“Why can’t you follow your brothers’ example? Grunter has been working in the forge since he was 193. When Hothead joined up with the royal guards he was only just 181. Even Burnie found a job in the mine before he was 207! And you, you’re 212, and you’re still at home!”
Huffle would have liked to make his father proud of him, but he was not like his brothers. He was not big and muscly, and his flames were only just big enough to light a wood fire. Every time he had applied somewhere, a stronger dragon had got the job.
As he went past the forge, Grunter called to him.
“You look miserable! Have you had another row with Dad? Don’t worry, I’ve got some good news. I’ve signed you up for this.”
Huffle caught hold of the yellowing piece of paper his brother held out to him, on which was written in golden letters:
“Oyez, oyez, lady and gentleman dragons!
The King is looking for a dragon to defend his treasure. In order to choose the strongest from amongst you all, a great sports competition has been organized. At the end of it, the dragon with the best score will have the immense honor of becoming Guardian of the Royal Treasure.
If you are over 180 years old, sign up to enter at the Steward’s Office of the Palace.”
Grunter had entered him in a sports competition. What’s more, it was being organized by the King himself. And this was supposed to be good news...
“Grunter, I can’t possibly. I’ll make such a fool of myself. What could I do in a sports competition?”
“I’ll train you! And just imagine how happy Dad would be if you won!”
“But I’ll never win!”
There was only one way to find out...
They had one month to prepare Huffle for the events of the competition: acrobatic flight while carrying a large block of stone, camouflage, spitting fire at moving targets, and finally, fighting knights. Unlike his brother, Huffle was far from optimistic. They began with camouflage because it was the only event he felt capable of tackling. In fact, he had inherited his mother’s dark gray scales, which made him look like a big rock.
For the other events, Grunter called upon the skills of Burnie and Hothead to best prepare Huffle. Burnie for muscle-building and endurance, Hothead for combat techniques; he himself would take care of the fire-spitting.
With such a thorough training schedule and such demanding teachers, Huffle did not notice the time passing and one morning, without any warning, the sun rose on the first day of the competition.
A colorful crowd was pushing across the drawbridge to enter the vast arena of the castle. Tiers of wooden seats were arranged all around, specially erected for the occasion.
Five large rocks were arranged in a circle in the center of the arena. Huffle paid no attention to the cheering crowd and made his way straight to the rocks. Four other dragons did the same. Huffle did not dare look at them, he concentrated on his own rock and remembered his choreography. He had to keep his rock in the air for more than three minutes while performing as many movements as he could to score points. A gong announced the start of the event. All the dragons took off at the same time, except Huffle.
He climbed onto his rock, digging his claws into its rough surface, and flapped his wings. Slowly and gradually, he took off. Meanwhile, the other dragons had dived back down to earth to collect their rock, helped by their momentum. Meanwhile, Huffle continued to rise. When he found himself about twenty feet above the ground, he let go of his rock. Then he flew up to thirty feet and plummeted after the enormous stone. He overtook it, spun on his own axis and caught it on his back. The shock took his breath away and almost made him lose his balance. He glided for a few moments then, summoning up his last reserves of strength, performed a loop. The rock fell just at his departure point and Huffle landed just behind it. Another bang of the gong announced the end of the first event.
A huge blackboard had been installed to record the scores. In each event, the winner scored 50 points, the second 40 and so on. When Huffle looked up at the board, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Millie, a mole-colored female who had not even managed to lift her rock at all, was last with 10 points. Firepuff, a dragon with electric blue scales, was next with 20 points. Lightning, another female of a dazzling gold color, was third with 30 points, while Fearsome, a large pine green male, was the winner of the event with 50 points. So Huffle was second and had won 40 points. It was incredible!
For the next challenge, part of the arena had been dismantled, so that it was now open to the forest. The camouflage test was simple: the dragons had one minute to blend into the landscape. The first ones to be seen would lose. The five competitors lined up along the edge of the forest, and, at the sound of the gong, threw themselves into the trees.
Millie, who because of her dull dress looked the same color as the earth, came second. Fearsome, who had melted into the leaves of the trees, finished third. Lightning with her golden scales was second from last, just ahead of Firepuff with his dazzling blue armour. Huffle, transformed into a rock, won the event. Now he was leading in the competition with 90 points! He could not believe it.
But his joy was short-lived. The last two events yet to come were the ones he feared the most.
One hundred feet away from the five dragons, targets had been set up on rails.
Firepuff went first and hit seven out of ten of the targets. Fearsome burned nine and Millie five. Lightning burned them all at once. Then it was Huffle’s turn. The sound of the gong made him jump. He puffed out his chest as far as he could, felt his fire pocket filling up and spat as hard as he could. He did not hit a single one of the targets.
But he didn’t have time to feel discouraged because it was already time to get ready for the last event, the combat.
Huffle was the second to compete. Three armoured knights were waiting for him on the sand. At the sound of the gong, the first knight, armed with a shield and a flail, threw himself at Huffle. The little dragon curled into a ball then leapt right over his adversary, the flail not even touching him. He landed right next to the second knight who was aiming a lance covered in spikes at him. He kicked him over, at the same time sweeping away the first knight with his tail. Seeing his two team-mates on the ground, the third knight, armed with two long swords, slowly retreated. He was trying to gain time to allow the others to get up. Huffle was not taken in by this and instead of immediately attacking this knight, he knocked out the other two once and for all. Left alone with his swords, the last knight charged at Huffle. As Hothead had taught him, he blew a thick plume of smoke through his nostrils to blind his adversary before snatching the swords from him in one quick movement of his claws and putting him out of action.
The King stood up tall on the stage and addressed the crowd to close the competition.
“At the end of this historic sporting competition we have a lucky winner! I must congratulate you all for the magnificent spectacle you have given us. Without further delay, let me announce the name of the new Guardian for my Royal Treasure. It is Fearsome! Congratulations!”
The crown applauded joyously but the King continued, silencing the cheers.
“However, dear friends, he was not the only one who impressed us! Another competitor stood out for his originality and above all for his energy and enthusiasm in combat. So I have decided to also reward the one who came second in this competition. You see, my daughter, Princess Iloa, needs a brave protector. I therefore appoint Huffle as Official Bodyguard to Princess Iloa! Well done to him!”
Huffle almost choked in amazement. Next to him stood Grunter, who gave him a hearty slap on the back to congratulate him. Hothead and Burnie spat flames into the sky to proclaim their joy. The crowd was cheering for both him and Fearsome, and among all the people, Huffle caught sight of a big ruby dragon. Flamethrower was looking at him with pride gleaming in his eyes.
Translated by Wendy Cross