With victory also came a price. Aben could not carry three full hides and the meat, along with all his other supplies. He stayed at the cave almost a week, but his trail rations were gone. He didn’t need them. Queenie didn’t even need them, but she liked them.
He meant to start back three days ago, but a violent thunderstorm shook the area, raising the river to the mouth of the cave. The adult wingdeer he’d seen back in Capitol had carried two people and supplies, but Aben did not want to burden Queenie yet. He did not know anything about their development and how long he should wait. He hoped to find that out when he went into the city again. He hoped he could ask Seavan most of his questions.
Walking back to the sea was difficult. The ground was soggy, and the much of the path was under water, forcing him to find longer alternate routes. He made it to the seashore, but remembered there was no shelter. Now it mattered more than it had before. Before he had barely cared if he lived or died; now he needed to protect Queenie. The little girl would die without him.
He stopped at a spot where a few trees grew close to a rock wall. Then he searched for driftwood and branches, building up the area behind the trees. As he lit the fire for the night, his worst fear was realized. A dragon had spotted them.
Aben grabbed Queenie’s halter, and pulled her past the small fire and into the shelter. The dragon swooped down and landed right beyond the fire. It was the same flame red color as the beast that killed Kayne. Aben huddled with Queenie under the driftwood and branches. She seemed to instinctively know that she should remain silent and still. He saw the dragon’s eyes watching them well into the night, but when dawn broke, nothing was beyond their fire, and he hadn’t heard the beast leave.
Aben quickly ate and put out the fire, feeding Queenie the extra apple-like fruit he’d found the day before. Then he ran with her down the beach. She flew circles beside him, the bright sunlight chasing away the last of the night’s demons. Then she disappeared, and Aben slowed to a walk, anxious for her return. He knew she was just finding something more appetizing to eat, but he couldn’t help being afraid he’d lose her one day.
As he approached the city, Aben did not realize that he’d attract attention. He’d changed into his cleanest outfit, one he’d saved for trips into the city, but that was not enough. Queenie walked beside him, and Aben gripped her halter possessively.
But even though they stared, no one approached him. Silently he made his way to the general store. Then he had a problem. How could he watch Queenie and go inside for her favorite trail rations and perhaps some more traditional wingdeer food, whatever that was. He also wanted a real halter.
A few horses stood outside the store, waiting for their owners. “Wait here, little girl, Queenie, love. You wait here for me,” he said, caressing her head. She tried to follow him into the store, and he took her back to the horses. “Wait here,” he said again, trying to be firm.
He made it inside. He glanced back out the door, but Queenie jumped into the air. Again his nervousness started up, but he supposed she was safer in the air than where other people could steal her from him. He saw the halters first, fingering them, and wondering what would be best for Queenie.
A man came in and sauntered over to the counter. He set down a small bundle and yelled back. “Hey, Tony!” He looked slightly familiar, but Aben didn’t know if he’d met him before or not. His hair was blond on top and darker below, but what really made him stand out, and made Aben doubt he knew him was that he wore a dragon-hide jacket and dragon-hide boots, both a rich bronze color. His pack was stylish and was also of the same bronze dragon hide, not like Aben’s long lumpish pack, which he just now realized was a government issue. No wonder everyone knew he was a new convict.
But the young man even had dragon hide gloves which he now slipped into his pocket. He grinned when he noticed Aben’s gaze. “Is that your little wingdeer?”
The clerk who waited on Aben before appeared. “Hey, Dannel. What do you have for us? This all the mail?”
“Yep. Cute little wingdeer.”
“Where?” Tony asked.
“Is it yours,” Dannel asked again.
Tony scoffed. “If that new convict has one, he stole it. Where is it? We’ll get it to its owner.”
“She’s mine! I found her in the forest.”
Tony gave a sarcastic laugh. “I wouldn’t trust you for a minute. Probably stole that belt, too. And look at his bulging pack.” He came around the counter. Aben expected to be grabbed, but instead the man went outside. He was going for Queenie.
Aben ran after him and stopped abruptly when he saw the huge wingdeer standing before him. The bull was saddled and haltered in dragon hide leather with a load on his back. He seemed amused by Queenie, touching his big nose to her tiny one.
Tony grabbed Queenie’s halter. “Come on, fellow. You’re mine now.”
Queenie protested, trying to fly away, but the man jerked her halter.
“No!” Aben rushed to him, but before he reached him, he was grabbed from behind.
“Hold it, friend,” came a firm voice. “I’ll get her for you. You’ll just get yourself into trouble.”
Shocked, Aben watched as Dannel sauntered past him to Tony. “Hold on there a minute, Tony. I saw this little one first. I believe my claim is prior to yours. Besides, I don’t think you have any idea how to care for the girl.” Dannel offered Queenie a few comforting words as he rubbed her face until Tony was forced to remove his hand. “There you go, little one. Go to your friend.”
Queenie jumped away from them. She flew up into the sky and then circled down to Aben, pushing herself into his side as if to hide beside him.
Dannel raised his hands in mock resignation. “Well, what do you know? The little one has chosen him. You know wingdeer are very loyal. Only an unloved animal can be stolen.”
“But I’m sure he never….”
“Do you have any mail for me, Tony? I’m telling you, sometimes the trips to New Haven just aren’t worth it.” He led Tony into the store.
Aben wanted to run, but the huge wingdeer wrapped his neck around and eyed him. Aben couldn’t help but take the opportunity to study him. He’d never been this close to an adult, and he was bigger than Aben thought he’d be, bigger than Harmon’s work horses. His back was a little above Aben’s head. The bull touched him with his nose, and Aben couldn’t help smiling as he lifted his hand to caress him.
Queenie nudged him, and Aben laughed. “I won’t forget you, little Queen.” He rubbed his right hand over her head and neck.
“I told you that convict is out to steal your wingdeer.”
Aben whirled around to face them as Dannel laughed. “He’d have a hard time stealing Skyler. I told you, wingdeer are extremely loyal. The minute he had a chance he’d find me.” Dannel smiled at Aben. “Want a ride?”
Aben glanced down at Queenie. He didn’t want to leave her, but he would love to ride the huge bull.
“She’ll follow us.”
Aben couldn’t refuse. He followed Dannel’s instructions and was soon seated in front of him, and his pack was secured behind Dannel.
Dannel showed him the riding straps and explained that they needed to be tightened around their legs so that they didn’t fall off in flight. “If you ever thought staying on a galloping horse was hard, you haven’t been on a whirling, dipping, frolicky wingdeer.”
Aben didn’t dare admit he’d never ridden a horse.
And then they were in the air. It was everything he’d imagined and more. The wind rushed against him, and he grinned when he saw Queenie winging along beside them. Aben didn’t care where they were going. He didn’t care that he had no home. He didn’t even care that he had no family. At this moment all he cared about was the wind in his face and the powerful muscles beneath his legs. And Queenie wouldn’t leave him, he’d said. She could never be stolen.
But his paranoia surfaced. He’d been beaten so many times that he wondered if this was Dannel’s way to get Queenie to bond with Skyler so he could steal her. But then he chided himself. A man who dressed in tailored dragon hide did not need to steal baby wingdeer.
When they landed, they were on a worn trail near a barn — the same barn that he’d stayed at the last night before the group had reached New Haven. Dannel dismounted and waited for Aben. He studied him. “Are you expected home tonight?”
“I… I don’t have a home.” Briefly he wondered now if Dannel meant to kill him. Trap him away, like Kayne did with the unsuspecting animals, and then…. Aben shivered, noticing for the first time the gun at Dannel’s waist.
“Then maybe you’ll keep me company tonight,” Dannel said. “I have a feeling you have a lot of questions about wingdeer.”
Aben jerked his gaze back to Dannel’s face. “Ah, yeah. I do.”
Dannel unloaded his wingdeer and removed the saddle and bridle, handing each item to Aben to take into the barn, as if he was used to having someone run for him. Maybe Dannel would need someone to work for him. He obviously had the money to have as many employees as he wanted. But if not for his self-assured manner, Aben would guess he was as young as Seavan, only about four or so years older than he was.
Dannel started a fire and opened one of his packs. “It’s re-hydrated travel rations tonight. Hope you don’t mind.”
“I have meat.” Aben grabbed his pack, grateful to be able to contribute. “Bleater.” He dug through his pack, pulling out his fruit and berries. Then he removed the bleater hide he’d used as a pillow last night. Finally, he came to the meat.
“You’ve been hunting.” Dannel looked over the hide. “You cut it well. Little waste. It’ll work up nice.”
“I’d hoped to sell it to the tanner.”
“Which one? Grangers?” He took the meat Aben offered and set it in the pan of water he’d drawn from the well.
Aben shook his head. He’d never heard of them. “Seavan Tole if he wants it.”
“Seavan who?” Dannel asked, turning to look back at him.
“T O L E? Tole? He’s a tanner?”
Aben hesitated. Queenie pushed her head into his lap, and suddenly he knew why Dannel looked familiar. “You look like Seavan, only you have blond hair.”
Dannel left the pan on the embers near the fire. “You’re serious? It must be Dad’s brother. He took off years ago. Before I was born.”
“No. He’s your age.”
Dannel laughed. “I meant his dad. This is great. I have a cousin. I never did have any brothers or sisters. You’ll have to introduce us.”
“I… I… He might not… There was some trouble….”
Dannel’s smile left. “Figured you had some trouble, kid. You’re just off the shuttle, aren’t you? What happened to your mom and dad? You aren’t eighteen yet, are you?”
“Fifteen,” Aben admitted. “I had to leave. My mom and my little sister wouldn’t make it without a home.” Then he gave a shy grin. “But I did. I’ve been out here about two weeks, and I got four bleaters and a hopper. Never did figure out how to fish though.”
“And you found a wingdeer.”
Aben grinned and caressed Queenie’s head. “Yeah.”
Aben frowned. “I’m not sure there’s a name to the place. I went up the beach to the north, and then I came west down the river there about a day or so walk in.”
Dannel nodded and returned his focus to the stew he was making. “Why were you forced to leave?”
Aben felt himself trembling and wished it would stop. “Kayne was killed by the dragon. Raven and Mr. Archer blamed me.” He lifted his eyes to Dannel’s face, to the face of a man clad in more dragon hide than he’d seen anywhere before except on a live dragon. “But what could I do? It already had him in its mouth. Raven’s pitchfork bounced right off, and I didn’t have anything. What could I do?”
Dannel gripped his shoulder. “Nothing but hide. That’s all you can do. Nobody can kill the things except Hans Trapper, and he has secrets nobody else can duplicate. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“Who’s Hans Trapper.”
Dannel grinned. “Premier dragon slayer. He’s actually a legend. But he’s a real person, too. Supplies my dad with all the dragon hides we can process. He gives us an exclusive because my dad knows the secret of keeping their color vibrant.” Dannel shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to Aben. “And keep it soft.” He grinned. “I know the secret, too, since I’m his only heir.”
Aben remembered something Raven had told him back that first day about the Toles and that these Toles in New Haven claimed they were not related to the rich Toles in Alexandria — the Toles who processed dragon hide. But they were. Aben could see it in Dannel’s face.
“You’re from Alexandria.”
Dannel grinned. “So you have heard of our fine dragon hide products.” He jumped up and grabbed the largest pack that he’d taken from Skyler’s back. He opened it and began pulling out items, carefully arranging them on other packs to keep them from the dirt floor, beautiful leather glistening in the firelight and fading sunlight. Jackets, packs, vests and belts. Then he pulled out a rose colored halter. “Come here, little girl.” He glanced at Aben. “Name her yet?”
Dannel grinned. “A little queen. Come here, cutie, and receive your just homage.” He removed Queenie’s crude halter and slipped on the dragon-hide rose halter.
“I can’t….” Aben reached for his money, but was sure he didn’t have enough. “How much?”
“A gift for a little queen.” He grinned. “Besides I owe you for finding those long lost relatives. We’re going to have fun tomorrow.”
Aben wasn’t so sure fun would be the right word.
Dannel laughed. “You worry too much. I’m not expecting them to love me. But maybe they can point me to a good outlet for my wares. As well as running a pretty much exclusive airmail business, I’m also the distributor of my father’s dragon hide goods, and New Haven is the only city I have not found a decent store to display them in yet.” He put his wares away while instructing Aben to look after the meal.
Afterward Dannel brushed Skyler’s coat and answered all the questions Aben could think of about caring for his precious little wingdeer. He wanted to ask Dannel for a job, but he hesitated. Maybe if they still got along tomorrow, he’d risk it.
Go to Chapter 10
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.