Authors: Jane Yolen
Jakkin suddenly felt as crumpled as the paper. "I didn't realize. What would I have done?" He began half a dozen other sentences and finished none of them, mumbling half to himself and half to Akki.
"Never mind," said Akki. "I've gotten the papers all filled out. All you have to do is sign them with your mark."
"That's all. I'll take the papers in and file them with the right people," Akki said. "And then, on the right day, you and the dragon will be there. At the pit.
you think your dragon is ready."
"Ready?" Jakkin gestured at the dragon. "Just look." The yearling dragon was lying by the side of the stream. It stretched out parallel to the bright ribbon of water, its red contrasting with the blue-white. In the moonlight, both the water and the dragon scales shone
equally. Slowly its tail rose and fell, weaving little fantasies in the air.
Akki nodded slowly. "Thou art a beauty, in truth. In truth," she said, her voice free of its usual mocking tone.
At her voice, the dragon stirred and looked around at them.
"So," said Akki, turning back quickly to Jakkin. "How do you propose to get the dragon there? Walk along the main road with that great thing galumphing at your side? Or sneak it under the cover of darkness and get frozen during Dark-After?"
Jakkin looked down at his feet. It had been a question that had troubled him frequently and he had put off thinking about it.
"Perhaps ... I thought..." he began, then finished with a rush. "That the dragon could carry me."
"Look," said Akki, and she pulled him along by the hand to where the dragon lay in the sand. Then, as if giving a fairly stupid child a lesson in spelling, she pointed: "The dragon's shoulders, here and here, are too thin and smooth scaled for sitting. The hackles would be damaged by pressure there. And if
you tried to hold on there or there"âshe touched the dragon along its long, sinuous backâ"the slightest turn of its body would send those sharp-edged scales slicing into you at your most tender points."
Under the withering lecture, Jakkin held his shoulders rigid and fingered his bond bag with one hand. Akki was right. And the worst of it was, he had already figured that out for himself.
"It's been tried before, dragon riding," said Akki. "And the men who tried it had scars they would not even show the bag girls." Her voice got hard. "The ones that lived."
"I was thinking more of a harness," he said quietly. "With a swing of some kind."
Akki was silent for a moment. "Hmmm. You know. It might just work. If ... if you had more training time. And a dragon whose claws you didn't mind ruining while you practiced. But this, my boy, this dragon is a
"You don't need to remind me," said Jakkin, straightening up and walking away. Akki made him feel two ways. He was happy to see
her but he was angry at her long lecture, at her calling him a boy. He had already proven his manhoodâfighting drakks, stealing and training a dragon. What more did
want, anyway? His anger communicated itself to the dragon, who blew a sudden hot breath at Akki's foot.
Akki caught up to Jakkin and touched his shoulder. "Then what are you going to do?"
Jakkin flinched from her touch and sat down suddenly in the sand, his head and arms on his knees. "I ... don't ... know." He said it with a finality that precluded pity.
Akki sat down opposite him, her toes touching his. She pushed his head up with the palm of one hand. "I do!" she said, and waited.
He looked at her but could not speak.
"I have ... friends with a dragon truck," she almost whispered. "A big hauler."
"You said," Jakkin began, each word an accusation, "you said you would tell no one."
"I haven't. Yet."
I fill my bag myself.
She heard her own voice echoed in his and nodded. "But what else can you do? Your
fight is scheduled in three days." She held out the papers again.
"What?" He grabbed the papers and smoothed them out. Slowly he read the print by the weak light of Akka.
AGREEMENT made this 127th day of Stud, 2507, between the management of the Krakkow Minor Pit and Jakkin Stewart of Sarkkhan's Nursery. WITNESSETH
In consideration of the mutual covenants herein contained, the parties agree as follows...
"Where does it say that?" Jakkin asked, the words on the page a jumble. Some of the words he had never even
before, much less spelled out.
"There," said Akki, her finger pointing halfway down the first page.
Jakkin looked. In between the words "Jakkin's Red" and "First Fight" was a date. "It
in three days," Jakkin said.
"It was the only opening," Akki explained. "The season is already booked up with dragons from all the major and minor
nurseries. But in this one fight, a dragon dropped out, a promising Second Fighter. The dragon escaped somehow. Went feral. Its owners are wild themselves. They've even accused someone of pirating, of setting the dragon free. Anyway, I was able to get the place for you. Don't ask how. It wasn't easy. But it's your only chance at Krakkow this season."
Jakkin looked up. He was about to thank her when he stopped, remembering her words of nearly a year ago. "You once said to me that letting another person fill your bag meant that there would be a hidden price to pay."
Akki smiled crookedly at him. "What a memory you have," she said. He felt, oddly, like a small child being praised. "It all depends whether you think that what you are getting is worth the price, I guess."
Jakkin looked over at his dragon. "A First Fight. In three days," he said. "It's worth it." He hesitated. "It's worth anything."
"Are you ready?"
"The question is really whether the dragon is ready," Jakkin answered, wondering why she shook her head at his reply.
At his voice, the dragon looked up and shot a single flame at them, neatly parting the two.
"Ready," said Akki, and she began to laugh.
KKI'S PLANNING WAS
perfect. Jakkin's Bond-Off coincided with the day of the fight. He was dressed and off to the oasis as the cold of Dark-After was still receding, a paper sack containing a slab of meat between two slices of bread inside his shirt. It was left over from the evening's meal. He had been too excited to eat it, almost too excited to sleep.
At the oasis he polished the red's scales from tip of tail to nostril slits. The first polishing was in the stream, where he made a mud bath of the sand, stirring up the streambed until the water ran brown. The second was on shore, where he dried the dragon with an extra shirt Akki had provided.
Well before the full sunrise, Jakkin was walking out across the desert, the dragon trotting docilely at his heels, heading first north and then west, well away from the nursery, to a ford in the Narrakka River. He had promised to meet Akki and her friend there.
The truck was waiting. He recognized it from Akki's description, but caution, an old habit, claimed him. He warned the dragon, "Drop. Stay." The dragon squatted down on its haunches, waiting.
Jakkin went ahead on his own, conscious of the great silent mound of dragon behind him. He was ready, at an instant's notice, to send the dragon a silent command that would have it winging into the air, past the oasis, to the far mountains, where it could live free. He walked up to the truck and knocked tentatively on the door.
A man looked out of the cab. His eyes were a calculating blue, his mustache full, and his skin neatly tailored over his bones. "Jakkin, is it?" he asked.
Jakkin nodded and, hearing steps behind him, turned quickly.
"Hello," Akki said. "This is Ardru." She pointed to the man in the truck, who opened the cab door and stepped down.
He was a bit taller than Jakkin, with an
old scar that ran from the corner of his right eye to his sideburns. It gave him a piratical look. Ardru put out his hand. "I'm always happy to help Akki's friends," he said. His voice was low and he spoke the language so precisely that Jakkin could hear each syllable. Ardru smiled. "She appears to have a lot of friends."
Jakkin hesitated a moment. Ardru's nameâif it was his whole nameâlacked the double
that would identify him as a bonder, a son of bonders, a grandson of bonders. Only those whose ancestors had been the original mastersâand there were very few leftâhad names free of the jailer's brand,
Jakkin had never met one before. He touched his bond bag with two fingers while he decided, then suddenly he put out his hand. Ardru's grasp was cool and firm. Jakkin thought at his dragon,
Fly to me, now, thou First Fighter.
The air hummed with the sound of dragon wings and the sand stirred around the wheels of the truck as the red flew in and hovered. Then it turned tail down and, using the tail as a rudder, settled slowly to earth, backwinging carefully.
"Thou art an impressive worm," said Ardru aloud, fearlessly walking up to the dragon. He held out his hand for the dragon to sniff. Satisfied, the dragon houghed once and sat down.
Jakkin, too, was satisfied. The dragon filled his head with cool green-and-beige landscapes.
Ardru unzipped the back doors of the truck and gestured to Jakkin. Jakkin climbed into the cavernous canvas-and-frame body of the truck, checking the insides for anything sharp that might injure the dragon. When he found nothing, he coaxed the red in after him. The red responded at once, climbing into the truck with an eagerness that matched Jakkin's own. The whole truck shook as the dragon settled down with its tail tucked around its feet and its nose on Jakkin's sandaled feet.
"Come ride up front with us," said Akki, peering into the darkness.
"No," Jakkin replied. "The worm needs me here."
"It will do just fine without you," said Akki.
"The boy knows best, Akki," said Ardru, putting his hand on her arm.
The easy familiarity with Akki and the
smooth way Ardru called him a boy angered Jakkin. He started forward, but the doors were zipped shut on his movement. And then everything was black. He could see nothing through the heavy dark canvas, but he could hear the dragon's tail pound a sudden warning tattoo as it read the anger in his mind.
The ride to the pit was a series of thudding bumps and shimmies. Jakkin leaned against the dragon's side and tried not to absorb the shocks through his bottom, but by the trip's end he ached in every bone.
The sudden shuddering stop of the truck and the zigzag of light through the opening door seemed to happen simultaneously.
"Come on out. Hurry." It was Akki.
He got shakily to his feet and went to the door, his eyes drawn into thin slits to keep out the sun. Together Akki and Jakkin backed the dragon out of the truck.
"Where's your friend?" he asked as the red lumbered out and stretched.
"Standing watch," she answered.
Jakkin looked around. They were still in the desert, the tan truck disguised by
the dunes. But ahead, about a kilometer away, he could see a large building squatting like a monstrous round beast on the sand.
"That's the pit," said Akki, nodding at the horizon with her head. "We didn't want to dump you out there. We can't have anyone know we helped you. I'd get into troubleâreal troubleâat the nursery. And Ardruâwell, he has to remain anonymous in all this. Do you understand?"
"Then that's not his real name?" asked Jakkin.
"Real enough," Akki answered. "And
all you need to know. In fact, you should probably forget all about him. If I had been able to drive, I never would have asked him to help."
"I'll never tell," Jakkin said, looking at her. "That was a promise you gave me once. Remember? Only, I keep my promises."
"And if I had kept it completely, would you be here now?" she asked. "Or if I had not been the watcher, but Likkarn? Or Slakk? Or even Errikkin?"
Jakkin said nothing.
"Oh, go on, Jakkin. I
kept my promise to youâin substance, if not in words. Go on. Besides, both of you could probably use the walk."
Feeling the tightness in his muscles echoing the tightness in his throat, Jakkin nodded. He did not trust himself to speak.
A piercing whistle recalled Akki to the truck's cab. Ardru came around from the other side.
"All is clear," he said to Jakkin as he climbed into the cab. "And, boy..."
Jakkin looked up into the man's coolly assessing eyes. "Yes," he said, his voice hesitating between resentment and thanks.
"That is a mighty fighting dragon you have there. You must treat your dragon as you would a womanâwith respect as well as love."
Before Jakkin could think of an answer, the truck had started with a muffled roar and pulled away, leaving great ruts in the sand.
Jakkin put his feet in the ruts and walked slowly along. When he looked behind, the dragon was following him docilely.
HE KRAKKOW MINOR PIT
was a huge, round two-story building constructed between two small cities but within the jurisdiction of only oneâKrakkow. Jakkin could see a great center bubble illuminated from within, probably containing the pit itself. He had been told that there were tiers of stands where bettors, sat, and a series of stalls on the lower floors.
He checked the contract once again, and the letter that Akki had given him. It told him nothing beyond the number of his fightâtenth drawâand the number of the stall to which "Jakkin's Red" was assigned. First Fighters usually had the master's name and color description as identification. Naming would be done later.
"Stall twenty-four," he whispered over his shoulder to the dragon. In the early-morning light, the dragon's red scales were lustrous, even with their patina of road dust.
As they came nearer, the pit, there was an explosion of sounds and smells and a flash of colors as dragons were unloaded from trucks, pushed and chivvied through two wooden gates. Jakkin heard the high-pitched scream of an angry dragon and watched as a gigantic
brown with a splash of yellow across its muzzle went into a hindfoot rise. It towered over the truck it had come in. A scattering of men with smaller dragons warned Jakkin to hold his red close.