“Why is she going?”
“No human wants her. Why would a majestic creature even consider her?”
“The overseer will assure she leaves.”
Kel limped along. The words hurt, but either she’d be chosen or she wouldn’t. She’d let the mighty ones decide.
“Go home to that old drunk who claims you as his.” Wyatt, a year older, yelled.
Brandon blocked her path. “Git, you worthless cripple.”
“What happened to her hair?” Margaret pinched one of the chopped three-inch-long strands clinging to Kel’s head. Margaret’s lips curled in disgust.
Kel ducked under Margaret’s arm and stepped around Brandon. She continued past the last mud huts of Promise, the village she called home. Well, it was the place she lived, but it remained far from a welcoming abode. She had no friends. So she could put food on the table for her and her father, she worked whatever menial task the others deemed beneath them.
She didn’t remember her mother. Father never talked about her. Father neither treated Kel kind nor unkind. Like the others, he barely spoke to her.
Kel rubbed her right hip. She rarely walked the length of the entire village. Sweat dripped from her brow as the arched stone entrance to a large circle of grass came into view. The last of the young people from her village raced past her. Some knocked into her upsetting her precarious balance. Kel managed not to fall and hobbled under the arch, then took her place in the long line of waiting youths.
Matherson, the overseer, wore his green tunic with the claw embroidered on the chest. His bound white hair had thinned and his wrinkles had doubled since last she’d seen him. As the choosing only occurred every half score of years, Kel doubted he would be present for the next gathering.
The town’s folk waited outside the grass ring. A dozen and a half young people qualified this year.
Kel stood at the end of the line beside her peers. They looked out to the open grass area and the wide valley beyond.
Matherson took his place before them. “The youths of Promise have come to this sacred ring every half score for a thousand years. It is only in Promise that the most majestic of creatures come to choose a human to join them. This is the greatest honor one of us can ever hope to receive. To be paired with a mighty dragon, to live and fight with them, to care for them as they protect our world—there can be nothing of greater importance.”
The overseer moved to the opposite end of the line from Kel. He stood before Edward, a boy with long blond hair, who would be too old for the choosing next month.
His parents stepped close and recited the oath of his qualifications. “On this most honored and sacred day, we vow and attest that our son, Edward, has lived in Promise since he first drew breath. He is half a score and nine. No woman is chosen for him and he remains un-joined.”
Matherson stepped to the next girl. Her parents moved forward and proclaimed their oath. He continued along the line inching closer to Kel. Father hadn’t come. She hadn’t expected him to support her desire to partner with a dragon, since such a partnership would leave him alone.
Five of her peers remained now before the overseer would reach her.
Trinity’s parents gave their oath. When they finished, Trinity’s father spoke to the overseer. “You can’t accept her, Overseer.” He motioned to Kel. “The cripple is unworthy of such an honor.”
“As she saved your daughter deep shame, I would think you could afford her grace. Doesn’t her kindness warrant that?”
Trinity’s father retreated outside the ring.
The overseer came to Brandon next, but before the oath, his father also spoke his objections. “You can’t overlook her withered frame and inability to walk. Nothing about her deems her worthy of consideration. Even her drunk father couldn’t be bothered to speak the oath. Send her away.”
Matherson stepped back to the center of the ring to address the entire town.
Kel held her breath, eyes closed. She’d suffered the pain and humiliation of crossing town with the tiniest hope she might be chosen. Now she would be sent away.
“Hear this and hear it well, people of Promise. Every youth who is of the age between half a score and five and a full score, will be considered. Kel is the proper age. Each youth can’t be hand-fasted or promised. As your hatred of her barely allows her to beg for work, I know none would consider a union between her and your sons.”
A mumble rippled through the crowd. Their abhorrence at the thought of her wed to their family member crushed Kel’s heart.
“Enough!” Matherson’s shout made her jump. “I am ashamed to know you.” He crossed his arms and the crowd quieted under his narrowed gaze. “Finally, to be in contention for selection a youth must be born in Promise. All you knew her mother. To these facts, I swear an oath. The dragons may choose her or not. That is up to them.”
A breath eased from Kel and then the last oaths were spoken. Matherson nodded at her as he returned to the center of the circle. He lifted a large curved ram’s horn and blew a low haunting note.
The air stilled and the birds quieted. Kel scanned the sky. A splash of blue, purple, gold and green swirled through the air. A gust of wind ruffled Kel’s short chopped hair as five young dragons landed on the opposite side of the circled in front of them.
Five. That was the fewest to ever come for a choosing. Kel’s eyes squeezed closed against the tears. With so few to come to select a partner, she thought to return home.
Matherson stood beside her. “Present your gifts,” he said to all the hopefuls.
Edward stepped forward and placed a sword on the ground. Trinity laid leather armor before the dragons. There were two blues, a green, a purple, and a gold. They sat back on their haunches and watched with keen sparkling eyes.
Kel’s pounding heart drowned out every other sound. Her breaths came quick and shallow. Too soon her turn arrived. Matherson tapped her elbow when she hesitated.
Her lame foot dragged over the thick grass as she lumbered forward. She drew her gift from the cloth bag slung across her body. She lay her only possession before the dragons. Their scales glistened in the sun in every shade of their color. Her gaze rose over three times her height as she dared look up. She placed the holey, tattered blanket at their feet and limped back to her place.
Laughter greeted her.
The young dragons weren’t fully grown, only hatching within the last half score. This was their first time to leave the rookery and see a human. Today they would choose one youth and the two would be bonded together. To assure the prosperity of the entire kingdom, they would serve one another for the lifespan of the dragon.
The dragons looked at the items and then at each other. Low rumbles bubbled up from deep in their chests. The green stepped forward; its long neck stretched across the remaining distance to inspect several of the boys. It nudged Edward. He leaped up with a whoop. He climbed onto the dragon’s back, it turned, and they flew away.
This was the most foolhardy thing Kel had ever done. To even hope that one of these magnificent beings would choose her. Their strength, power, and near blinding beauty contrasted so starkly with her ugly brokenness.
The truth of her own condemnation staggered her back a step. She bumped Matherson’s arm, which reached behind her to encircle her waist and block her retreat.
He stood proud beside her as a father should. She barely knew him. He didn’t live in Promise. He only came once a year to teach them of dragons. He didn’t look at her as his gaze followed the gold dragon. There is still an opportunity. Don’t lose hope.”
The dragon chose the youngest boy.
Tears threatened as Kel’s breathing stuttered. “You knew my mother?”
“Aye. Anna cherished you. She carried you about town all day—her beautiful raven-haired daughter. But, when you were only four weeks old, she stumbled. She wept bitterly at the injury that she’d caused. Anna couldn’t bear the pain of knowing the endless torment she had brought into your life. It consumed her until she walked into the Lion’s Tail River and was swept away.”
She hadn’t been born a cripple. Kel’s heart flipped within her. For four weeks she had been like every other child. One misstep and everything changed.
One of the blues stepped forward and looked long at Trinity. The long black braids balanced on Trinity’s head drew toward the dragon as it inhaled. It turned and looked at Kel. Did sadness reflect in its gold eyes? The blue turned back to Trinity and blew out a large puff. Trinity grabbed for the hair with a yelp as the dragon stepped to the side and selected another.
Only a blue and the purple remained. They chose Jack and Violet.
The grass circle showed only the evidence of the great beasts’ passing. With their departure, all hope fled. Of those who remained, many would be promised in marriage by the end of the day and handfasted before the next full moon. These couples would have children in hopes one of them would be chosen by a dragon in the years to come.
Kel didn’t even have that hope. A fat tear escaped and slid down her cheek.
“I’m sorry, Kel.” The overseer slowly stomped to a tree beside the grass ring and retrieved a walking staff. He never looked back.
Kel waited unmoving as the others collected their unwanted gifts and returned to the village. Some cried. Others shouted of the unfairness of not being chosen. Kel turned without collecting her blanket. Perhaps Mother had been right. This world was too cruel to face.
She’d only made it a few hobbled steps when a gust of wind buffeted against her tickling her bare neck. The earth wobbled and she fought to stay upright. Then her blanket dropped over her head.
Kel yanked it off and whirled ready to unleash all her wrath, and disappointment on whoever would pick this moment to mock her. She saw no one. A wall of red scales filled her vision. She looked up and up until her head wouldn’t tip further. She had to take several steps back to see the large dragon. It wasn’t a juvenile but rather full grown.
It lowered until it rested on its belly and crossed its front legs. “Hello, Kellenestra.” His voice vibrated against her skin.
“My name is Kel.”
“Your mother named you Kellenestra.”
“How do you know?”
“I have been drawn to you for some time.” His head lowered until she saw his violet eyes.
She spun her blanket around her arm. “Why would one so majestic notice an unworthy cripple?”
His sigh covered her in a warm breath. “There is nothing lacking or undesirable about you, beloved. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I know you are the one I seek for my companion.”
“What? But you are… surely you have… me?” Kel babbled unable to put a full thought together.
“I did choose before your parents were of age to enter the circle. And while it’s true that a human can’t live without their dragon, the same is not always the case when the human dies. Olivia became ill and all our healers were unable to help her. I have mourned her for two moons waiting for this day when I could come and claim you.”
Kel swiped at a tear unable to move toward the dragon.
“There is no other as kind as you, Kellenestra. You who willingly bore the shame of being shorn to help your enemy. In her vanity, Trinity tried to color her hair but only managed to make it all fall out. You gave her yours to save her the shame.”
Kel brushed her head. “It did nothing to lower my station any more. No one would give me a thought.”
“But you saved one who never had a kind word for you.”
“Each of those who brought gifts brought from their abundance. None even fashioned their offering with their own hands. You gave all that you had. It cost you everything, while it cost them nothing.”
Tears fell faster now.
“You tend your father, though in his brokenness, he can show you no love.”
“But I love him.”
“And this is why I choose you. You are ever kind, even in the face of hatred. When we go to minister to a village who has suffered an attack or wasting illness, who could comfort them more? One who knows their pain, or one who causes pain?”
“But—” She swallowed her tears. “I am broken.” She hobbled forward.
“You’re perfect. I don’t see you as the world sees you, beloved. You are to be treasured more than the finest gold.” He blew out a long hot breath.
Pain exploded in her damaged leg and she fell with a cry. She bit her lip to silence it. The dragon picked her up. She placed her left foot down and found her balance before adding the right that still throbbed. But her weight didn’t rest on the side of her foot. The ankle was straight and the foot flat. She dared raise her hem and stared at her straight, healthy leg. Long flowing strands of glistening black hair spilled over her shoulders and obscured her view.
“You are made new in the choosing, beloved.”
Kel spun, then ran, and finally danced. She came forward and laid against the dragon’s face. “Thank you. Thank you for seeing me, and thank you for healing me.”
“You are my beloved. I would die for you.” He nuzzled her. “Shall we go?”
Kel climbed on his back and they flew away.
Everyone has moments of loneliness, but there is greater depth to those of us who feel we are never seen. But in that you are strong.