by Melody Robinette
(I DO NOT OWN THE RIGHTS TO THIS PICTURE)
Aria sheathed her blade on her hip before slipping out of the cottage she shared with her mother and three sisters. No men inhabited these woods. At least not for a fortnight. But beasts did. Best to be prepared.
The men of Arsondower worked down in the valley between the mountainous hills. They were miners of sorts; only, instead of coal…they mined dragons. They were known as Dragon Keepers. Aria’s own father was there even now, carrying on the tradition passed down man to man to man.
It sounded like a tale of old. How lovely and magical, you might think. But Dragon Keepers had only one aim.
Dragon scales were worth their weight in it. And dragon eggs were worth even more.
Aria knew the way to the small creek that cut through the dense woods by heart. She’d been there more than any other place in her life, carting her bucket. Sometimes she liked to pretend she was traveling far away, to another land. She loved her family, but being cooped up in a cottage wasn’t exactly the dauntless life she longed for.
The women of Arsondower were kept safe in the mountains, tucked inside the shadows of the trees. They weren’t to venture down into the valley. It was dangerous. It was a man’s world.
A time or two, when Aria was too young to know better, she’d asked her father why she couldn’t help with the dragons.
“It’s man’s work, Lamb,” he’d said. “You stay in the cottage with Mommy where it’s safe.”
“You can help with the butter,” Mommy had added. “Won’t that be fun? You love helping with the butter.”
Aria did, in fact, love helping with the butter. Mostly because she’d swipe the side of the churn with her finger while her mother wasn’t looking and pop the creamy glop in her mouth. But, the older she grew, the more curious she became. Not about butter. Curious about the dragons.
So, one night, she snuck out of the cottage to follow her father and brother into the mines.
What she saw there still haunted her.
Fire-breathing beasts the size of redwood trees were chained to the ground with heavy, steel manacles. Their hides, usually known for their slick sheen, were dull and bleeding where the miners had stripped off their scales. Tortured despair hovered like a ghost in their eyes.
Aria was petrified. And outraged.
Her father had always taught her to be kind to the animals of the forest, to treat them with respect and reverence. Only to shoot with the intent to kill and consume.
But there he was, hurting the creatures whose profiles were sewn into their town’s flags. She couldn’t make sense of it. She wanted to ask him why he’d do such a thing. But she never did. She’d snuck back up to her house, claiming to her worried mother that she’d gotten lost in the woods.