It would take seventeen days to reach New Haven from Alexandria their guide told them. The terrain held fewer and fewer farms and more trees. Many times the towering giants obscured the relentlessly beating sun. But what comfort the shading leaves brought was overshadowed by the ruggedness of the mountains, as they trudged up and down the winding rutted road. They passed few villages. Many times only a large barn offered the dwindling group shelter from the hunting dragons at night.
Most of the people turned off on the road to Melbin. Only two other families were coming to New Haven, and neither of those families had teenage boys. One had a girl who looked close to Aben’s age, but he hadn’t bothered trying to get to know the mousy, dark-haired waif. Her large brown eyes seemed to watch everything, and she appeared ready to jump and run away at the slightest noise, even with the baby attached to her hip — who Aben assumed was her sister.
On the eighth night they slept in an old barn. Aben stood to the left of the barn’s door and looked up into the night sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of the dragons. The briefing on the guard station had made it seem like they were everywhere, but he’d been on the planet over a week and hadn’t seen one. He stayed in the shadows, though, not wanting to tempt them.
“There you are,” snarled a voice close to him.
Aben jumped back in alarm, but the voice was not for him.
“Get back in there and help with Sara. Do you want to be dragon-eaten?”
A man grabbed the arm of the mousy girl and pulled her back into the barn. Aben hadn’t seen her standing in the shadows on the other side of the large doorway.
“Yeah, I wanna be ate,” came the soft voice.
The sharp strike of flesh against flesh caused Aben to jump back, and a large red welt appeared on the girl’s brown face where her father had struck her. “Get in there.”
The mouse scurried away into the barn.
Aben took a few deep breaths. He hated that his parents had brought him to this prison of a planet, but never had he doubted that his mother loved him. He even thought his stepfather cared for him. He’d never had to dodge their blows, and the closest he’d had to a beating was a swatting on his bottom when he knew he’d disobeyed as a younger child. Even when he’d protested the move to this prison, tried to run away, yelled and vented his frustration, he had not been beaten. And truly, if there’d been any relative to take him in, he would have been given the option to stay. They had tried to make it easier for him. He’d heard his mother make inquiries on his behalf.
He went back into the barn to the corner the guide had assigned Aben’s family. A fire was lit in a pit in the center of the barn. The wagon blocked the large entrance, and the two horses ate in the stalls on the other side of the barn. Aben tried not to glance across the back of the barn toward the mouse’s family. He’d seen them as they walked, and when they stopped for lunch, but always at night each family had been in a separate room or stall before. The girl held the child, feeding her from the travel rations they’d all been assigned. Her face glistened in the firelight, and even in the darkness he could still see the welt on her face.
“Aben?” his mother asked softly, looking across the barn.
Aben shook his head. He couldn’t explain what he didn’t understand himself. He wouldn’t even ask about that family. He’d seen his mother talking to the other family — a young couple with three rambunctious boys all under age six, but she hadn’t gone near that family. At home he would have taken a walk. Here there was nowhere to go. There was never anywhere to go to think now. “Just tired,” he lied, as he settled himself in the blankets.
Aben closed his eyes, but again he saw the girl’s wide brown eyes as she was slapped and how her head jerked back. The mother and father were a sullen couple, and Aben had seen them snap at the other children. The girl had no close siblings, but the two year old Sara and a five year old boy who spent most of his time with the three boys of the other family. Aben had seen the other family sigh in exasperation when the child ran their way, but they said nothing and herded him as well as their own three.
Aben awoke to almost blackness. Only the small light from the banked fire gave any relief. He made his way to the door. He was sure to see a dragon now.
As he left the barn, a sharp intake of breath caused him to jump back inside. But then the sob drew him back outside. There she sat beside the door, holding her legs, her mouth against her knees. Aben hesitated and then sat beside her. He leaned back and looked at the unfamiliar stars in the sky. “See any dragons yet?”
She kept trying to muffle her sobs against her pant legs. Aben was unsure what he was meant to do, so he just kept staring up into the night sky. Two moons lit the southern section, one a quarter and the other a small half. The planet had four moons, he remembered from his brief lesson, which he’d been loath to take. The other two must not be visible right now.
“What do you want?” she finally asked, her soft voice shaking.
“Not sure,” Aben admitted.
“I want to die. I want a dragon to come out of the sky and eat me whole. I want to disappear into the woods and never return.” She stood and ran out across the rutted road and into the trees.
“Wait!” Aben ran after her. The dark night closed in on them, sealing them in the woods, and briefly he thought she’d get her wish and they’d both be dead. But then he caught her, bringing her down on the cool forest floor. She was easy to catch and her resistance was so weak, he didn’t know how she’d carried Sara so far.
She beat against his shoulders with her tiny fists. “No. Please no. No!”
“Sssh. I won’t hurt you.” He sat and drew her into his arms like he would Mia.
“Please, don’t. Don’t!”
“Sush, little mouse. I won’t hurt you, but you can’t commit suicide either.” He held her tight until her struggles subsided.
“Please don’t touch me,” she said meekly, but her head rested on his shoulder.
Aben lifted her in his arms as he stood, surprised that she weighed little more than his pack. He caught a glance of a moon through the trees and remembered they’d been in the southern sky. Then he walked back, trying not to panic at the blackness and the nocturnal buzzing, rustling, grunting, and howling.
They made it to the road, and Aben set her down outside the barn. Her head came just to his chin, and he tilted it to look into her large brown eyes. He briefly felt a surge of more than protectiveness. He’d rarely had the opportunity to be this close to a girl his own age. “Little mouse,” he said softly, trying to refocus his thoughts, “talk to me. Let me help you.”
“No one will help.” She slipped from his arms and leaned against the barn. “No one can help. They’re my only relatives. I have to stay with them until I’m sixteen.”
“How old are you now?”
“That isn’t your mom and dad?”
The little mouse shivered and wrapped her arms around her. “I had no father. My mother died a couple years ago. My uncle….” she shivered again. “Look, just let me go into the woods. It won’t hurt you.”
Aben was afraid to speculate how her uncle had hurt her. “Didn’t you tell….”
“No!” she threw herself at him, grabbing at his shirt. “No. If he knows I said anything. Oh, how could you? I need to….”
She ran toward the woods, but Aben caught her in one motion, prepared for the movement.
And then the moonlight dimmed. Aben barely registered that something was swooping down on them when he pulled her to the dirt of the rutted road. The roar of wind rushed by them, and Aben turned in time to see a glistening dark beast winging up into the air. It curved to come back toward them, its teeth shining white against its dark head. Aben grabbed the mouse under his left arm and dove toward the barn as the wings rushed by him again. He lay flat on the floor of the barn.
“It’s coming back,” she screamed. She crawled from him under the wagon, and Aben followed. The dragon landed in the barn doorway, his eyes glistening as he reached his long neck to the wagon.
He wasn’t sure if the scream was hers or his, but he backed away until he was on the other side of the wagon and almost in the fire. A loud noise cracked beside him, and the dragon leaped up into the night air.
Aben sat back and drew in deep breaths of air. He saw the mouse huddled by the wagon wheel, shivering.
“What were you two doing out there? You almost got us all killed,” their guide yelled down at them.
The girl sobbed.
Their guide shook his head and slipped the projectile gun into a holster at his waist. “Probably just made the beast angry. Can’t kill the damn things. You idiots. Thought you’d go outside and make out in the moonlight. Idiots.” He glanced back at the parents now gathered around him. “No one goes outside at night! Didn’t you hear me? Keep your damn kids on a leash, or they’re going to be eaten and us with them.”
The mouse’s uncle grabbed her upper arm and yanked her away, cuffing her head as he did so.
His stepfather grabbed his arm. “Aben,” he said sharply.
Aben wanted to run after her and tear her away from her cruel uncle, but what could he do?
“Aben,” his stepfather said softly. “Come back to your blanket.”
Aben followed, but couldn’t help protesting, as he heard her cry out in pain. “He’s beating her. She didn’t do anything. Stop him!”
“We can’t do anything….” his stepfather began.
“Hey,” their guide protested. “I said leash, not beat. There isn’t a hospital around here, you know, so lay off.”
“Trampy bitch….” Aben heard her uncle mutter.
“She’s not,” Aben protested, but only his mother and stepfather heard him. “We were just talking. She’s not.”
The fire leaped brighter as their guide threw more wood to it, maybe to keep away the dragon. Aben saw his mother’s worried look. “Aben, there will be other girls when we reach New Haven. I don’t think….”
“We’re a bunch of thieves, but she’s not good enough?” he asked in disgust. He grabbed his blankets and shook them straight.
“We are not a bunch of thieves,” his mother said firmly. “We had trouble fulfilling promises, but we didn’t go breaking into living quarters. We are not thieves.”
Aben lay down and ignored them. He was too angry, and everything they said could be overheard by the barn’s other occupants. He didn’t sleep much the rest of the night. When he did manage to drift off, he dreamed of running from the black dragon and jerked awake in a cold sweat. Once he awoke to the image of the little mouse’s face jerking back as she was struck. If there was a god why didn’t he stop them from hurting her?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Aben was kept apart from her for the rest of the trip by both his parents and her relatives. He managed to talk to her once when she left the out building she’d stopped at. She had her little cousin, Sara, with her, and the rest of the group had gone on ahead.
“Hey, little mouse,” he said softly.
She jumped away from him. “I… I should….”
“I know. I just wanted you to know that after we’re settled maybe we can figure out a way to help you.”
“I….” She glanced at her cousin staring up at her and then Aben. “Nothing can be done.”
“What’s your name?” he asked softly. He wasn’t sure if the softness was so that his voice wouldn’t carry, or if it was an attempt to reassure her he wouldn’t hurt her.
She ran from him, pulling her cousin after her.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Tomorrow we reach New Haven,” their guide said from beside the fire. “This is our last night together, the last night before you take on your new positions. Let me give you a hint. Don’t cross your employer. This is a rough city, and you won’t be able to buy your way into anyone else’s service, and Capitol is a long ways away. Keep your little ones safe by accepting and appreciating your employer’s hospitality. You kids got lucky when that dragon attacked. Don’t take chances. I’ve seen too many deaths and more than my fair share of maimings.”
They were again in a barn. The little mouse met his gaze, but didn’t speak. She didn’t hide her face either. Perhaps she was beginning to trust him. She’d run into him earlier as they were rushing to their assigned spots. She had blushed and pulled away then, quickly going to her family’s section.
Now as she watched him, her hand slipped down to her pocket, but then it came up empty. She pointed at him, keeping her hand close to her, and then reached for her pocket again. She did it once more, but he didn’t know why. Later as he readied himself for bed, he emptied his pockets into his pack with his wallet holding his identification and the money pouch in his front pocket, holding the coins he’d been given by his stepfather.
That’s when he found the letter, neatly folded into fourths. Aben grabbed his pack and went to the fire where the light was good. Then he withdrew one of his books. After opening the book, he smoothed out the paper inside it, displaying her small, cramped writing.
“Aben… I think that’s your name, isn’t it? I heard your father say it. My mother used to call me Cassie for Cassandra. My uncle and aunt say Casey when they don’t say tramp. You were right about the dragon. I couldn’t stand to be ripped apart by those teeth. I have nightmares every night. If you meant what you said… You’re my only friend. I don’t know how to get away. If you rescue me I will do whatever you want. I don’t think you would hurt me like he does. Cassie Handel.”
Aben hated her uncle even more. He vowed he would somehow get her away from him. He knew he could not go to his mother and stepfather. He’d tried to say something to them, but they firmly told him that they were not in a position to make waves and neither was he. They had to work hard and prove themselves, and raging over lost causes would not endear them to their new employers.
He turned to the picture Michael Jamel had drawn for him. Someday he’d ride on the rare and expensive wingdeer, and he’d rescue her. He wondered if Michael Jamel would try to rescue Cassie or if he would tell him not to get involved. Somehow he thought the executive sheriff would rescue Cassie. If only he could write and tell him, but he had no idea where Michael was.
Go to Chapter 3
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.