A dozen twelve-year-old boys stood in the Hall of Riders, staring in mild fear at the large azure dragon before them. She peered at them with one deep blue eye, studying the twelve who had been chosen for the opportunity to become a Rider. Their appearances varied greatly, the majority of them displaying traits of both human and elven blood. A few appeared to have pure blood of one race or the other.
“They seem to get smaller every year,” the dragon mused, projecting her thoughts to the adult male who stood behind the line of boys.
The man, Dusan, answered aloud, as courtesy dictated. “I believe, Ena, that you simply grow larger.”
She gave a deep, dragony chuckle, startling the boys. “Yes, I suppose that is a possibility.” She turned her attention to the young candidates, then projected her thoughts to their minds. A few recoiled from the touch of her large and ancient consciousness, and she knew immediately that they would not be Riders. “Little ones, my name is Ena. As all breeding females, you know that I am a wild dragon. But I will not harm you. I have worked in peace with your kind for many decades, consenting to give a few of my eggs to those who are destined to become their Riders. You know that not all of you will be chosen. Please, do not be frightened, but I must insert myself more deeply into each of your minds. I must sense your very souls in order to know who is destined for my eggs. Now, please, close your eyes and remain calm. I will not harm you.”
Nervously, the boys closed their eyes and Dusan, a judge and the trainer of young Riders, watched them carefully. With a deep, rumbling breath, Ena closed her eyes as well and expanded her mind, touching each of the boys at the same moment, tasting their very essences. The mind brushed against the man’s as it expanded outwards, but withdrew when it recognized his thoughts. Dusan saw several of the boys tremble as the great, ancient being prodded at their minds. It was then that he heard a quiet voice behind him.
“Lord Dusan,” it whispered.
He spun around angrily to see a young girl of fifteen, dressed in the drab clothing and wearing the leather collar of a slave around her neck, staring in awe at the dragon before them.
“Andra,” he snapped, “you know better than to enter the Hall during a Choosing!”
“I’m sorry, my Lord,” she answered, giving a small bow as she turned her eyes to him, “but it’s your daughter. Her fever is getting much worse. I think we should send for the Healer.”
Dusan scoffed. “So send for her, you foolish girl! Now get out of here before I beat you for sheer stupidity.”
With one last look at the dragon, Andra turned and darted back out of the room. Dusan looked back at Ena as she opened her eyes. She turned to him.
“Three,” she said to him alone, “I sense three who will pair with my eggs.”
“Only three?” he asked, clearly distraught. “There are fewer every year!”
A quiet growl rumbled deep in Ena’s throat at the man’s raised voice. “Perhaps your judges have lost their ability to select proper candidates,” she responded.
Dusan pulled away from the angry touch of her mind. “Very well,” he sighed. “You will bring the three eggs then?”
Ena nodded her great head. “They will be ready to hatch in a week. Prepare your Hall.”
Without a word, she turned and trundled towards the massive double doors that served as entrance for dragons into the Hall. A few slaves scrambled to open the doors. Ena slipped out of the opening and, expanding her great blue wings, lifted herself into the sky. She turned west, towards the cliffs, and was gone from sight within a few moments.
From a high window in Lord Dusan’s adjoining quarters, Andra watched the dragon disappear into the sky. Though she had seen many dragons during her time serving Lord Dusan, Andra had always admired Ena most. There was a certain grace about her that the dragons of the Hall seemed to lack. And the fact that she was a wild dragon, willingly entering the closed halls of man, made Andra’s heart race with excitement. And when she flew… Andra rubbed the goosebumps from her arms at the memory of Ena’s mind brushing hers and turned towards the girl in the bed beside her.
Dusan’s daughter, Aera, shivered beneath her blankets. Her face was pale and beaded with sweat. Andra sat on the side of her bed, and the girl opened her tired eyes to look at her. The slave girl gave her a small, sad smile. She was so small, so frail.
The little girl coughed, then asked in a rough voice, “Andra, will you tell me a story?”
“Of course,” she answered softly. “What would you like to hear?”
“Tell me about Aelodi. I like that story.”
Andra smiled. The blue dragon, who had been freed of the Dark sorcerer’s magic and become Oriens’ mate, was one of the reasons that she adored Ena so. She reminded her of the stories she had heard growing up, about the old days and the very first Riders. And Aelodi had been freed from a dark and terrible captivity. That had always been her favorite part. Andra glanced around the room to be certain that nobody else was there before beginning her story.
“The Dark sorcerer Peior sought to raise a Rider for Nocens’ army. But of course, no one who would serve the evil emperor would be worthy of becoming a true Rider. So, Peior stole an egg from the dragon Bolaer. The egg was a beautiful blue, the color of sapphires in the moonlight…”
As Andra told the story, Aera’s eyes closed again, her small chest rising and falling with her shallow breaths. Andra watched her closely, never stopping her tale. She had sent for the Healer, but she lived in Iterum, several miles away and would not be at the Hall for a few hours. Somehow, Andra knew that Aera would not need the Healer when she finally arrived.
Andra began to tell of how Aelodi had shed her blackness, when the rise and fall of the tiny chest slowed, then ceased altogether. The slave did not stop. She continued to tell the little body about Aelodi’s freedom, and how she had relished it, how Oriens taught her the ways of the wild, and how the two had become mates, producing the first eggs for a new generation of Riders. At last, Andra had nothing left to say, and the room lapsed into the silence that surrounds the dead.
She sighed, and kissed the cooling forehead. “Goodbye, Aera,” she whispered. “Sleep well.” Quietly, Andra stood from the bed and left the room, closing it behind her as she went to tell the housekeeper to release the Healer from her call, and to send for a priest instead.
“Andra!” a woman’s voice called.
The girl looked up from the book in surprise. The voice was close. She had thought she was alone. She glanced back down at the book’s beautiful illustrations of Iterum, then at the accompanying writing that meant nothing to her eyes, shut it, and returned it to its shelf in the library. The voice called again and Andra hurried out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind her. No one could know that she had been in there.
Footsteps echoed down the hall and a rotund woman in an apron appeared from around the corner. Andra jumped away from the library doors, trying not to look guilty.
“Andra!” the woman snapped, marching forward. The girl bowed her head and gazed at her feet. “What are you doing, you lazy girl? How many times have I told you that the rafters in the dining hall need to be cleaned? I can see the dust from the doorway! Now, you get up there and get those clean or it’ll be the whip for you, understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Andra muttered, still not meeting the housekeeper’s gaze.
“And you had better get it done quickly. The Pairing will be starting soon and we need to prepare the dining hall for the feast.”
Andra listened as the footsteps faded away before looking up. With a feeling of relief at having avoided an immediate beating, she raced towards the dining hall. When she entered the room, she found it filled with both slaves and servants, all bustling around, cleaning one thing or another.
A young man trotted up to her, smiling brightly. “There you are, Andra,” he called cheerfully. “Looks like we’re on rafter duty again.”
Andra smiled shyly at the servant boy, but said nothing.
He sighed and shook his head, still smiling. “Silent as always,” he teased. “I’ve known you for five years and I still can’t get you to talk to me.”
She blushed. “I’m sorry, Talias,” she whispered to the cook’s son.
“Ah, she speaks!” he cried, then laughed. “Don’t apologize. Your silence is endearing. Anyways, we should get to work. I’ll race you up!”
Talias darted towards where a ladder leaned against the lowest rafter of the ceiling. Andra smiled to herself. It was the only ladder in the room, but that didn’t matter to her. She ran towards one of the supporting beams of the wall. Leaping upwards, she grabbed a wide peg in the wood and pulled herself up. Placing her foot on the narrow hold, she leapt confidently out over the dining hall and grabbed a low rafter. Swinging around it once, she released herself into the air and landed astride the beam.
She grinned at Talias as he scrambled up the last steps of the ladder. He laughed and shook his head in amazement. “I will never understand how you do that,” he muttered, grabbing a rag from a bucket resting on the beam beside him. He wrung the water out of it, then tossed it to her. She snagged it easily out of the air. “Now let’s make this shine,” he said.
They set into wiping down the tops of the rafters, removing a year’s worth of dust from their surfaces. The rafters were only cleaned on the day of the Pairing each year. Andra moved easily across the narrow beams, while Talias wobbled and wavered as he removed the dust. She smiled, amused by his difficulty. Andra had finished her half of the rafters and was beginning to help Talias with his when cheering reached her ears.
She turned her eyes towards the sound, though she knew she would see nothing. The shouts were coming from the Hall of Riders, which adjoined the manor. The Pairing was beginning. Though she had never seen one, she knew from what others had said that the Riders would be marching in now, followed by the Riders in training, then the candidates for this year. Last of all, Ena would enter with the eggs she sensed would bond with the candidates, carried by servants. She sighed longingly, then looked back down at the grey dust that awaited her.
Talias looked up at her sigh. “You’ve never seen a Pairing have you.”
She shook her head. “It’s not allowed,” she whispered sadly.
The boy glanced around, then whispered quietly, “Only if you get caught. Sneak in the back and climb to the large beam in the center of the ceiling. No one will see you there.”
Andra looked at him in surprise, trying to determine if her friend was serious
“Go on,” he urged. “This is all my half of it anyways. Just be careful.”
She smiled at him gratefully and swung down from the beam, dropping the twelve feet to the floor without hesitation. She crouched on landing, absorbing the impact of the drop, then stood and ran from the room. The other slaves and servants watched her go in confusion, but returned to their work without a word.
As quietly as possible, Andra slunk through the halls and down the stairs to the corridor that connected Lord Dusan’s manor to the Hall. She met no one. The cheers of the spectators grew louder, and she knew that Ena and her eggs must be entering at the end of the procession. She picked up the pace, not wanting to miss the Pairing. She climbed several flights of stairs and stepped out onto the upper benches of the arena where the Pairing took place. The seats beneath her were all filled with eager spectators gazing down at the floor far below.
The twelve candidates were stepping towards Ena, who stood over her eggs in front of the golden statue of the three Guardians. The crowd fell silent. One young girl glanced over her shoulder at Andra. Seeing the leather collar around her neck, she frowned in distaste. Andra darted back into the shadows and glanced up. The rafter was not far above her head. She found a hole in the wall where a loose stone had fallen and used it to lift herself up towards the rafter. She wrapped her arms around it, then swung her legs up and twisted herself to the top of the wood.
Sliding quietly on her belly along the wide beam, Andra shimmied out towards the center of the arena. Finally, she was looking almost directly down at the dragon, her three eggs, and the twelve hopeful young boys. A low humming echoed throughout the silent Hall as Ena touched her nose to each egg in turn—an emerald green egg, a rich brown egg. A quiet gasp rippled through the crowd as Ena touched her nose to the last egg. It was a deep, shimmering purple, the rarest color among all dragons, save the destined golden dragons. No one had been a Rider of a violet dragon since the very first generation of Riders, which had been taught by Eliana herself.
The eggs began to tremble, humming in response to their mother’s voice. Even from her height, Andra heard the faint cracking of the stone-hard dragon eggs. A golden light streaked through the cracks of the shells. Andra held her breath as she watched the light growing brighter until, at last, all three hatchlings tumbled from their shells at once. Andra gasped. They were beautiful. The tiny dragons shook their heads, licking their hides clean of the sticky membranes before turning towards their patient mother. She touched their snouts and hummed again, giving her permission for them to leave her.
The hatchlings turned to the twelve waiting boys, making soft cooing sounds as they approached them. Jealousy ached in Andra’s chest as the brown hatchling headed straight for a young boy at the end of the line. The boy, who appeared to be entirely human, knelt down and extended his hand hopefully towards the little dragon. It turned its head from side to side, studying him curiously, then, closing its eyes, touched its nose to the boy’s hand. There was a flash of light. The newest Rider lifted his little dragon to his shoulder and turned towards the crowd, beaming widely, displaying the fresh, flame-shaped mark on his hand. Everyone cheered. The boy stepped away, joining the line of Riders in training, who stood against the walls.
The other two dragons were studying the line cautiously, staying close together, as if afraid to venture forward alone. At last, the green hatchling stepped slowly forward, approaching a boy in the center of the line, making a questioning mewing sound. Andra saw his moonlight blonde hair and the faint points on his ears. He was an elf, or at least partially; his eyes were a soft hazel. The young elf crouched as the green dragon stopped before him. He held out his hand as the other boy had. The hatchling blinked once at him, then closed its eyes and marked his hand. He lifted the dragon to his shoulder, and the crowd cheered once more as he joined the ranks of Riders.
Silence fell again quickly as they turned their eyes towards the violet hatchling, which still stood in the center of the arena. This was the one they had truly been waiting for. Who would be chosen to Ride such a rare and beautiful creature? It didn’t move. The little dragon looked around, squawking in fear and confusion. Ena rumbled in her throat and the hatchling glanced back at its mother, making a pleading sound, as if asking for help in making the decision.
“Poor thing,” Andra whispered to herself as she gazed down at the little dragon.
Suddenly, the hatchling looked up at her and squawked again. Andra froze in surprise. Could it have possibly heard her? It mewed loudly and opened its still-wet wings, flapping them clumsily as it gazed up at her, still raising a chorus of noisy protestations. Andra tried to make herself invisible, but it was too late. Ena turned her large head upwards, gazing at Andra with surprised blue eyes. She made a noise in her throat, then several more pairs of eyes looked up at her.
“Get down from there!” Lord Dusan cried.
Andra jumped to her feet and raced along the beam, back towards the benches on the wall. There were several more shouts. Andra swung down from the beam and took off running the moment her feet hit the ground. She didn’t get far. A man wearing a slave collar grabbed her forcefully by the arm, stopping her in her tracks. She didn’t fight him. She knew she was caught.
“Sorry, Andra,” the man whispered to her, then marched her down a corridor to where Dusan was waiting, tapping his foot angrily. She could still hear the purple hatchling mewing and squawking, and Ena’s answering hums as she tried to soothe the startled infant. Andra grimaced inwardly with guilt; she had frightened it.
Dusan stepped forward. She had barely registered that he had lifted his hand before it slammed into her cheek. She bit back a gasp of pain and looked down at her feet to hide the tears.
“Do you know what you’ve done?” he raged at her. “For the first time in over a century a violet egg has been chosen and you have prevented it from bonding! The creature has become so upset that Ena has refused to allow the Pairing to continue! You have prevented the training of a Rider! What do you have to say for yourself, Andra?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, the only response she could think of.
Dusan growled under his breath. “Your apologies repair nothing. Ten lashes for being where slaves are forbidden. Twenty for upsetting a dragon. And, for preventing a Pairing from being completed…”
Andra braced herself. If she had already been assigned thirty lashes for the more minor offenses, she could not imagine what she would be given for this.
“You are banished from my household. You will return to where you were born, in the manor of Chief Judge Castigo.”
Andra resisted the urge to cry out in protest, to beg him to reconsider. Dusan dismissed them, and the slave restraining her turned her down the corridor back towards the manor. Once they were out of Dusan’s sight, he released his hold on her. Andra heard him open his mouth to speak, but she didn’t wait to hear what he had to say. She ran as fast as she could down the corridor, then bolted up the stairs to the slaves’ quarters. Thankfully, it was empty.
She threw herself down on her narrow cot and sobbed. She couldn’t return to Castigo’s. For a female slave her age, everyone knew what that meant. It was the same reason she had been sent to Dusan’s when she was ten. Castigo’s son, Ledo, was six years older than her and had a reputation for forcing himself upon the young slave girls. His father knew of his son’s actions and always dismissed them. After all, they were only slaves, all of them criminals or the descendants of criminals. They were worth nothing but what they could be used for.
There was a soft knock on the door to the quarters and Andra sat up, looking frantically around for a place to hide. The door opened before she had a chance and Talias stepped in, a look of deep sorrow on his face. Andra quickly wiped the tears away from her eyes, trying to hide the fact that she had been crying.
Talias stepped slowly towards her. “Andra, I am so sorry,” he whispered. “I never should have told you to go in there.”
She shook her head, trying to dismiss the subject.
He sat on the cot next to hers and leaned forward, taking one of her hands between his. “I never meant for this to happen. I didn’t want you to get hurt.” She was silent, wanting to speak but afraid of breaking down into sobs. “I heard Dusan talking to the coachman. He says you’re to be taken to Vereor at first light tomorrow.”
Andra nodded quietly in understanding.
“Andra, please speak to me,” he pleaded. “I may not be able to see you again before you go. Please let me hear your voice.”
She took a shuddering breath, steadying herself so that she could speak evenly. “It- It’s not your fault, Talias,” she whispered. “I should have been more careful.”
He sighed and squeezed her hand. “You take care of yourself over there, okay?” he said, though they both knew that his words were empty.
Still, she nodded. They were both quiet for a moment, then Andra looked up at him. “I’ll miss you, Talias,” she said quietly. “You’ve been a good friend to me.”
With a sad smile, he sat beside her and pulled her into his arms. “I’ll miss you too, Andra. But you’ll be okay. Your mother’s still over there. She’ll take care of you.”
Andra didn’t answer, but wrapped her arms tightly around him. He held her quietly for several minutes before there was another knock on the door. They sprang apart, Talias landing on the opposite cot again, and the door opened. A large, burly man stood in the doorway, a grim look on his scarred face. It was Bero, another slave in the manor. He served two purposes—heavy labor and whippings.
He gazed at them quietly for a moment, then, with a short nod, said, “It’s time, Andra.”
She sighed, trying to clear her mind, and stood. Talias stood with her and followed her out the door. They followed Bero down to the main level, but he stopped her at the base of the stairs. It was here that they would separate, Andra following Bero to the whipping cell, and Talias returning to his chores in the kitchen. The guests were already arriving for the Pairing feast.
He embraced her one last time and whispered, “Goodbye, Andra.”
“Goodbye, Talias,” she whispered back.
Bero cleared his throat and they pulled apart. Talias gave a small, parting wave, and Andra turned to follow Bero down to the whipping post. They descended another flight of stairs to the stone cells where slaves were punished. The overseer was already waiting to watch the whipping in order to ensure that she received every last lash and that each one was forceful enough. Her heart was racing as she stepped up to the post. It wasn’t the first time she had been whipped, and she was certain that it wouldn’t be the last, but she had never received more than fifteen at once.
The overseer took her hands and bound them to the post, then pushed a leather-covered rod of wood into her mouth for her to bite down on. Bero pulled open the back of her rough brown dress and stepped back. There was the sound of the whip whistling through the air and Andra inhaled sharply, bracing herself. It cracked across her back, tearing a long line across her flesh. She flinched and bit down on the rod in her mouth, tasting the cured leather. Another whistle, another crack, and she flinched again.
By the twelfth lash, her back was screaming for mercy, and she wasn’t even halfway through. The tears she had been holding back began streaming down her cheeks, but she still managed to keep from crying out. The overseer continued to count off the lashes. “Fifteen… Sixteen… Seventeen…”
Andra closed her eyes and thought of the only good thing in her future—her mother. She would see her tomorrow. She tried to call up the few memories she had of her, but each time she managed to remember her face, it was obliterated by another crack from the whip as it ripped across her back. “Twenty-two… Twenty-three…”
Perhaps she would manage to avoid Ledo. But for how long? A few weeks? A few months maybe? But not indefinitely. Certainly not forever. Nobody avoided him forever. Hot, sticky blood poured down her back, soaking her dress down to the hem and dripping to the stone floor. “Twenty-nine… Thirty…”
The overseer stepped forward and pulled the rod from her mouth. Her jaw ached from clenching down on it and she could see the marks of her teeth in the leather. He undid the cords that bound her to the post, and she slumped to the ground, panting, her face pressed to the cold stone as tears continued to stream down her cheeks.
“Don’t help her,” she heard the overseer snap. Apparently, Bero had stepped towards her. “You know the rules.”
Andra listened as their footsteps disappeared back up the stairs. She knew the rules as well. After a whipping, a slave was not allowed to be aided in any way until they had reached their own cot. Once they had proven themselves strong enough to complete this simple task, the other slaves were able to attend to their wounds.
She knew all this. Her back screamed for some kind of salve or poultice, but she couldn’t move. She lay there, breathing in the dirt and dust on the floor as her blood dripped down her back, forming tiny pools at her sides. When she could stand the pain no longer, she forced herself to her feet and stumbled up the stairs. There was no one in sight. Likely, they were all busy with the feast. Andra dragged herself up the rest of the stairs to the slave quarters and fell into her cot with a moan.The quarters were quiet and empty. Nobody would be there to help her for hours. Closing her eyes, Andra lay in the silence, letting the blood dry on her back.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The remaining chapters of "Bright Star" have been removed, and are now available as a published novel from Tor Teen! It's also been adapted and launched on Inkitt's immersive reading app, Galatea! Be sure to check out this new, amazingly enhanced version for free over in the app. Thank you for your support and readership!
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