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Called to Serve
(no title)
They came for the trainees in the hour before dawn. Tayen had guessed right after all, she gloated in a whisper to Bren as they tumbled out of bed and into clothes under the stern eye of a uniformed Rider. Tayen had been a herd-girl on the Tyrsien Plain before she came as a trainee to Daerin Forn, and she said mares almost always foaled in the small hours before dawn. Perhaps Dragons were the same.

Bren was a soldier’s son; the most he knew of horses was which end bit and which end kicked, but he knew a little more of Dragons. They were the biggest and strongest and smartest and most beautiful things in the world; and somehow the gods had more than answered his fervent prayers to someday meet one. In the scant six months since his twelfth birthday he had obtained Lord Gwydionth’s nomination, passed the examinations, survived his interviews, and impressed a Dragon and her Rider enough that they had decided that Bren might just someday make a Rider. A Rider of a Silverfire Dragon, flying high and free above the plains and mountains and even the fish-stink of a port-city like Kirth; a Rider of Vard, swearing his sword and his blood and his life to defend against the eventual return of the Black Dragon.

That, at least, was what the Riders had said, in the two weeks of classes since they’d first gathered seventeen twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys and girls in the big cavern at the back of the cave-riddled canyon they called Daerin Forn. The Place of Dragons.

It was a Dragon’s place, surely, and not a Rider’s. The Rider who led them out of the dormitory seemed almost dwarfed by the soaring ceiling of the huge tunnel-hall, wide enough for two Dragons to walk abreast. And yet he was a tall man; Bren, the tallest of the trainees, didn’t even come to his shoulder. His name, he told the trainees, was Jocelin Risingwar, and he was Caraanth Risingwar’s Wingbrother. They were stationed in the Second Wing—or would be come midsummer, when their eight years of training were over, and the Dragons recognized Caraanth as a full adult. He already wore the badge of the Second Wing on the shoulder of his flight-jacket, with a bar over it that meant he was not yet on full duty; and he already wore a long sword with a crystal-studded pommel at his hip.

Arin, thin and blond and skittery, dared to ask the question all of them had been wondering. “When’ll we get put to our Wings?”

Risingwar laughed. “Not even met your Dragons yet, and you’re asking that? More likely to get thrown out on your ear this morning—or eaten, if one of the kits takes a liking to you.”

“They wouldn’t eat us,” Lloyd objected. “I thought they’re smarter than people.”

“Smarter than you, but that might not be saying much,” the Rider said. Arin sniggered; Lloyd thumped him. The Rider reached out a strong hand and separated them without even looking, Arin to his right and Lloyd to his left, where Bren had been. Bren dodged hastily out of the way, and Lloyd pulled a face at him and rolled his eyes in the Rider’s direction.

“The kits are smart,” the Rider continued, casually cuffing Lloyd on the side of the head. “But that doesn’t mean they know right from wrong, or that the pale pink thing that squeaks and smells delicious isn’t good to eat. It means they’ll learn quick enough that you are good to eat but shouldn’t be eaten—in which case it’s a little too late for you. So step lively now, and keep track of your fingers.”

Another boy boiled up with questions then, and Lloyd fell back, rubbing his ear. “Like eyes in the back of his head,” he muttered to Bren. “Think we’ll be like that, when we’re Riders?”

“My da’s like that,” Bren said, shrugging. “Always knows when I’m up to something fun. Says you have to get that way when you’re never sure if the man behind you’s got a dagger or a pint in his hand—”

“But Riders aren’t soldiers,” Tayen cut in, low-voiced. “I’d bet it’s magic.”

“Aren’t mages, neither,” Arin disagreed, darting around Risingwar to insert himself in this new conversation. “Riders don’t got magic, no more’n normal people do. It’s the Dragons got it.”

“Not real magic,” said Lloyd, who should know; his brother was studying at the Academy of Mages in Kenyeth City. “Mind-magic, y’know? They look inside your head, and they know everything you’re thinking—”

“Rubbish,” Risingwar said loudly. Arin jumped. The Rider turned away from the boy he’d been talking to, looking down at them with a frown. “Even a human’s got enough natural walls in his mind that a Dragon can’t rummage around freely. The kits may try to play with the surface levels, but they can’t get any deeper than that. And an older Dragon won’t go deeper, without your permission; once you’re bonded to your Wingsib, and he’s set up his own protections for you, no other Dragon can.”

That quelled them, for a moment; and a moment was all it took for them to round another bend and spill out into the great hatching cavern.

Bren caught his breath, and wasn’t the only one. The cave, tunneled out under the feet of the mountains that surged above them, was big even by Dragons’ standards; the ceiling soared up into shadows higher than he could tell, and the walls were lost behind the great glittering heads and shoulders and haunches and tight-furled wings of more than a score of Silverfire Dragons.

He stopped, frozen at the sight. Two weeks at Daerin Forn, and the week of traveling with Rethel Iceshadow and her Rider Falar before that, should have accustomed him to the sight of Dragons; he should be comfortable with them by now. But lessons with the crotchety old Dragons and Riders who’d retired from active duty to teach, or watching the Wings maneuver high overhead, or even helping an older trainee bathe his half-grown Dragon in the hot springs, couldn’t compare to the sight of a cavern full of adults, all turning curiously to stare at him.

A few of the Dragons lay crouched on their stomachs, forelegs tucked comfortably beneath their broad chests, wings furled tight to their sides. More sat alert and upright on their haunches, long tails curled around their taloned paws, long necks craning to see. Their Riders seemed doll-like beside them, leaning on scaly elbows or perched more comfortably at the base of spiked necks. They all wore uniforms like Jocelin Risingwar’s, with colored badges on the shoulders and breasts of their flight jackets, and swords slung at hip or back. None of the Riders looked any younger than Bren’s father, and none of them were smiling.

At his elbow, Arin edged closer. “What’re they hangin’ about for?”

“Us,” Bren said. “They’re the kits’ parents, prolly.” He wondered if he should drop into the awkward bow he’d never quite got the hang of. Salutes were easier to master, and felt more natural, but the salute of a Guard Captain to the Adept-Lord of Enthenard probably wouldn’t work here…

He felt suddenly, fiercely, homesick, and blinked hard against the hot burning in his eyes. He was twelve years old, and barracks-bred; he was old enough and smart enough to know what he was doing here, and it was what he wanted. A Dragon, and freedom, and a lifetime of honor and service… Maybe it was something he’d barely even dared dream of a month ago, but now he was here, and he wasn’t going to back down.

He headed forward, a little jerkily, and the others followed. Risingwar stepped to the side; out of the corner of his eye Bren saw him joining a young Dragon, smaller than all the others, who dipped her head to greet him with a rough nudge from her enormous muzzle. Then the Risingwars was gone, hidden from view by the massive shoulder of another Dragon, and there were only unfamiliar faces of Riders and Dragons who stared down thoughtfully at the children, and then slowly drew aside. A path opened, leading towards the center of the cavern, and the light grew brighter; he caught glimpses of lamps on poles, scattered among the Dragons and reflected from their glittering scales.

The heat grew too, as they moved away from the cool passageway. Within a few steps he was reaching for the collar of his jacket, a plain lightweight version of the Riders’ flight jackets. He was used to the sweltering humidity of Enthenardian summers, but the sudden change from the cavern coolness to this dry baking was almost unbearable; he was already sweating. Someone swore behind him, and was quickly shushed.

They reached the end of the Dragon-fringed path. A little way beyond, the floor of the cavern fell abruptly away into a wide, shallow pit half-filled by the brooding bulk of the biggest Dragon Bren had seen yet. She dipped her head gravely at them, and uncurled herself, stretching out long neck and spiked tail, arching her spined back and rattling her folded wings.

Beneath her, the eggs gleamed.

/Come down,/ the Dragon said, and her voice rattled in the depths of Bren’s skull. She dipped her head between her forelegs, breathed out a little flicker of white-hot flame that washed over the long oval eggs, and then stepped back, carefully, to curl up against the rim of the pit and watch the children with unblinking golden eyes. /The eggs await you./

For a long moment, no one moved. The boy behind Bren was swearing again, in an awed voice and with a
running string of language that would have burned even Bren’s soldier-bred ears, at any other time. Now it faded into the background, like the rasp of scales against stone, the harsh hum of breathing, the sigh of cloth as someone shifted. Bren’s own heart pounded loudest in his ears.

Then Tayen was scrambling down the lip of the pit, landing with a cloud of dark dust on the floor some three feet below. She stared down incredulously at the dust, ankle-deep. “It’s ash!”

The big Dragon’s fangs flashed. /Dragon eggs harden in fire,/ the voice rumbled in Bren’s mind. /Young Risingwar’s Rider was sent to bring you when the fires burnt out. The kits are ready now; will you not come to them?/

Tayen’s face gleamed pale as she tipped her head back to stare up at the others. Bren met her dark eyes, swallowed, and jumped.

Ash rose up about him in a choking haze as he hit the floor of the pit, and cinders crunched beneath his boots. The nearest egg trembled, rocked. The big Dragon snaked her head forward, golden eyes glinting with…excitement? Curiosity? Bloodlust? Bren couldn’t tell. She looked savage in all her aspects. Would his Dragon look like that—ready to rend limb from limb even when he was just amused at a joke?

Another egg rocked, and another. Something loud and angry chirped, and a man laughed somewhere in the throng behind the pit. A voice rose in words Bren couldn’t quite make out, and several more men laughed.

They were telling jokes. At the kits’ expense, and at the trainees’. Bren looked around, seeing Arin’s face pale in the lamplight, Lloyd’s wide eyes, Tayen’s scowl. Unconsciously the trainees had drawn closer together, and Tayen’s shoulder bumped against Bren’s.

The nearest egg rocked still harder as the kit inside scrabbled and bucked. A crack opened, and a chip flew, and with a surge of muscles the kit fought its way out. It landed limp and bedraggled in a mess of bloody eggshell and a puff of ash, and there it huddled for a moment, as if too exhausted to do anything else.

Things were suddenly very /cold/ and /big/ and /bright/. Bren lifted a hand to shield his eyes; Arin whimpered, and Tayen pressed closer. “She’s thinking at us,” she whispered, half-awed, half-frightened. “That’s her!”

“How d’you know it’s a girl?” Bren demanded, wrapping his arms around himself and clenching his teeth against the chattering. The Dragon kit lifted her head—absurdly oversized on a long, floppy neck—and made a pathetic, whining chirp, broken by a sneeze. It had rows of tiny serrated teeth already, though its head was smooth and its body seemed more damp hide than glittering scale. It unfolded crumpled, wet wings, and shook them out, and mewed piteously. Bren found that he was ravenously hungry.

“Isn’t anyone going to do anything?” Tayen demanded in a fierce whisper. “Look at them—just staring! You’d think they’d never seen a Dragon kit before.”

“We haven’t,” Lloyd said indignantly, but Tayen shook her head.

“Didn’t mean you, I meant them—the Dragons, the Riders. Shouldn’t they be doing something? She’s alone and she’s scared and—

“And they’re waiting for us,” Bren said, catching Tayen’s shoulder and hauling her out of the cluster. Lloyd and Arin followed, and then the rest of the trainees, haltingly. They scuffed their way through ankle-deep ash to the kit, and stopped nearly within reach; Tayen pulled self-consciously free as the kit’s huge, filmy eyes turned to them. “This’s Tayen,” Bren said, awkwardly. “I’m Bren. And—”

“Idiot,” Tayen snapped, tearing off her jacket and bending to pick the kit up. She staggered as she straightened—the kit was nearly half her size, and alarmed—but it didn’t claw her, just huddled against her chest with its slimy wings spread out over her shoulders. Tayen tried clumsily to drape the jacket over it, and Lloyd sprang forward to help.

The Dragon cooed, /warm/ and /tight/ and /beating heart so close, so warm/ and tried to tuck its head under Tayen’s arm. She nearly dropped it, and ended up fumbling to her knees, with the kit cuddling anxiously to her chest and wanting /more warm, cold now…/

Bren hadn’t even noticed the other eggs cracking, but he was shivering again, goosebumps rising even under his long sleeves and heavy jacket. He had been sweating a moment ago—but of course the cave, huge and hot as it was, would be icy to these Dragon kits, who’d spent all they knew of life curled up in their warm, brooding, fire-bathed little dark. And of course, new-hatched, they didn’t know how not to broadcast whatever they felt and thought; they probably didn’t even know they were doing it.

They were alone in a vast cold world, and their parents were a long ways off, waiting, watching with an utterly foreign dispassion. The trainees were all the hatchlings had.

Two more eggs had split open, and the kits huddled miserably in the thick bedding of ash. Arin made an impulsive movement towards one of them; more skittish than the first, it snapped at his fingers, and he drew hastily away. One of the other boys sneered at him and dropped to his knee beside the kit, presenting his open palm. The kit sniffed tentatively and then flickered out a long flat tongue, just barely forked at the end, to taste his wrist. The other kit took a hopping step towards them and managed to foul its trailing wings spectacularly on its clawed hind feet. It cheeped piteously, /hurt/ and /scared/, and snaked its neck around to gnaw on one of the offending feet.

“Stop that,” a girl said brusquely, kneeling beside it and reaching out carefully to disengage the limp wet wings. One of them had a nasty tear in the thin membrane stretching between the bony fingers, and dark blood oozed sluggishly out of the rip. The kit whined and cuddled against her, craning its neck round to inspect the gash with wide eyes. /Hurt!/ it announced to the world at large, and the girl murmured sympathetically as she staunched the blood with a rather grimy handkerchief.

Bren glanced around. Seventeen trainees, and three were already busy comforting the bewildered kits. That left fourteen children, and—he counted rapidly—eleven eggs. They’d been warned that there were more children than kits, always; the Dragons were the ones who chose their future partners, and the system was designed with children and kits trained together in frequently-shuffled pairs for two years, so that the kits would have enough experience to make an intelligent and informed choice when they were old enough for the Bonding. Those children who were not chosen by a Dragon when their two years were up would be sent back to their homes with money in their pockets and the beginnings of a first-class education under their belts, able to read and cipher and fight, eminently suited for whatever trade they might choose. It was a better start than most children got, even for a boy who’d been personally nominated by Lord Gwydionth to take the Rider examinations; if he returned to Kirth, to the barracks and to Lord Gwydionth’s service, he’d probably be ear-marked for a commission straight off.

But he’d still have been rejected. No matter how honorable a discharge it might be, no matter how quick his rise through the ranks of Lord Gwydionth’s Royal Guard—and with two years as a Rider trainee and his father’s influence behind him, he’d no doubt that he could make it as high as he chose to go—he’d still know, always and forever, that he hadn’t been good enough. That somehow he’d been found wanting, and Lloyd or Arin or Tayen or any of the thirteen others had been chosen over him. That the dream of freedom and flight and service that meant something was forever dashed, and that nothing else he did in his life would ever measure up.

The threat was still two years away, but a Rider spent his life preparing for an apocalyptic war that might never come. Surely it wasn’t too early to begin to fight.

He marked an egg that had rolled a little away from the others with the violence of the kit struggling within; it was cracking now, and he could hear the kit’s determined scrabbling even over the rising cacophony of the other hatching kits. Arin and Lloyd were already occupied with helping a bewildered kit to clean the last fragments of eggshell off its damp hide; Tayen was still cuddling her kit and murmuring softly to it. No one noticed Bren as he slogged away from the little knot of remaining trainees and knelt beside the egg.

It was warm, and the shell was very brittle; it rang when he rapped his knuckles against the smooth curve of the side. The egg itself was nearly the length of Bren’s leg and a gleaming grey in color, shot with darker scorch marks. Long cracks splintered further as he watched, revealing the torn, pinkish membrane and the quick movements of the kit beneath. He caught a glimpse of a four-taloned paw, a furiously blinking eye, a glint of teeth. And an imperious demand: /Out!/

Bren blinked. Then he reached out, sank his fingers into a crack, and ripped away a curving chunk of shell, as big as his hand, and pink with bloody membrane on the underside. The kit’s nose erupted through the hole, sneezing enormously as it inhaled the ash-laden air. It scrabbled again, and Bren tore away a larger piece of shell; the rest of the smooth wet head and long neck thrust itself through, up to one dark shoulder. There the kit paused, panting, nearly in Bren’s lap.

He should have kept tearing at the shell, but he couldn’t help himself. His hand dropped from the jagged edge of the egg to the damp grey skin stretched taut over the kit’s narrow muzzle. The nose was softer than his own callused palms. This close he could see the little nubs where someday horns would erupt at the back of the kit’s skull and the hinge of its jaw, the hints of gleam where hide would harden into scales. The ridges over the eyes had not yet developed their protective plate of horn, nor the neck its spiny crest: the kit looked very small, and curiously vulnerable.

Until it sneezed again, flashing a mouthful of serrated teeth, and curled its head back to rip at the eggshell still constraining its shoulders. Bren resumed his help hastily, tearing away fragments the size of his head now. One limp wing burst free, and one clawed forefoot planted itself firmly on Bren’s thigh; the other front shoulder followed, and with a final kick the belly and hindquarters were free. The long tail came last, whipping free and sending the remnant of the eggshell sliding in a cloud of ash.

Bren coughed. The kit started, wings half-mantling; its claws dug into his leg, and he bit back a swear. Not a good way to start. “Sorry,” he said weakly, “but that hurts.”

The kit tilted its head. /Hurt?/

“Yes,” Bren said, more firmly. “Hurts.” He prodded at the taloned paw clenched in his thigh. The kit bent its head dubiously to inspect it, as if it were not quite sure that the paw belonged to it. The long forked tongue flickered out to taste the paw, and Bren’s trousers, and the dark rim of blood beginning to seep into the plain grey weave. Bren thought of Risingwar’s warning for a horrified moment—Eaten, if one of the kits takes a liking to you—but the kit seemed more curious than ravenous. After a moment it seemed to make a concerted effort, and its talons relaxed and drew free. It sat up on its haunches, draping its wings back over its shoulders like a lady’s cloak, and informed him of /cold/ and /hunger/.

The first, at least, he could do something about. Peeling out of his jacket was the work of a moment; persuading the Dragon kit to huddle against his chest and accept the jacket wrapped around it took a little more time. The kit was very warm through the thin cloth of his shirt, and he could feel its heart pumping, ridiculously slow and strong for something so small. After a moment of wriggling it seemed to arrange itself to its satisfaction, and it thrust its head between their bodies, against his own heart.

/Comfort,/ he felt. /Safe./ And then, more strongly, /Hunger!/

“Working on that,” Bren told it. “Just don’t try nibbling on me, y’hear?”

The kit’s head bobbed against his chest, and its claws fisted in his shirt, almost as if it were expecting him to move. Could it read his mind, even this young?

Not all the way, he decided, climbing carefully to his feet. If it could give him no more than physical impressions—however vivid they might be—it probably couldn’t manage to make much sense of the roiling mass of doubts and hopes and fears in his mind. Simple ideas, though (Gotta get up and feed him), were probably fairly clear. The kit could pick basic emotions and intentions off the first levels of his mind without even stirring the depths below. In fact, to a Dragon, he was probably inadvertently spilling over as many thoughts and emotions as the kits did.

It should have been a disturbing thought. A Rider was never alone in his head, after all; he had no secrets, no privacy, no thoughts that his Dragon could not share—and, unless he and his Dragon were careful, that any other Dragon could share. Perhaps that was the real reason why they always brought extra trainees. Who knew what you could face until you faced it? How many of those fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds who returned alone from Daerin Forn did so not because they’d been rejected, but because they’d rejected the life themselves?

And could Bren live it?

He looked down at the damp grey body nestled under his slightly paler jacket, and the kit lifted its head as if in reply. Stretched to its limit, the long neck barely brought the wedge-shaped head level with Bren’s eyes. The kit cocked its head, fixing Bren first with one golden eye, then the other. The film had begun to disappear, and it faded still further as a translucent third eyelid flickered across the glistening surface.

This time the kit’s thought wasn’t so much a feeling as a wordless question: /?/ One abstract thought seemed to be the most it could manage; Bren’s stomach rolled in a growl as the kit insisted /Hunger./

“Yeah, soon,” Bren promised, shifting the kit a little higher up on his shoulder, and turning back to the others.

All the eggs lay in dull, bloody shards half-buried in ash now; two nervous girls were scooping up the last kit, who struggled furiously as they tried to wrap it in a jacket like the others. Tayen was already skirting the rim of the pit, searching for a way out, and sending occasional wrathful glances at the big female Dragon, still watching silently from her corner.

That was definitely amusement in the Dragon’s eyes, Bren decided. And perhaps…pride?

/Well done./ The voice reverberated in his skull, even deeper than the big female’s, with gravelly depths that were unmistakably masculine. The kit in Bren’s arms chirped and stuck its head out over his shoulder, swiveling its long neck as it tried to locate a voice with no point of origin. But where Bren heard the voice as if from all sides at once, rattling around in a mind just a little too small for a voice so large, the kit seemed to locate it almost as easily as Bren might have tracked down another boy shouting. It clambered a little further up his shoulder, digging its claws into his shirt and skin. He bit his lip and reached up, balancing the kit’s hind limbs on one forearm while he tried to disentangle the kit’s claws from his shirt with the other hand. He caught a brief flash of what might almost have guilt, as if the kit knew it had done what it should not, but that was quickly buried by a stronger feeling of interest.

Bren turned, slowly; the kit’s head swiveled with him on its long neck, until it was looking nearly straight back over its shoulder. It rattled its wings beneath the jacket, and Bren caught another impression, much more sober this time: /Big./

The Dragon who stood at the edge of the pit now was smaller than the female who’d first greeted them, but he had the brilliant crest of an adult male, tough silver membrane stretched in a dazzling display between the tall spines that lifted from the back of his head and ran down his scaled neck. He had raised his crest to its full flashing extent, but as Bren watched he bent his head, and the crest flattened briefly to his neck before rising again.

/In the name of the Dragons of Vard, and of Vard our Father and Aerisena our Mother, I greet you,/ he said, and the kit in Bren’s arms squirmed with delight. /I am Shanin Firebright; I am the Wingleader of the First Wing, and in the place of Vard our Father I stand to greet you, our little ones./

He bent his head again, to brush the bottom of his jaw lightly over the hair of the man who had just stepped up to the edge of the pit. The man was tall, but dwarfed by his Dragon. His hair was nearly pure white, and even at this distance Bren could see the lines weathered into his craggy face. But he stood straight and steady, and his voice was still vibrant and strong.

“I am Ansen Firebright; I am the Rider of Shanin Firebright. In the name of Vard I greet you, Vard’s children, and you who will yet become Vard’s sons and daughters.” The hint of a laugh entered his formal tone. “Many years ago I stood where you stand now, with another kit in my arms; it took months more for Shanin to decide that he could tolerate my company. That choice is not yet upon you, but it will come. It would be wise for you to remember it, you who would be Riders, as you care for and raise and teach these young children of Vard. And you, Vard’s children: remember that these humans who hold you are given to you to watch over as they watch over you. They are yours to protect and to teach, as they will protect and teach you. When you are grown, you will chose each other, and together you will serve and guard and defend not only each other but this great land where long ago Vard brought us.”

/It is yours to defend,/ the Dragon Shanin said, and his crest bristled like an angry cat’s fur. /There are no others who can stand against the evil that will rise again, and it is for this cause that you were bred and born and breathe. Remember this…/

The force of his mind hit Bren like a wave; he gasped and clung to the kit in his arms, but he barely felt the tiny claws digging deep into his chest again, scoring down as the kit trembled. He could no longer see the Firebrights, nor the other trainees and kits, nor even the kit curled against his chest, and when he fought to close his eyes against the vision it beat against the insides of his eyelids, terrible and hot and real…

…Dragons, fighting.

Darkness in the sky, snaring the beating wings, dulling the sharpened claws, dragging at the weary limbs. Dragons snarl and scream, and silver fire lashes from their jaws, burning the darkness back; but in its center are other Dragons, and they reply with fire and fang. Their claws rake and their teeth snap, and two Dragons wrestle breast to breast, wings fouled and ripped, jaws dripping blood, shoulders running red. One disembowels the other with a great kick from its hind feet, but the ripping talons on the other’s wings have so shredded the first’s that when the second Dragon falls the first cannot keep aloft, and they plummet together in a hideous embrace…

Light blooms.

A golden Dragon perches at the peak of a windswept mountain, his wings folded tight, his head bowed. He watches them fall, and his eyes are empty. He understands grief, but he cannot feel.

And those they fight cannot and will not understand at all…

Darkness gathers.

A black Dragon’s talons drip red, and he hovers on the wind, his chest heaving as he pants. He watches them fall, and he laughs and stoops again to the battle…

He has felt grief, and now he will share it.

Grey mist broods.

And a Dragon and his Rider fight, and the Dragon and his Rider die. And the black Dragon's wings falter as the long gashes in his chest spill more blood with every beat, and the golden Dragon's crest rises as he spreads his wings, and the mist gathers, and light and darkness flash and explode and only the grey world is left...

And a gate, towering high above the world, swings shut.

…and the kit shrieked, and buried its head beneath Bren’s arm. He was suddenly on his knees in the thick grey ash, chest heaving, lungs burning. Sweat ran blinding into his eyes, and he coughed, choking on ash. Somewhere to his right, another trainee was sobbing quietly. Across the pit, kits cheeped in distress.

Shanin Firebright’s voice rumbled in his head like waves crashing on the shore. /When we came to this world, we vowed ourselves to the service of the light. We are creatures of pride and strength and brilliance, and when we choose to take or destroy there are few who can gainsay us. That is how we destroyed the world we left behind, and why when Vard our Father and Aerisena our Mother came to this world of Firthor, they raised up their children to defend their new home and their new people. Kneth, the Black Dragon, rebelled, but he was not alone. When he sought power over Dragons and men, a full third of Vard’s children followed him./

“We fought,” Ansen Firebright said quietly. “We still fight. Magic and sacrifice locked Kneth and his followers within Grimsgate, and magic and the strength of Vard’s will hold him there. But the time will come when that magic will wane, when Vard will wake, and when Grimsgate will fail. It is for that time that you will grow and train and serve, so that when Kneth returns—in twenty years, or fifty, or two hundred—you and those who follow you will stand as this world’s defenders. It is your duty to serve, and your birthright, but it is given to you to choose. Kneth compels; Vard will never offer anything less than the full freedom of choice.”

He paused, watching them, while his hand lifted almost unconsciously to smooth across the massive cheek of his Dragon. Bren finally dared to move, scrubbing the ashy sweat from his eyes with the back of his wrist before he scrambled to his feet with the kit still cradled against his chest. At least the kit seemed to have overcome its initial fright. It pulled its head free of Bren’s armpit, and glanced briefly up at Bren before it turned gravely to watch the Firebrights. Its golden eyes were very wide, and very clear, and somehow Bren couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that it had understood even more than he had…

/This, then, is your choice, and it will not be offered again,/ Shanin Firebright said. /Will you take up the cause? Will you serve with full purpose of heart, in full knowledge that you serve never for your own pleasure or profit or gain, but only to defend against the evil which threatens us all? Kneth may not come in your lifetime; he has not come in ours. But the great evil’s absence does not mean that the petty evil sleeps, nor that you will not be called to shed blood, and shed your blood, in Vard’s service. The choice lies before you. Sons and daughters of Vard, you must choose now!/

The kit stirred against Bren’s chest, emotion following emotion so quickly through its head that the fleeting images barely stirred the edges of Bren’s mind. It wriggled, fighting free of the enveloping jacket, and began to haul itself up to his shoulder—

“That’s not fair!” a young voice burst out, and both Bren and the kit wheeled in shock. Tayen was standing there, her kit cradled in her arms, her face set in bewildered anger. “They’re barely hatched,” she argued, tipping her head back to glare at the man and the Dragon standing above the pit. “They’re on their own in a new world and they can barely think of anything but hunger and cold, and you’re asking them to give up their lives when they don’t even understand what you’re talking about? That’s not right, that’s not fair, that’s not even a choice!”

Shanin dipped his great head; the third membrane blinked quickly over his near eye and was gone. /Little one,/ he said, and his voice was gentle, /we do not ask them alone. The choice is yours as well./

“That’s not an answer!” Tayen said furiously. “We understand, but how can they? You’ve probably scared them witless anyway, with that, that…” She trailed off, and looked round in mute appeal at the other trainees, fierce and defiant and—

/Scared,/ the kit in Bren’s arms thought. It scrabbled up all the way onto his shoulder, with its long tail whipping out for balance, and reared up to bury its front claws in his hair. /Not scared,/ it thought, and this time the image behind Bren’s eyes flickered and stayed, as a someday-Dragon as great as Shanin reared up in defensive fury to protect a skinny boy with black hair and ash-colored eyes…

That’s me, he thought, astonished, and that’s him…

the kit thought, smugly.

Twenty minutes old, and it could distinguish me and you and project far into the future, envisioning itself grown, seeing itself protecting, understanding protecting. He’d always known that Dragons were far more intelligent than humans, but maybe it was time to start realizing. Maybe it was time not to force them to choose, nor to prohibit them from choosing, but to let them choose…

/Fight,/ said the kit, and its folded wings snapped out, beating furiously a few times before they crooked into a defensive mantling, like a hawk crouching over its prey. The trailing fringe of one wing half-obscured Bren’s vision; he reached up warily to push it aside, and the kit dipped its head and nibbled lovingly at his finger with needle-sharp teeth.

All around the pit, the other kits had begun to do the same. Some perched on the bewildered trainees’ shoulders, or heads; others found their vantage-point on a seated trainee’s knee, or had fought their way free of restraining jackets and arms to stand protectively in front of the children. Chests thrust out, wings spread, necks proudly arched, they took their stance, and they made their choice.

/Fight,/ they said, and fourteen minds echoed within Bren’s. /Serve./ And behind his eyes Dragons wheeled and soared and raked the sky with blinding wings, beating back the darkness, shredding clouds away from the sun…

Young as they were, small as they were, they could choose. They’d lived barely more than a minute for each of his twelve years; they’d heard only a brief recital of their role, seen a brief vision of history, heard a quick summary of why they would fight and what it might cost. They hadn’t had the weeks and months and sometimes even years of preparation the trainees had; they hadn’t heard the stories over and over, hadn’t read the histories, hadn’t taken last week’s brief field-trip to the Waste to view the destruction the War of the Dragons had left. Still, knowing what they knew, seeing what they’d seen, they’d made their choice. He had no idea what would have happened if they’d chosen differently, but perhaps it didn’t matter; for hundreds of years Dragon kits must have chosen this path…

And it was Bren’s turn, now.

He could see other Dragons over the edge of the pit, other men and women; they’d drawn a little closer, waiting for the answers. Shanin and Ansen stood quietly, gravely. The female Dragon who’d watched over the edges still lay curled against the edge of the pit, watching the kits and children now with unblinking golden eyes. For this moment, the entire world seemed to hold its breath.

Which was just stupid. He’d already made his choice, hadn’t he? He was here, wasn’t he? He’d known even before he’d taken the exams that he’d be dedicating his life to a service far more intense than the service Lord Gwydionth demanded from his Royal Guard, and it hadn’t stopped him then. They weren’t going to scare him now.

/Fight,/ the kit said approvingly, and licked his ear.
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