Many times Collin sent Jamel to Alexandria alone with the fresh reptile dragon hides. With Jamel killing two or more dragons a week, Collin would have been forced to take more time from his family and practice in Hope than he cared to. Except that tanner Ulan Tole knew Jake could speak, and Jake could deliver the hides and return all in one night.
But tonight Collin took Quinn with him. It was time Ulan met his new dragon-slaying partner. And Ulan’s wife needed to take Quinn’s measurements for the new clothing he would need as Rock Trapper.
Jamel landed behind Ulan Tole’s store and tannery. Ulan lived above the store to the right of the large tannery building he’d added on. “Dannel is home,” Jamel announced.
As he said it, Ulan Tole’s twenty-year-old son ran from the barn. Dannel had accomplished a lot in the last few years, establishing outlets in all the major cities of Aussie for the dragonhide goods his family made. He also maintained the distribution routes through his own wingdeer airmail service. But as he ran up to them, a grin creasing his face, he looked almost sixteen.
Collin, donning his Hans Trapper persona, slid off Jake’s back. “Hey, Dannel, how’s it going?”
Jake snaked his head around to allow Dannel to caress him, which Dannel did. Collin was sure he’d ask for a ride again tonight. Several times Collin had indulged him, and he knew Jake did also when he found him home during his deliveries.
“Hans! You’ll never guess what I… Hey?” He stared as Quinn stepped up beside Collin.
“Meet my son, Rock Trapper. Rock, this is Dannel, the daring young man whose stomach is about as strong as yours.”
Quinn gave a brief smile and held out his hand. “Jake has told me about you.”
Dannel shook his hand but hid his jealousy well. Dannel had always longed to hunt dragons, and he was smart enough to realize what Rock Trapper’s presence meant. Collin had chosen an apprentice, and it wasn’t him.
Collin gripped the young man’s shoulder. Under other circumstances and if he’d actually needed an apprentice he would have chosen Dannel. But there were so many more secrets than one talking dragon, and Quinn was his son now. “I hear you’ve made your father proud with your distribution system and business sense.”
Dannel scowled to hide his pleasure in the praise. But then he grinned. “Never guess what I found.”
“I know,” Jake said, turning his head to let Dannel scratch his chin.
“How can you know?”
“Now, Jake, let Dannel tell his own news.” Collin gave Jamel’s ear an affectionate tug. “Don’t mind him, Dannel. You know how dragons are. They think they know everything.”
“Unlike a certain old man I know,” Jake teased through the transceiver.
Collin grinned and tugged his ear again. “What did you find, Dannel?” The boy was well traveled. It was sure to be something good.
“A pegasus colt!”
“Really? Is he here?” Collin took a step toward the barn.
“Yeah. Come on.” Dannel ran ahead.
Collin motioned to Quinn, and they followed. A single flame lamp lit the stall nearest the barn door. Dannel’s wingdeer, antlers in full dress for the season just like Kayden’s Sam, looked over the stall wall down into the straw below.
Collin entered the stall and dropped to his knees, running his hands over the deep yellow foal, wings full of feathers. An Erikan Pegasus, the rarer of the two. Georgian Pegasus had leather wings like a wingdeer or bat or Jamel. Collin noted its quivering. “Less than a month old.” A shallow dish of milk nestled into the straw by its head. “He’s eating for you?”
Dannel dropped beside him. “Not much yet. But he will. I just found him yesterday on my way home. He’s still a little scared.”
“He’s in pain, Dannel. See his wing.”
Dannel stared up into Collin’s face, his excitement replaced with fear. “It’ll heal, won’t it? He’ll fly when he’s older.”
Collin studied the foal to keep his gaze from Dannel’s. “Wings are delicate, especially on an Erikan Pegasus. I can try to operate, but if it can’t be fixed, he’s better off dewinged.”
“Operate? But… I should get a veterinarian. He’d know.”
Collin lifted his gaze to Dannel’s. “Let me try first. I’m sure I have more experience.” He noted Dannel’s father, Ulan Tole, come into the barn.
“I’d take him back home.”
“Not without me!”
Collin nodded. Dannel had proven his discretion since he’d met Jake. “You may follow on your antlered friend in the morning. I live in Hope. Dr. Alex Collin.” He motioned to Quinn. “Dr. Quinn Stone. And not all in my household know our secret, Dannel, so don’t mention Jake or hunting.”
Dannel’s father leaned against the stall wall. “I should have known you’d come to see the pegasus first.”
Collin stood. “Ulan, I’d like you to meet Quinn. He’s going to be working with me from now on, although for the sake of legend you can refer to him as Rock Trapper.”
Ulan smiled and shook Quinn’s hand. “You aren’t the young man who bagged the bronze dragon a few years back, are you?”
Quinn shrugged. “Jake actually got that one. I’ve only killed two so far, and with those Jake and Col… Al… Hans makes sure I don’t die if I fail.”
Collin clapped his hand down on Quinn’s back. “Still in training, but he’ll do when the old man’s reflexes start to die.”
“I could have learned,” Dannel said.
Collin gripped his shoulder again. “I know you could have, but you live too far away from Jake to make it safe.”
“I would move anywhere.”
“I’m sure Irisha will be much happier knowing that you’re not dragon hunting,” Ulan said.
“He’s right about that, Dannel. Neither of us have a wife to worry about. Have you set the wedding yet?”
Dannel took a deep breath. “Yeah. Two months. She should be recovered from childbirth by then.”
Collin grinned. “Still waiting, or has the big event occurred.”
Ulan scowled. “Irisha was sure she’d have the baby two days ago while he was off finding his new friend, but she managed to hold off. You’d be better off letting Hans take that pegasus home, and you staying here for your child.”
“But he might die. I want to know what’s going on.”
Collin shook his head. “Your father’s right. Stay here. Births don’t always go as planned. Irisha may need you. I’ll make sure your little friend is sewn back together right, and you’ll be the only man in Alexandria to have a pegasus, perhaps the only man on the planet. What’s the fellow’s name?”
Dannel hesitated, and Collin could see his debate. Then he crouched near the trembling foal and ran his hand over its neck. “Don’t let anything happen to him.”
“I’ll do my best. Ulan, we better get the business taken care of then.” He left the barn with Ulan, Quinn following behind. Jamel had already unloaded the hides from the hooks along his saddle, and they each grabbed two bundles as they went inside.
“That blue I asked you to keep for me I want made up for Rock Trapper. Even boots if you can.”
A young man entered the room, not quite fully dressed. His rumbled brown hair couldn’t hide the resemblance to Ulan and Dannel.
“Is this Seavan?” Collin asked. Last fall, Dannel had found Ulan’s long lost brother running a small tannery in New Haven. They’d renewed ties that their father’s strictness had broken, and his brother asked if his son Seavan could apprentice with Ulan for dragon-hide preparation. Dannel had no interest in staying home and tanning hides, and Ulan did need a successor.
Seavan’s eyes widened briefly, and then he held out his hand. “An honor to meet you, Mr. Trapper.”
“Hans. And this is my son, Rock Trapper. He or Jake are fully capable of conducting all my business for me.”
“Jake? I haven’t met….”
“I’m sure the day will come,” Ulan said briskly, opening the hides. “Go get Margot. Rock needs to be outfitted. Yes, I like that blue. My wife and I wagered that you were looking for another suit yourself, but I lost.” He grinned as his wife entered the room. “You’re right. It’s not for Hans. It’s for his son, Rock.”
Margot gave a self-conscious smile and then measured Quinn for his new clothing. Collin excused himself for the stables. The pegasus was not well, and he needed to ready him for flight.
Dannel sat beside the little creature, stroking its head. He faced the far wall, but Collin could still see the tenseness of the muscles along the back of his neck. Dannel’s wingdeer let out a murmur of greeting, and Dannel twisted his head around to watch Collin settle in beside him.
“I’ll do all I can for him, Dannel.”
“Are you really a doctor?”
“Have you ever fixed a pegasus wing before?”
“A long, long time ago. I’ve fixed a few wingdeer’s injuries since then.”
“And you’ve also de-winged them,” he stated bluntly, almost defiantly.
“Once I was forced to de-wing a wingdeer. It was that or put the poor beast down completely.”
Seavan came into the barn, but Dannel ignored him, lacing his fingers under the light cream mane which matched the colt’s wings and tail. “So what are his chances? Truth now.”
“Truth is that I’m more worried he’ll die before I get him home.” Collin slipped his pack from his shoulder and then pulled out his emergency medical kit. “That’s why I’m going to tranquilize the little fellow now to stop those tremors.”
Seavan knelt behind the foal as Collin injected the tranquilizer into its neck. Dannel kept stroking the colt as the tremors subsided. “It’ll be all right, Flash,” he murmured soothingly.
The little colt lowered his head and was still.
“He’s not dead, is he?” His voice rose in panic. Flash flicked his ears back and forth.
“Sssh,” Collin cautioned. “He’s sleeping. Best thing for him right now. Do you have a blanket I can carry him in?”
Dannel jumped up and left the stall. He returned a moment later with the hide of a cow. “If the baby wasn’t coming, I’d be going with you.”
“I know,” Collin soothed.
“Why…?” But Dannel cut himself off, shaking his head. “Was he with you before I met you? He’s not really your son, is he?”
“Quinn has been with me fifteen years.” He smiled gently. “And it’s only this past year I let him in on this. Don’t be bitter, my friend. If I ever need you, I will ask for you.” Collin eyed the wingdeer. “What’s his lineage? I’ve got a female who’d appreciate a visit in a couple weeks.”
Dannel let the subject go to his wingdeer Skyler as they wrapped the foal in the cow hide. Seavan stayed silent, but once Collin caught him resting his hand on Dannel’s shoulder in encouragement. Perhaps the cousins were good friends.
“Dannel, is Seavan discreet?”
Dannel grinned. “Yeah. I trust him with my life.” He gave Seavan’s arm an affectionate punch. “Also with our family assets. He knows we do nothing to endanger Hans Trapper or his family.”
Collin lifted the colt. “Good. I believe Rock is ready.” They walked outside. Quinn and Ulan stood on the other side of the yard by the back door. “Hey, Jake,” Collin called.
At the rush of wings Jake landed before them. Seavan backed and turned, running into the barn wall.
“Whoa, Seavan, don’t hurt yourself,” Dannel said, laughing as he caught his friend’s arm. “Jake is a mammal dragon.”
Seavan stared up at Jake as Jake first checked out the colt and then swung his head to Dannel and Seavan. “If we were not in a hurry, we might have gone flying, but perhaps when Flash is well.” He gave Seavan’s face and chest a quick sniff while the man stood stiff and pale.
Quinn climbed up, securing his straps. Then he reached for the colt. When Collin was seated and secured, Jake said, “I’ll see you again soon, Dannel, Seavan, Ulan.” He launched into the air and shot towards Hope.
“You didn’t need to scare him like that Jamel,” Collin chastised with a slight chuckle.
“I wasn’t trying to scare him. I didn’t show my teeth at all.”
They made it home just before dawn. Jamel let them off at the clinic entrance and then retreated to his loft. Collin carried Flash into the operating room, flicking on the lights. He laid him on the table and then shrugged out of his dragonhide jacket. When he turned to toss it to a chair with his hat and pack he saw Marta watching him.
Her eyes were wide, not with fear, but with wonder. “You ride the dragon!”
“Ah, Marta, perhaps you can keep that little piece of information to yourself. You wouldn’t want a rioting village burning down our house or barns looking for him.” He unwrapped the cow hide from Flash and was relieved that he’d survived the journey. “I can trust you, can’t I, Marta? Our friend Jake is the one who kills all those reptile dragons. Right now, I’m a little busy, but perhaps if you go out to the barn, Jake will let you meet him.”
“One who will die if I don’t get him stabilized.” Collin took a moment of his scant time to meet Marta’s gaze, placing his hand on her shoulder. “No one must know, Marta. I need your complete loyalty.”
“Always,” she breathed, her eyes shining.
“Okay. You go talk to Jake, while Quinn and I try to save this little guy.”
“And then we’ll have pegasus, too. Oh, I….”
Collin gave her shoulder a slight squeeze. “This guy belongs to a friend, but maybe someday we will. Now you must let us work.” Collin focused on Flash again. Marta slipped out the door.
Quinn had set out everything they needed. “Think we can trust her?”
“If she’s seen us on Jamel, we have little choice. But I’ll give her the whole lecture about rioting villagers and burning houses later when we have more time.”
“I will do it,” Jamel said in their ears. “I think she’s seen me a few times already. She is a hard one to stay hidden from. She is in the barn more than Kayden is now.”
Collin and Quinn settled in to work on Flash, Kayden joining them after a while. The small bones and tendons in the wing were crushed, and Collin had to painstakingly connect the pieces and secure them so that they could mend together.
As he cut the thread from the last stitch, he took a deep breath. “We won’t know for a few months if we saved the wing or not. Kayden, this little guy belongs to the tanner’s son, Dannel Tole. You’ll have to bottle feed him and make sure that wing is kept immobile for the first month and then exercised after that.”
Kayden ran her hand over Flash’s dun yellow hide. “Shanika will be so excited.” She looked up at Collin. “I suppose I need to have a talk with Marta.”
“Perhaps later. Quinn and I have been up all night. We’ll need you to look after the fellow for a while.”
Par Morrell stepped into the surgery and stopped. “A horse? In here?”
“A pegasus. And I’m just taking him to the patient guest room.”
Par’s eyes opened even wider. “Into a bed? I thought animals belonged in the barn.”
“Can you clean up in here, Par? Quinn and I need a little rest before we start in on the day.” He took Flash to the first bed in the infirmary, briefly glad they had no inpatients at the moment. Jaynee had recovered enough to go home with her parents last week, after a month stay with them.
He told Kayden how to prepare a bottle with warm milk and medicine for the foal and then left her to the task, sure that Shanika would be helping her before long.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
That night Quinn was a bit disturbed when both Marta and Niles entered the loft. Jamel stayed still, his head resting on the floor in the most nonthreatening manner he could assume. Kayden sat beside him, rubbing his ears. He supposed Marta felt her husband did not count when they said to tell no one.
Collin did address it though. “Did you tell anyone, Marta?”
“No. I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”
“Niles, did Marta tell you there was a dragon in the loft?”
Marta blushed. “Surely you didn’t mean… but Niles is….”
“I meant no one,” Collin said firmly. “If you had asked, I probably would have granted Niles the information, but I’m serious, Marta. We could be killed for harboring what most people consider a killer. You risk all of us including our children when you speak carelessly. Niles, I want you to be aware of the danger also. I’m not sure anyone would believe us if we told them Jake is the one who has kept this village free from dragon deaths and injuries for almost four years.”
“Par and Gwen….”
“No. No one unless they absolutely need to know, and I decide who needs to know. I don’t want any of you hurt.”
“Do you really believe people would riot because of Jake?” Marta asked. She sat on the other side of his head and rubbed his neck. “He’s so soft, Niles. Feel him.”
“People have used dragons as an excuse to riot before, and they didn’t care who they killed. You will soon have a child to consider, and people just don’t care about anything during a riot, not even children.”
“But there hasn’t been a riot in over a hundred years, Collin. People are not as barbaric as they used to be.”
Michael gave a short, sarcastic laugh. “Capitol punishment by dismemberment isn’t barbaric? Hate to tell you this, Marta, but this whole planet is barbaric. Look, I know you’ve kept my secrets. Can this be so much harder?”
“I’m not going to tell anyone, Michael. I just wish to understand why such a wonderful creature is kept hidden. Why don’t you breed him, like the wingdeer, and everyone will be safer.”
“There are two problems with that,” Jamel said, lifting his head from the floor. “First, I am not a wingdeer. Second, there is no female mammal dragon in existence.”
“Oh, surely there is somewhere. You just have to find her. Can you just see the cute little baby dragons, Kayden?”
Kayden smiled and hugged Jamel’s head. “Speaking of babies, I probably shouldn’t leave the foal alone. He could become restless.” She kissed Jamel’s head and then ran to the ladder. “Be gentle with them Jake.”
Jamel stood as she went downstairs. “I must patrol the village. Will anyone accompany me?”
Collin placed the saddle on Jamel, demonstrating the technique to Marta. “How do you two feel about soloing?”
“Solo? Where are the reins?”
“You don’t control Jake. Just speak kindly, and he may grant your desires.” He motioned Marta onto Jake’s back and then Niles, strapping them both on. Then Jamel leapt from the loft.
Quinn relaxed when they were gone, settling down into the hay. Only Michael and Collin remained.
“Something bothering you?” Collin asked.
Quinn shrugged. “Guess it’s going to be even harder for us to get a ride alone.”
“I’ll always have time for you,” Jamel said in his ear.
Collin grinned and squeezed his shoulder. “You are Rock Trapper, after all.”
Michael stretched out against a bale of hay. “You guys almost make me want a transceiver again. I feel like I’m missing out on half the conversation.”
“Just say the word, Michael. I’ve got one for you in the safe.”
“I just don’t want my privacy invaded.”
“Jamel and Cee would be the ones guarding your privacy, and they pretty much know where you are at any given time anyway.”
“But he could tell anyone anything I ever said or did.”
“I would not do that,” Jamel protested, although Michael couldn’t hear him.
“I would not do that,” Cee said from Quinn’s pocket. “And neither would Jamel. It was Butler who kept stealing my files. But Jamel will not, and there is no one else here who will.”
Quinn withdrew Cee from his pocket so that his small voice would not be muffled.
Michael rolled his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me Butler was stealing information?”
“He said you would have me destroyed because I was malfunctioning. He was right. You want me destroyed.”
Michael shook his head. “I was having a bad day. You should have told me about Butler.”
Collin settled onto a hay bale. “Michael, it doesn’t matter. Cee was a victim of both Butler and your anger over Kayden’s abduction. A victim of abuse often falsely feels he deserves the treatment, that it is somehow justified, because they can’t explain their helplessness any other way. Cee is recovering, but do not accuse him of wrongdoing when you know that you yourself have treated him ill while ‘having a bad day.’”
“I don’t want my personal life broadcast to the world again.”
“It will not happen again, Michael. Cee now knows he has options. If someone attempts such a maneuver he knows to immediately contact Jamel, Quinn, and me. He will not remain silent to suffer alone.”
“And who stops him from reporting all my actions to you?”
Collin gave a slight smile. “I guess you’ll just have to trust Quinn, Kayden, and me, won’t you?”
Michael scowled and then grinned. “You’re right. There isn’t anyone here I don’t trust except those 5000 units, and somehow you seem to command their complete loyalty. Did you tell my grandfather how you did that?”
“I gave him my observations as a nontechnical user,” Collin said, keeping his smile.
“It’s probably because you can give them a dragon-body.”
“Cee was loyal to you, Michael. You just never appreciated the effort,” Collin said. He leaned forward. “Now is as good a time as any to address this. I want you to stop speaking negatively about Cee and Jamel.”
“But they’re just machines….”
“Machines that your grandfather designed to be influenced by how they are treated. I don’t want you to say anything about Cee and Jamel that you wouldn’t say to Shanika.”
Michael opened his mouth again to protest.
Collin cut him off. “I have given you over a month since you began speaking to Jamel again to adjust on your own, but Michael, I didn’t let Par get away with cursing you because of a simple mistake, and I won’t tolerate you doing it to anyone else. Jamel and Cee are under my protection, and that includes being protected from slurs on their character.” Collin gripped Michael’s shoulder. “You know they were designed to care. Your attitude toward them either hinders or helps them.”
“You think I should have treated Cee like Thom treated Butler? He would have been a monster.”
“I never said that. I don’t know Thom, but I do know Butler became abusive. I am sure Thom made mistakes also, so don’t think I’m blaming you for failing with Cee, Michael.”
“Everyone fails but you,” he said, and Quinn detected his bitterness which he rarely showed anymore except when talking about Cee and Jamel. “Why is that?”
“Perhaps it’s almost 200 years of experience.” He smiled. “Perhaps it’s as you are not-so-secretly thinking, I demand that all of you follow my rules.”
“I was actually thinking that you think you’re a little monarch here, and if you weren’t such a good one, I’d hate you.” He said it with a grin, and Collin gave a deep laugh.
Quinn stood and slipped Cee back into his pocket. He wouldn’t get to talk to Collin about anything, anyway. He reached the ladder, one hand on the top rung, when Collin stopped him.
“Something bothering you, Quinn?”
Quinn stared past him to the dragon-hide curtain, knowing Niles and Marta would be back any moment. He shook his head. “Some other time.”
Michael stood. “Hey, I can take the hint. If you want me to leave….”
“It’s not you. Guess I’m just tired.” Quinn scrambled down the ladder and made it back to his room, knowing Shanika would ask for a pegasus again tomorrow night also. Now that she knew they really existed, now that Quinn knew they really existed, he wished he could come up with some plan to acquire one for her, at least by the time he felt she was old enough to fly on her own. He sighed. He did have a few years, and he was sure to have time alone with Collin before it was crucial.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.