To Tame a Dragon - Tiffany Roberts
Elliya stood before Cetolea, the sacred pool, the life-giver, with her tribe sisters lined up beside her. Pounding drums and humming voices echoed off the surrounding canyon walls, reverberating through air that was fragrant with the perfume of the season’s first flowers. Dozens of blossoms had grown around Cetolea. The flowers added fresh color to this sacred place—white, pink, yellow, and purple, all vivid in the moonlight and in harmony with the pool’s gentle blue glow.
Telani, the high priestess, scattered a handful of petals over the pool. They flittered down to light upon the water’s surface as she raised her voice in a chant of praise. Telani’s voice was joined by those of the two priestesses flanking her. The drums slowed, and the gathered tribespeople altered their humming to match the melody of the priestesses’ chanting.
Tonight was the start of the Blooming—a season of fertility and new life. The night when the males would choose new brides.
Or rather, their new breeders, Elliya thought with not a little disdain.
That thought was swiftly followed by shame. What choice did her people have? They were dying out—and not just Elliya’s tribe. All the nearby tribes faced the same dire situation. Every year saw fewer births, fewer males. Only five males remained in Elliya’s tribe. Two of them were graybeards, one was but five years old, and the other younger still.
Without more males…
This joining ceremony was Elliya’s duty to her people. As a huntress, it was her role to ensure the survival of the tribe by any means necessary—whether through her skill or her body. She should’ve been honored to have reached the age of choosing, to be openly wanted by Dian, the most virile adult male in their tribe, but all she felt was unhappiness and dread.
Were she not chosen tonight, there was a chance she’d be traded to another tribe, that she’d be forced to leave her home, her mother, her tribe sisters. That she’d be sent to another tribe to breed with a male she’d never met—just like some of her people’s younger males would be traded away. The movement of males and females was integral to keeping the blood of the desert tribes clean, ensuring bloodlines would not stagnate.
That was the way of her people. That had always been the way.
So why was it so hard for her to accept? Why did she long for more? What was this…need for a male of her choosing, for someone who would want her for more than the pleasure her body could provide him? For someone who would treat her as a treasure to be cherished rather than a breeder to whom they were entitled, who would treat her as more than a womb to be filled.
Someone who would look at her and forsake all others.
That is not the way, Elliya. You know this. Such selfish thoughts…
That knowledge didn’t stop her longing.
A warm night breeze brushed over Elliya’s bare skin. There was an odd energy in the air, making the little hairs on her arms and neck stand on end and threatening to raise tiny bumps on her flesh. She told herself it was merely apprehension.
The high priestess turned to face the five huntresses gathered for the choosing. Telani beckoned the first forward, dipping her hand into the sacred pool. She placed her fingers upon the huntress’ belly, intoning familiar words.
“Cetolea, bless this womb…”
Elliya had seen this ritual every year for as long as she could remember, had heard those words countless times, but that had not prepared her for this. That had not prepared her to be standing here now as one of the huntresses to be blessed, to be offered. To be chosen without being given any choice of her own.
Telani summoned the other huntresses one by one, offering the same blessings to each, until finally it was Elliya’s turn. Elliya stepped forward and studied the high priestess. Telani’s black hair, now streaked with gray, hung freely around her shoulders. Small lines marred the corners of her mouth and her dark eyes—eyes that matched Elliya’s perfectly.
“My daughter,” Telani said, smiling widely. It was the same proud smile she’d worn when Elliya had gone on her first hunt, and it brought the words Telani had spoken that long-ago morning up from Elliya’s memory.
A huntress is strong and selfless. She is the heart of our people—steady, brave, unwavering. Your heart beats fierce, Elliya, and it beats true.
Seeing that pride on her mother’s face, as strong now as ever, bolstered Elliya. She raised her chin