DAREK AWOKE AT THE FIRST light of dawn. He sat up quickly and pushed his bed curtains aside. Through his window he could see the soft violet rays of the morning sun just touching the tips of the yellow mountains of Orr. His brother, Clep, was up there somewhere, probably breaking camp, getting ready for the day’s hunt. It wasn’t fair, Darek thought. Why did he have to wait three more years before his first dragonquest? So
what if Clep was twelve and he was only nine. He was nearly as tall and strong as Clep. Three more years! It seemed like forever.
“Darek? Darek, are you up?” It was his mother’s voice from the kitchen below.
“I’m coming,” Darek called back. He got dressed and clattered down the stairs.
His mother was bent over the hearth, spooning porridge into his bowl. Darek slid into his place at the table.
“Do you think maybe the men will be home today?” he asked.
His mother’s brow wrinkled with worry as she served him his breakfast.
“Who knows how long they will be gone?” she said. “Ten days? Twenty? A dragonquest ends when it ends.”
“I can’t wait until it’s my turn,” Darek said eagerly. “I will be the one to make the kill. I will win the claws to wear around my neck. I will be the Marksman, like Father.”
Darek’s mother shook her head and turned back to the fire.
“Why are you silent, Mother?” Darek asked. “Why don’t you get excited about the dragonquest like everyone else?”
“My brother was killed on his first dragon-quest,” said Darek’s mother quietly.
“Many have been killed on the dragonquests,” said Darek, “but they are heroes. You should be proud.”
Darek’s mother sighed. “In the old days,” she said, “when the dragons were plentiful, when they threatened the villages and raided the yukeI
that was the time for heroes. Now the dragons are few, and they keep to the mountains. Why should we send young boys into their midst?”
“They are not boys,” said Darek. “They are men, and they must face a dragon to prove it.”
“There are other ways to prove you are a man,” said Darek’s mother.
“What are they, then?” asked Darek.
“Doing your work with pride, caring for others, and thinking your own thoughts are good ways,” said Darek’s mother.
“Bah,” said Darek. “Anyone can do those things, but only a man can slay a dragon.”
There was a sudden, loud clanging, and Darek’s mother’s head jerked up.
“The men return,” she said.
Darek and his mother ran to the village square.
The hunting party was threading its way down through the mountain pass, pulling a great wagon. Upon it lay a hulking mound.
“A Blue!” shouted Darek. “It’s a Great Blue!” Great Blues were the largest and fiercest of all dragons. Darek could hardly contain his excitement as he raced to meet the party. But as he drew closer, his steps faltered. He could see that his father was leading a yuke, and slung over the yuke’s saddle was a small body, about the size of Clep’s. Darek heard his mother cry out behind him.
Other children jostled Darek as they rushed by. “What’s the matter? Hurry up! Get out of the way!” Darek swallowed hard and tried to ignore the great weight that had settled in his chest. If it was Clep, he must be brave. He must not shed a tear. He must be honored to have a hero for a brother.