hardly got her name out before she cut him off.
“Go away, Tom. I don’t feel like talking about it.”
“May, I’m sorry–”
“For what? Having a dragon? A ‘sorry’ won’t fix it, Tom. You betrayed us. You betrayed the queen.”
Tom couldn’t hold it in any longer. “The queen killed my father! She murdered him! So I’m sorry if it feels like betrayal to you, but it’s not. I’m just trying to fix what’s wrong.”
May whirled around to face him. Her face was flushed red, and her eyes were watery. “What’s wrong is that you’re a traitor, the enemy!” she cried. “And what’s wrong is that I can’t find it in my heart to alert the town. The queen. That’s what’s wrong, Tom. Not whatever happened to your family. Dragons are evil. Witches are evil. Magic is evil.”
Then she stormed away, leaving Tom stunned, shocked, and a little hurt.
Flame stretched up his head, flapped his wings, and let out a moan that would sound dangerous to anyone that didn’t know him. He thrashed his tail, and whipped his head around to face Tom.
“I know, boy,” he murmured, stroking the fiery red scales. “I know you want to go flying. But we can’t. We’ll be seen.”
Flame kept on acting up, rearing onto his hind legs and setting out a stream of fire. He didn’t care if they were seen or not. He just wanted to fly.
“Don’t you understand?” Tom asked sadly. “Flame, if they catch you, they’ll kill you. And me. And probably Mother, too. If they catch us, we’ll all die.”
Flame snorted. He thrashed his tail all the more wildly and let out a plume of thick smoke. Then he pawed at the ground, and stretched his wings wide.
“I don’t see how we can pull it off,” Tom said. In an effort to appease his dragon, he grimaced. “Unless it was a very cloudy night. With a crescent moon. And very few stars.”
Flame looked at him with a close-to-incredulous expression on his scaly face. Just look outside! It seemed to say.
Tom sighed, and went to the cave mouth. Looking up at the sky, he managed to suppress a startled laugh. The sky wasn’t visible, hidden above a thick canopy of clouds. The moon’s light was as dim as it had ever been, and not a star was to be seen.
Flame walked up to him and rested his head on the ground. He whimpered – softly, but not pitifully, as if to say, “Can we go flying now?”
Tom shook his head in disbelief. “I guess we can, if only for a little bit,” he replied. “But it must be quick. We must not be seen. All right?”
Flame snorted, then crouched down to the ground, lowering his head and folding in his wings. Tom knew this was an invitation to climb on. He did so, and was hardly seated before they were off, flying like an arrow towards their destination, which was above the clouds.
They got there almost at the speed of light. At least, that’s what it felt like to Tom. “Yes!” he shouted, clinging to Flame’s neck as he shot upward at a breathtaking speed. “I missed this, Flame. I missed this!”
The dragon snorted and flicked his tail. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.
They flew into a steep dive, and Tom thought that they would break through the cover of the clouds, but they swerved at the last minute and skimmed along their surface.
Tom gazed up at the stars, happy to be free like this once again. Once upon a time, he had been able to soar like this freely. He had dipped, he had flown, he had spent time with his dragon in the open all the time.
That was before the stronghold he had lived in had burnt down. That was before he saw his family around him die. That was before the queen killed his father. That was before he and his mother had fled, only to be pursued into the far depths of the caves in the tallest mountains. Before they had barely escaped to this little village, where they had spent the remainder of their days.
And now they could never fly. Not without giving themselves away, not without the threat of death. How Tom savored the feeling of the air rushing against his cheeks, the awareness of his dragon under him, the joy of being airborne. He wished that they wouldn’t have to go back and face life, that they wouldn’t have to pretend to be like everyone else...hating dragons, training to fight them, going out in the world to kill them. He wished it could be like this forever, this eternal feeling of peace and solitude staying inside him and Flame always.
But it could never be. No one one else would ever see the world as he saw it, from the sky. No one else would get to feel the pleasure of flying.
Except…maybe they could. All of a sudden Tom was filled with an inexplicable desire to share his privilege, his emotions. All of a sudden he didn’t want to hide anymore.
And he didn’t need to. May knew about Flame, she had seen him with her own eyes! She didn’t kill him, like he had half expected her to try to. She could fly, too. She could come with him, enjoy the feelings, just like him. But would she come? Probably not. And would Flame allow her to get on his back? Probably not.
But, Tom thought to himself with a longing for his father, who always said this, the least I can do is try.
May was pacing in her bedroom. Why had Tom shown her his dragon? And why had she not reacted correctly, slaying the beast like she should have? Why had she hesitated, shown the dragon her fear? That was the worst possible thing to do. Show and animal, your fear, and they were no longer afraid of you. They could do all manner of things to you they never would have thought of twice otherwise.
May shook her head, disgusted with herself, and kept pacing.
There was another thing she had done wrong, too. She had kept Tom’s secret. She had not told her parents about the dragon, about the traitor in their midst. Why? Why had she done this? Now, she was like a traitor herself, a betrayer to the Dragon Slayers.
But she wasn’t. She would never be. She would learn, and she would slay. She would slay many, many beasts.
Then why didn’t she when she had the chance?
There was a reverberant sound.
May ceased to walk and whipped out her sword instinctively. She couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. She couldn’t hear anything peculiar.
Then it came again. This time, May knew where the sound was coming from. She cautiously crept over to the window and looked through it.
It was a cloudy night; the humidity made a fog on the glass. Because of this, May could hardly see through, but she did make out a figure standing below her window. It lifted its arm back behind its head, and then flung it forward. The fist unclosed, and then there was another plink! sound.
It was throwing something at her window!
May slid the glass panes away, and saw who it was throwing pebbles at her window. It was Tom, and his hand was poised to throw again.
“Stop!” May exclaimed. “Tom, what are you doing?”
His face relaxed at the sight of her. “I was hoping you would come with me,” he said. “I wanted to show you something.”
May scowled. “You mean like your dragon.”
She began to close the window. This wasn’t worth it. She was not going out on such a cold night to go see an illegal creature that she was supposed to kill.
“Please!” Tom cried. “Don’t go! Just give me a chance! Dragons are not evil! They’re good!”
May snorted. “No. You’re just blinded by your affection.”
She continued sliding the glass back in place, and Tom called out on more thing. “Let me prove it to you! I want to go flying! He lets me, and he’ll let you.”
“Well, I won’t allow it,” May snapped. “Just go away, Tom. I’m not riding on a dragon.”
She shut her window completely, and his voice was drowned out. She sighed, and sat down on her bed to continue her wonderments.
Would he never give up? May was not feeling like doing this right now.
Maybe if I just ignore him, he’ll go away, she thought.
And sure enough, he did. It took minutes, maybe hours, but he left, and with him left the annoying sound.
But May couldn’t stop thinking about him.
Why did he want me to go flying with him? Why did he insist on coming here in the night to ask me to? Why does he even have a dragon when he goes to Dragon Slaying class?
None of this made much sense. If Tom loved his dragon so much, then why did he go to school? Why didn’t he just fly away and go to a perfect utopia with waterfalls and sunshine all the year round? Why didn’t he just forget about ordinary life?
She remembered what Tom had said: “The queen killed my father! She murdered him!”
What on Earth did that even mean? The queen had never killed anyone, otherwise she wouldn’t be queen. She was a good ruler, too, with an excellent system for Dragon Slaying. Her leadership wasn’t corrupted, nor was it selfish. May couldn’t understand why Tom insisted that she had killed his father.
But...maybe she could find out. Tom did want her to go flying with him, after all. Perhaps she could get answers there. Maybe she could learn why Tom thought that the queen had killed his father.
She opened the window and stared out at the ground. Tom was gone. She closed the window and picked up her sword. “I’m going outside, Mother!” she called. “I need some fresh air.”
“At this time of night?” her mother’s voice came floating to her.
“It’s kind of stuffy in my room,” May lied.
“Well, at least take your sword.”
“I was planning to.” May opened the front door and stepped outside. Contrary to what she had first thought, it was a fine night, if a little nippy, but the air was clearer out here than inside. All right, she thought. I’m going out to ride a dragon. Am I really doing this?
The answer was yes. Of course it was. May wanted answers. And she was planning to get them.
She set out at a brisk pace before she could question the wisdom of this decision. Within minutes she was at the cave that Tom had shown her two days ago. She cautiously entered it. “Hello? Tom? It’s me, May. I–” here she broke off, not really believing what she was going to say “–I’m here to take you up on your offer. I...want…to fly with Flame.” she took another step in. “Hello? Is anyone here?”
A woman stepped forward out of the gloom. May had never seen her before, but it was clear that this was Tom’s mother. The resemblance was uncanny. Then May remembered that she was a witch. All of a sudden she was a whole lot more unsure about the whole plan. But she refused to show her fright. “Um...is Tom here?”
The woman pursed her lips. “He left to go look for you. He hasn’t returned.”
May frowned. “Oh. Well, he’ll be along sometime, won’t he?”
“Yes,” his mother promised. “He would never go for longer than necessary without Flame.”
May wondered where he was now, then. But she did not say this. Instead she put on a polite smile and started to back away. “Maybe I’ll just come back later.”
“Make sure it’s on a cloudy night,” the woman said. “I don’t approve of them flying, but make sure you’re not spotted when you do.”
May nodded, then backed out even more quickly. She started running as soon as she was out of sight. On her way home she passed a lone shadow walking the way she had come.
“May?” she heard it call after her. “What are you doing?”
She stopped. “Tom?”
He walked up to her. “What are you doing here?” he asked gingerly.
May wasn’t going to snap at him again. But he didn’t know that. “I went to your cave to take you up on your offer. But you weren’t there.”
Tom’s eyes lit up. “Really? You want to go flying?”
May nodded wordlessly.
“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Tom asked. “Come on! Flame’s at my cave.”
He ran off, and May followed, uncertain about what she had just gotten herself into.
Tom was ecstatic when May agreed to ride on Flame. Finally, he got to share his experience with someone! And someone who (hopefully) would not try to kill his friend. It was a wonderful occurrence! Now, if only Flame would not freak out and send them flying off through space.
They reached the cave.
May glanced around fearfully. “Where is he?”
Tom motioned inside with a nod of his head. “In there. Like always. Hiding.”
“Now come on!” Tom exclaimed. “Don’t you want to do this?”
“Of...course...” May said, with obvious hesitation.
“It’ll be fine,” Tom promised. “I’ll make sure he won’t kill you.”
May blanched. That probably hadn’t been the best thing to say.
“I’m kidding,” Tom tried to amend, even though they both knew that he wasn’t.
“I’m fine,” May murmured. “It’s just...unbelievable, that’s all. I never thought I would ride a dragon without trying to kill it.”
“I hope you won’t kill him,” Tom said, mildly alarmed.
May laughed. “Of course not. I never realized dragons were so wonderful before. I always thought that they were evil, corrupted beasts. And I thought that Riders were horrid monsters who forced their followers to do their bidding. I had never thought that Riders were so...normal….I guess.” she forced a smile. “And I most certainly never imagined that one would be under cover in my Dragon Slaying class.”
Tom shrugged. “When I was littler, I never thought that I would be in a Dragon Slaying class, either. I was not happy to learn that I had to go. I didn’t want to learn how to kill my best friend.”
“I wouldn’t want to do that, either,” May admitted. “Killing your friend would be awful.”
Tom nodded. “Let’s do this, shall we? Flame, come on out!”
The dragon slowly, hesitantly stuck his head out of the cave entrance. When he saw May, he let out a hiss of annoyance.
“We want to go flying, Flame,” Tom said, doing his best to ignore the dragon’s attitude. “I know you want to again.”
Flame snorted. To May it probably sounded mean and angry, but Tom knew it was just irritation. The dragon didn’t want to share his back with someone besides Tom. He also remembered that May had a sword like the Dragon Slayers. And he was nervous. He trusted Tom, but he didn’t want to make any hasty decisions about May.
“Come on, Flame,” Tom urged. “We want to fly. So do you.”
The dragon let out a sighing sound, and lowered himself onto the ground. He let Tom climb on, then eyed May warily.
She cringed. “This was a bad idea. What if he hurts me?”
“He won’t,” Tom confidently said. Then, in a voice softer, so May couldn’t hear, “You won’t.”
May was still not convinced. She took a step closer, and then stopped as Flame’s tail twitched.
“It’s all right,” Tom promised. “He won’t hurt you.”
May took a deep breath. Then she sighed resignedly and darted onto the dragon’s back, behind Tom. He could hear her hyperventilating. “That,” she panted, “was the scariest moment of my life.”
“Well, we’re about to fly, so that’s about to change,” Tom said.
May’s breathing did not slow. It escalated. “What if I fall off?”
“Just hug with your legs and hold on to me with your hands, and you’ll be fine.”
Her hands clasped around his waist with such speed and strength that it shocked him. “All right.”
“Are you ready?” Tom asked.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Tom caught on to her indecision and paused. “Are you sure?”
“I’ll never be completely ready,” May replied, “so we might as well go now.”
Tom nodded. Flame knew he was ready and took off.
May let out a gasp of some indiscernible mix of emotions and clutched to his waist tighter.
“Hey, it’ll be okay,” Tom said uncomfortably. “We’ve done this a lot. Just hang on.”
May nodded fearfully and didn’t say another word.
Flame went easy – no barrel rolls or going upside down this time. He flew steadily upward, until they were above the clouds. Then he turned and flew straight.
May seemed to be incredibly frightened, yet exhilarated all at once. She let out several gasps, and also managed to tell Tom that she was enjoying herself.
Tom couldn’t help but wonder if she was this excited about a calm ride above the clouds, how she would react to the twists and neck-breaking speeds that he and Flame normally executed. He decided not to test it at the moment, much to the disappointment of Flame.
“We should probably go back now,” May said after minutes had passed and the sky began to take on a lighter tint. “We’ll be seen.”
“The clouds will hide us,” Tom said confidently.
May sighed. “Not with this wind, they won’t, not for much longer. And besides, what about Dragon Slaying class?”
Tom frowned. He always dreaded the time of day when he had to face his class. “Surely we can stay for a little longer,” he coaxed. “Class doesn’t start until the sun is fully up, and it’s not even up yet.”
“Well, I guess,” May said reluctantly. “But only for a little longer.”
Tom grinned and leaned forward to talk to Flame. “A little faster, all right?”
The dragon very willingly obliged.
May let out a gasp.
Tom slowly egged Flame to go faster, and faster, until they were going at a faster speed.
Then ahead of them, a hole appeared in the clouds.
“Stop!” May cried in fright. “We’ll be seen!”
Tom knew that she was right, and tried to get Flame to stop, or at least turn, but he was overwhelmed by the extra weight on his back, and he did neither. They shot over the hole.
Flame drew slowly in to a hover, and Tom turned to look at May, whose expression was pasty. “We’ll go back now,” he said.
She blinked, and her face slowly returned to normal. “We’d better.”
When they got back to the cave, they found a crowd of villagers there, blocking the way down. Apparently they all knew where Tom and his mother lived. Flame stopped with a lurch.
“Dragon!” someone in the crowd shouted.
And then they bustled into action.
People drew their weapons, archers began firing, and spears were thrown.
“Go up, Flame, up!” Tom cried. They lurched above the clouds, but just then, a gust of wind came along and blew the clouds away, letting them be seen.
“No!” May exclaimed, fear portraying itself in everything she did.
“Go, go now!” Tom yelled. “Fly as fast as you can, Flame!”
And they began to fly far away from the village and everything they once knew.
May was terrified when she realized that they were heading away from the village. Would she see her family again? Her friends? Would they forgive her? Or would she be shunned, when she returned?
If she returned.
May broke down in to sobs. She tried to resist them, tried to hold them back, but they came out anyway. Instead, she stifled them with gasps about being this high in the air.
Tom obviously knew what she was trying to do, because he glanced back at her. “You can cry, May. It’s all right. I know how hard it is to lose your home.”
This only made her cry more. Lose her home? So she would never go back?
“If we go back, they’ll kill us for being traitors,” he said in a more gentle voice. “We can’t risk that.”
May sighed. Her flow of tears lessened, and she sniffed. She felt a feeling of resignedness. She knew she could not go back, yet she didn’t know what they would face in the outside world. This was going to be frightening, sure enough. Was she ready? Could she do this? Or should she just demand that he set her down, and then walk back to the village?
May looked down against her better judgment, and found that they were in a completely new landscape. There were trees everywhere, and not a village, town, or city in sight. “Where are we?!” she asked before she realized.
“I don’t know,” Tom replied, truthfully, but painfully. “Away from the village.”
May let out another sob. There was no way she was going back now. She couldn’t. She didn’t know where they were, didn’t know which way to go to get home. She was lost.
“Well,” she murmured. “It looks like I’m staying with you.”
“You don’t have to, you know,” Tom said softly. “I could drop you off nearby a town.”
“And be on my own, with no one I know?” May asked incredulously. “No way! I’d rather be with a traitor than be alone.”
“Very well,” Tom said. “We need to find a place we can stay. Flame, we’re far enough away now. Land in that clump of trees.”
The dragon willingly obliged, eager to get this unknown rider off his back, and weary from unusual exercise.
May couldn’t help but feel a wondrous awareness as the dragon landed. She was flying! And dragons weren’t evil, and they could actually be nice! It was amazing. She was thrown off guard when they actually landed.
The sharp impact of hitting the ground jolted her back from her reverie, and she nearly fell off into a prickly thorn bush. “Ow!” she exclaimed, feeling the scaled digging into her skin.
Tom was also thrown off guard. “Flame! What was that? You’re usually so smooth!”
The dragon tilted his head to stare at them both, narrowing his huge eye at May. She didn’t understand his language, but the message was clear: I normally don’t have two riders on my back.
Tom had also interpreted the dragon’s body language. “Flame. Chill out. She’s staying with us now, so get used to her.” he slid off on to the ground. “This seems like a good place for right now,” he commented. “Come on, May. You’ve had a rough day. Sleep.”
And while May didn’t like taking orders from anyone who was not clearly above her in station, she had to submit. She was worn, and the excitement had further drained her energy. She also just wanted to get away from reality. So she followed Tom to the ground, and had barely cleared the brush away so she’d have a relatively soft place to bed when she was asleep.
It had been her goal to escape from what had happened these past few days, but the experiences followed her in her sleep.
In her mind’s eye, she saw images of Flame snorting angrily at her. She saw Tom calming him, but never succeeding. And then she saw Flame spurting fire at her -
The dream changed, and she was flying. She felt the amazing feeling of the wind blowing through her hair, the sting of it against her cheeks. She saw Tom in front of her, leaning forward to talk to his dragon. He thought she couldn’t hear him, but she could. He had to stop Flame from killing her. He had to make the dragon obey him…
May tossed and turned in her sleep. She rolled over and scraped her elbow on a tree root. She still did not wake. This was the most realistic dream she had ever had, complete with sound, emotions, and nerves. Tom watched her, biting his lip.
“That must be some dream,” he murmured.
Flame agreed with a small burst of fire.
Tom gazed levelly at him. “I know you don’t like her. But give her a break, Flame. She just learned that one of her classmates was a Rider, and that I was hiding a dragon in my home for nine years.”
Flame lowered his head to the ground and pretended to fall to sleep.
“I know you can hear me, Flame.” still, he did not respond. Fine, Tom thought. If that’s the way you want to be. “You’ll grow to like her eventually.”
Flame did not think so. He would be forever loyal to Tom, never trusting anyone who held a sword like the Slayers – and that meant May.
It began to rain.
Tom grimaced. He glanced around, half-heartedly looking for shelter. Then, miraculously, he spotted a cave. “Piece of luck,” he murmured, and started off. But then he remembered May, and glanced back at her. She was still asleep. Was she really that worn out? He sighed and walked back to her, shivering. Taking hold of her torso, he hoisted her up over his shoulder – surprisingly she was not too heavy. He hauled her to the cave, and found that Flame was already inside of it.
The dragon was not pleased to see May. He pawed his talons against the ground, making unpleasant sounds.
Tom laid her down on the ground and frowned at his dragon. “Give it a break. Seriously.”
May woke with a start. Her dream had just ended in a horrible scenario of her falling off a cliff and Flame refusing to save her. “Where – where are we?” she asked in a state of confusion. Hadn’t they been outside before she fell asleep?
“It’s raining,” Tom explained, gesturing to the mouth of the cave.
“Oh,” May said. Then she sat up abruptly. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Tom asked, straining his ears.
“No, it’s gone now,” she said. “Wait – there it is!”
This time Tom heard what May had. And he knew what it was, despite his weariness. He had heard it before, many times in his own cave.
Another human was in the cave with them.
May scrambled to her feet. She grabbed a couple of stones off of the floor and prepared to throw them. Who was in the cave with them? Friend or foe? Rider or Slayer?
There was only one way to find out.
“Hello?” she called. “Is anyone in there?”
A bright dot of orange light appeared in the far interior of the cave. It was undoubtedly made by a torch.
Flame began lightly growling. Then he retreated back outside, into the slowly dying rain, in case the person was not friendly. He silently retreated into the background, waiting for his time to come out again.
Tom squinted his eyes into the darkness. The light was steadily growing larger, and they could now faintly see the outline of the person holding the torch.
He was a large man – wearing bulky armor that indicated his status as a soldier in the capital city, Basilisk.
“Oh, no,” Tom whispered.
May inhaled sharply. It was a good thing that Flame had left when he did, otherwise they would probably be arrested or killed. “What are you doing here, away from Basilisk?” she asked before she realized what she was saying. She bit her tongue. What right did she have to ask that of a soldier, being only a village girl, thirteen years old, herself? None.
Tom glanced at her. He had probably asked himself the same question.
But the soldier seemed not to mind. He walked closer, and saw that they were just children. “I might ask you the same thing,” he commented in a deep, amiable voice.
May exhaled in relief. He seemed to oppose no immediate threat. But now she had to answer the question. “We were practicing our sword fighting in the woods when it began to rain,” she lied smoothly.
Once again, Tom glanced at her, but then caught on to what she was doing. “Yeah,” he agreed. “And we wanted shelter. So we found this cave to wait out the storm in.”
The man nodded and sat down next to them – in the same spot that Flame had been not two minutes earlier. “We can wait it out together.”
May held her breath. Then a thought occurred to her. A traitorous thought, but nonetheless she paid attention to it. Was she really a Rider? Or did she want to go back to being a Slayer? Go back to her family? It was a tempting thought… She could reveal Tom right here, right now, if she wanted. Did she want that? Or did she want to remain living in solitude, hiding wherever she went?
She had to choose quickly…
The man found her gaze and held it. “What’s your name, lass?”
May found herself telling him without a trace of fright or apprehension. “May. My name is May.”
He nodded. “May and Tom. Pleasure to meet you.”
May nodded back. While she was immersed in her thoughts, Tom must have told him his name.
“So,” the man continued, apparently trying to start a conversation, “where are you from? Basilisk?”
Tom laughed. “No. Never been there.”
May shot him a warning glance, but it was too late. There weren’t many settlements around this area besides Basilisk. Now how would they explain how they got here?
The soldier narrowed his eyes into black slits that seemed to be examining them very thoroughly. “So where are you from? What village?”
May clenched her jaw, then released the pressure and decided to tell the truth: “We’re from Valkyrie, on the eastern border,” she confessed.
The man regarded them suspiciously. “So how did you get here? You’re not...Riders…are you?” his eyes widened. He could tell by the expression of their faces that he had hit the mark.
May began to breathe heavily. How would they get out of this one? What would they do to keep their secret? But then again, she could still get out of this…
She imagined herself saying something like, ‘Actually, he’s the Rider. I’m just a girl he picked up along the way. I’ve been dragged along on his dragon, waiting for someone like you to come and save me.’
But could she do that to Tom? Betray him so readily? No. Of course not. She would just have to make due.
Fire was burning in Tom’s eyes. “You better not tell,” he said to the soldier.
In response, he drew his sword. He began to advance, studying them and their movements.
May recognized this strategy. It was one of the first things they had been taught. Observe your enemy. Pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses, so you can use them to your advantage.
Both she and Tom had left their swords back at Valkyrie, so that was one weakness, but an obvious strength was the dragon. Flame would willingly die to protect Tom. But the soldier didn’t know that…
Before the man could take another step, Tom opened his mouth to yell for his dragon. “Flame!”
Flame burst in, almost as if he had been waiting at the door. In retrospect, May later thought that he probably had been waiting. The dragon opened his mouth to shoot out a stream of fire, steering clear of the children, and the man was disposed of immediately.
May gaped in horror at the smoldering ashes that had been the soldier. That had to have been the most gruesome moment of her life. She closed her eyes, and nearly blacked out.
Flame had killed a man at Tom’s command.
Tom could order Flame to do anything, and he would do it.
That put her in jeopardy. If she angered Tom, she could be gone in an instant. And Flame would approve whole-heartedly.
She stared at Tom, finally realizing what power he had. “Tom,” she gasped, “you – you could do anything!”
“No I couldn’t,” he replied bitterly. “But thank you.”
May wondered if he had liked killing the man, or whether it was only in self-defense.
Then he said something that surprised her even more. “I’ve tried.”
“What?” she asked.
Tom walked over to Flame and stroked his fiery scales. “There is one thing that we could not do. But I will never give up.”
“What is it?” May asked, genuinely curious.
Tom turned to face her. “I can only tell you if I trust you will never betray me,” he said. “Can I trust you?”
May thought guiltily of the thoughts she had had just a few minutes ago. But she hadn’t actually done it. And she really wanted to know what it was that Flame and Tom together could not do. So she said, “You can trust me. I will never betray you, Tom.”
His face – which had been a mask of pure tension – relaxed. “Good. I believe you.” he turned back to Flame. “I hope I’m doing the right thing, telling you this.”
“Tom, I can help you,” May urged. “Whatever it is you and Flame couldn’t accomplish in Valkyrie, maybe you can here, where we don’t have hide so much. And there are three of us now, not two.”
He sighed. “You’re right. Well, here it is.
“I want to kill the queen.”
May was stumped. She was mortified. Aghast.
Tom could read all these expressions on her face. When she had promised to never betray him, she wasn’t imagining treason. She was imaging that it was something harmless, something unbelievable that any normal boy would think of.
Well, he thought bitterly, the world’s not always sunshine and rainbows, May. People do bad things.
“But – but why?” May asked, stammering uncontrollably.
It was a perfectly fair question. She had said she could help him, it would only be fair to know why she was risking treason. To know why Tom was risking treason.
He didn’t say anything.
“Does this have something to do with your father?” May whispered.
Everyone was silent. May didn’t speak, and neither did Tom. Flame was quiet, and even the rain ceased falling down outside the cave.
Finally Tom spoke. “Yes,” he replied softly, so softly that if the cave didn’t echo, no one would be able to hear him. He looked up at May. “She killed my father. She made my mother single and me fatherless when I was young. And she will pay!” he said this last part with such force that it startled May. “She will die,” he murmured softly. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. A life for a life.”
“Tom, no,” May murmured, trying to dissuade him. “She doesn’t have any heirs. And she’s still young. You can’t do this.”
Tom gazed pleadingly at her. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, May. And I’ve decided that this seems like the only way to erase the hurt. So I’m going to do this. You can’t persuade me otherwise.”
“Tom,” May implored. “Please–”
“You said you wouldn’t betray me,” Tom said. “Can I still trust you?”
May was silent. Finally she said, “I know I told you that you can rely on me. But this – this is just too much!”
“So you’ll turn me in,” Tom snarled. “And you’ll go along with your life.”
May hung her head. “No,” she whispered. “I won’t turn you in. But I can’t help you do this.”
“How can I trust that you won’t tell?”
May gazed up at him, tears glistening in her eyes. “You just have to believe me.”
“And where will you go?” Tom asked. “We’re too far away from Valkyrie for you to go back. The only place nearby is Basilisk. And it would be impossible for a young girl to find a home and make a living there. Alone.”
May clenched her fists. What Tom was saying was true. And she could see only one other option. “Well then,” she sighed, “it looks like I am staying with you after all.”
Tom grinned. “So...”
“I’m still not helping you,” May reiterated. “There is no way I am willingly helping someone with treason.”
“All right,” he said amiably.
May wondered what he had planned up his sleeve.
They spent the night in the cave. May slept soundly, but Tom kept tossing and turning.
Was he prepared for what was going to come? Was he ready to actually complete what he had been planning for all these years? Did he have the guts to do this?
Then he thought of seeing his father’s dragon being shot from the sky with a catapult. He thought of watching as his father fell off his mount, descending at an alarming rate. He thought of the dragon trying to fly, trying to save his father, but miserably failing. And then he remembered the memorial service he and his mother had held far away from where his father’s death had taken place. It had been heartbreaking.
Tom hadn’t known that his father was gone, forever, but he knew that something was wrong. He knew that his mother had been crying, and that that was bad.
Before he knew it, tears were streaking silently down his cheeks.
Tom shook himself and dried them. What was he doing? Warriors didn’t cry. They fought and avenged the people who did wrong. The queen.
Yes, Tom was ready. He would do this. And he would have no regrets.
He spent the most of the rest of the night planning how they would sneak into Basilisk’s castle.
Morning broke before Tom was ready for it. He had only gotten a half-hour’s worth of sleep, and was hoping for more. However, his plan had to be put into action immediately.
He groggily walked over to May and shook her. “Wake up, May. It’s time to go.”
She rolled over in her sleep and murmured something about getting more rest.
Tom frowned. “It’s time to go.”
May opened her eyes into slits. “Can’t we at least have breakfast first?”
That actually wasn’t a bad idea, reasoned Tom. They would more than likely want food in them before long.
“All right,” he said. “But it has to be quick.”
After a hurried breakfast of wild berries and half-cooked meat salvaged by Flame – which both Tom and May were not sure they wanted to know what it was – they found themselves in the air, flying towards Basilisk.
“Can I just sit this out?” May asked. “I don’t want any part of this.”
“Where do you expect me to put you?” Tom asked. They had come in view of the city, and now there were guards on duty everywhere.
May scowled. She had been tricked!
In front of her, Tom snickered.
“This was your plan all along, wasn’t it?” May asked, exasperated. “You deceived me so now I have to be a part of this.”
“Yes,” Tom said. But inwardly he was thinking, 'That wasn’t the only part of my plan. There is much, much more to come.'
May was flustered. She hadn’t thought that Tom would trick her. She thought that he would have at least been honest with her.
'I should have turned him in when I had the chance', she thought.
But it was too late now. And now she was going to have to be a part of this.
May seethed. This was not okay. She could not be friends with someone who did this. She could not go along with this plan. Not one word of it.
'I’ll turn him in next chance I get', she promised silently.
That chance would come soon.
Flame was upon the city now, high above it, circling it, just out of range of the catapults. They shot at him, but they fell at least four yards too short.
From here, the guards shooting the catapults looked like ants. May knew it was hopeless to jump; she would die for sure. She began to doubt she would ever get out of this.
“Hold on tight,” Tom said, warning her.
“Why?” May asked, then suddenly screamed with all her might as they plunged into a headfirst dive, aiming for the largest castle window in sight, a huge stained glass picture depicting a dragon being slain by a mighty sword. It was a rather gruesome scene, and May couldn’t help but wonder if Tom had chosen this particular window for symbolism.
Then they crashed through it, scattering sharp shards of glass everywhere. May shielded her face with her arms, and got several deep cuts. These would make her plight later even more painful...
Flame landed in the hall and folded his wings. Tom dismounted, and May saw her chance. She slid off, and began to run.
As she reached a door, two guards stopped her. They didn’t put their spears through her, thankfully, but would not let her pass.
“Please, you have to help me!” she exclaimed. “The Rider is planning to kill the queen!”
The guards scoffed at this. “And why should we believe you?” one asked. “You got off that dragon too.”
“Why are you not killing me?” May asked.
“You’re just a child,” the other guard said.
“So is he, and he’s planning to kill the queen!”
The soldiers did not believe her. They grabbed hold of her arms, and did not let her go.
Meanwhile, Tom had run in the opposite direction. But it was a dead end. Just another stained glass window. He turned around. He was trapped. Then he saw the soldiers holding May.
The dragon knew what to do. He inhaled a smoky breath, and then blew fire straight at the guards.
May’s first instinct was to cower at the approaching flame, but she knew that she would burn if she did. So she wrestled herself out of the terrified guards’ grasp and threw herself to the floor. The fire passed right over her, leaving her hot and sweaty, but otherwise well.
She glanced back at the guards. They weren’t there. But there were two piles of ashes. She gazed back at Tom, mortified. “Tom!”
He advanced slowly. “I have to do this, May.”
“No you don’t!” she protested, hoping that this wasn’t a futile attempt. “Tom, this will scar you for life. Don’t you want to live with a clear conscience?”
“I’ll never be able to live knowing I did nothing to avenge my father’s death,” Tom said.
May knew she could not convince Tom out of this using words. So instead, she wondered what meant the most to him that was here…
And then she got it.
If she could hurt Flame long enough to keep Tom distracted, she could go warn the queen. But nothing serious, or else she might be next on Tom’s Revenge List.
Then she drew two small daggers out of her boots. She never left home unprepared. Before she could realize exactly what she was doing, she was running towards Flame, daggers outstretched. Seeing the weapons she was carrying, Flame shot a burst of his name at her, but she slid to avoid it and skidded onto the floor, using the broken glass to urge along her momentum. She was under Flame now. Bracing herself, she raised the daggers above her head and let them pierce the dragon’s flesh. Blood fell down on her, dark blue dragons’ blood.
She slid out from underneath Flame, just in, time, too, as he collapsed onto the floor.
He had never known pain like this before. His scales had never been pierced before. His blood had never run freely before. He had been protected his whole life. Now he was finally exposed.
He moaned in agony.
Tom turned to May, aghast. “You- you hurt him!” he stammered.
May knew it was nothing serious. She had stabbed in such a way that it barely pierced the skin. But Tom didn’t know that. And the dragon was wailing so loudly that it seemed he was dying.
It was a cruel trick to play, but it had been necessary.
“I can’t let you kill the queen,” she murmured.
“You haven’t stopped me,” Tom snarled. The depression and hatred in his voice shocked her. Was he really that attached to a dragon?
“No, but I gave you time to think about it,” May said. “I gave you a chance to stop and slow down. To realize that this is not the way to avenge your father.”
“If this isn’t, then what is?”
May didn’t like his tone. His eyes seemed so menacing, so dangerous…
“Tom,” she tried to amend. “He’s fine. He’s not going to die.”
“How do you know that?” Tom asked. “How do you know that those blades weren’t infected?”
“I clean them after every time I use them.”
“How do you know?” he persisted. “How do you know someone else didn’t use them?”
“Tom, trust me. I–”
“Trust you?” Tom exploded, taking an enraged step forward. “How can I trust you? You just hurt a dragon! Like any Dragon Slayer! I can’t trust you, May. It’s like you don’t truly want to be a Rider.”
“But I do!” she protested, taking a wary step back. 'Soon the soldiers will be here', she thought. 'Soon everything will end'.
But it didn’t. And for whatever reason, the soldiers did not come.
Tom took another step closer. “May, I can’t let you betray me.”
“I didn’t betray you! I just also didn’t betray the queen!”
“You betrayed the queen the moment you ran from Flame instead of killing,” Tom whispered. “But now you betray me, too. The question is, May, whose side are you on?”
Without her noticing, he had slowly walked closer and closer to her. Now he was right in front of her. And she was trapped against the same window they had originally flown through. She couldn’t go anywhere.
Flame’s moans faded into the background. So did the sound of the panicked city below. All May could see were Tom’s eyes, staring intently into her own, waiting for an answer.
"Whose side are you on?"
May didn’t know. She didn’t want to know. She wished time could unravel, so they could go back and never have gone through any of this. “I – I...” she stammered.
“Well?” Tom asked impatiently.
His eyes turned a shade darker with anger. “Your hesitation states your answer.”
May tried to take a step back, but her foot found no ground, and she pulled it back in.
Before she could react, however, Tom took advantage of the open window and shoved her.
May fell, screaming as the air rushed past her faster than she could think. She hit the ground three stories down, and blacked out.
Tom watched her fall, feeling an incomprehensible mix of emotions. Then he whispered, “Good bye, May.”
As Tom watched May disappear into the streets below, he was feeling many inexplicable emotions.
Anger, for May slashing his dragon. Guilt, for acting rashly. Disappointed, for thinking he could trust her. Anger again, this time at himself for acting so undisciplined and reckless.
He should have never asked May to go flying on Flame. He should have never shown her his dragon. He should have remained secret, hidden, pretending to be a Slayer. Or better yet, he should have just never associated with anyone outside. He should have stayed still, alone in his cave forever… As unknown to the human race as dragons’ goodness.
It would have been better for everyone.
He suddenly heard voices.
“She fell from over here...”
“Same window the dragon went though.”
“What do you think we’ll find?”
“A Rider, maybe. But what business would one of them have with a girl?”
“She was probably in the Rider’s way. And he wanted to get rid of her.”
There was a snarl of disgust. “So uncouth.”
Tom frantically looked around. How many soldiers were looking for him? Had they found May already?
“Flame, we have to go,” he whispered, rushing over to his dragon. “We have to go now.”
The dragon moaned and rolled onto his side. Tom grimaced at the sight of blue liquid dripping down his scales. But there was no time to help him.
“Flame, the guards are coming,” he reiterated. “They’ll catch us if we don’t go right now.” he cast a frantic glance towards the open window. “Can you fly?”
Flame gazed at the sky and weakly flapped his wings, getting to his feet.
“You don’t have to carry me,” Tom told him. “Just go. I’ll meet you in the forest.”
Still, Flame hesitated.
The dragon lumbered a few heavy steps, and then took one last glance at his owner before taking off.
And just in time, too, for just then the soldiers came through the door. They stopped short at the sight of Tom, and the pile of ashes where the guards used to be.
“He’s just a boy!” one exclaimed.
“There’s no way he’s the Rider,” another one murmured.
“A boy wouldn’t kill a girl...”
Tom’s blood ran cold. Had he...killed May? Was she dead? Had he murdered her? 'Oh May', he thought despairingly, 'I’m so sorry'.
The fourth soldier recovered from his shock first. “It doesn’t matter if he’s an unlikely candidate,” he snarled. “Who else could it be? No one else is here. It doesn’t matter if he’s a child. All Riders who are brazen enough to enter the city must be killed.”
Tom blanched as the guard pulled a sharp sword out of his sheath. What would he do? He had no weapons, and he couldn’t fight them barehanded. And there was no way he could outrun four of them...was there?
It was his only chance.
He steeled himself, then bolted forward, dodging between the shocked, unprepared soldiers until he made it to the door. He threw it open and ran, not knowing or caring where he was going. There were several flights of stairs, all leading down, that he practically jumped the whole way. He passed many windows and doors, but couldn’t stop to check any of them… The guards were too tight on his tail.
Eventually, just when he was losing his breath so much that it was literally impossible for him to run any farther, he came upon a washing room. Amazingly, no one was in it, and there were many barrels of clothes and nooks and crannies to hide in. He took a quick glance around, heard the heavy footsteps behind him, and dove into a completely random barrel.
The soldiers pounded into the room, heaving for breath, and grew very angry and frustrated when they didn’t see him.
“I saw him go in, and there’s no other way out!” the second guard declared. “He has to be in here somewhere.”
“Search it,” the fourth guard, clearly the leader, demanded. “Don’t stop until you find him.”
They began to scour the room, poking deadly spears and swords into every barrel and large bucket they could find.
Tom screwed his eyes tightly shut as the sounds of searching grew even more closer. They were two barrels away from him...one barrel away from him…
There was a squeak in the barrel next to him.
The guards turned to it, eying it suspiciously. Then one of them thrust his sword into the wood. There was an even more frantic squeak, and then nothing.
The sword was drawn out.
“Blood,” the soldier whispered in a greatly anticipating voice. “There’s something alive in this barrel.”
Tom, looking back at this later, had reflected that he would have been insanely curious if his situation hadn’t been so perilous.
The guards turned the barrel upside down and dumped all its contents onto the floor, heedless to the fact that it was a load of freshly cleaned laundry.
One of them grunted in disgust. “It’s just a mouse. You killed a rodent, Percy.”
“Maybe he’s a shape-shifter,” the guard referred to as Percy defended himself.
At the moment, Tom wished he was a shape-shifter. Then he could escape these soldiers easily.
But he wasn’t, and he had to make due with what abilities he had.
Another of the guards snarled in frustration. “There’s nobody here,” he said irritably. “We should just go. We’re wasting our time.”
“I saw him come in here!” Percy insisted. “He has to be somewhere, Harold.”
Harold snorted. “No. I’m going. He’s not here. And now the laundresses are going to be mad at us.”
Grumbling in agreement, the soldiers all left.
All except Percy, who stayed behind a moment longer. “I know you’re in here, Rider,” he whispered. “I will be back. And I will find you.”
Then he left also, not wanting to be left behind by his comrades.
Tom exhaled in relief, very grateful that they had somehow forgotten to check the barrel he was in. He wondered how they had not realized that there was still an unchecked barrel.
But right now there was no time for wondering. He had to get out of the castle, and rendezvous with Flame.