Curled up on the floor, Aeryn huddled alone surrounded by oppressive blackness. The low ones were not provided for when their elders were selected. Aeryn’s mother had died giving birth to her (something she had never forgiven herself for) but her father had been with her until a few weeks ago. He was young, only 15 years her senior, but he had been her lifeline. He could not fix the world, but he had sheltered her and held her when she cried out in the night from the endless nightmares that cycled through her brain.
Now there was no one.
Her house was a crude thing, made of mud and stone and straw. The floor had a dirty brown rug on it that had once been white, many years ago. They had acquired it when it fell off the back of a high man’s truck when a few were racing through the village. Her father, Mark, had wrestled with three other low men for ownership of the rug.
Aeryn knew she would have to fight her own battles, which, in actual fact, she didn’t mind too much. Protection was a comfort, but it made a person weak. Aeryn hated self-weakness. Growing up in the cruel world of the low men had taught her that weaklings never lasted long.
Sometimes she took the fire form of the dragon for the night. When in that form she felt much safer, the scales hugged her like armour and the pyre was a barrier to the cold and biting world that she lived in. She longed to fly with her wings. They ached with yearning for the sky and the wind – but of course, it was forbidden. Only when a high man wished to travel on a low man’s back was it permitted to take flight.
A single tear rolled down her muddy cheek, unwashed for days due to lack of rain. There were no clean rivers or lakes nearby - if one went into the water known as the 'dirty drain' they were likely to come out fouler than when they went in, and ridden with parasites and diseases. She left a few more tears fall before swiping them away brashly. I will not cry she told herself forcefully in her mind. Little children cry. Little children die. Adults do not cry. Adults survive. Her father had made no reservations in telling her of the infant mortality rate of the low ones - fundamentally she was lucky to be alive.
Suddenly her heart jumped into her throat as there was a harsh abrupt knock at the door, breaking the dead silence of midnight like thunder.
Aeryn sprang to her feet, tensing into a squat. She felt the fire within her and prepared to strike. A crazy thought ran through her head to attack the person on her doorstep if he was a high man.
The knock came again.
Aeryn reluctantly edged forward, holding her breath. It was probably nothing – just a local asking for food, or water or shelter. So why was she so wrought with fear?
In one quick motion, she unbolted the rusty lock and swung the door open, holding her hands up to her face in defence. But when she saw what was outside, her valour dissolved and was replaced with pure shock. In front of her were five men, clad in white, shining dazzling torches into her wide blue eyes. There was no doubt about it – they were high men. And they had come for her.
"You are known as Aeryn, is that correct?" asked a man reading off a crumpled piece of white paper.
She nodded wordlessly. All defiance had melted inside her and instead a desire to pledge her undying allegiance to the high ones almost overwhelmed her.
No. That is the fear talking. She told herself. It was true, but rationality seemed out of reach to her terror-filled mind.
Two low men, wearing the custom black, were signalled forward. They grabbed her skinny arms with iron-tight grip and she was dragged away silently into the night.