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Fantasticoe 2000 Contents


The Riders

Jenna Cuddeback
1

     They sweep into our village at moonrise. The Riders. Behind their backs the Old-timers call them the Raiders, for they comb the streets for migrant laborers, they feed well from our houses and take the best of us children, yet we children play games where we pretend we too are Riders. Father says we live well under them. The Riders defend our borders for there are many races of people who look on our lands with envious eyes and would take it from us if they but dared the anger of the Riders. Our village prospers. They are our captors as well, for we are defenseless without them. In payment for their protection, they take children like me. Old-timers say they feed the children to their dragons.

     I huddle under the stuffy safety of my quilt.

     A heavy wind, a throbbing heartbeat; the Riders are landing. Their voices crackle the night, like chilly sea breezes rustling chintz curtains.

     "Rise. Come. We command it."

     I roll out of bed and draw on my slacks and tunic. I pull on my shoes and dash down the stairs. I race out the door, cut across the lane, and dart around the people.

     The leader is the same man; Old-timers say the Riders do not age. For generations the same five men have come to take what they desire and part on the same five wild beasts. The Riders are as old as the land itself, as old as fire, dragons, and war. They came to our people long ago from the cold mountains across the sea and they pledged to protect us...for a fee we still pay. They used to come every four years to collect their dues. Father says their mysteries aren't for us, but still we children wonder why six years have passed since last they came.

     The leader strides forward, a curl of dragon-breath sweeping his cape majestically. He looks neither left nor right. His face is stone, and his blood-colored eyes are like tallow from church candles.

     Abruptly he stops, and draws his arm into his cloak. In one movement, he removes his dragon medallion and holds it aloft. The dragon's eyes shine a frothy red. That means someone has been chosen. I look quickly, spy my family, and scurry to stand by them as an oldest son should.

     The leader signals his men. They move like fog to him. He points to me. "That one." He barks. Then he returns to the dragons. The men approach me like wild cats around a bird's nest.

     "This way, son," One says gruffly, taking hold of me. I jerk away from his grip and trail the leader. When I reach the front of the crowd, he turns to face me.

     "On your knees."

     I obey immediately.

     "You are the oldest in your family?" The leader asks.

     "Aye, sir." I answer. The leader stares into my eyes. I stare back, without blinking. My eyes grow hot and my hands sweat, but I do not look away. Finally he nods and I blink my dry eyes.

     "Rise." He looks across the crowd for a breathless eternity. "Very well, then." He smiles at me. "You will come with us."

     I hear Mother wail, and Father sob.

     Villagers crowd close to my parents to comfort them. My friends shy away, spooked like children from a ghost. The leader guides me through the crowd, gripping my arm with supernatural force. I bite my lip 'til I taste blood, not wanting him to think me weak. Someone begins chanting a song for the dead, but is quickly silenced. We stop before my family.

     "Get the boy's things." The leader orders Mother. Then, he turns to face Father. "Your son will be well-treated. Do not fear for him; you have done right by him thus far. He shows promise."

     "We won't see him again." Father's voice is dead.

     "Rest assured, he will be well-kept. Do not fear for him."

     "Pray tell, Sir Rider, why my son?"

     "It is my business and none of your own. Do not meddle in the affairs of the Riders. What is your name?"

     "I am Shane." Father says proudly, lifting his shoulders.

     "Very well. Son of Shane, say your fare-wells."

     Mother returns, the baby and my year-younger brother with her. She hands me a sack and kisses my cheek. I flick my fingers at the little one and take my year-younger brother's hand.

     "You are the oldest now. Take care of our family." I whisper. He shakes my hand firmly.

     The leader nods. "Follow me." He fades into the night.

     I salute my father. As I walk away I understand I will never see them again.

     I approach the dragon with the leader. He takes my bundle, tossing it to another Rider with one arm while seating me on the dragon with the other. I grip the saddle as he mounts behind me.

     "Hold on tight." The leader says. The dragon leaps up, and I cry out. We fly until it seems we will collide with the stars, and then we turn. The dragons know the way; we fly over the glistening Black Sea striped by the moon's silver path. We fly far from my village, farther than I could hope to travel alone. I begin to shake from cold, loneliness and fear. I look back into the leader's soft blood-tallow eyes.

     "Sleep, son. The flight is a long one. I will not let you fall." I close my eyes. I lean against the leader and I drift, half-asleep. I feel the wind rushing on to meet me for all of eternity and a year beyond, and then we land.

...

     I open my eyes and sit up.

     "The boy rises." A rusty voice echoes. Slowly I shove back my blankets and rise. I gaze around. I am in a cell of some sort, with a hard mat on the floor and rock walls. And a grid iron door.

     "It's not locked." The same voice says. I push on the door, and it creaks open. I step out into a narrow hallway.

     A Rider awaits me, tall, with graying hair and gray-green eyes. His hands have a slight tremble and his back is hunched. He beckons me to follow him and we pass from the dungeon into a courtyard with flowers that glitter in the sunlight. The Rider leads me through an arched doorway. Within, this palace has a vaulted ceiling, lush tapestries, and snow-white walls; not a place of defense, but one of pure decoration. A large staircase leads to a central dais, where suns, moons, and stars adorn the walls. Hanging plants waft in the morning wind, and a handful of girls crouch at a table over some mysterious game. My escort bows.

     "Kiel will see you in a moment." Then, he is gone. One girl approaches me.

     "Who are you?" She asks. She does not look much older than me.

     "I am Aaron, son of Shane." I respond, looking at her with frank curiosity. Her almond eyes and wheat-colored skin are like nothing in my village.

     "You are now Arik, son of Kiel."

     I slowly look up. A tall man built like a willow-tree stands on the dais in dark blue robes. His hair and beard are thinning gold with gray streaks. His mesmerizing eyes are maroon, flicked with amber like birds' eggs and his hands are flecked with age-spots, and seeing those eyes gives me pause, for those are the eyes of the leader. In daylight, without his black robes and cowls, he is far less frightening. "I am Kiel, the only father you have now. I have named you Arik, and so you will be called."

     "Sir, I prefer my name."

     "I've no doubt, Arik, and that is noble of you. It is wise for you to give loyalty to me, now. I will provide for you. I will send Shane any wages you earn, Arik. You are my apprentice. You will acknowledge me as your father and you will be called Arik." Kiel's voice becomes softer.

     "You have met Asyah; she too is one of my children. All my children are your sisters and brothers. You are older than most; I am glad I found you when I did. The stable boys and the shepherds that tend this land are not in our family. They will be leaving soon, to be shipped away."

     "Will I be shipped away someday?" I ask. My eyes roam freely about the dais, memorizing every detail from the velvet and gold rugs to the small jeweled fountain.

     "Never. I will keep you here. I have special plans for you."

     "Why do you need me?"

     "You will be taking care of my own dragon. This is a heavy responsibility for you, but I will assist you as long as you need me. In time, you will come to treat my dragon as yours. Perhaps, if you perform as I know you are capable, the dragon will be yours."

     "Tell me why I was kidnapped."

     "You were chosen, Arik." Kiel will say no more to me about it. He dismisses Asyah with a wave of a hand. "Now, son, we will go survey my land." He descends the staircase, places an arm around my shoulder, and guides me to the courtyard. "Then we will find you a room, Arik." When he smiles, I can't help but smile in return....

     Kiel leads me through all of the main-floor rooms in this castle.

     "Here, Arik, is where you will take your education with the other children. It is imperative to me that you spend a good deal of your time in your studies. You are older than the other children, so do not be upset if they understand things you do not know yet -- remember, they have been learning longer from us. Never forget that I chose you for a purpose elevated above theirs. What I see in you is more important than anything you could possibly learn here except this: There are few places in this world where knowledge is treasured, though we hope this will not always be true. Wisdom, Arik, is a gift we must seek. It is not given to us."

     "I don't..."

     "No, I didn't expect you to, yet. You will, in time, understand." A passionate fire lights Kiel's eyes, and he gazes around us with pride. This place is obviously of vast importance to him. It must be linked to his strange ideas of wisdom as a gift, though his words don't mean much to me as I, too, gaze about. We are in one of two enormous rooms with low tables and pillows on the floor, one where the walls are covered in parchment with strange pictures of circles with places marked on them, places that look like flattened villages and other castles. In the other, which I can see through an open doorway, the walls are fitted with shelves holding strange, fancy quills and scrolls and small bound books. Those books I recognize, for they were of the same type in which I once recorded sales and orders of candles for my father Shane. These two rooms border the north side of the courtyard; the south side is the throne room and, Kiel told me, this family's living quarters. The east side is one long, low building in which the walls are divided into solid shelves of books, not just smaller books like the primers schoolchildren sometimes have but thick, large books written in more than one language.

     "Kiel, where have you gathered so many books from?"

     "From all corners of the world we have been collecting them, not just me but all those who came before me, and I know that those who come after me will continue our tradition and preserve this knowledge."

     "The world has corners?"

     "No....the world is indeed round, the other is simply an expression."

     "Then our world is not so small as my village, and the mountains, and the sea between?"

     "The world is a bigger place than you have yet imagined, Arik, in even your most fanciful hours. But come. I wish to show you the west border, for you will spend much time passing through there."

     The west building bordering the courtyard is to me the most amazing. From there one could overlook the valley near the mountain. I can see houses, smoke puffing from the chimneys and flocks grazing on the grass.

     "This small town is part of our land. Those people do us service, because they tend our flocks and see to our domestic cares. My housekeepers and serving girls and boys come from that village, as do any seamstresses or cobblers we need. Those people are my responsibility as much as these here are in Rider Hall. The difference is that those people there choose to live in the dimness of the valley with the placid clouds and distant sun than live here on the peaks, where the air is brisk and cold and the sky is just above our outstretched fingers. They are not family, but they are my responsibility."

     I step away from the open windows and look around. This room has all the air of a dining room, but an immense one. I could see the door leading to the kitchen, and when I turned the other way I saw a spiral staircase that led down, into the floor, and beyond. Kiel followed my gaze.

     "I have one other place to show you this day, Arik, and it is the place you will spend much of your time."

     I follow him down the winding staircase into a stone tunnel. It winds about, but we cannot get lost -- the path is well lit by small lamps that twinkle, underground stars. We emerge on a ledge. Descending from the ledge is a series of broad stone steps, but before we begin descending I turn and look behind me. I can see the castle, and now I can make out the beautiful turrets and the fine, proud flags, which flutter like a girl's unbraided hair in the breeze. I catch my breath, then turn and follow Kiel down the steps. I see even now that he takes them slowly and cautiously, and at first I think he is reverent until I see how he keeps one hand on the rock face. Then I realize that he is afraid of falling.

     "Is something wrong, Kiel?" I ask, in spite of myself.

     "I dislike heights." Kiel replies softly. Then he ceases speaking and I allow my eyes to wander ahead of us down the steps, into the crescent-shaped valley that is our destination. This valley reminds me in part of a small cove, except a cove of land, because it is surrounded on three sides by sheer rock but one side -- the front -- is open to the sea. Over the water I see birds flying, and then something passes overhead and dips into the valley and I see it is one of the dragons.

     I hasten around Kiel and run down the stairs. Cut into the rocks under the very staircase we had descended is a large cavern, lined with sand.

     "Calm, Arik, the dragons won't go anywhere." Kiel places a hand on my shoulder. We gaze into the cavern for a moment or two, but it is empty.

     "Is this where they sleep?" I ask.

     "Yes. Like field-beasts they must have a place to rest, but they are never kept here by force. This structure was here before the current Rider Hall was constructed. These dragons have always lived here and will until the end of time. They fish in the seas and they come and go at their leisure, often spending their time sunning in this valley or down on the beaches. They never leave these mountain regions. We tend them, keep them clean and forge trust with them. Do not forget that they do not need us, Arik, and never have. They are not of intelligence like ours, but of the intelligence of beasts and could easily return to the wild. They do not need us, but we need them." Here, Kiel turns and cups his hands to his mouth. He tips back his head and let out a keening cry. Some creature just over the rocky drop-off from the valley to the sea answers him, and moments later a dragon fills the entrance. It hovers for a moment there, dripping crystal water from its immense, svelte, black body. Then it flies low over us and into the cavern. It settles down on the sand and regards Kiel and myself with unblinking green eyes.

     I stand petrified; if Kiel were not with me I would be running now. The dragon looks even larger than it did last night.

     "What do you call it?" I whisper.

     Kiel's voice is a low chuckle. "I have always called her my Queen."

     "It is female?" I look back at the dragon. She yawns, and then brings her head close to me, placing one green eye near my face, and I can see nearly my whole person in that all-devouring green. This close, I can even see the black center of her eye. I bite my lip and do not move. She lets out a sigh through her nostrils, and my clothes flap slightly in the gust. Then she pulls her face back and looks towards Kiel. She tilts her head empirically, and he smiles.

     "I will return, my Queen, and oil your skin shortly. Now I must take our new son home."

     As if the dragon can understand him, she settles back with her head bowed on her breast like a bird and half-closes those large eyes. Then Kiel places a strong hand on my shoulder and guides me back towards the stone steps up to the ledge.

     "Come, son. I will take you to your room, and you will have some time to meet your family and explore the upstairs of the Hall. I rarely go upstairs -- all the important rooms are on ground level -- but you may find things of interest for the time being. Enjoy today. This evening you will come to the formal dinner with our family. Tomorrow early you will begin your lessons with Rikki and Torrence, and in the afternoon I will bring you here again until my Queen becomes used to you."

     "Will I someday ride that dragon?" I ask.

     Kiel's eyes pass over my face for a moment, and for a moment I see his young self in his eyes, and can picture him asking that same question. "Perhaps, someday, you will be ready," is his noncommittal reply and we ascend to the ledge in silence.

2

     "Rikki, I wrote the words once. Why should I do it again?" I ask, dropping my quill into my inkwell and glaring at the older man, the same Rider who took me that first day to my audience with Kiel. He and I have been butting heads this past month, for every day I am brought to this room with the tables and the pillows and forced to write long and difficult words until my fingers are cramped around the quill. Then, just as my eyes begin to hurt, I am summoned from the tables by the Rider Torrence, and taken to the room with the maps, and called upon to name villages and places and landmasses. Torrence I do not mind so much, for he turns red when angry, and jumps up and down on one foot, and then storms out and calls for the Rider Julian to finish my lessons. Julian takes me from the map room to the room with books -- the library -- and endeavors to teach me what he calls history. He is wrong, for history is the chants the Old-timers sing to children. When Julian finally casts me from the library I am allowed no rest. Rider Sorn collects me and we return to the first room with the adding-books and I am set to learn my numbers, and more complex numbers than those I learned while working with my father Shane. Sorn I find hard to understand for his voice betrays that he does not speak his native tongue when he speaks to me. Of the four Riders who serve as my teachers I like his company most of all, for he respects me and does not command. I am most loath to be called away from him, but called away I often am for Rikki will come for a second try and I will be forced to write again.

     "Because you have written them all wrong, Arik," Rikki snaps at me, and I can see the small muscle in his left cheek set to twitching.

     "But I wrote them." I reply.

     Rikki sighs. "You win. Torrence!"

     "Torrence is with Asyah now. Julian has the young boys and Sorn the young girls. If you are tired of his company I will take Arik off your hands." Kiel steps into the room. Rikki and I sigh together in relief.

     "He is yours, Kiel. And he is in a difficult mood today."

     Kiel glances to me, one eyebrow raised. "Arik? Difficult? Never." Then he beckons me with one finger and I rise and follow him from the room.

     "You have been causing headaches for my men, Arik. But even so they like you; they have told me so. Sorn tells me you have a talent for numbers, and Rikki says you do well when you choose in writing words. But you balk at learning your history, Arik. I do not understand that. What would you be if you did not know all that came before? You would be empty."

     "But, Father Kiel, what good does it do me to know when the first Riders settled the mountains, or when the first village began, or when my people learned how to make plowed fields, or when we began to take in flocks? All these things happened and are done and are not happening now. Why should I know them?"

     I have said something wrong; Kiel's eyes are sad and he shakes his head.

     "Arik, you do not understand. If you do not know these things then your life is without reason for being and you are no more than those peasants down in that valley, choosing half-light over bright sunlight because the sunlight hurts your eyes." Here Kiel shakes his head. "We will have done with the lessons for a time; that will not hurt you. There is an equal responsibility upon you. Come, we must go to the Queen."

...

     We enter the cavern. The Queen is resting in a patch of sunlit sand, and as we block her sunlight she lazily opens one green eye and flicks a long, red tongue towards us like a snake. Then she closes her eye again.

     "Queen, pretty one, we've come to rub your skin soft again." Kiel says softly. He moves to the wall and lifts from a shelf a small pot. He removes the lid and the Queen sits up, her tongue flicking out over her lips and her nostrils flared wide. She rolls to her feet and stretches her wings and her slim neck. There she stands like an immense black-marble statue.

     Kiel dips an old rag into the pot and walks over to Queen. He begins to rub the rag over her front leg, slowly in a circular motion.

     "Arik, there is another rag on the shelf. Go get it, and come help me." His voice never changes from that peaceful coaxing.

     I fetch the rag and dip it in the pot. I sniff the air. It smells of sweet oil. "What are we doing?"

     "Salt water makes their skins tough. We have stable boys from that village who tend the other dragons -- while I watch, of course -- but I always tend to the Queen myself. The bond between lead rider and lead dragon is strong and must be kept so, for she is only ever truly loyal to one man. Now it is I. Someday..." His voice trails off and I join him in rubbing the oil into the dragon's skin. She is not scaly as I had thought though this has the look of scales -- instead her skin is supple, smooth and hairless except around the nose where she has whiskers and around the eye where she has eyelashes.

     As we rub the oil on the dragon's skin, Kiel begins to speak. "There was a time when there were no dragons and no men in the mountains, when the land was covered with ice. Then in time the ice was gone, and a man followed the receding ice into the mountains. He formed from the black rocks a creature he called dragon and fashioned from his own soul a soul for the dragon. Once it had a soul it had life. Once the dragon had life it became faithful to the man.

     "In time that man became ill, and he feared to leave the dragon alone, so he showed it how to create other dragons. The dragon created for itself four companions, but many years passed and the dragons grew lonely, so they came down from the mountain and brought up people with them to live here in peace.

     "That dragon, Arik, is this one we call Queen. She is immortal, and she has part of the soul of a man though she has not his intelligence. That is why we treat her so, and respect her. That is why we care for her so well. She is a creature of wonder and fierce beauty. You must tend her with caution, Arik. I have shown you how to oil her and how to sift the sand and clean out the cave, and I have shown you how to call her in. I have shown you all I will, and now you must learn for yourself the other things. She needs to have her claws cleaned and sharpened, and her teeth cleaned. Her wings must be tended and oiled. You must memorize the parts of the tack used in riding her, and you must grow tall enough to mount her unaided. Then, someday, son, you will be allowed to fly on her."

     I glance around me. Hanging on the wall is a line of leather ropes and thick blankets and smooth seats curved to fit over a broad dragon back. There are many smaller pieces, such as might fit around her eyes or ears or even her paws.

     "There are too many things to learn," I protest. Kiel looks at me, one eyebrow raised.

     "I am disappointed at your lack of faith, Arik," he replies. Then he pats the Queen on her side. "Continue working with her, and do not return until she has been completely oiled and her teeth cleaned."

     He sweeps from the cavern and takes to the steps, not even glancing back to me as I gaze up after him. He reaches the ledge and vanishes into the tunnel beyond.

     I step back into the cavern.

     The Queen turns her face towards me, and holds me whole in her enormous green eyes. I swallow hard, and I think for a moment that I see a malicious smile on her face. Then she makes a low noise in her throat and nudges me with her face quite forcefully. I return to my solitary task, moving delicately around her as though at any moment she might decide that perhaps I should not be in such close quarters with her.

     She gives me no trouble until I take up a brush and approach her to clean her teeth. She bares them at me, and backs away hissing. I stand still, whispering to her, and then she charges at me. I turn and run and reach the mouth of the cavern just as she takes to the air, and her tail knocks me end over end into the wall as she makes her escape. She makes a pass overhead and shrieks defiantly, then circles down and lands before me, green eyes glowing. I stand up and she crouches down lower. I drop the toothbrush and cover my face, but she instantly becomes calm and passes me to reenter the cavern. I take up the toothbrush and look closely at it. I notice only then how rough the bristles are, and I set it down and pick up a softer bristled brush. Then I approach her again. She crouches low but will not open her mouth, and as we never had animals at my house I do not know what to do.

     "Come on, Queenie. Open wide." I coax, rubbing my hand under her jaw. Her eyes slide closed until she watches me through narrow slits. Then, slowly, her mouth opens and I eagerly thrust the toothbrush at her face.

     Moments later I am brushing the sand out of my face and shaking my head to clear the ringing sound in my ears. The Queen is regarding me curiously, the paw she just used to knock me away still raised to defend herself. I sigh and sit down, leaning against the cavern wall.

     "What am I going to do, Queenie? Kiel wants me to do this. Come on, girl. Please?" I whine, and slowly she approaches. She lowers her head to my chest and opens her mouth wide, looking at me. I pick up the toothbrush, wipe off the sand, and move it towards her mouth. Then I pause. Beside me there is a pail of water and I cautiously dip the toothbrush in the water. Then I begin brushing along her teeth and gums slowly, not wanting to let my fingers get too far inside that gaping maw lest she decide to close it suddenly. She is patient with me. As I withdraw the toothbrush to rinse it in the pail she lets out a low purring noise and moves back. Then I watch in wonder as she extends a wing towards me. She is nearly at a height where I can reach her back...I stand up slowly and walk towards her, and she watches me with those wise eyes. I reach for her side, thinking to swing myself onto her back.

     She lunges forward and I swing myself up and over her tail to land in the sand. Immediately the Queen turns and is all solicitude, flicking her red forked tongue over my face in a gesture of apology or, perhaps, forgiveness. I rise and again wipe the sand from my face. I return to the pot and set to sullenly oiling her wings, but before too long I am in good spirits again and even whistling as I softly rub the oil into those long, rough wings. It is dinnertime when I finish, and as I put away the pot the Queen takes off out of the cave, again knocking me end over end with her tail. She does not even turn around but flies resolutely towards the sea, and I set off up the stairs, cursing the bruises I can begin to feel on my body.

...

     At dinner I sit alone and sulk, casting dark glances every so often towards Kiel and the other Riders, my teachers. When I entered, still sandy and with bruises, they laughed to behold me.

     "Good day, Arik. May I?" With those words, the girl named Asyah sits down across from me. She wrinkles her nose on looking at my face.

     "Did you get into fisticuffs with one of the village boys?" She asks, her voice dropping low.

     "No," I reply haughtily and turn my full attention to dinner. Asyah watches me for a few moments, then shrugs and sets to eating her own food.

     "If you are going to be our brother you should sit with us. Only the shepherds eat at the back of the dining hall." She tells me, and then turns around and waves one hand to someone beyond us. Moments later I am deluged by a flood of young children, most of them girls.

     "Father may not have told you, but our family is large, for the children number more than fifteen. You haven't been here too long, but in time you will come to see how good this place is. If I were not here I would be working in fields from dawn to dusk and then married before I was fourteen," Asyah tells me, smiling at me. I look at her for a long moment.

     "If I were not here I would be helping my father at the candlepress, or teaching my brothers how to weave wicks, or showing my little sisters how to stir the tallow."

     "Then you feel you were well enough off back with that family?" Asyah asks.

     "Yes." I take the last bite on my plate and a serving boy clears my place.

     "Arik, may I sit with you again tomorrow? I think you and I will come to be good friends." Asyah asks hesitantly. I pretend to consider, but there isn't anybody else here I know to sit with, so I shrug.

     "I s'pose." I reply, then turn and leave the dining hall.

...

     I rise to the sound of steady knocking at my bedroom door. I sit up for a moment, remembering where I am and why my body aches. I glance around, see the carved wood statues and the cool blues of the tapestries on my walls, the silver sheen of the floor and the painful to the eye brightness of the white walls, and I remember I am not at Shane's home. I am at Rider Hall now. I rise and move slowly to the door.

     Kiel stands there, dressed today in purple robes. He smiles at me.

     "Good morrow, Son. You look as though you had a trying day with the Queen yesterday. But you have learned how to clean her teeth now?"

     "You knew I'd get knocked around."

     "Yes."

     "You coulda told me how to clean her teeth!"

     "You had to learn in the only way you would remember, Arik. I taught you the same way the previous leader of the Riders taught me. Rise and dress, for you have this full day of training before we change plans again."

     I do not like the sound of that last part, but I close the door and change swiftly into a brown tunic and pants. I draw on my old, worn boots and return to the door. Kiel has already moved to the stairs, and is descending them slowly. I follow him at a small distance.

     Once on the main level we move swiftly through the courtyard to the dining hall and the spiral staircase. I take the stairs from the stone ledge quickly, and enter the cavern. The Queen is there, and she looks at me and again I could swear she smiled, a playful look to her green eyes.

     Then Kiel is behind me and he pulls me to the wall.

     "Today you are not here to tend the dragon, but to learn the tack. I do have boys who are specifically paid to clean the tack after we ride, but you must learn how to check it for strength and durability, how to clean it and how to oil it and how to work it until it is flexible."

     "Do you train all of your children like this?" I ask.

     He glances at me. "No. Only the ones who must learn." He points to the wall. "The ones with the green trim are yours. Keep them separate from all the other tack. This is your mouthpiece, it fits over her nose and cinches under her jaw, but she can still open her mouth. These are blinders; they fit one on the outside of each eye and are used when we are flying on a mission so that prey does not distract her. This is a rein, and it loops from the mouthpiece to the rider, who sits on the saddle. This is the saddle, and this is the saddle blanket. This is a claw restraint. We do not want her accidentally tearing things, so we place one of these on each paw before flight, and it covers her claws. This is the tail restraint, and it is important. These dragons lash their tails when they become agitated or impatient. When the Rider dismounts, he must take this loop extending from the saddle and lasso the dragon's tail in the unattached end. With her tail fastened to her body, though loosely, the dragon overcomes the urge to lash her tail."

     "That is so much to remember at once." I protest, though each item is obviously meant for its purpose alone and it would be hard to mix them up.

     Kiel's eyes twinkle. "Why, your sister Asyah has learned it quite well."

     I purse my lips. "Tell me once more what each one is."

3

     "Master Rikki, I have finished the writing and you will see that I have done precisely as you ordered. May I be dismissed?" I ask. Rikki purses his lips, looks over my thin scratched letters and sighs. My penmanship has improved these past three months, but I know it is not yet what Rikki desires.

     "Very well. Go to Master Julian; he wished me to send you to him." Rikki gestures towards the door.

     "I usually spend this time with Kiel at the cavern." I reply, and I feel a hard edge in my voice. Rikki glances at me, then looks back down at my papers.

     "That is not the plan for today." Kiel says from the doorway. "You must now devote yourself again to lessons. You must master both, and you cannot master your lessons if you are always at the caverns."

     "Why didn't you say anything earlier?"

     "I knew you would take it like this, Arik. Go to Julian."

     "Yes, Father Kiel." I snap, then move in white wrath from the instruction building. I walk blindly towards the library, but stop a moment in the heart of the courtyard. The sound of children playing reaches me, and it reminds me of being home with Shane and my family. Sharp pains; I double over for a moment, clutching my stomach.

     "Why would he do this?" I ask, though I direct my question to no one in particular. "Why would Kiel do this to me? What did I ever do?"

     "I have no choice, Arik, son. You will understand in time. You will forget about missing them. This is your home, your family." Kiel says behind me, and I turn. He stands there with Sorn and Rikki.

     "Let me be." I snarl, then run towards the library blinded by tears. I hear Sorn's parting comments.

     "It is as hard to gain his trust as it is to tame the Queen."

     Julian greets me at the library door, saying nothing of the tears on my face. He indicates that I should sit, and hands me a ledger. "I am disappointed in your recitation, Arik. I had hoped for more."

     "Look, I didn't ask to be brought here and I didn't ask you to teach me, so do you think I care what you want out of me?"

     "No need for harsh words, Arik. Look over this ledger and then you will give me a recitation later." Julian leaves the library and I am alone with the ledger.

     I throw it across the room, but moments later it is in my hands again and Asyah is standing before me, her hands over mine. She has been like a shadow behind me since I arrived, and I gather that she once had an older brother long ago, but as long as she has been here, she has been the oldest. She wants an older brother again. I want no part of being a brother to her or to any of the others here. I like them, and sometimes I can even bring myself to play with the little ones as I used to back at Shane's home. Then, the memories set in of the happy times and I want nothing to do with this family.

     "Please, brother, don't be upset by Julian. He is a good man." She urges. "Come, I can help you. I know the history inside and out by heart. I will quiz you. Let me help you, brother."

     I know she means well, but I am insulted. "You are not my sister, and I do not need your help. I don't need any of you and I didn't ask to come here. If I wanted to learn this I could, but I don't care about any of it. I want to go home where I belong. I hate this place."

     Asyah's eyes widen. "You can't go back. You belong with us now."

     "I don't belong here. Who needs to belong in a place where little kids and field-girls tell them what to do?"

     Now her eyes narrow and I know I have insulted her. "I might have been born a field-girl but I have the sense to be thankful when I am given a blessing. You stupid...boy... you don't know enough to thank those who are giving you the world. You want to go back? I don't see anyone stopping you. Go back, and none of us will miss you. But if you go back, what will you go back to? You don't belong there any more." She throws a sheaf of papers into my face and runs from the library.

     "Hey, come back here!" I shout, but she does not answer. I look at the papers now scattered on the floor. Then I stand up and storm out of the library, crossing to the dining hall. I look out the grand windows, down on the village below. I can see clouds drifting above the village in the valley. I think I can see a woman drawing water from a well, and some boys lazing on a hillside while their sheep feed. Shadows cross the fields below me, and I can hear the winds pushing steadily through the valley. Half-sunlight, I think. I remember what Kiel said about the dimness of the valley compared to the light of this Hall. I turn and look around again, and think of all the beautiful things I have seen here.

     The dilemma turns over and over in my mind. I miss my father and mother back in my village, but because there were seven children and a candle-making business to run, I never had any time with either of them. My brothers and I were not close, and my sisters were peskier than anything else. There was always a squawling baby in diapers and always at least one child sick with something. We worked from dawn till dusk in the candle-press and our only day of rest was the Festival of the Sun, the day where the village was in sunlight for the longest time of the year. That day, that one day out of the year, was like my life here at Rider Hall.

     If I left Rider Hall, I would have to work like that again, sunrise to sunset just to keep alive. I don't want to do that. I don't want to go back to slaving over hot fires or sitting cramped over small books writing down transactions. None of the people of my village have been educated, and only a handful can read or write. Asyah is right; what will I go back to? The siblings I had there aren't really mine anymore; the day Kiel took me from Shane's home our worlds cleaved. They will no longer call me brother, just as I think less often of them with the passing days. In time, we will be only distant memories for one another. They would not willingly become my shadows again. Here at the Hall I have at least one friend -- though after the way I spoke to her today I should be surprised if she wants to be friends again -- and I am given much of Kiel's time. He and I are together more than he is with the other children who call him father. And though, late at night, I some times hear them crying in their sleep or whimpering for their mothers, I know the other children would not go home.

     Is it wrong for him to bring them here? Here, none of these children will die of the childhood illnesses. Here they will grow up to read and write like the lords and ladies of distant villages. But they still cry at night and all have been here longer than I have. They still miss what they have left behind, and probably some part of them always will. Nevertheless, there is no place for them in the world below these mountains, in the villages and towns in which they were born. They could find places only in their final destination, the place where eventually all but I will be offered the choice to go to -- the palaces of kings. For every other child here but me, the future is to exist as teachers, as sowers of knowledge among other peoples.

     Why me? I wonder again. From all I understand of Kiel, he is grooming me to be the next Leader of the Riders. What would be the wrong in that? At home, I could never have aspired to ride dragon back or live in a castle on a mountainside. At home I could only be a candlemaker's son, and then a candlemaker. At Shane's home, I could only expect a long, tiring life of endless repetition. Why should I want to leave this place, and how had Kiel wronged me by bringing me here? Only the painfully silent wound of leaving my family cuts through my days; all else they do here helps me.

     Somehow I feel myself drawn closer to the window. I lean farther out, and looking down I see a thunderstorm has sprung up and the valley is being bathed in rain that will turn roads to mud and send children into their houses to sulk and wait for sunshine. How does it feel, I wonder, to be those children ever looking up at this castle but never brought here? How does it feel to be hired to serve Kiel and not to know this place as home?

     I turn around. Asyah is standing at the entrance, poised on one foot, uncertainly turned as though to flee again. I hold out a hand to her.

     "I'm sorry. I lied. I can't hate it here." I tell her. She smiles and steps further into the room. "Please, I will be your brother and you will be my sister. Will you forgive me?"

     Then she is at my side, we are looking out the window together at the thunderstorm below us, and the sun is shining on our fingers resting on the windowsill.

     "Would you like me to help you a little while on your lessons in history, brother Arik?" She asks me shyly.

     "Would you let me help you in something in return?" I ask. "I am good in my numbers; do you need help?" She nods and we turn back to face again the dining hall. Kiel has entered and he stands where moments ago Asyah stood. Asyah runs to him, hugs him. He smiles at her, pats her hair. I step closer and bow once before him.

     "I won't disappoint you again, Father. I just learned the biggest lesson I needed to learn and all the rest is easy now." He holds out a hand, I accept it, and then he pulls me in and hugs me.

     "I knew, in time, you would understand." He replies softly. Then he steps back and places an arm around Asyah, and I follow them from the dining hall.

4

     Within a week, I have learned, many things can happen that are almost unforeseeable. On the first day of this week my father Kiel, who has been sick some time with a disease that leaves him drifting in a half-life of dreams, returned enough to the present to give me the dragon medallion. He instructed Asyah and me to begin taking our sisters and brothers to the palaces where they will serve as teachers.

     Only once had I ever tried to learn from Kiel the secret of the medallion. He merely laughed and would not tell me. Once I had it in my possession, I endeavored to study it yet found myself foiled in every attempt. Whatever secret Kiel knew, he is too weak to talk of now and I curse the times when he was secretive. Rider Sorn told me, after Kiel gave me the medallion that it is only a symbol of power until time comes to choose a new Rider. The eyes of the medallion glow whenever a child is taken. Only when the time comes to select a new Rider does the Queen speak to the leader, urging the leader with the medallion as to whom she has chosen. I admitted as much to him that his words made little sense, and he smiled and said that someday I would understand.

     It seems those words were the chorus of my years at Rider Hall.

     By the third day of the week, all but a handful of my siblings were delivered to the destinations Kiel and the other Riders chose for them. Then, Asyah and I were again tending our father in his twilight hours. We listened to his broken ramblings though he did not recall our names. Daily he slipped further into silence. The other Riders spent much time in some strange fasting ceremony, and were more often at the cavern with their mounts than I have seen them in the ten years I have lived at Rider Hall.

     Small patterns of the old ways crumbled with Kiel. For five years my father has been fading slowly away and thus, for five years no new children have come to the Hall. This time of delivery was my first time to ride with Asyah. Rider Sorn told me with worry in his voice that by the time a Rider apprentice becomes a Rider he should have spent many hours in the saddle. I am not yet a Rider, for Kiel is too ill to hold the investing ceremony to initiate me. Asyah too is not a Rider, and thus we can only become Riders by default -- I, when Kiel dies, and she, when one of the other Riders retire. I would rather Kiel live forever and give up any hope of riding on the Queen, but it cannot be so. Kiel will never Ride again. The Old-timers of my village knew not what they said; the Riders are mortal. My father will die. Soon I will take his mantle and become the Leader of the Riders. Asyah will ride with me, and I am glad she chose to stay for I rely more upon my sister's level head and support than upon any of the other of my father's children. Seldom has a woman been a Rider, but Kiel trained Asyah just as he trained me. She could, I am certain, even ride the Queen if necessity called. Riders Sorn and Rikki asked me who else will stay; that, I did not know till the fourth day of this week when Asyah and I prepared to take the remaining of our siblings to their new homes. One of my sisters, Kareen, and one of my brothers, Caleb, approached me and asked if I would train them to be Riders. I accepted, and they remained.

     On the fifth day of this week Sorn passed away, and with great mourning Riders Rikki, Julian, and Torrence took me to the burial ground of the Riders and we buried him. I miss my old master, for he of all of them beside Kiel was a friend to me. Thus, Asyah became a Rider before me.

     On the seventh day of this week, Julian summoned Asyah and me to Kiel's side. We sat from sunrise till sunset, holding his hands and talking to him as one would to a young and injured child, and he wept like a child most of that time. At sunset, however, he fell into what we knew would be his final sleep. We summoned all the Riders, and Kareen and Caleb all dressed in Rider black for the final honoring of our leader and father. We held vigil until the moons rose and then like a soft sigh Kiel slipped from sleep to death. I covered his face with a blanket, and they left me to be alone in the room with him.

     Thus here I sit, holding my father's hand and thinking back over the life he lived, the life he revealed to me in words and in deeds. I think of this just and honest man who was driven by what he saw as burning necessity to rescue those trapped by poverty and ignorance. He especially longed to save those of my village and the villages in my part of the world, for he told me often that we were among the most troubled of people.

     I must soon decide whether to collect children in the way my father taught me, the way he expected me to, the way he chose. Is that wrong? My father made certain we had all we could desire. He loved us and treated us as honored children, but he didn't see that we could not forget our families in the wink of a dragon's eye. We were happy here, but he never realized we sometimes woke with tears on our faces, longing for a past we no longer belonged to, longing for something lost to us forever.

     I am Arik, and I am my father's son. I respect and love Kiel for who he was and was not. I knew he did what he felt he had to do. He couldn't save every child from ignorance, so he saved the ones he could. Our melded family was special and loving, and we saw one another as brothers and sisters, but can I do as Kiel did? Will the Riders continue through me, or die with him?

     I knew when I looked into Kiel's eyes long ago that I would someday be a Rider, that I would be offered a wonderful future here if I could bring my stubborn, childish self to accept it. I look towards the door, and Asyah, Kareen, and Caleb stand there in solemn regard. I place my father's hand back on his sheet, and bend low to kiss his forehead. All he ever was is within me, and whenever I need his guidance I can turn to the strength he gave me. I knew that someday I would be a Rider; Someday is now.

     "Come, sisters. Come, brother. Leave our father here for the Riders to care; we must go to the dragons." I say, and they follow me across the grand courtyard to the dining hall, from there to the staircase and then down the stone stairs to the cavern. The Queen has awakened, and she stretches herself and looks to me. I pull the medallion away from my tunic and she moves to stand before me. She lowers her face to mine and for a moment I can see, in her green eyes, a shadow of loss. Then it is gone and she is mine until I, too, must surrender from life.

     "What next, brother?" Asyah asks me.

     "Prepare your mounts." I tell them. I note that Kareen and Caleb have also learned how to saddle the dragons, though I know not when they learned or who taught them.

     "We ride tonight?" Caleb asks.

     I do not answer him, merely point to the capes hanging on the stone wall. We each take one cape, don it, and then we look at one another. The vision conjures before me a nightmarish scene of my own kidnaping, and then it is gone. I know that similar phantoms visited, then fled, my siblings. I give the keening cry. The dragons awaken and follow us into the cove-like valley. I reach one hand to the back of the saddle, one hand to the front, and swing myself up onto the magnificent Queen, remembering as I do so the night Kiel swung me up as though it was no effort for him. That visit, I realize, was special in that I was the only child taken. In the few flights the Riders made before Kiel's final illness, children were always taken more than one at a time. I sit a moment, my head bowed against my Queen's graceful dark neck. Kiel brought us here to give us a better life. I will do as Kiel did, for there is happiness here. I will make the transition easy as possible for those children who come, and I will only bring those who come willingly, but I will continue my father's tradition.

     Thus decided, I find I am light again and can smile. Kiel will live on, and my hands will not undo his work. I am doubly sworn to protect the villages of my part of the world against those who might, without the ever-constant reminder of the Riders' presence, attempt to subjugate my peaceful people, and also to promote the knowledge that Kiel tried so diligently to impart. My change of mood has lifted forever the traces of the fear I had when I was taken from my village. I am once again hopeful -- not hopeful in the way a young boy is hopeful, but hopeful in the way that only one who has found a purpose in life can give hope.

     The only family I have left in this world, my two sisters and my brother are together with me, each on a dragon. We are robed as Riders; we are mounted as Riders. Yes, I decide. We Ride tonight. The old is changed to new and I can honor my father in no better way than by doing as he wished. The future is bright even now in the hour of darkness; we will not abandon our father's light.

     "We will Ride tonight." I announce. I do not have to look at them to know they agree with me. I feel the dragon moving, power beneath me. Four dragons are mounted; five fly into the sky. Torrence, Rikki, and Julian have retired, and will spend their days as teachers to the children I bring home. I am looking for a fifth Rider to fill the empty saddle.

     Will you ride with me?

Finis

Acknowledgments:
I would like to thank my Creative Writing class (Jodi Bauer, Stevan Cruz, A.J. Fesler, Melissa Hall, Hobz, Aliya Khan, Anna Klug, Tim Mauldin, Jen Mortensen, Matthew Mueller, Sabrina Pierson, Jamin Robinson, Stephen Sandford, Lisa Thorpe, Terry Heller), my friends in the Writing Center, and my family for their input and patience.




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