Kay opened both her eyes and smiled. She leaped from her bed, throwing on pants and the tunic from the day before. She pushed the sleep out of her eyes and washed her face and mouth before running outside toward the corral. The morning sun was more pink than orange as it peeked over the puffy white clouds. The clouds hung so low Kay almost felt she could reach out and grab one, well if Daddy held her up.
Kay’s father was the biggest, strongest and most brave around. Kay knew there was a lot more to the world than her family’s acreage but she never had the urge to explore. Their homestead had everything she could ever want. Daddy had built their home himself with his own two hands. Kay often sat in his lap and stared at those hands. His fingers were long and capable, his palm big and hard. Daddy never minded when she climbed up, not even now that she was seven years old and getting too big for cuddles.
Mama stopped her at the gate and Kay skidded to a halt, annoyed that she hadn’t woken up earlier. If she had, Mama might not have caught her.
“Where are you going, young lady?” Mama’s face was warm and loving as always yet she narrowed her eyebrows in an effort to appear stern. Kay knew that Mama meant it.
“I just want to see him, please Mama? Just for a moment I’ll be so quick.” Kay beamed her full smile, the one she showed her mama and daddy when she wanted them to see just how good of a little girl she was. “Please, Mama?”
Mama remained firm. “Chores first. I can’t be expected to do everything myself.”
Kay wanted to ignore her mother’s wishes but instead thought about all the work Mama would have to do by herself if she neglected her chores. She turned around and headed back toward their house.
There were chicken and rabbits to feed. The garden needed constant care and Kay was in charge of watering the plants as well as harvesting the ripe vegetables. The house always needed a good cleaning and laundry was in need of a washing. It was mid morning before Mama announced that Kay had completed enough chores and was permitted to go outside to the corral.
Kay needed no further prompting and ran from the house, kicking up trails of dust as she ran up the dirt road that led to the north barn. The best barn. The building was located on the edge of their property atop a large dirt mound which stood out against the otherwise rolling green hills. She stopped short in front of the massive building. Made of shiny metal and wire, the structure leaped from the ground and towered into the sky, two double doors dominated the front of the square building. Eager, Kay opened one of the doors.
She was immediately aware of the blast of heat that hit her skin and her lungs, the tell tale characteristics inside the north barn. She smiled at the familiar feel and smell of the room.
“Daddy, are you in here?”
Her father appeared from the opposite end of the barn. He smiled and waved her over.
“Be careful now, Rumble has a bit of a temper today.”
Kay laughed, “Daddy you say that about Rumble everyday.”
The dragon in question lay curled on his side in a roped off corner of the barn. He opened one lazy eye at the mention of his name but didn’t move. Too old to still breed, the dragon lived there out of habit more than anything else. Rumble had been in her family decades longer than Kay, than her father even. Kay had asked her father once how old Rumble was. When he’d been unable to answer she’d decided to demand the answer from Rumble herself. She’d stood atop his giant magnificent snout and stomped her foot until he’d opened both of his monstrous eyes. The giant black orbs stared at her blankly. Mama had been so scared she’d wept like a baby and Daddy had been so mad that, after he’d gotten her safely off, she’d gotten a whooping. She’d been five years old. Kay felt that Rumble would never hurt her and it appeared the old dragon was content to spend the rest of his days sunbathing in various spots in the surrounding pastures and his nights sleeping, curled into a sinewy ball of scales, in the barn.
Kay reached her father and fell into his arms. Daddy swooped her up in the air just as she’d known he would and she laughed.
“What are we doing today?”
Her father was an important man. Kay had grown up seeing a constant stream of people that traveled from all over to trade with her father, people from as far away as the Sand Sea. They gave furs, silver and gold, or formed pieces of art. Some gave spices or other various assortments of exotic foods. The list of products traded always differed but the people all came wanting one thing, dragons.
“I caught a new one, sleeping by the lake early this morning. She had her guard down,” he pushed back Kay’s wild curls. “She’s pregnant.”
Kay squealed with delight. She loved to watch baby dragons grow. They were born small enough to hold in her hand and she loved looking at their shiny scales and dark glistening eyes. The grew fast though, reaching Kay’s own size after just a week and they were curious and often got into squabbles with each other and their mother, testing their strength and power. They were intelligent too. They understood when feeding times were and they were aware that they had to return nightly for dinner and the security of the barn. Raised in the barn, they seldom ever sought escape and dragons born at the barn were the easiest to train for breeding, probably because they imprinted with her father when they were still babies.
“Can I see her?” Kay hopped from one foot to the other, twisting her hands in circles. “Oh may I?”
But Daddy said no and instead ordered her to look after Rumble’s breakfast, arguing that the newly captured dragon needed time to adjust. The mother dragon would be chained now and though distressed at her capture, she would also be nesting and preparing to give birth. Mama had informed both Kay and her father more than once that Kay was under no circumstances to be placed in any dangerous situations. A newly caught mother dragon would fall under the category of such a situation. More than anything Kay wanted to watch but knew that Daddy would never let her. Probably because he was scared of Mama. Kay didn’t know why her father was so frightened of Mama but she could tell that he was because he never went against Mama’s wishes. Kay thought it had something to do with the way Mama would tap her foot and scrunch up her eyebrows, she could look pretty mean when she did that.
Kay fed Rumble, carefully setting down his portion of mixed meat, today several fat pigs and a bird of some sort, Kay suspected it had been a turkey though without feathers it was hard to tell. Rumble hated feathers. She left his meat as well as several bushels of vegetables in front of the dragon before she leaped far from the pile and shouted out, “Now, Rumble!”
The dragon lifted his noble head and blew a stream of fire over his offering. Once the food was sizzling and smoking he devoured his portion, swallowing the meal quickly and sniffing the air around him. Kay was glad that her father had never sold Rumble because he was her favorite. Kay had heard the terrible stories of what happened to dragons across the Sand Sea and had asked Daddy about it once. His face had looked very angry and his voice was firm.
“It’s not our business what happens to the dragons we sell.”
Kay had kicked at the ground while she thought over his answer. “But don’t you feel sad knowing you’re giving the dragons away to people who are just going to be mean to them?”
Daddy had been very firm. “We do not give the dragons away Kay. We sell them to pay for the things we need to survive. Don’t you love all of your toys? Don’t you love where we live?”
“Yes Daddy,” Kay had answered solemnly because she really did love her life just the way it was, she just felt bad for the dragons sometimes.
Mama was always particular to Rumble, more so after Kay had provoked him and he hadn’t attacked. She saw him as a member of the family and was constantly reminding Kay that she was lucky to have such a friend in Rumble because most people never got to know dragons and no one counted one as a friend.
Daddy suggested that Rumble’s natural friendliness toward the family, and particularly Kay, was just because he was so old, and though Mama agreed it sometimes looked like she wondered.
Kay sat in the dirt beside Rumble, careful to give him plenty of space while he finished his breakfast. She watched him for a moment, smelling her hands and wrinkling her nose at the smell. No wonder dragons had such smelly breath. Finished with his meal Rumble licked the ground where it had been and then sniffed at the air, flicking his forked tongue in and out before fixing one dark eye on Kay.
She held up her hands, “No more. You’ll just have to wait for dinner.”
Rumble grunted and twin lines of smoke curled up from his nostrils. Kay watched them, mesmerized. Kay had seen dragons in every color of the rainbow but Rumble was the prettiest. Rumble was a deep red color that Kay imagined must be the most beautiful color in all the world.
“It’s the color of rubies,” Daddy had once said, showing her a small red stone. Kay had wrinkled her nose at the shiny rock. It was pretty, and while the hue reminded her of Rumble it did nothing to capture the sparkle in his scale or his richness of color.
“You wouldn’t hurt me,” she said softly. She stood up slowly, keeping her eyes trained on Rumble’s mouth. The dragon stood unmoving. She reached out her arm, unfolding her fingers one by one, careful to keep her breathing slow and normal.
“Easy Rumble, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“He’s not worried that you’ll hurt him,” her Daddy’s voice was calm and even. “Come away from him baby.”
Kay sighed and did as she was told, turning her back on the dragon and walking toward her father. She could feel Rumble’s eyes watching her leave.
“He wouldn’t have hurt me, Daddy.” Her voice was impatient but she was careful not to whine when she presented her case. Daddy always said that if she pleaded her case like an adult she would be treated like one. “Rumble has never been aggressive before. And you even said that when I stood on his nose when I was a little girl he didn’t look like he was mad at all.”
Daddy smiled, showing his even white teeth. She liked when they peeked out from behind his scruffy beard. “You’re still a little girl.”
Kay narrowed her eyes, “Daddy I’m presenting a case here.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he smiled, lifting his arms in surrender. “Please continue.”
She cleared her throat. “Because Rumble has never acted aggressive toward me and due to the fact that we have established a relationship,” She was pleased to see Daddy’s eyes widen at her using such big words, “I propose that I am allowed to try and pet him.” And try to ride him, she added silently to herself. She knew the importance of picking her battles and instead finished her case with, “Please Daddy, just let me try one time.”
Her father seemed to actually be considering it, that is, he hadn’t said no and was staring off at Rumble when an opening door sent in a rush of outside air. The cool air tickled her sweaty skin and Kay shivered from the goosebumps.
Her father spun around at the open doors and smiled at Mama who stood in the doorway. Though her mother respected Rumble she would never approve Kay’s efforts to get closer. Kay sent pleading eyes on her father and he squeezed her shoulder before ushering her to the door by keeping a large steady palm in the small of her back.
“Is it time for me to help get lunch Mama?” She was quick to ask before Mama questioned what they’d been talking about.
“It is, why don’t you wash up?” she smiled at Kay before turning serious eyes to her husband. “There’s a buyer here.” Her tone was meaningful and Kay was aware that her parents were silently communicating, she was missing something and she scowled, she hated being left out. She knew better than to ask any questions however and instead scampered off to the kitchens, wanting to reach home before her parents in hopes of gaining a clue on the new buyer.
She raced back home, ignoring her parents calls that she wait and pumped her tiny legs as fast as they would take her. When she reached their house she was sweaty and breathing hard. She opened the back door and fell inside, pleased to see the visitor sat waiting inside their small family kitchen. The kitchen smelled of warm bread and Kay smiled deeply at the visitor feeling very satisfied.
“Hello,” she said ripping the corner off the fresh loaf and popping it into her mouth. Mama made the best bread, it was hot and buttery; it melted in her mouth.
The buyer looked different than the others. In place of the heavy wool robes the man wore a light tunic not dissimilar to her own. His pants stopped just under his knee and ballooned slightly at the bottom. She was interested in his odd clothing but was more fascinated by his shiny bald head. The man’s dark eyes slanted down at her.
“Hello,” his voice was low and musical. “You must be Kay.”
Kay smiled, she liked feeling important. She was the daughter of the dragon catcher, the greatest dragon trainer that ever lived. She stood tall.
“I am.” She nodded and didn’t demand to know the stranger’s name, even though she wanted to, because she didn’t want to be rude. When he didn’t offer it she cocked her head to the side and thought of what she could say.
“Rumble is my favorite but he’s not for sale.”
The buyer’s eyebrows lifted and he smiled, “Is that so?”
Kay nodded, feeling braver. “Yup, he’s my friend one day I’m going to ride him and everything.”
“Aren’t you scared?” The buyer widened his eyes and looked down at her impressed. “What about his big teeth and all that fire?”
Kay shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not scared, Rumble would never hurt me. Besides if he blows his fire at me I’ll just move it away.”
“Kay, go to your room.” Her father had appeared and he filled the doorway. He did not look happy.
“To your room.” He didn’t even look at her, his eyes were trained on the buyer. She fled from the room but stopped just outside in the hall. She leaned against the wall and took a deep breath trying not to scream. She wouldn’t throw a tantrum. Only babies threw tantrums and she was seven years old.
“What are you doing here?” It was her father’s voice, he was asking the buyer.
“Is it true? Does Kay have the gift?”
Kay straightened at the mention of her name and pressed closer to the wall so that she could hear better.
“I asked you what you were doing here.” It was Daddy’s ‘don’t ask me again’ voice which meant that he was good and angry. The buyer would have to apologize now.
“You know why I’ve come.” The buyer’s voice sounded more amused than frightened. Kay frowned and wrinkled her eyebrows, trying to hear what her daddy whispered.
“You can’t have her.” At least, that’s what it sounded like to Kay, but she was already pressed close to the wall and if she moved any closer she would be spotted. If Daddy saw her she would get in trouble for not going to her room like he’d asked.
“She belongs here. With her family.”
“It’s her duty. Did you think to hide her from us?” The buyers voice was angry now. “ Did you think we would never find out?”
“You can’t have her.” Her father repeated and Kay was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude. She was sorry she’d ran ahead and she didn’t want to know any more about the mysterious man, she only wanted him to leave.
There was a thud and she jumped back from the wall that still vibrated from the impact. Daddy grunted on the other side. Kay suddenly remembered what Mama and Daddy had told her. She was in trouble, and it was time for her to run. She turned on her heel and hurried to her room.