Aben followed Seavan all day, and Seavan even began showing him his trade on Aben’s own bleater hides. They took several breaks to be with Queenie. The pace was undemanding, and Seavan seemed to be going out of his way to prove that it was unrushed. He stressed that quality was more important than speed when preparing a hide. Aben tried hard to please him, but by dinner he was a bit frustrated. Seavan was never upset, so how did he know when he was doing well?
Dannel had taken off during the afternoon, and when he returned, he reported that he’d negotiated a contract with Petri Neville to display his dragonware.
They were seated at the dinner table, Seavan, Dannel, Aben, Shalina, Jimmy, and their mother, Vanya. “Good meal, Aunt Vanya,” Dannel said, scooping up some more of his varroots. “How late does Uncle Dan usually come in?”
She gave him a sly smile. “I bet your mother never knows when you’re coming home, does she?”
Dannel leaned back and laughed. “You’re right. I usually don’t realize how annoying that can be to others though.” He pushed his fork into his varroots again. “But I do need to get moving. I just wish….”
The back door opened, and two men stomped in. Aben recognized Rigel from his brief encounter on the back steps. The other man was older with streaks of gray in his dark hair.
Vanya jumped up to hug and kiss her husband. “I’m so glad you two made it home tonight. Let me get you some dinner.”
The older man handed his pack to Rigel, and Rigel took both of them out toward the workshop. He glanced around the table as he sat in the seat Vanya had vacated. “So your new apprentice finally arrived,” he said gruffly. “Thought you said one boy.”
Rigel came in and took the seat Shalina vacated. “Yeah, Seav. Thought you said one. Who’s your other friend?”
Dannel grinned and held his hand out across the table to Seavan’s father. “Hi, Uncle Dan. I’m Dannel Tole. Named after my father’s brother, I’m told.”
Dan jerked his gaze to Dannel’s face and then as an afterthought seemed to notice Dannel’s hand. He slowly reached for it and gave it a brief grasp. “So what does your grandfather want?”
“Grandfather? He died….” Dannel shook his head. “I must have been five or six. Dad thought for sure you must be dead by now or something.”
“So what does he want?”
Dannel glanced at Seavan. “Well, nothing, I suppose. He doesn’t even know I stumbled on you guys yet. Why are you mad at him? I mean, he named me after you. He must not be mad at you.”
Dan stared at him and then focused on the food Vanya set before him.
Rigel swore. “You’re from Alexandria? Man, Dad. You lied to me.”
“I didn’t lie!” Dan said sharply. “I was told not to return. I was no longer Gebhardt Tole’s son.”
Dannel glanced at Seavan and then leaned forward, almost into his roast. “Look, Uncle Dan. Whatever happened between you and your father didn’t have anything to do with my dad, did it? I know my dad misses you.”
“I’m not going back there. I’ve got a home here.”
Dannel sat back. “Yeah, well I just thought we’d visit each other and all. I travel all the time. Business. And I’ll be here at least once a month – if you don’t mind that is. Dad – he rarely goes anywhere. Don’t think he’s been any further than Capitol, but I’ve seen the whole continent. I’ve even been to every small village.”
Vanya placed her hands on Dan’s shoulders. “Sounds like your nephew is a lot like you, dear. Didn’t you travel the continent before you settled here?”
Dan’s lips twitched at the corner, and he began to eat his meal. Rigel grabbed his bread, but then leaned forward. “I probably know every tree for about ten miles, but are things much different in other cities? Different wildlife? Is it much warmer south of here?”
Dannel shrugged. “Climate is colder in the mountains. Not much ice in Capitol, but it still gives you a chill. Melbin’s a mining town. More metal and blasts. Alexandria prides itself on its hospital and a bit more cultured attitude. Capitol is all buildings and factories. It’s really the dirtiest, busiest, place on the planet. Shade — they’re just there. They have nothing special, but they like to think they’re a safer community. And they do keep things nice. Good gardeners, those people. Always moving trees and flowers around. Lots of parks. I’ve flown over to the islands, too.”
Dan lifted his head. “Xanadu and Zephyr?”
“Yeah. They’re nice. Really breezy. Now there the vegetation and the animals are different. Oh, they got some of the same stuff, but like the trees are mostly palm. Long trunks with big frondy leaves on top. The pines are way different. Not as thick. They grow different. More like a felder tree.”
“Yeah. Skyler can make it over the channel in an hour.”
“He has a huge wingdeer, Dad,” Jimmy piped in. “He’s in the barn. And so is Queenie, Aben’s little wingdeer.”
Dan focused on Aben, and Aben cringed as the big man studied him. “Where’d you get a wingdeer?”
“I… it… the river….”
“He found it. Looks like it was born a bit out of season, and he wrestled it away from its mama,” Dannel said. He grinned. “The kid can hunt, too. Found five bleaters.”
“Four,” Aben corrected, and then waited for Dannel to cuff him in anger. Why couldn’t he have kept quiet?
“Four,” Dannel said, his voice remaining upbeat. “Pretty good for someone so green he was drinking saltwater two weeks ago.”
Aben cringed, wishing he hadn’t admitted that to Dannel. Although he now knew he wasn’t supposed to drink it, and he didn’t need to adjust to the taste.
“Yep, Dad,” Seavan said, touching Aben’s back. “He brought along his own practice hides. He’s a natural.”
“Maybe you could catch me a wingdeer, Dad,” Jimmy asked.
Dan shook his head. “What’s a tanner and hunter going to do with a wingdeer? The things can’t fly in the woods without catching their wings up in the trees. Useless creatures, except their hide.” He winked at Rigel.
“No!” Jimmy cried in horror. “You wouldn’t kill a wingdeer. I know you wouldn’t.”
Dan gave a laugh and reached out to ruffle Jimmy’s hair. “No. But you don’t need one, either.”
“But Aben has….”
“If you catch one, you can keep him. Never said you couldn’t. But I’m not getting kicked by an angry mama. So, your brother is learning the business?” he asked Dannel.
“I don’t have any siblings.”
“Oh?” Dan shoved his empty plate aside and leaned his elbows on the table. “Then what’s going to happen to the precious business? You’re going to sell your wingdeer and stay home?”
Dannel shrugged. “I figure Dad is healthy.” He grinned. “Maybe I’ll have a son….” He hesitated and looked past Aben to Seavan, a strange expression coming over his face. Then he shook his head and shrugged again. “I’ve got time. I convinced Irisha that she needs a creamy white dragon hide wedding dress and I need a black tux. It should take Hans Trapper a little while to find pure black and even longer for the white.”
“You’re engaged?” Seavan asked.
Dannel grinned. “She’s my mom’s best apprentice. Hand picked. We get along okay.”
Dan snorted and took the ale his wife handed him. “I’ll never force my boys into an arranged marriage. Shalina either. Damn business isn’t worth their happiness.”
Dannel chuckled. “I see. You refused to do what was best for business, and Grandfather had a fit. Dad must have learned a thing or two from you, because he hasn’t forced me home. He expresses his strong desires, but he let me start my airmail business, and now the exclusive distribution of our product. Irisha,” he shrugged. “Like I say, we’re compatible physically, and I won’t be home much anyway.”
Shalina rolled her eyes. “Mom, was Dad ever so arrogant? Compatible physically. I want to run right over there and warn her away from you. Bet you have physically compatible friends in every city.”
“Hey, it’s not like it’ll hurt her to marry into one of the richest families in Alexandria.” Dannel stood and threw his fork down on the table. “I’ve got to check on Skyler.” He stalked around the table and then slammed the back door.
Dan stared at the table.
“Man, what set him off,” Shalina said.
“Don’t,” Dan said. “You don’t know what it’s like. Don’t judge him.”
Vanya stood behind his chair and wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck. He rested his head against her arm and took her hand.
Seavan stood and motioned Aben from the table. “Probably should check Queenie. Settle her in.”
Aben silently slipped out the back door. The sun was just setting. They’d put Queenie and Skyler into the small barn before dinner, but perhaps he should check on her again.
There was no light inside the barn except for a scant beam from the setting sun angling into the high window. Queenie expressed her delight to see him, and Aben made his way to her. He began brushing her with Dannel’s old brush. Dannel had said it was about time he replaced it, and had bought Skyler a new one when he bought the hay and grain earlier. Aben had wanted to protest, but couldn’t. He didn’t know when he’d be able to afford Queenie’s supplies on his own.
“Sorry about the scene,” Dannel said quietly. “Uncle Dan say anything?”
“Told Shalina to leave you alone. Sounded like he was being forced into marriage when he left.” He sat down in the straw beside Queenie.
“I’m not really forced,” Dannel said, but Aben couldn’t see him. He kept close to Skyler, on the other side of him, and his voice was muffled. “She’s a nice girl.”
“I met a girl on the way here,” Aben ventured. He wasn’t sure why he admitted that. But it was dark, and he had Queenie’s soft fur against his cheek.
“See her since?”
“No. It’s not like I really thought about dating her. Her uncle beats her. I told her I’d help her. Then I couldn’t help myself.”
Dannel was silent for a long while. “I’ve got to head back tomorrow,” he said. “But I’ll be back next month.” He stood before Aben now, although Aben could barely see him.
Aben lifted himself out of the straw and followed Dannel to the barn door. They started out, and then Aben saw the shadow. He grabbed Dannel and pulled him to the ground as the flaming red dragon dove at them. Aben felt its sour breath but no pain as he wiggled back into the barn. Dannel was right beside him. They slammed the barn door shut and leaned against it.
“How the hell…?” Dannel breathed deeply. “How did I miss that? Man, that was close.” For a few minutes all Aben heard was their synchronized deep breaths. “Thanks, Aben,” Dannel whispered.
“I didn’t do anything. You were jumping already when I touched you.”
Dannel gave a soft chuckle. “You keep an eye on these cousins while I’m gone. You have a sense about these things.”
“A sense?” Aben tried to muffle the sarcastic laugh he couldn’t help releasing. When the Planetary Protection Corps recruiter had come through their school with their sophisticated flight simulator, Aben had scored higher than anyone else at the school. “I was going to be a pilot with the Planetary Protection Corps. Said I had a sense,” Aben admitted. “But then my parents were arrested by the Corp. What a joke. At least everyone at school thought it was a great joke.”
“You would have made a great police officer,” Dannel said. “I see it in you sometimes. Just like you wanted to protect that girl. And you automatically reached to protect me. It’s still there.”
“Never be one here.”
“No,” Dannel admitted slowly. “Never officially. But you can always help people. I do. I mean when I see something I can do, I do it. Makes me feel like I’m making a difference even if I’m not exactly going to make the best head of Tole Tanneries.”
“You mean like when you help me.”
Dannel took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah. But I do like you, Aben. It’s not like it’s just a charity thing. I don’t want you to feel that way. We’re gonna be friends for as long as we keep crossing paths. And if you ever get in a big bind again, you come down to Tole Tanneries. You’ll always be welcome.”
“Thanks.” He didn’t know what else to say. Even if he was charity, it was nice to have options. “Think it’s gone yet?”
They stood and cautiously opened the door. After searching the sky, they dashed across the yard to the house, slamming the door once they were inside.
“Seavan’s in the workshop,” Vanya told Aben.
“Don’t let anyone out,” Dannel cautioned. “We almost got ate.”
“If you saw it, you better tell Dan. He’s in the workshop also.”
The workshop was lit with four flame lamps, one in each corner. Rigel, Dan, Jimmy, and Seavan each worked on a hide, their work filling the room. Aben edged over to Seavan while Dannel sat on a stool near Dan and told of their encounter with the flame red dragon.
Rigel swore. “Maybe Dyami’s hire is right. Those dragons are drawn to you.”
“Don’t ever say that again,” Seavan said, his voice hard. “It’s a lie from hell, and you know it. He wouldn’t have survived two weeks outside if that was true.”
Aben sunk against the wall, wishing he could be alone. What if Rigel was right, and he was a danger to anyone he was with?
“Remember, Aben was miles from here when Dyami’s hire lost his son. The beast goes after anyone exposed,” Seavan continued, his voice still hard.
“Hey, I was just joking. You’ve been pretty tense lately, you know.” He winked at Aben. “Hope you can help him. For some reason he’s starting to think the place would fall apart without him. He doesn’t think Dad and I do any work.”
“I never said that.”
Rigel laughed. “Listen to him, Dad. He needs to get out more. How long do you think it’ll take you to train Aben to fill in while you go hunting, Seav?”
Seavan didn’t speak for a moment, focusing on his hide. Then he grinned, but it seemed a forced grin to Aben. “Aben’s a fast learner — a hard worker. It won’t be long. But I bet he’d out-hunt you.”
Rigel laughed. “Bleaters are easy.”
“And live wingdeer?” Seavan teased.
Seavan laughed. “Yeah. You’ll have to try harder next year.”
“It was born out of season. He got lucky. You can’t just sneak up on a herd.”
Aben wished Seavan would stop talking and give him some kind of command, some work to do. He edged over to his bleater hide, but he didn’t think there would be enough room for him to work. But then Seavan shifted and allowed him space. Dannel teased that he needed a hide now, but he never got one. He stayed on the stool and exchanged adventure stories with Dan until they all went to bed.
Go to Chapter 13
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.