Another cramp dragged at my innards. I held my breath through it, then turned and walked carefully toward the small armory building, my bad leg scattering the fine sand. Dillon was right to be worried. Candidates no longer fought for the honor of approaching the mirrors, but we still had to prove our strength and stamina in the ceremonial sword sequences. At least Dillon could complete the approach sequence, even if it was poorly done. I had never once managed the intricate moves of the Mirror Dragon Third.
It was said it took a lot of physical and mental toughness to bargain with the energy dragons and manipulate the earth forces. It was even whispered among the candidates that a Dragoneye slowly gave up his own life force to a dragon in return for the ability to work the energies, and that the pact aged him beyond his years. My master had been the Tiger Dragoneye during the last cycle and, by my reckoning, would only be a few years over forty. Yet he had the looks and bearing of an old man. Perhaps it was true - a Dragoneye did give up his own life force - or perhaps my master had aged under the strain of poverty and ill luck. He was risking everything for the chance of my success.
I looked over my shoulder. Ranne was watching Baret go through the first form. With all of the strong, able-bodied boys vying to serve him, would the Rat Dragon really choose me? He was the Keeper of Ambition, so perhaps he would not be influenced by physical prowess. I turned to the north-northwest and narrowed my mind until I saw the Rat Dragon shimmer on the sand like a heat mirage. As though he was aware of my focus, the dragon arched his neck and shook out his thick mane.
If he did choose me, then I would hold status for twenty-four years; first working as apprentice to the existing Dragoneye and then, when he retired, working the energies myself. I would earn a mountain of riches, even with the 20 percent tithe to my master. No one would dare spit at me or make the ward-evil sign or turn their face away in disgust.
If he did not choose me, I would be lucky if my master kept me as a servant in his house. I would be like Chart, the slops boy, whose body was permanently twisted into a grim parody of itself. Fourteen years ago, Chart was born to Rilla, one of the unmarried maids, and although my master was sickened by the infants deformity, he allowed it to live within his household. Chart had never been beyond the confines of the servants quarters, and he lived on a mat near the cooking stoves. If I failed tomorrow, I could only hope my master would show me similar mercy. Before he found me four years ago, I had labored on a salt farm. I would rather share Charts mat by the stoves than be returned to such misery.
I stopped walking and reached out further with my mind toward the Rat Dragon, trying to touch the energy of the great beast. I felt his power spark through my body. Talk to me, I begged. Talk to me. Choose me tomorrow. Please, choose me tomorrow.
There was no response.
A dull pain in my temple sharpened into white agony. The effort to hold him in my sight was too great. The dragon slid beyond my minds eye, dragging my energy with it. I dug a sword into the sand to stop myself from falling and gasped for air. Fool! Would I never learn? A dragon only ever communicated with his Dragoneye and apprentice. I sucked in a deep breath and pulled the sword out of the ground. Why, then, could I see all eleven dragons? As far back as I could remember, I had been able to shift my mind into the energy world and see their huge translucent forms. Why was I given such a gift in such an ill-favored body?
It was a relief to step off the sand onto the paving of the armory courtyard. The sharp cramps in my gut had finally settled into a dragging ache. Hian, the old master armsman, was sitting on a box beside the armory door polishing the furnace black off a small dagger.
Excerpted from Eon by Alison Goodman. Copyright © 2008 by Alison Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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