The dragons are mostly in another dimension. For them to be seen as more than shimmering ghosts, they must join with a rider. When a dragon and a rider join, they become one - the dragon - though both intelligences remain separate. After they are joined, the dragon becomes as real and touchable as any other creature on the planet.
Joining, however, does take a certain amount of concentration by both parties, and if the concentration is disturbed, the rider falls. Therefore, scientists developed a matrix for the joined dragon to wear that holds the rider in place until he wishes to separate. This matrix can be anything, though it looks like a piece of jewelry most of the time. it is usually worn around the neck or around the leg: the style is anything the pair of them like and want to wear. Of course, since the matrix is made by man, once a dragon and rider separate, the item drops to the floor to be picked up and put on once again when dragon and rider are joined again.
Riders are chosen early and taken to the rider's school high in the mountains where they learn everything they need to know and much more. Dragons choose the riders; every year they visit towns and farms in search of girls and boys who have the right turn of mind to become a rider.
Matthew had always been a bit of a loner. He was tall and blond when most of the people around him were much darker. Unable to make many friends, he turned his efforts to other things in his life, and was never satisfied with good enough. As he got older, this meant that the barn was spotless and the corral fences were in excellent repair. His goats were well groomed and clean, and the milk he sold from them was said to be the sweetest.
Dragons were common all over the planet, but since they were ethereal, no one feared them. Because of the joining, there was a great deal of respect and awe for them though. Matt had always admired them when they came to the village in search of riders, though he'd always had to do so from his lofty vantage point high in the hills.
He liked their smooth glistening hides and the rippling muscles visible even from so far away as the slightest movement made them shimmer and glitter. He liked their colors too, which were as varied as the imagination could conceive, but most of all, he liked to watch them fly. Every move they made was easy and graceful; he loved dragons.
On the day he met his friend, he was laying on a rock, soaking up some sun, when a wing of dragons with riders flew over. They weren't stopping today; but they didn't search for new riders until fall and it was early spring still. No, the wing was on some other errand today, but Matt watched them anyway. They were just crossing the ridge of the mountain behind him when their trajectory led his eyes to spot a riderless dragon sitting among the rocks watching him.
He had never seen a dragon up close, riderless or otherwise. They had always been going somewhere else on some errand he could only guess at poorly.
"Hello," he said as he stood. Everyone knew that dragons were just as intelligent as humans were, even if they didn't have the power of verbal speech. He moved closer to the shimmering ghost. It wasn't as big as he expected, but even so, it was bigger than his entire flock of goats, if he were to lump them all together into one dragon-shaped mass.
He moved closer still with his hand held out. "I wish I could touch you," he said longingly and watched as the dragon lowered its head closer to his level. Even though he was little more than a cloud to him, he admired it contours. He could see the rippling muscles and wished he could have rippling muscles too, but though he did not lack in strength, his muscles were stretched too long over his lanky frame to leave room for ripple.
Curious, he reached to touch the ghostly muzzle and felt a spark travel through his body and mind that was like a spark of lightning. For a split second that left him doubting the sight, he saw a different dragon crouching in front of him with an entirely different world beyond him.
The dragon, Wishindar, reared his head up in astonishment, having experienced the same thing, and then thrust it back down and into the boy's chest for another taste. Both of them were more curious than they should have been, but both of them longed for companionship since both of them were loners. From the first accidental and utterly ecstatic joining, they became fast friends.
Every day, Whishindar found Matt and they would play. At first, it was simply learning how to remain joined without falling apart simply by moving. In the process, they learned about each other. Matt learned that Whishindar was politely shunned because, instead of being brightly colored, he was slate gray. He was no less gleaming; his scales were every bit as shiny as any other dragon's scales, but if he held still enough, it was difficult to distinguish him from surrounding stones.
After weeks of play that usually ended in a few scrapes and bruises for Matt and a lot of laughs, they had yet to fly more than a few feet off the ground.
"Matthew, you should go to the school. You could learn how to do this better. Only then can we fly properly," said Whishindar.
"I can't go," said Matt. "Without the money from my goats, father would go hungry. He can't take care of himself anymore."
Their discussions on this subject always ended like this and then they would try again.
They flew and played all summer long. There was really little else to do except watch the goats and make sure they stayed out of trouble, and they could do that easily enough.
One day, a mountain lion charged into Matt's goats, bringing down one squealing kid and scattering the rest of the herd dangerously. Already in flight, both Matt and Whishindar saw the attack, and galvanized by a joint goal, they swooped on the hapless lion and snatched it away from its kill, dropping it over the side of the closest rock ridge. The lion was bruised and bettered by the attack and the fall, but it limped hastily away and disappeared into the ridge of trees.
Matt and Whishindar then circled around and grouped the heard again, albeit on a different patch of grass. The goats, accustomed to the gray dragon that had been around all summer, were calmed by its presence now.
Grouped and quieted, Matt turned his attention to the kid, and they landed there. Matt hit the ground running while Whishindar watched over his shoulder. The kid was standing, but it was in bad shape. Matt was equipped to deal with some injuries but that was at his camp. He scooped up the kid and sprinted off. Less than half way there, there was no more reason to run.
Matt was heartbroken; he loved his goats. Though he knew at first glance that there was little chance, he was willing to do whatever he could to save it. He even blamed himself somewhat for what had happened; if he hadn't been playing, he might have been able to do something to prevent this loss.
Whishindar watched over Matt, he watched his every move and studied everything about him. Not joined, Matt was just as much a ghost as Matt had said he appeared to him. He didn't understand what had just happened. The small creature had been attacked and it had died; it was nature. He vaguely understood the importance of these goats; they were food in a roundabout sort of way. They were security for his friend and his father.
Then another thought occurred to him. He tried to approach Matt. He touched his shoulder, but Matt flinched away and continued to dig the hole. When the hole was deep enough, Matt laid the kid in it and tossed in the blood-soaked dirt before filling the rest of the hole; he couldn't afford to have the smell of blood around camp - Whishindar could understand that too.
When Matt was finished, he walked away without so much as a glance toward Whishindar. He went to where they had left his heard and Whishindar followed him, puzzled by the way his friend was acting. Matt walked through his goats, checking each one in case there was some other injury caused by the lion or by their panicked flight. With the exception of one dam who couldn't find her kid, the other were all accounted for and unhurt.
Matt found an accommodating rock and sat down on it. He saw Whishindar there a few yards away, but he couldn't go there now; he just felt so guilty.
When Matt didn't seem inclined to move, Whishindar came and settled down beside him. The end result was that Whishindar was wrapped nearly all the way around the rock. He could see that Matt was upset, but he still couldn't understand why. He reached a claw toward Matt's cheek but once again, Matt flinched away. When the sun touched the western horizon, Matt rounded up his pack and then his herd and headed for home.
After Matt had milked and settled all his goats, he went into the house. His father, though he walked with a cane and had a patch over one eye, had supper ready when he came in. Kabil's injuries stemmed from some long ago he would never speak of. All Matt knew of it was that it had cost the life of his mother too.
Though they usually ate in relative silence, Kabil could see that something was bothering his son. Gone was the boy who usually had a secret smile in his eyes and sometimes even in his mouth. "What's the matter, boy? You look like your best friend just died."
Matt flinched. "I lost a kid today - Annie's kid - you know the one."
Kabil didn't know the goats as well as Matt did so it took him a moment to place which nanny he was talking about and remember which kid had belonged to her, but when he did, "That one? Cute little bugger, but he would bave been on the butcher block in another month or so, you know that. Why are you so upset at the loss of a few pounds of meat? There's plenty of other young billies in the herd this year."
"Yeah, I know. It's just that . . . ."
"You're not blaming yourself now, are you? You've lost goats before. It happens; every year, it happens. You know that. Tell me what happened."
"It was a mountain lion. I . . . I drove it off."
"Well that's good, but you should probably take the herd to the north ridge for a while, until it leaves the neighborhood."
Matt nodded and tried to finish his supper: he had no appetite for it.
That night, Matt relived the attack in protracted detail. He had just taken off low over the grassy flat; the herd was behind him. The lion appeared out of nowhere. The herd was running and bleating. The smell of blood was sharp. The smell of fear was bitter. He arched high and tight; flexing muscles and twisting his body to make a turn that was too tight for his bulk. The flesh gripped in his claws was satisfyingly warm, and he felt every thrash as the lion fought for survival. There was a malicious satisfaction as he released it over the rocky cliff - too bad it wasn't steeper or rockier, or higher - too bad it lived - too bad he didn't hunt such creatures. Circling low, finding each goat and turning it back toward the other - circling around until he had found them all - all but one. He was running. It was standing on three legs. Its site, from neck to ribs, was skinned, blood dripped from the edge of the bloody pelt that hung nearly to the ground. He lay the bloody skin back in place and picked up the trembling bit of life. At first, it kicked feebly but all too soon, it gave up, and soon after, its little head hung limply. If only . . . .
Matt woke abruptly. Yeah, they'd started out to play at being dragon and rider again, but this time it hadn't been play; this time it had been very different, very serious. Was that what it was like to be a real dragon rider?