Helena shivered as the cold spring breeze cut through her thin cloak. The scent of freshly tilled earth and young growing things filled the air. A time of rebirth. A time of blood sacrifice to keep the monster from devouring the calves, lambs and newly planted fields.
Even standing in the center of the crowd, Helena felt alone. Her mother had been sacrificed first, then her older sister had been taken by the blood lottery five years later. Her younger sister’s name had been called last spring.
No one stood up for them as most were happy it wasn’t their friends or family. And who would miss a poor washer woman and her impoverished children?
Helena suspected that the lottery was not random as it was supposed to be. It had been a long time since a merchant had been chosen and longer still that an aristocrat had.
The poor, the misfits, the criminals unfit for hard labor. Those were the ones that somehow were chosen time and time again. And she fit two of the three criteria. Helena assumed the only reason she hadn’t been chosen yet was Lord Lothar’s lustful interest in the washer girl who read books. But that shred of protection was gone when she’d refused to jump into his bed.
She’d take her chances with the rigged lottery.
Fear knotted her chest as she watched the sheriff roll out the silver basket filled with names. She knew, and yet, it was supposed to be a lottery…
She held her breath as the priest reached into the basket and drew out a name.
The crowd parted like a sea around her, afraid to get too close to the condemned woman. She swallowed back the fear. Time to join her mother and sisters in the great beyond.
Helena said nothing even as the guards swooped in and yanked her forward. Lothar leered down at her from the podium, a dark smile twisting his lips as they bound her arms behind her back. He sat back and watched as they dragged her through the streets toward the Tower of God.
Helena kept her face blank as her heart pounded against her ribs. She’d done the right thing rejecting Lothar. Her mother’s willingness to bed a nobleman and let him sire her three daughters had done nothing to protect any of them. Nothing to feed them. And the nobleman had been quite willing to sacrifice his illegitimate daughters when knowledge of them had become inconvenient.
Steadying her breathing, Helena said a prayer to Thalia. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about how she was going to eat tonight.
They reached the gleaming silver temple overlooking the jagged Dragon Cliffs. Helena had only a moment to take in the glorious windswept valley and tall peaks before the guards forced her up the almost endless flight of stairs to the top of the Tower of God. The icy wind tugged her mahogany hair from its braid, twisting the shining tendrils as they bound her to the pole.
A guard drew his dagger and sliced her wrist.
Helena yelped, watching her blood flow from the wound and drip down her hand and over her cloak. The only cloak she owned. Not that she would need it much longer.
The moment her blood touched the Tower of God, she heard it. A deep, low rumble that made her stomach climb into her throat.
The guards heard it too and raced back down the stairs.
Growing louder, the rumble filled her ears and shook the ground. The entire temple swayed, and had she not been bound to the pole, Helena would’ve tumbled onto the jagged rocks below.
A moment later she saw it. Her eyes saucered. As large as the temple itself, the silver dragon glittered in the afternoon sunlight as it glided through the cold air.
Before she could think, before she could offer another prayer to Thalia, it dived at her.
She closed her eyes and screamed.
But there was no pain. She opened her eyes, expecting to be dead, but instead she found herself soaring over forests and streams so fast that they disappeared beneath her in a panoply of color. A wave of nausea hit her, and she buried her face in her arm as she steadied her stomach.
Collecting herself, she took several slow breaths and looked up. A basket made out of strong but flexible reeds surrounded her and protected her from the dragon’s razor sharp claws. Was the beast taking her home to eat her? Or taking her as a meal for its children?
The dragon snorted above her, and Helena fell back against the basket.
I have no intention of eating you, and I have no children to feed you to.
There was bitterness in the words, and she looked up at the beast’s claws surrounding her.
“I can hear your thoughts?”
If I so wish it.
Helena said nothing and tried to keep her mind blank as she gazed down at the blur of landscape below them. The dragon’s flight felt effortless, yet they were crossing distances in minutes that should’ve taken hours.
At last his pace started to slow, and he spiraled upward. Helena clung to the sides of the basket. The dragon cleared the top of a mountain and descended into the valley below.
Lush, green, and full of life.
Given their altitude, it should have been snow-covered. Instead, fields were already sprouting, and orchards were in bloom. The rich scent played off the cold glacial smell of the dragon.
Another flap of his wings and they were gliding over towns and climbing towards a large castle that glittered like ice.
The dragon circled the castle then landed with a cat’s grace in the windswept courtyard. The doors to the castle opened and a group of revelers raced outside, their arms laden with flowers as they welcomed her.
Helena’s eyes widened and tears streamed down her cheeks as she saw her sisters and her mother running toward her.
“Am I dead?” Helena asked as she hugged her mother.
Her mother shook her head as she brushed away Helena’s tears. “This is Dragon Valley. Lord Ander brought us here, as he brought you.”
“I thought…” Helena glanced back at the massive silver dragon.
A blast of magic puffed her cloak, and where the dragon had been stood a man with silver hair and eyes bluer than the sky. A well dressed courtier hurried forward and draped an exquisite white cape over Ander’s shoulders.
“Let the feasting begin. The girl is hungry.” Oblivious to his nakedness, Ander left them as he strode into the castle.
“Still not the one,” Helena’s mother whispered. Looking down, she said a prayer.
“Not the one?” Helena asked.
Her mother hugged her. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go enjoy the feast celebrating your arrival. We’ll have plenty of time to explain later.”
Dressed in a warm cape and clean clothes, Helena ate her fill for the first time in her life. Still not totally convinced this wasn’t heaven, she looked towards the glittering castle and wondered about the man that had given her a new life.