Introducing "Eighteen" by Sandi Ward, the first place winner of the Young Adult category of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. See a complete list of the competition winners and read the first place entry in each category here. For an extended interview with the grand prize winner, visit this page. Read the grand prize winning short story here.
Eighteen by Sandi Ward
I look down at the sticky mud on my hands. My palms sting red hot from the impact of my fall.
"Thanks a lot," I call over my shoulder at Adonna, our newest dragon. "You don’t know your own strength."
I was an idiot for coming out here to the stable with only Gabby, the youngest of my squires, to help me. At present moment, I'm wearing armor that a stable boy spent an hour polishing this morning. Yet now I'm on my knees, in an inch of mud. The stench of it invades my nose and I try not to sneeze.
Gabby hasn’t made a move to help me. Instead, she’s trying desperately not to laugh.
The nearby river is freezing cold. I don't want to rinse my hands in the icy water because it will be painful. I don't dare wipe my hands on my armor because that would just make a bigger mess. Out of options, I end up walking to a patch of lawn and run my hands over the ground repeatedly. It only smudges the dirt around. The scent of the grass is sharp and sweet as my palms turn gritty and grey.
Gabby finally laughs out loud, a sharp sound in the fresh mountain air. She's a new squire, only twelve years old, quick and agile with a blade or ax. She clasps a forearm over her mouth, but it's too late.
"I heard that."
"At least it's only mud," she offers. "You could've landed in a pile of dragon sh—"
"Yes, yes," I cut her off. "You're right about that.”
I feel the trembling of the ground under me before I hear the gallop of my mother advancing toward us. Her dragon Kaiyan is red, unpredictable and mean from years of my mother's abuse. I get up and linger by the gate to the paddock, feeling a weight in my chest because I know what's coming.
When she reaches me, Mother pulls her dragon up short. Kaiyan stomps his feet and exhales black smoke; his breath is sweet like a wood fire and throws off heat that warms my face. Mother runs Kaiyan very hard, all the time. She has no patience for animals, not the way I have. I make a mental note to give Kaiyan an apple after Mother has gone back to the castle.
"Grant," she snaps, "Come help your mother."
I jump forward, and assist her in dismounting. Gabby grabs Kaiyan’s reigns and leads him towards the paddock. After opening the gate, I take the dragon from her to pull him inside. Once we’re in the paddock, his buckle is easily undone, and the heavy saddle slides off into my arms while Gabby takes the bridle.
Adonna comes over and nudges Kaiyan in the flank. I clip his wings together so he can't fly away. I hate to do it, but he is not very attached to my mother, and likely to fly off when we're not looking.
Mother stands, frowning, until I return. Her dress is red, like her dragon. But she adds a gold scarf around her neck so that everyone will identify her as the Duchess, even from a distance. She looks at me with a sharply raised eyebrow. "What are you doing down here, looking miserable, and wearing all of your armor?"
I open my mouth, then close it. First off, Mother hates it when I come down to ride the dragons. Second, I’ve been trying to distract myself from the upcoming marriage she and Father have arranged for me. But she doesn't want to hear my protests.
Although freedom to love who you want is one of the core principles of our people, I am the least free person in our duchy. I must marry who my parents choose for me.
I rejected the first match they made for me, last year. That was considered a very good match. But I had no interest.
I'm only seventeen, I argued. You told me I could wait until I was eighteen. I made such a nuisance of myself, fighting with them every night, that they finally contacted the other family and broke it off. It was embarrassing for them. I know that.
Now that I'm turning eighteen, they've made a second match. I can't very well get out of this one.
"Mother..." I take a deep breath. "I came down to work with Adonna. She was limping yesterday and I wanted to check on her."
I exchange a quick look with my squire Gabby, because this is a lie. Gabby presses her mouth down into a hard line and nods at my mother.
I’m pathetic. I can tell by the glint in her eye my mother doesn't believe me. I wouldn't believe me either. I can hear how desperate I sound.
"Adonna looks perfectly fine to me. And why are your hands and knees such a mess?"
"It wasn't my Lord's fault," Gabby offers, "It was that fat blue dragon, the new one. He was just trying to get at the—"
"I wasn't talking to you," Mother cuts in icily. She waves Gabby away. "You're dismissed. I need to talk to my son. Make sure the dragons have enough water."
Gabby grinds her teeth, and holds her ground. "All due respect, I don't take orders from you, ma'am." She turns to me. "What does your Grace need me to do?" "Go ahead," I say to her. “I'll bring my armor up to the castle later and show you how to put it away properly."
Gabby gives me a nod and walks off, head held high.
Once Gabby has disappeared into the barn, Mother steps forward and grabs my wrist. Her hand is bony and firm, and her voice softens. "Grant. Listen. This is ridiculous, coming down here in your armor. You don't have time for this. Focus on your duties and forget about dragons."
I grip the helmet in my hands tightly, feeling like I could crush it in my hands. I don't want to list my objections to the marriage again, or explain to her for the tenth time that I have no intention of giving up dragon-riding, so I force myself to stop talking. I feel my nose twitch with annoyance.
Mother's mouth sets into a tight line, and her eyes dilate with anger. “You’re as stubborn as your older brother. We’ll talk later.” She heads back up the hill toward the castle.
My older brother George insisted on fighting with our army when we had a skirmish with the duchy to the south. He’s now buried in the garden, six feet down in the cold dirt, with worms feasting on his decomposing flesh.
I take in a deep breath. Sometimes I think Mother is worried about me. Other times, I believe she hates me for living while George died in battle.
I wander in the other direction, toward our field of wildflowers. Ever since I was little, I've made daisy chains when I need to think.
At first, the chains were haphazard and loose, falling apart constantly. But now I am able to weave and braid the stems quite well so that each flower is tightly set against the next. I often wear my daisy chain on my head, like a crown. When I was a boy and did this, the maids at the castle would laugh and smile and pinch my cheek.
Now, they do not laugh. All of the servants know I will be the Duke soon, and they don’t make fun of my flowers. I am respected not only due to my royal birthright, but also because I am skilled on my dragon. I am better than George ever was. I have trained since I was seven years old, against Mother’s wishes.
Despite my age and training, I still feel young and unsettled. Which is why I so strongly do not want to get married right now.
I choose perfect white daisies with all of their petals. I feel calmer selecting the right flowers, weaving and working the chain together while the warm sun heats up the armor on my back. My palms start to sweat and I can feel a drip run down my chest. I've got to get this uniform off. But I'm completely distracted.
Rumor is that Prince John’s father is going to give me a gold dragon as a wedding gift. I wonder if it is true.
I have no idea how much time goes by. I am just sliding the daisy chain onto my head when I hear movement behind me.
"Sir," someone says as I turn around. "Grant of Greenbriar?"
A young man stands there. He is in uniform, brown leather to match the dark curls of his hair. He's clearly not a local farmer. I would guess he is about my age, and handsome, maybe a year or two older. He's a lot dirtier than I am, and looks like he hasn’t bathed in a few days, even though I still have dried mud on my hands and knees. I glance back to see what kind of dragon he's been riding. A magnificent green dragon chews grass in the field, and I marvel that he flew so silently that I did not hear his landing. This soldier must be a skilled dragon-rider.
I feel a warm churning in my stomach when I realize he is still waiting for me to answer the question.
"Yes. I’m Grant. Can I help you?"
He stares at me, his mouth slightly open. Then, folding his arms, I watch as he closes his mouth and tries to fight a smile that he can't quite hide. I frown when he doesn't speak. People usually answer me right away.
"What—what in the blazes is on your head?" he finally spits out.
I actually have to reach my hand up to my head to figure out what he's talking about. That's how unglued I am. I've been so caught up in my problems that I can't remember what I was doing moments ago. "It's nothing."
"It looks like daisies."
"You're wearing daisies on your head."
"Yes, I am." Now I'm getting annoyed. "I am the Duke's son," I tell him. "How can I help you?"
He clears his throat. "My name is Paul. I'm the dragon trainer for Prince John the Sixth. He sent me to see about your facilities here for dragons."
"Oh." My heart drops in my chest. "Has it been decided then? Are John and I going to live here after we're married?" I can hear it in my voice: the stress. The worry.
"Pardon my Lord, but I was only sent to take a look at your stable. I don't know all of the details of your marriage arrangements. But I do think that's the idea, yes."
I can feel how hard Paul is staring at me now. Scrutinizing me. But I am not intimidated. Surely he is gathering information for the Prince and I need to make a solid impression. With a deep breath, I relax and stand up taller. Taking a step towards him, I gesture toward the barn. "We have room for ten dragons and only house six. How many would John bring with him?"
"Three. One for him. One for me. And one for you, as a gift from his father."
I squint when the sun lands in my eyes as I turn. "One for you? You would come too?"
"Yes. I would be your stable hand and trainer, as a gift from John's father, his Excellency King John the Fifth. I’ve been a dragon trainer for the royal family for four years."
"I see." I tap my hand against my leg.
I don't want to marry Prince John the Sixth. I don't, I don't, I don't.
When my parents asked me if I wanted to marry a man or a woman, I had to think long and hard about it. I wasn't sure I had a preference one way or the other.
In the end I decided on a man. I don't think my parents were surprised by my choice, as they had a list of options ready.
My parents may think I don't know much about John, but I do. I’ve seen him compete at the annual jousting match in the South every year, and I’m sure he’s seen me in the archery competition. He is nothing special. He is okay with a sword and rides his dragon adequately, but he has no finesse and is clumsy at times. John does not look like he has any joy in his heart. Every time I see him, he looks worried, and he barely speaks to the other riders.
My parents think this is the best match. John's father’s castle is on the sea; they do an impressive trade business. And he is, after all, a prince.
Paul the dragon trainer is still waiting for me to respond, a smudge of dirt right across his cheek. He is full on smiling at me now, and I don't know why.
What were we talking about?
“Is it true the King is gifting me a gold dragon?”
Paul’s smile fades. "Yes. But for the record, it's a very bad idea. This dragon he’s acquired for you is highly unsafe, as I believe all gold dragons are. You could get yourself killed. I don't know what the King is thinking. Apparently he believes you have the potential to be a great dragon rider. But for God’s sake, your older brother is already in the ground. I’m sure it would kill your mother if anything happened to you."
I feel my heart squeeze with the mention of George, lying cold in his grave. I hate thinking about my dead brother. It is like a heavy wet blanket on my heart. And Paul is right about one thing: it adds to the pressure on me to now that he’s gone. Mother expects too much.
I feel dizzy, and the sun is too hot. I have been lonely since George died, and I don’t expect things to change after I’m married.
Paul frowns, perhaps realizing he’s said the wrong thing. “Are you okay?” he asks, taking a step forward and putting a hand on my arm.
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you. It’s just that—you’re right. We’ve all been adrift since George was killed. It hasn’t been easy.”
Paul’s eyes slowly move to meet mine, and I feel something shift inside my heart. His eyebrows knit together and when he moves his head, his curls quiver. I notice that.
I have heard of love at first sight. I’m suddenly afraid I have been struck with it.
It is a frightening feeling, unfamiliar and painful. I wish to be rid of it.
I clear my throat. I need to change the subject. "Has John the Sixth said anything about me?"
Paul hesitates. "Such as...?"
"Anything at all. I'm just wondering why his father would send such a generous gift."
Paul digs the toe of his boot into the earth. "Well. I suppose he knows you broke off your first engagement, and he wants to make sure you keep this one.”
Adonna watches us and stomps her feet. She can't wait for us to come over.
"That’s an interesting theory, but it’s not what I asked. Has John said anything about me?"
"I don't know...I guess he has. Just what you'd expect." Paul starts walking toward the gate to the paddock, but I don't move.
"I don't know what I'd expect," I say, loud and slow. I want an answer. "So what has he said, exactly?"
Paul slows to a halt. He tips his head and stares out at the barn, not at me.
"He said...He said you move very well on a dragon. That you were the best dragon-rider he’d ever seen. He said you are strong and fast and skilled with a sword, and he once saw you shoot a bird from very long range with a bow and arrow. He said you would be a prize as a husband. He said many other complimentary things. I can't possibly remember them all."
It sounds like John saw me in competition, the way I saw him. Perhaps he even liked me, and I did not know it. He never spoke to me.
It almost sounds like John is very taken with me. In love, maybe? But I still don’t know what love is. Not exactly.
I never gave John the Sixth the time of day, or said two words to him, because he isn't clever or charming or funny or anything special. Maybe he's been upset about it.
My heart squeezes in my chest. I feel terrible.
I see I was too quick to judge John the Sixth, and I've made an awful mistake. My stomach hurts. I don't know what I want anymore.
Paul walks into the paddock, and he talks to all of the dragons, stroking their long noses, speaking softly into each dragon ear. I lag behind, leaning on the gate, feeling the heaviness of my armor. I will be sore later. My head is pounding, and the back of my neck is coated in sweat.
“Your dragons are beautiful.” He smiles at me. “We should go for a ride. I want to try this red one.”
"Paul," I say. "That’s not a good idea."
He turns, surprised. "Why do you say that? We’ll be training together soon. You don't want to go? I’ll tell you more about the gold dragon. Even though I still think she’s dangerous."
"I do want to go," I explain slowly, "But I don't think I should.” “Why not?”
How can I make him understand? Here’s the truth: I know Paul will be very good at dragon riding. I know he will be better than John. And I know I will fall in love with Paul without a second thought. It would be stupid to try and explain that to him.
“I’m very busy. I have to get back to the castle.”
I watch Paul’s chest rise and fall as he takes in a very deep breath, then exhales. He walks over to me, at the gate. He glances quickly up at the castle. He stands very close, as if someone might hear, but there is no one around but the dragons. “John knows we will be training together. We wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. I don’t know what you’re worried about.”
He searches my face, and I have to look away for a moment. I am going to have to say something harsh to get him to leave.
I should be direct and curt, like Mother. I should just say: I will soon be a Duke, married to a Prince, and you are a dragon trainer. I don't know how much plainer I can make it. You and I will never be friends.
This sort of casual cruelty is sometimes part of being an effective ruler, and I've had my mother's example to follow for many years. I suppose I will have to learn to be ruthless sometime. But I'm not hardened enough yet to say this.
At the same time, I'm not dumb. I know the sacrifices I have to make. I never asked for this life, but it's the one I'm stuck with.
I see Paul start to chew on his lip, and I suddenly realize he is insulted. My fingers twitch and, out of instinct, my hand naturally moves toward the knife on my belt. But Paul grabs my hand, and I see—no, he is not insulted, he sees this as a challenge.
"Let’s go," he tries one more time. “Come on, Grant. We can just fly to the edge of the mountains and back.”
His hand is warm where it grabs mine. I want to give up, to give in. I can feel the blood rushing to my face, to my chest, to the hand that he holds. I truly want to go. But I stand my ground.
I have the sudden urge to shove him, to strike him, to force him away from me. He was clearly sent here by the Gods to torment me. I am learning new things all the time about life and the ways in which it can make a man suffer.
"I have duties to attend to. Please. Let me go." I am getting impatient. I want this conversation to be over.
Paul sees that I mean it, and lets go of my hand. “Fine. Suit yourself.” He snorts. “You know that I'll return soon. With John the Sixth. I must. It has all been arranged. Didn’t you hear what I said? I’m a gift from John's father."
"I know that. It will be fine." I'm tired and I can hear the stress creeping back into my voice. “Now, go. You’ve seen the barn. Return to John with your report. I have things to do.”
I watch disappointment darken Paul's face as I stay calm and look away toward Adonna, as if I don't care, as if I can't wait for him to ride away. I've worn a mask of indifference for so long with my parents that it's not hard to put it on for Paul. He swallows and then backs off a few steps.
“You’re arrogant, you know that? You’re too good to ride with me, then? You don’t deserve John.”
I face him. All of the anger that’s been bubbling up inside of me pours out, as I feel myself start to roar. “Why do you want to go riding with me, then? If you’re loyal to John—AND BY GOD YOU’D BETTER BE—then you should go.”
As I glare at him, he opens his mouth. Then shuts it.
"Of course, my Lord,” he finally says, “My apologies for the misunderstanding." He whistles, and his dragon lifts his head and ambles over. Paul looks back at me with dark eyes and perfect posture and I watch him carefully, making sure my face doesn’t give anything away.
Everything about this arranged marriage, this new phase of my life, is going to be difficult, and for the first time I realize how much. My heart hurts. I will have to be very careful.
Paul leads his dragon in a walk to the edge of the field before taking flight. I watch him fly away, feeling empty inside.
I turn back to the field of wildflowers. I select more daisies and start to make a new crown. Choose, braid and weave, tighten. My whole being shivers with unhappiness, but the motion of my hands calms me.
Finally I am done. I hold the daisy chain my hands. The river shimmers in the heat, but I know the water is ice cold. I picture myself walking right into that river and letting the armor weigh me down. I imagine the bottom of the river is dark and quiet and refreshing. I could be like George—he in the ground, I in the water—surrounded by the earth, anchored in its’ embrace. For a moment, I consider it. It sounds peaceful. It sounds like a relief.
But it would be a dishonorable death. I owe myself more than that.
I slide the breastplate of my armor off. I am slick with sweat from the heat and the illness of uncertainty. I lie down in the sun, right in the middle of the field. I open the neck of my shirt to feel the burn on my skin.
Becoming a man and a Duke will be hard, but maybe I can live through it if I am cautious and make the right choices. There must be something good in this life for me.
I know what I am. But I know not yet what I may be.