From the time they were children, Akia hunted with her brother and his friend, Jakra: they fought, wrestled, swam, fought some more, fished, camped out, made fires, made trouble, and her brother noticed that Akia and Jakra eventually began to make eyes.
Jakra loved Akia’s fierceness, but only from a distance. Up close, her eyes bore too deep into his soul.
She knew he loved her, and would often fix him within her slate gray stare to watch him shift and blush, and she would smile, and try to go to him, but he would always find an excuse to rise, to run without running.
But she would have no other, and his fate was sealed.
She’d seen the rough ways of men; Jakra was indeed different, and sometimes they teased him for it, sometimes, not good-naturedly. That was fine; what he lacked in experience, she would see that he made up for in enthusiasm, and as he gained love’s knowledge, she would reap the benefits.
She would bear him many fine, strong children.
He disappeared into the trees, and she, being a superb huntress in her own right, decided he’d run long enough. She would chase him like a wounded stag, and have her prize.
“She loves me, I know, but I’m afraid.”
“Of what, boy?”
“That’s just it. I don’t know. She’s like…”
“She’s like nothing, boy, she is, a warrior born. And you…?”
“I’m not. Not like her.”
“Your wish then, boy. Out with it.”
“I would have the courage of…of a dragon.”
The crone, removing her supplies, hesitated at his words. “Are you sure? If I bind you to her, that is what remains.”
Jakra nodded, too surprised at his own words to say more, not willing to risk losing his chance.
Akia waited, watching, to see what would be done.
The crone chanted, and crimson tendrils of light slid up Jakra’s body like baby snakes; before Akia’s eyes, his limbs lengthened, changed, grew claws and scales.
“NO!” She ran toward them.
He turned at the sound, his serpentine eyes growing dull; he didn’t recognize her, and that, she couldn’t bear. The rest of his face was beginning to change, elongate, and before his lips disappeared, she kissed him.
“No, you fool!” the crone shrieked.
Fire arced from Jakra’s lips, and Akia fell, writhing in pain.
The crone hissed and cursed, packing her bag.
The pain receded. “What…happened…to me? My f-f-face…feels so…strange.” Akia sat up.
Now the old woman cackled, phlegmy and raw. “You got what you wanted, dear, and so did he.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
The crone bent, took the girl’s hand, and guided it to her cheek, where something scaly writhed beneath her fingers.
“You tricked him!” Akia gasped.
The crone’s wretched smile held no amusement. “And now you have him; this is the only way you will ever kiss him now.”
“I’m going to kill you, you old bitch.” Akia was shaking, her voice seething between clenched teeth.
The crone straightened. “That may be, child. But not today.”
The forest was gone now, as was her brother.
She was a lady in a foreign land, no less fierce, but had long ago traded her hunting leathers for silver necklaces, blood-red gems, and fine dark dresses, though they were of no value to her.
Jakra the Red Dragon, now branded to her cheek, now living under her skin, uncoiled himself, and stared into her slate gray eyes with his slitted green ones, with the courage of a dragon. His love was now a primal, feral thing, but his heart, hot within his glowing chest, was now beating for her, and her alone.
She picked up the knife, and turned to where the crone lay bound to the altar.
“Today,” she whispered in the old woman’s ear.