Gero ate his simple breakfast of porridge with a hint of honey with the hurried gusto of a seventeen-year-old boy eager to start his day.
“Slow down,” said Dienne, his mother, “You’ll make yourself sick.”
“Can’t afford to be late,” he mumbled around bites of porridge.
“When have you ever been late to a flying lesson?” She sighed.
“And I don’t intend today to be the first day,” he stopped eating and looked up at her, “What’s the matter, mother? You look worried?”
“Well of course I’m worried,” she said, frowning.
“People fly dragons all the time. It’s perfectly safe,” he shrugged, “Well, reasonably safe. As long as you’re not being fired upon.”
Dienne sighed again, “It’s not the dragon I’m worried about. It’s those other boys.”
“We’re a team, mother, it’s not as if they’re going to hurt me because of,“ he paused for a moment, “my father, let alone injure a dragon.”
Gero slurped down the last of his porridge from the cracked wooden bowl. He picked it up from the rough-hewn rickety table and moved it to the hammered wash basin. He crossed the small hut he shared with his mother in just a few steps. The hut was made even smaller by the huge loom talking up one entire wall, well-used, worn, and mended, but carefully tended.
Gero flew out of the hut, and the rickety wooden door hit the thatching on the sod walls. Dienne sighed and turned back to her weaving.
* * *
Gero arrived at the stable first, as usual. Sir Inavo the stablemaster was only just posting the list of assigned dragons for the lesson that day. When he noticed Gero, he turned and nodded.
“Good morning, Gero. Bright and early as usual.”
“Good morning, Sir Inavo,” said Gero, bowing slightly.
“You’ve been doing well, Gero. I’ve decided to give you a bit of a challenge today.”
Gero checked the list, and saw Amarok listed next to his name. “I am honored by your confidence in me, Sir Inavo.” An Amarok was a proud animal, and required a skilled rider. And Amarok would test that skill to be sure.
The other students began trickling in. Lord Harolde Montebant strode up to the list and ran his gloved hand down the parchment.
“Hantu?” He said imperiously, and then moments later, “Amarok? I am to fly the soldier dragon while this bastard flies the knight?”
Lord Montebant, Gero has worked tirelessly at his dragoncraft, but he suffers from a lack of confidence, I have selected Amarok to challenge him in this area. You, on the other hand, continue to struggle with the fundamentals and therefore Hantu is the proper teacher for you. With all due respect, my lord, I am the stable master and it is my sworn duty to pair the rider with the dragon.”
Lord Montebant reddened and made himself as tall as he could. “With all due respect, Sir Inavo, I am Lord Montebant, heir to castle Sturlockheed and I will not be insulted while this lowborn knave rides the more noble dragon.”
Sir Inavo flushed and began to speak and then stopped himself. He began again, more calmly but in a carefully controlled tone.
“Nobility doesn’t work the same way with dragons, they-,” and then he stopped again, “besides I already-,“ and stopped again, considering the two of them.
“It’s okay, Sir Inavo,” Gero said, “Lord Montebant can fly Amarok today.”
Sir Inavo looked at this humble young man, next to this pompous young privileged aristocrat. Then he looked over to Amarok’s stall, where the dragon was listening attentively. Inavo caught his eye and Amarok dipped his head slightly.
"You know what, on second thought, you’re right, my Lord, perhaps Amarok has a lesson for you after all.”
“I don’t much care for your tone, Sir Inavo, but I’m glad you’ve seen reason.”
Lord Montebant strode off with his head high to Amarok’s pen.
Gero turned to walk to Hantu’s pen.
“Gero,” Sir Inavo said, “One moment.”
Gero paused. Sir Inavo came near and said quietly, “I’ve no right to ask this, but will you make sure the fool doesn’t break his arrogant neck today?”
“Of course, sir Inavo,” Gero smiled, although he hardly thought a Lord of the Castle would need the help.
"Good lad,” he said.
* * *
Gero finished readying Hantu quickly. Hantu was efficient, even eager, lifting arms and wings to facilitate the strapping of the gear. The familiar movements let Gero’s mind drift and he reflected on the interaction this morning. He was touched that Sir Inavo would stick up for him like that. He thought how underneath his gruff exterior, Sir Inavo really was a sweet old guy. Still, Gero thought, Sir Inavo shouldn’t have done that. Gero didn’t care how rude the nobility was to him. He got to fly on dragons! It was worth a few insults and snubs. He didn’t even really hold it against Montebant personally. At least he was overt about his dislike as opposed to the others who feigned politeness and then whispered behind his back. He didn’t much like Montebant but at least you knew where you stood with him.
Gero decided to walk over and check on Montebant’s progress. He was less than halfway through his preparations with Amarok. While Amarok was not actively resisting, he was completely limp and not cooperating at all. Montebant was currently struggling to get the belt on the saddle tightened. Gero could see it was because Amarok was holding his breath. It was an old trick, one even horses did sometimes. Gero was surprised Amarok would try it, really it was beneath such a noble beast. He thought perhaps Montebant angered him somehow already. As he walked over to offer his help, Lord Montebant noticed his approach.
“Stop right there, lowborn. I don’t need any help from the likes of you.”
Montebant turned back to the strap with renewed fury and managed to clasp the buckle on the last hole.
As soon as he turned away, Amarok released his breath, and the belt became loose.
Gero stepped forward to help a second time, but Lord Montebant stopped him with a withering look.
Gero shrugged and went back to faithful Hantu to finish getting ready for the flight.
* * *
Lord Montebant and Sir Fenroy were in line ahead of them for the launching perch. As Lord Montebant absently led Amarok to the platform, he said to Sir Fenroy just loud enough for Gero to hear, “See, with a noble creature like Amarok, you must be a noble to truly understand and therefore master him.”
While he spoke, Amarok’s loose strap began to scrape and catch on his scales. Amarok stopped to bite and scratch at it. Montebant tugged on the harness and Amarok clearly did not appreciate his prodding. Gero saw Amarok swiftly nip the belt right in two and then quite complacently walk forward again.
Gero sighed, “Lord Montebant, I-“
Montebant reddened again, “Not one more word from you.”
Montebant began to reach for his sword.
Gero thought, “Surely he wouldn’t,” but stepped back and bowed his head. Montebant nodded and turned back towards the perch.
Gero’s heart was in his throat as he watched Montebant and Amarok launch from the platform. But the other strap held, and though it looked like a bumpy ride for Montebant, he looked okay once Amarok was flying level and straight. Still, he’d better keep an eye on them.
Sir Fenroy noticed Gero’s rapt attention and completely misinterpreted it, saying, “Maybe you’ll get to fly him someday.” And led his own dragon to the platform.
The thrill of riding a dragon as it lifts into the sky never wears off, Gero thought as he led Hantu to the platform. He loved that moment before take off when everything becomes clear and bright and comes into focus. When that powerful beast begins to shift weight and muscle, the sudden burst as he was pressed into the saddle and his stomach dropped, and then the smooth glide through the frosty air.
Hantu responded to his guidance ably and in moments they were soaring through the skies.
Amarok meanwhile flew at half speed, making it simple enough for Gero to keep up. Montebant kicked at his flanks and pulled on the harness but Amarok would go no faster.
Montebant saw Gero flying behind him and shifted his anger and frustration on him, somehow blaming him for Amarok’s balking. He yelled and screamed but his words were lost in the wind.
Finally he had Amarok make a sudden, sharp turn. This snapped the other strap on the saddle and flung him off the dragon’s back, and he fell through the air.
Gero guided Hantu into a dive, closing the distance between them and then matching the velocity of his fall. When they got close, Hantu gingerly grabbed Lord Montebant in his claws.
Gero could hear nothing from under the dragon, and hoped he would not be hanged for murdering a Lord of the Castle.
They flew slowly back to the perch and dropped Lord Montebant on the ground. He fell to his hands and knees. He was covered in long scratches from the dragon’s claw but otherwise appeared unharmed. But he was breathing heavily and he was ghostly pale.
Gero slid off of Hantu and walked over to him. All of Lord Montebant’s bluster and arrogance had vanished, and Gero saw not a Lord but a young man afraid for his life. As he approached, Montebant looked up at him and said, “I thought I was going to die. You…you saved my life? After I was so rude to you?”
Gero said, “Of course I saved you. We are part of a team,” and reached out his gauntleted hand, “I’d rather a rude teammate than a dead one.” Lord Montebant took Gero’s outstretched hand and levered himself to his feet.
“Thank you, Gero,” he said, “Sir Inavo was right about you.”
“You’re welcome, Lord Montebant.”
“Perhaps, if you’re willing, you could give me some pointers tomorrow?”
Gero smiled broadly, his eyes gleaming with pride, “I’d be happy to, m’lord.”
Sir Inavo watched quietly from the shadows, absently patting Amarok who rested beside him. “Well done,” he said, to nobody in particular.