by Rebekah Postupak
The collar chafed.
Keset flexed her long, turquoise-and-cobalt neck, relishing her temporary freedom from the wretched thing. The moment the sky hinted of grey, her new Rider would circle her neck with the leather shackle and click the reins into place again. She had worn the Tenth Tier war dragon collar for two years now, but her pride still stung as fresh as the first day. Deep in the mountains is where she belonged, ferreting out cave goats, bathing in under-earth streams. Not here.
Her hind ears, a set of six scarlet spikes ringing the tip of her tail, caught her Rider’s call. Dawn already?? No; but duty called regardless. Keset groaned, stretched one last time, and slunk out of the tiny rocky hollow serving as her bed.
“We’ve a long day ahead,” said her Rider a few minutes later as he snapped on the final tether. He had a name, Keset supposed, but she wouldn’t bother to learn it. This one would perish too, as her previous Riders had, and the under-commander would throw another bland-faced half-soldier on her back to replace him.
“You’ve had breakfast?”
“I’ll snack on the battlefield.”
The Rider stopped his preparations to grin up at her. “Funny this morning, eh?”
“Funny every morning,” said Keset. She swallowed hard. Don’t get attached.
“It’s pretty rough out there, I guess,” the Rider said, cinching the rough burlap saddle around her belly. “Not many of us left. We’ll have to give ‘em what for today.”
His voice cracked—youth, not fear—and Keset swung her head around despite herself. Black hair curled tightly across his scalp, but his chin was unshadowed. Fourteen, if that.
“Skill counts more than numbers,” she said gruffly. “And you’re a trained Rider. You’ll do just fine.”
Lie, Keset. Tell the boy Death isn’t a raging fire that peels your soul raw. Tell him there’s hope, that even now his mother weaves a grand new cloak for her returning hero-son.
“So will you,” said the Rider, something he should have been too young to grasp flashing in his eyes. “They say no dragon sets the sky ablaze like you. You’ll be home soon, wearing king’s treasure instead of a harness.”
This child comforts me? The thought chafed more than the collar.
It continued chafing as they soared across the battlefields, plunging in flames to crumble enemy machinery. It needled her as the healers stitched together first his arm, then her leg, and as they returned to the skies, shrieking a duet of defiance. It chased her relentlessly as they darted in and out of the invaders’ polished weaponry, and it beat at her wings even as she plummeted, bleary-eyed, in dying sunlight.
“Fly, Keset!” whispered her Rider, his bloodied fingers clinging to her scales as though willing courage into her bones; he did not glance at the ugly arrows gouging his left side.
But she could not catch him as he pitched off her back onto charred ground and lay tangled in the harness next to her.
She froze. Her neck was… free. She could return to her caves, oath fulfilled—at least technically—and still claim the right to reward. She could—
Keset stared at the wounded boy.
That flash in his eyes did not belong to a boy.
It was a warrior’s.
Keset drew a deep breath and nosed her head slowly, painfully, through what was left of her collar before gently lifting the Rider in her claws. She summoned her last drops of strength for the flight home, the sun on the enemy’s arrows glinting like gold.
600 words, written for the flash contest #ChristianFlashWeekly, inspired by Proverbs 3:3, Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.