Chapter 21

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Chapter Twenty-one

Jaxx and Ciarran stood a short distance away from the Hall of Music, looking up at the row of dragons lining the top of a nearby cliff.

"I suppose you should join them," Jaxx said. His hands were shaking with nervousness. It was his first day of training as a Dragon Rider. "I'll meet up with you later."

Ciarran nuzzled his face, blowing his hair around with her breath. I will be with the dragons watching my Jaxx.

Jaxx nodded and watched her take flight before walking over to the Hall of Music to join the other youth of Drak'ar for the morning run. As the newest trainee, he was assigned the last spot in the line, which placed him with the youngest students. Already feeling self-conscious about being new, it did not make him feel any less conspicuous to be head and shoulders taller than the students in front of him.

Several of the students turned around to look at him, sizing him up and down. Jaxx saw the curiosity in their gazes and ducked his head out of habit, hiding his eyes behind his hair. He knelt and made a show of adjusting the laces on his sandals to avoid speaking to anyone.

The route started in front of the Hall of Music where the novice bards trained in song and instruments, then went past the farmers' fields where future farmers learned about agriculture. It continued to the Warrior Arena and Hall of Champions where the warriors learned fighting arts. From there they would run past the gardens behind the Hall of Healing where alchemists and healers grew the plants and herbs needed for medicines and potions and then follow a trail through the forest, across the beach, and finally, back to the Hall of Music. The course was long, but Jaxx was confident that he could make it without much problem.

"You are the foundling everyone has been talking about, aren't you?" said a sandy-haired boy, interrupting his thoughts.

Jaxx pointed to his own chest. "Are you talking to me?"

"Yes, you. I'm Sebastion." The boy held out his hand for Jaxx to shake it. "I heard you and your gold dragon showed up out of nowhere, burnt almost to death, and Lord Drakkar took you in."

Jaxx shrugged. "Yes, that's me." He did not want to answer questions about himself and looked around for a different topic of conversation.

A group of older boys and girls strode past them, wearing red and white cloaks embroidered with a growling tiger. They hung their cloaks on a nearby post and took their places at the front of the line.

Jaxx nudged Sebastion and gestured. "Who are they?"

The boy's eyes followed the direction Jaxx was pointing. He gave a knowing nod. "That's the Tigris Guild. You have to get top marks in all of your classes to be allowed to join. If you get accepted, you get to wear those cloaks and lead all of the activities. We all hope to join them one day."

"Ahhh," said Jaxx, not knowing what marks were or how to get on top of them. The boy looked at him expectantly, like he was waiting for him to say something else, but then the drums began pounding and Jaxx was saved from having to think up anything interesting.

The beat from the drums was slow at first and everyone marched in place. When the music picked up tempo, the group started moving forward. Jaxx felt the vibration from the drums thumping in his chest. His heart quickened, pounding in time to the music. A trumpet sounded and the group began shouting with excitement. He found himself shouting along with the others. Even the dragons bugled their enthusiasm from the cliffs.

The group started moving at a comfortable walking pace. Jaxx followed the others, his muscles warming and loosening as he moved. Gradually, the beat grew faster and everyone picked up speed to match the tempo until they were moving at a slow run.

At this easy pace, Jaxx had time to look around at his surroundings. He saw bards positioned all along the route, holding drums, flutes, and other instruments. He noticed they were spread along the route. He supposed that was so that the runners would hear the music anywhere they were on the course.

His warmed blood coursed through his body and his breaths came faster. For now he had no trouble keeping up with the group as they ran along the wide path in the woods. When they reached the sandy beach, though, he began to get winded.

"How far do we have to go?" he asked Sebastion, trying not to show how hard he was breathing.

"The course ends at the Hall of Music," said Sebastion. He pointed. "It's just past those trees."

Jaxx noticed that Sebastion was having difficulty running and breathing, too. He was glad to not be the only one.

His heart sank when he saw the group ahead running past the Hall of Music instead of stopping in front of it. Even worse, the music changed to a faster pace and the runners adjusted their speed to keep up.

Sebastion snickered at Jaxx's expression. "We have to go around one more time."

Jaxx groaned. He would never make it around a second time.

The runners began singing along to the music in a language he had never heard before. The drums beat harder and his heart seemed to beat with their vibrations. Despite his fatigue, the music filled him with excitement and he felt the energy returning to his body. Looking around, he could tell that others felt it too.

The motivation Jaxx felt from the music only lasted a few moments. Before long, he felt his stamina fading again, and he started wheezing. Unbelievably, the people around him seemed to have the opposite reaction. They were moving with even more energy than they did at the beginning of the run, singing all the while. He wondered how they could have the breath to sing when he was finding it a struggle simply to breathe.

Sebastion looked back and shouted encouragement over the music. "You have to sing along."

Jaxx's eyebrows creased together. How was he supposed to sing? Not only was he finding it harder by the minute to breathe, but he did not know the words. Worried that he was breaking a rule by not singing, he moved his mouth silently, trying to make it look like he was following along. He pressed on, determined to finish.

Despite his best efforts, Jaxx slowed down and fell far behind the others. When they were too far ahead for him to catch up, he gave up and stopped to rest, leaning over with his hands on his knees, gasping for air. This was humiliating. He had already failed the very first task they had given him on his first day. He wanted to give up and go find Ciarran, but instead he stood up and straightened his shoulders. He would finish.

Once his heart beat and breathing slowed to normal, Jaxx started moving again, alternating between walking and jogging. He had to force himself to keep going all the way to starting point, even though at every step he was tempted to turn around and go back the way he had come.

Finally, he had the House of Music in sight and knew his ordeal was nearly over. His stomach dropped when he saw what was waiting for him and he was glad that he had decided not to give up. The entire student body remained in line, awaiting his arrival. He could feel their eyes burning into him as he sheepishly rejoined his place in the group. He wondered if they would have stayed in formation all day waiting for him if he had not shown up, or even worse, sent someone out to find him.

Once Jaxx found his spot, a horn sounded and the assembly disbanded. He kept his eyes on the ground to avoid the scornful looks some of the others were giving him.

"I'm starving. I can't believe they made us wait for him," said a girl behind him.

"I know. I still have to feed my dragon, too. I'll either have to skip breakfast or be late for my class," said another.

Jaxx's face burned in embarrassment. He waited until everyone had gone before waving for Ciarran to come to him.

"Let's get you some breakfast," Jaxx said. Ciarran chirped happily. At least he could take care of his dragon right, he thought. He hoped the rest of the day would go better.

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