The next morning Aben watched the cooking meal nervously as Dannel completed his grooming. He realized he was going to look wretched beside him. “Can I borrow your mirror a minute? I’ve kind of been….” He shrugged.
Dannel grinned. “Take as long as you need.”
Aben took the mirror and held it up to his face. A stranger stared back. His hair was ratted and matted, and although his face was free of bruises, he’d never know it by the dirt. A few dark strands of a budding beard protruded from his chin. He touched them in surprise. “No wonder people stared at me yesterday.”
Dannel gave a deep laugh. “Want to use a bit of my soap and shampoo? I’ll pump while you scrub,” he offered.
Aben finally grinned. He’d looked like a mud hound, and still Dannel had taken him up on Skyler last night. He stripped off his clothes and accepted Dannel’s assistance with the pump.
The ice cold water did more than clean him. It refreshed him, and soon he was laughing as much as Dannel. Dannel had stripped to shorts, and before long they were splashing and shaking water at each other and at their wingdeer, laughing like he hadn’t laughed in so long. Laughing until he cried. He couldn’t help it. He splashed more cold water on his face to hide it, but he couldn’t stop. There was a time when he had many fun days. A time before his parents were thieves. A time before he’d come to Aussie. He finally ran into the barn and leaned against the stall wall.
Dannel brought him a towel, and Aben kept his gaze from him, rubbing his face and then his hair. Aben dressed, but they didn’t speak of Aben’s lapse.
Aben worked at his hair with his comb, knowing if he didn’t start combing it every day again, he’d never be allowed in public. “I need a haircut.”
Dannel grinned. “Probably would make things easier for you if you plan on staying outdoors. I keep mine fairly short because flying tangles it. I don’t always wear my riding cap like I should.”
“I… I… actually I’d… rather find a job somewhere.”
“Maybe you can now that you’re cleaned up.”
“Yeah,” Aben agreed, the disappointment welling up inside him again. Dannel hadn’t offered. He didn’t want him either. When he got his emotions under control he glanced back at Dannel. He watched him with a thoughtful expression, completely at odds with his normally cheerful countenance.
Then Dannel grinned. “Let’s get Skyler saddled so we can meet those relatives of mine.” He motioned Aben to get his saddle as he went outside to call Skyler down from the air.
Queenie landed right behind him and nudged Aben as he brought Dannel each of his packs in the reverse order that he’d taken them off Skyler’s back.
“Okay,” Dannel said when all was loaded. “How do we get there?”
“It’s on the west end of town. I know a river goes from the Archer’s to the sea. That’s how I got on the other side. I’m not sure by road from the sea side. But once we hit the west side, I could show you. It’s Lincoln Street.”
Dannel nodded, and Aben wasn’t sure if he knew where Lincoln Street was, or he’d just accepted his inadequate directions. Dannel climbed on to Skyler’s back, and then held out his hand to help Aben up. “You want the reins?” he asked, giving them to Aben when he was strapped in. “Then we won’t need to be yelling back and forth.”
“But I… I never….”
Dannel grinned. “Almost just like a horse.”
Dannel slapped his shoulder in a friendly way. “Well, now’s a good time to learn, isn’t it?” And he leaned forward to instruct Aben as they rose into the air.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When Seavan heard of Kayne’s death and Raven’s injuries, he offered his condolences to Mr. Archer when he delivered the milk. Then he wondered if Aben had been hurt also. Nobody had mentioned him, but new convicts were not always given a proper memorial. After several days of watching Mr. Archer work, Seavan ventured to say, “Seems like Aben would know the route rather well by now.”
Mr. Archer lifted his eyes slowly to Seavan’s. “Aben is no longer in my service.”
“But the dragon?”
“The coward hid while my son died. If he shows his face here, I expect you’ll send him on his way.” He turned and left before Seavan could respond.
But he wouldn’t send him away. What had Harmon Archer expected from the boy? Especially one new to the planet. He couldn’t have saved him if he had tried. He certainly hadn’t had a gun to try to frighten it off with.
He got a different story from Harmon Archer’s neighbor, Mr. Dyami, when he brought in the hide from a hopper his eight year old had killed. It was his first hunting success, and the boy wanted a souvenir. “He saved Raven’s life. Got him to safety and bandaged his wounds,” he confided in a low voice without much encouragement. “The kid should be treated as a hero, but Harmon is grieving. Been a good neighbor and friend for years, so I won’t begrudge him the grief. He’s lost enough children over the years. Just wish I knew that boy was okay. You hear anything, you let me know, okay? I’ll pass it on to his parents. They’re right worried also.”
“I will,” Seavan promised. And then all he could do was pray that Aben would come home.
Three days of rain did not make it seem any more likely that Aben had survived. Even his father and Rigel stayed home during the rain. And the red dragon had killed again. A young boy at the Dyami farm — a new convict’s child. The west end of the city was put on alert. It traveled at dusk, and people were warned to be in and have their livestock inside before that. Seavan knew people could survive in the wild. His father often spent a week or more alone in the woods while hunting. Rigel did, too. But could a boy not more than a few months on the planet survive its dangers? His hope dwindled as more sightings of the dragon were reported.
But now Seavan worked in the long workroom at the side of the house. His little brother, Jimmy, worked with him, although soon he would be in school again. Rigel and his father were hunting. Seavan stretched out the violet hopper skin. Normally a hopper skin would be a good project for Jimmy, but since it was a trophy, he wanted to make sure it was as good as he could make it.
A knock sounded at the front entrance. Seavan stretched. The knock sounded again as Seavan reached to open it. There stood Aben and another man, apparently a rich man, if judging by all his dragon-hide apparel. “Aben! Thank God, you’re safe. Come on in.”
Aben glanced at the other man nervously.
The man grinned. “Told you, you worry too much.” He ushered Aben in before him. He tried to shut the door and laughed again. “Hey, Queenie. You have to stay with Skyler.” He crouched and pushed a little wingdeer from the room, but not before Jimmy saw it.
Jimmy jumped up. “It was a wingdeer, wasn’t it? Let me see him. Please?”
The man laughed. “Little Queenie belongs to Aben. A friend he found in the woods.”
Seavan grinned. “You’ve done well, haven’t you? Let’s let Jimmy see him, and then we can talk.” He held his hand out to the stranger. “I’m Seavan Tole.”
The stranger grinned. “Dannel Tole, your cousin from Alexandria.”
Seavan was stunned. “Dad said… he said we weren’t related,” he ended weakly as he realized his father had lied.
Jimmy glanced up at them. “We’re cousins? Great! Can we see the little wingdeer?”
Seavan couldn’t help laughing. Just like Jimmy to get his priorities straight.
Dannel laughed also. “Sure. Maybe if you tell me your name, I’ll let you ride my Skyler.” They walked outside. Skyler landed a few feet from Dannel. Seavan watched in fascination as Dannel told Jimmy about his wingdeer.
Aben absently rubbed his little wingdeer’s head, but he watched Seavan. Seavan walked over to him. “I’ve missed you, Aben,” he said quietly. “Been praying and worrying over you, too.”
Aben bit his lip. “I… I thought maybe….”
“Maybe what?” Seavan asked softly. “I promised I’d help any way I can. What do you need, Aben? Let me help.”
Aben shook his head. Then he let his pack drop to the ground. Opening it he began withdrawing bleater hides. “I heard you bought hides.”
“Did you get all these? You’re a born hunter. How’d you kill them?” He pulled a kitchen knife from the edge of the bag. It was attached to a stick. “Not with this?”
Aben shrugged. “Yeah. Most of them.”
“Yeah,” Dannel agreed, joining them. “He should learn how to tan those hides if he’s got so much hunting talent.”
“You get enough business to keep a hard worker like this busy?” Dannel asked.
“Just talked to my father the other day about taking someone on,” Seavan admitted. “Jimmy here starts school again, and Rigel and Dad are always leaving me all the work.” It was only an exaggeration. Rigel or his father always stayed home if they were really needed.
“Hear Aben’s looking for a job,” Dannel said. “Says the woods might get a little cold in a few months.”
Aben frowned. “Cold?”
Dannel grinned and winked at Seavan. “He’s never experienced your northern winters, I’m guessing.”
“Or quite possibly your southern ones.”
“But he admitted he likes a roof, and a safe place to raise his little girl.” Dannel motioned to Queenie who was basking in Jimmy’s affection.
Aben grabbed his pack. “I don’t need charity. If you don’t need me, don’t feel guilty about it and try to push me off on someone else.” He motioned to Queenie, and the little wingdeer trotted after him.
Seavan started to run after him, but Dannel stopped him. “He won’t go far. Skyler will be able to find Queenie. But he’s right. If you don’t have a job for him, I’ll take him home with me. I just thought he’d prefer to stay near his mother and father. He’s really torn up inside. Tries to hide it, but it comes out.”
Seavan hesitated. Even though he was drawn to this unknown cousin, he didn’t really know him at all. “When did you meet Aben?”
“Just yesterday. He’d just come back from his woodland outing and was trying to buy something at Ligon’s general store.” Dannel grinned. “He’s very much cleaned up since then. He planned to come back here. Sell you his hides. I think he even planned to ask for a job, but for some reason he doesn’t ask outright. Guess he’s been rejected a few times.”
Seavan couldn’t help his grimace. “Harmon Archer told me to avoid him. Don’t know how many others he’s talked to. The kid saved his son’s life. And that red dragon is still killing. Don’t know how he can blame Aben.”
“Saved his life? I’m confused. I thought the kid was eaten.”
Seavan explained the incident to the best of his knowledge. “Wish someone could kill that red dragon though.” He watched Jimmy as he led Skyler to the small garden to pick him varroots.
“Hans Trapper. I’ll mention it when I see him, but I don’t know if he travels this far north.”
Seavan grinned. “Hans Trapper doesn’t exist.”
Dannel laughed. “I see him at least once a month. How do you think we get our hides?” He swung his riding jacket off his shoulder into Seavan’s arms. “Finest dragon-ware anywhere.” He glanced back at the building. “I didn’t see your store front.”
“We don’t have one. The hides are consigned through Neville’s. We aren’t large scale. Just enough to feed us.” Seavan hoped he didn’t sound defensive, but he couldn’t help wondering what his rich relatives with their world famous dragon leather thought of their tiny business. Maybe his uncle had belittled his father’s shop the reason he no longer claimed to know them.
“Does Neville have a good store front? Glass and light? Ligon’s is so dingy I wouldn’t even consign a halter to him. Dragon leather needs the light to show off its best qualities.”
“We don’t do dragon leather.”
Dannel hesitated. Then he looked down the street the way Aben had disappeared. “Where’d that kid go? It sounded like he didn’t have any friends. If you don’t have room for him here, I’ll….”
“I have room. I told you, I’ve already spoken with my father.”
Dannel made a noise in his throat, and Skyler trotted from Jimmy to him. Dannel caressed the large deer’s head and then rested his forehead against his neck, almost as if he was drawing comfort from the contact. Then he took a deep breath and smiled. “Do you want to go with me to find Aben?”
“I do!” Jimmy said quickly.
“Okay,” Dannel said. “Up you go.” He grabbed Jimmy around the waist and helped him up onto Skyler’s back. He glanced back at Seavan. “Look, I’m not sure how I upset you, but I’m sorry. I’m just concerned about that kid. It’s all right that your little brother takes a ride, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” Seavan said, knowing he could never deny Jimmy perhaps his only chance to fly. Seavan had always wanted to fly also, but he’d given up on finding his own wingdeer or pegasus. Not even his father or Rigel had gotten close enough to bring one home. How had Aben gotten so lucky? “Go bring back Aben. I’m already prepared for him.”
Seavan went back inside mulling over the implications of his father’s lie, and then over the conversation he’d had. He wished his father was home, as he often had growing up.
Dannel returned a little later. “He disappeared. I was sure he couldn’t hide the little gal from Skyler. He can’t be far. I’ll try again later.
Seavan introduced Dannel to his mother, but she could not or would not answer his questions as to why his father denied his Alexandria relatives. Dannel said he didn’t know the answer either. Shalina was thrilled to have her handsome rich cousin visiting, and she talked him into taking her for a flight, although Dannel did not look like he needed much persuasion. “I’ll just look for the kid while I’m out,” he mumbled to Seavan.
But he didn’t find him. Neither did Rigel or his father return that evening. Seavan offered Dannel the extra bed he’d had set up in his room, the bed that he’d planned for Aben. Skyler was given their small empty barn. Dannel’s packs had been removed to the workshop.
It was dark and Seavan was almost asleep. “Why’d you get mad at me?” Dannel asked.
“What upset you earlier?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Back when we were talking about stores and consignments.”
Seavan rolled his eyes. “We aren’t like you guys. We just process the hides Dad and Rigel get. We take on a few jobs for people, and we buy raw hide which we sell. Nothing big. We don’t need windows and fancy lighting.”
He heard Dannel shifting on the other bed. “I didn’t mean to imply you couldn’t help Aben. I just want the kid taken care of. And the store… I need a storefront in New Haven. It’s part of my job. I’ve established exclusive outlets in each of the major cities except New Haven. I give the contract to the store best able to display our product. And I’m the supplier. I’m always traveling.”
Seavan sighed. “Neville’s has good light. He’s honest, too. Never had a problem with him. You’d just bring in dragon products?”
“Yeah. That’s all we do now, except we do train our people in other leathers just to keep our hand in. Hey, you didn’t think I wanted to compete with you guys, did you? I wouldn’t do that. Dragon leather won’t compete with regular leather. Most people can’t afford it. It’s a luxury. Cow and such, that stuff’s a necessity. People always need that.”
“I don’t know what I thought. I just don’t want my dad hurt if your dad… if whatever reason your dad rejected….”
“My dad didn’t reject him.” Dannel sat up. “Your dad left. Tole Tanneries has been in the same spot for over a hundred years. Your dad is the one who told you we weren’t related. My dad didn’t do anything. He thought his older brother was dead. Loves him. I know he misses him. Always tells me I took after your dad instead of him, cause I hate staying inside. But he never says it like he hated him or me. Gets a little worried I won’t be able to take over when the time comes or I’ll get killed traveling, but he doesn’t hate him. I know it.”
“Your dad said that? That you were like his brother?” Seavan grinned then. “You’re right. That’s why Dad isn’t home. Mom understands he needs to be out. Rigel’s the same way.”
“Me? I do what needs to be done. I make things go smooth. That’s my role, I guess.”
Dannel lay down and chuckled. “You’re like my dad then. He’d like you.”
“I always thought I took after my mom, but maybe you’re right. I sure hope Aben found someplace safe tonight. That red dragon is too bold for comfort.”
“Yeah,” Dannel said, his voice mellowing. “He was lucky in those woods. But luck is a fickle mistress.”
“Do you pray?”
“When my luck runs out.”
Seavan realized that Dannel didn’t use the word pray in the same way he did. His mother had taken Seavan and his siblings to church since he was born, and Seavan kept to the faith of his youth. Only God could keep Aben safe, as He’d obviously already done. Seavan prayed He’d keep protecting the boy from harm and bring him to saving faith.
Go to Chapter 11
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