Aben hid by the river just before Harmon Archer’s property until after dark. Queenie became nervous as the sun set. Aben was, too, but tonight he would risk it. When three of the moons shown bright overhead, Aben snuck down the river and then across the yard to his parents’ door.
Frank opened at his second soft knock. Then he grabbed him into a bear hug and drew him inside. But he couldn’t close the door, as Queenie followed him in. His mother ran to him, and Frank hushed her excitement to whispers.
“A wingdeer!” Mia squealed.
“Sssssh,” They all said, and Aben grinned, drawing Queenie inside and closing the door. “Yep,” he whispered. “I found this little girl in the forest. You can’t tell anyone though, okay? Or we won’t be able to visit again.”
“Oh, in the house!” his mother exclaimed in a hushed whisper, smiling though.
Aben shrugged apologetically. “Can’t leave her out for the dragons. She’s my only friend.”
His mother hugged him then, tears filling her eyes. Then she pulled away. “But look at you. You have had food, haven’t you?”
He grinned. “Told you I could hunt.”
Queenie let Mia pet her, but Aben could see Queenie’s fear at the unfamiliar people. He drew her to Mia’s mattress in the corner with soft words. “Why don’t you sleep here with Mia, little Queen? She’d love to be with you.”
Mia ran to the mattress and sat beside Queenie.
“Now talk soft to her. She’s a little scared right now,” Aben instructed.
“She has a pretty halter. Did you buy it for her?”
“A friend gave it to me.”
“I thought you had no friends ‘cept Queenie,” Mia accused.
Aben glanced at his mother and Frank.
“Have you met a good friend?” his mother asked.
“I….” He shrugged. “He’s probably gone back to Alexandria. He didn’t want to hire me.” He saw her concern, so he smiled although it ached to do so. “He let me use his soap this morning, though. You wouldn’t have known me if he hadn’t.”
They settled into the chairs at the table, and Aben related his adventures, putting the most positive spin on them he could. He avoided telling them of his near trouble at Ligon’s store. “I’ve still got to go back to Seavan Tole’s house. I think he was going to buy my hides, so I’ll have a little more money. Mom, I need to know how to wash clothes. I can’t even walk through the city without offending people if I don’t keep clean.”
“Oh, I’ll do it.”
“But you can’t. I’m not causing you any more work or trouble than I have.”
“But I’ll just add your clothes in with the regular laundry tomorrow.”
“And what will they say when they see my clothes hanging there? No. I just need to know how. Is there a special soap I buy? How do I use it in the river?”
“Oh, dear, Aben. The river?”
“We’re almost the same size,” Frank said. “Why don’t we exchange clothes every time you come?”
“Yes,” his mother agreed. “That will work. Aben, don’t protest. You need to find a job before winter.”
Frank sighed. “Yeah. You’ve seen films on the winter activities back on Earth. Snow and such.”
“Snow? We’re going to get snow here? Doesn’t it have to be really cold?” Aben shivered, suddenly realizing what Dannel and Seavan were talking about.
“I’m told we don’t get much snow, but it does get cold. Water freezes, sometimes even the river will crust over except the very middle, they say. We’ll all need winter coats before then.”
“Your money….” Aben said, reaching for his pocket.
“No, Aben. Harmon will get ours. Don’t worry. In fact, I think the man is more generous because he knows we miss you.”
“Not that he’ll change his mind,” his mother said, her voice betraying an unaccustomed bitterness. “Lena knows how I feel, but she says Raven is afraid of you. Why would Raven be afraid of you? You never did anything to him. He was the one hurting you.”
Frank touched his wife’s hand. “I think he’s afraid Aben will seek revenge for what he and his brother did to Aben, and Raven is having a slow recovery from those dragon wounds. He’s weak and sometimes feverish still. Perhaps after his fever has left….”
“That’s what Lena says, but I don’t believe her anymore. She just acts sympathetic because she’s afraid I won’t help her as much. She doesn’t want me to be forced to leave because she’ll need me even more after the twins are born.”
His mother’s bitterness was even more acute than he’d first realized, and Aben stared at Frank in shock. Frank met his gaze. “We’ll see Aben now. You’ll see. Lena won’t mention it if she sees his clothes. She’ll let you help him.”
It was as if Frank was trying to signal him, and then Aben knew. His mother needed to help him. She needed to know her little boy was okay. Perhaps both her and Frank blamed themselves for all that had happened to him. And how could they not? Aben thought, briefly critical. But then he knew he couldn’t keep blaming them. They’d all be destroyed if he did, and they’d never have even these brief happy reunions. All they’d done was try to keep their family together after the conviction, and nothing was working out as they planned.
“Thanks, Mom. For the clothes. I’m sure to get a job now,” he reassured her. His stomach growled, and he gave a slight grin.
“Oh, Aben. If only I’d known. You must be starved, and we have nothing over here.”
Aben reached for his pack. “I’ve got some dried meat.” And he showed them all his food and furs so his mother would know he was safe. He even left them some of his meat and fruit so they’d have it for snacks.
Frank told him about Cassie’s boy cousin being eaten by the flame red dragon. “Be careful, ‘Ben. The beast is getting bolder.”
“I will,” he assured them, although it was harder to hide the growing wingdeer than just himself. Right now Queenie lay beside Mia, her wings folded serenely over her back in contentment, Mia’s little hand resting on her neck. Back home on Luna, they’d have made sure the scene was permanently recorded in the family archives.
Aben smiled. “Someday I’ll be able to give her rides. About a year from now, Dannel says, she should be old enough to ride.”
“Your friend from Alexandria?”
His mother glanced at Frank and then bit her lip. “Maybe it’d be better for you in another city. They wouldn’t know that we were ever convicts.”
Aben didn’t bother telling them that they’d know until he could replace all his government issue clothing and pack. “I’ll let you know if I can’t find anything here,” he promised, although if Dannel had offered, he knew he would have gone immediately.
He slept on the couch that night. It was much softer than the ground, but he couldn’t get comfortable. He roused Queenie before daybreak, and they left along the river.
They hid until after sunrise, and then they walked back to the city. Queenie flew in circles and sometimes left him to forage. He heard wings and hooves behind him, but knew they weren’t Queenie’s. He glanced back and stopped as Dannel dismounted.
“Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“Why? You don’t owe me anything.”
Dannel gave his back a light slap in exasperation as they started walking down the road toward Seavan Tole’s. It was nothing like Raven and Kayne’s cuffs. If he’d talked like that to them, he’d have been on the ground in pain by now. But Dannel did not lash out at him in anger. Instead he said, “I thought we were friends. You didn’t even say goodbye.”
“Sorry,” Aben mumbled. “Just didn’t want you forcing Seavan to take me in. If he doesn’t want me, he doesn’t want me. It won’t work out if you force him.”
“I’m not forcing him. He already has a bed set up for you. Talked to his dad weeks ago, it sounds like. You’ve been running for nothing. I even got the impression he wanted you here before you got kicked out of the Archer’s, but I’m not sure why.”
Aben stopped walking and looked into his eyes to make sure he was telling the truth. “He’s giving me a job? He really wants me there?”
“You really have a habit of underestimating your friends, don’t you? I’d take you home with me, if he didn’t, but I figure you want to stay near your family. And frankly, I’m never home. You’d be working with my dad. But it turns out Seavan really does need someone, so quit acting like we’re all either going to kick you or pity you.”
Aben couldn’t speak. Instead he stared straight ahead as he walked. The road blurred ahead of him, but he didn’t dare raise his sleeve to his eyes or Dannel would know.
They made it to the Tole’s, and they didn’t knock this time before going into the workshop. Seavan straightened from the hide he was working on. “You’re back. I did hope you didn’t plan to wait another two weeks. Did Dannel tell you I needed an apprentice?”
“Apprentice? Is that like a job?”
Dannel slapped his back again. “Better than just a job. In a few years you’ll have a trade — that is if you learn to turn out a soft, sturdy hide.”
Seavan sat against the edge of his workbench. “He’s right. Although this is Dad’s shop, I’ve arranged that you’ll report directly to me. In some ways it’s like a servant in that you still do whatever I need, but by taking you on as an apprentice, I’m promising to teach you everything I can about the process of making a raw hide usable. And the business end of it. When we’re done, you’ll be able to run a little shop like this.” He glanced at Dannel. “Although I’m sure Dannel knows things I don’t.”
Dannel shrugged. “I do know dragon-hide, but my father is the one you’d need to go to if you wanted to expand your knowledge.”
“My dad can teach me everything,” Seavan growled.
Dannel laughed. “There you go again. You’re as bad as Aben.”
Seavan grinned a bit sheepishly. “Okay. You’re right. I don’t know if Dad knows dragons. And he probably doesn’t care to know how to run a continent wide business. It’d bore him until he ran screaming into the woods.” He turned his attention to Aben. “But, I can teach you the basics so that you can eventually set up your own little shop. Are you willing to commit the next few years to me?”
“Yes, Sir,” Aben said immediately. He’d never get an offer this good again.
Seavan grinned. “You don’t need to go to any formal sir business with me. We’re friends, right? It might be good with my dad, though.”
“Yes, S….” He shrugged.
A sympathy came into Seavan’s eyes, similar to when Aben would deliver his milk. “It’s safe here, Aben. You’ll never be hit. Rigel might rage a bit. Dad does on a rare occasion, but like Rigel and the door, if it happens, it’s an accident.”
Dannel swore softly under his breath, but when Aben glanced at him he was studying a violet hopper skin.
Seavan touched his shoulder. “Let me show you where you will sleep.” They started from the room.
“No need to take those bleater furs up there,” Dannel teased. They unloaded his hides. Dannel glanced at Jimmy and then offered to take him for a ride.
Seavan watched them leave. “He is like my dad,” he said in a quiet voice. “He can’t stand to be still too long.” He suggested they leave the food and any dirty clothing with his mother. “You’ll be part of this household now, so your work helps us, and ours helps you.”
“I left most of my… I’ve got Frank’s clothes right now.”
“You snuck home last night.”
“Yeah. I asked her not to, but she begged to do it. It was strange.”
“She misses you. But you can assure her that Mom and Shalina can take over your care here. I’m sure your mother has more than enough work with Mrs. Archer expecting twins any day.”
“I… I… she does, but….”
Seavan grabbed his upper arms, facing him. “Aben, I will never hurt you. You can say anything. I will not hit you. If I’m upset, I’ll tell you, but I will not hit you. I promise.”
“I just don’t want them hurt! Don’t tell anyone,” he begged to keep the other emotions at bay.
“I won’t,” Seavan promised. “I did tell Mr. Dyami that I’d let him know if I heard from you, though. And it won’t be any secret that you’re my apprentice. If Harmon Archer wishes to stop doing business with us, then we can adjust.”
Aben couldn’t meet Seavan’s eyes any longer, and he let his gaze rest on a dehaired cow hide stretched and held taunt on a wooden frame. Harmon had talked to him, just as Aben had feared, but still Seavan risked himself for him. “If he doesn’t want to deliver milk here, I do know how to milk and care for a cow,” Aben ventured.
Seavan grinned. “As you’ll be tending your wingdeer each day anyway, we may consider it. But I don’t think Mr. Archer will go to extremes. He’s just upset about Kayne dying.”
Aben wanted to say that Kayne deserved to die, but he knew that Seavan would not approve. He could never say what he really thought of Kayne and Raven, or people would think Harmon Archer was justified in throwing him out. But Aben never would take revenge like they suggested. If he’d wanted to kill Raven, all he had to do was leave him out in the open, while he jumped alone into the thorns. But he hadn’t.
He needed to remind himself of that whenever their accusations ate at him. He would have rescued Kayne if there had been any chance no matter how he hated him, wouldn’t he have? But how do you snatch someone out of a dragon’s mouth? He shivered again. He hated the chills that attacked him when he thought of the flame red dragon.
“Let’s get this food in to Mom.” In the kitchen Seavan announced that Aben was his new apprentice.
The girl, who appeared about his age, grinned. “Jimmy told us all about your little wingdeer. He thinks he’s going to help you take care of her. I told him he’d probably be in your way.”
“Now, Shalina. No need to tease Jimmy when he’s not here,” his mother said. “My, more meat. I need to find a son who will hunt vegetables. Oh, good. You got some applums and cherberries. Still vegetables….” Then she glanced up at him and grinned. “This is great, Aben. And I bet you didn’t know the wild vegetables were ripe.”
“I bet he doesn’t know what a wild vegetable looks like, Mom. We’ll teach him.” Seavan’s hand rested on Aben’s back. “Especially since Jimmy fed most of your varroots to Queenie.”
His mother rolled her eyes. “That boy. You’ve got to watch him every minute. But what will the beast eat?”
“Don’t worry. Dannel had to get some for Skyler, so he says he’s leaving the left over hay and grain for when he visits again. We have enough to start out.”
Then Seavan took him upstairs to his room, and he gave him a real bed with a frame which lifted the mattress off the floor. “Dannel slept here last night, but he’s going to sleep on the couch downstairs tonight.”
“I… I’d be all right on the floor,” Aben suggested.
“No. This is your space. Sorry I couldn’t give you your own room. But….” Seavan sat on his bed and waited for Aben to regain control. He took a deep breath.
Aben thought he might be getting impatient. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s okay. We’ve got time. That’s the nice thing about our set up. We’re not rushed. Nothing is a deadline. No animals that need tending… well, now I guess that’ll change, but I’m not going to worry about it. Queenie’s your job. You’ll even have to supply her needs from your allowance.”
Aben didn’t ask. He wasn’t going to risk upsetting him. He wouldn’t ask about the allowance or about how much time he’d actually have to tend to Queenie’s needs. Kayne and Raven had kept him busy every minute of the day. His mother was kept more than busy all day, every day, and so was Frank. But somehow he’d have to make sure the little girl got out. He hoped he didn’t need to rely on Jimmy too much. He didn’t want Queenie to bond to him instead.
Aben followed Seavan from the room, leaving his clothing up there. Seavan insisted the blanket needed to be washed.
Go to Chapter 12
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.