Aben slipped out of the house and made his way to the river. He saw the dragon once, flying into the city, but it didn’t spot him hiding beside a tree. Aben hurried as silently as he could until he reached his parents’ door.
They greeted him with hushed hugs.
“Where’s Queenie?” his sister asked before she even said hello. “The dragon didn’t get her?” Her lips trembled.
Aben picked her up and carried her to the couch. “Nope. She’s safe back home in the barn. She’s getting bigger all the time. Too big to share your bed again.”
“But I want to see her.”
“I’m sure you will someday. But it’s not safe to take her out at night.”
His mother sat beside him, shifting so that she faced him. She looked even thinner than before, the bones in her checks more pronounced than he remembered. She took his hand. “Mr. Dyami said you were apprenticed to the tanner?”
Aben smiled. “Yeah. It’s great there. Seavan’s a saint to work for. He gives me Sunday off, and he gives me an allowance. Like my new shirt?”
His mother hugged him. “Oh, Aben, I’m so glad.”
“I couldn’t come because I didn’t want to risk it — the dragon and all, you know.”
“No. Of course. We understood. But I have your clothes washed.”
“And I have Frank’s.” Frank watched them from one of the kitchen chairs, but he didn’t interfere. Aben touched his mother’s face. “You don’t need to worry about me anymore. Mrs. Tole and Shalina take care of everything — the cooking, the laundry, everything.”
“I miss you so much.”
“They work you too hard here, don’t they?”
“Oh, I’ll be all right. Babies are just a handful. Once they’re a little older, it will be easier. And Mia’s been such a help.”
Aben opened his pack and removed Frank’s clothing, accepting his own. Then he grinned and held up a small brown burlap bag. “Bet you don’t know what this is?” he teased Mia.
Aben peeked inside the bag and then held it away from Mia. “You might be too little for candy.” He relented and gave her a piece before handing the bag to his mother. “For all of you. Know it’s not much, but maybe next time….”
“Oh, Aben, you don’t need to get us anything. Take care of yourself.”
He kissed her cheek. “I’ll do what I can. Queenie’s eating like a….” He grinned. “…like a growing wingdeer should, so that’s where most of my gold is going. Next summer, I promise to take you for a ride, Mia. But only if I can save up enough for a proper saddle.” He’d looked into the price of wingdeer saddles. Neville’s would need to order one in from Alexandria or Melbin, and it would probably cost twice what a good horse saddle did.
Frank spoke to him after his mother went to bed. “You’ve done good, Aben.”
“How’s it here? You look sore.”
Frank shrugged. “I do okay. Raven’s out in the barns again. A bit too quick tempered, but I don’t usually work with him alone. Can’t let Harmon think I have a problem with him. Probably be blamed if he got himself killed.”
“Raven wasn’t as bad as Kayne, but he still has a hard fist and boot.”
“Don’t know how you stood two of them. But at least you’re safe. You never should have come. You or Mia. We should have insisted on prison. Made you go into some anonymous foster care, even if you didn’t like it. Would have been better for you.”
Aben tried not to groan as he remembered how he and Mia had railed against the foster homes they’d been placed in when Frank and his mother were first arrested. He’d done it just because he was angry with his parents and wanted them to know they’d made life rough for him. “Seavan says that once I master being a tanner, I could probably set up shop anywhere. I’m not on probation. Hopefully things will work out, and I can get you and mom out of here.”
Frank raised his tired eyes to Aben’s. “Mia. You take Mia when you get established. Mia and your mother.”
“How is it really for her?”
Frank shook his head. “She says Lena is still decent. And she’s expecting Lena will do more now that she’s not pregnant. But she’s still recovering and babies take work and… and she’s pregnant.”
“Mom’s pregnant? Frank!”
Frank waved him quiet. “It’s not like we have access to any birth control here. And that’s the only comfort the two of us have, so don’t act so righteous on me. We didn’t plan it. I’m just telling you the honest facts. Did you want me to lie?”
Aben sat back against the couch in frustration. “She’s going to lose it for sure the way they’re overworking her.”
“I know,” Frank said so softly Aben almost didn’t hear him. “It’s gonna drain her, too. Aben, is there any kind of vitamins or healthy snack foods — even those trail rations she could eat. She needs a bit more. And medicine, like aspirin, for pain. I got a little money. A monthly allowance, but I can’t get out.”
“Sure. I’ll look for you.”
Frank pulled out his money pouch and emptied it into his hand. “How much do you think?” He pushed the coins with his finger.
Aben stared at the few coins. “That… You’ve hidden the rest?”
“This month’s money. I gave you the rest last month.” He shrugged. “Down a fourth, of course.”
“I still have your money. You keep that.” He didn’t dare tell Frank he got that much in one week for only him. “You let me know what you need. I’ll bring it next time I can sneak over.”
“Just the food and medicine now, I think. He’s supposed to get us each a new set of clothes and a jacket in a few weeks. Part of the government regs. Four sets of clothes a year. One pair of boots or shoes each year. One jacket every other year. Medical care, food, and a safe place to live. Unfortunately pain killers are luxuries, and apparently addictive to some people. He wouldn’t give me one when I asked for you before.”
“You make a list,” Aben repeated. “I’ll get what I can each time.”
Frank glanced toward his daughter sleeping on the old small mattress. “She needs those shoes. Hopefully Harmon will take us sooner than later. She’s outgrowing everything.”
Aben stood and shouldered his pack. “I better get back. It might take a while if I have to hide for any length of time.”
The night air was sharply cool tonight, hinting of the chilling winter he’d been warned about. As he walked along the river, he wondered if he got more money because he was required to buy his own clothes. Maybe he was required to pay his own medical care, too. Or maybe it was just the difference between being a free apprentice and an indentured servant.
Whoosh. Aben dived into the river as his pack was torn from his shoulder, jerking his arm in its socket. He came up sputtering for air, trying to see which way the attack would come. How far would the beast dive to get him? He saw it, silhouetted as a dark flame against the one full moon. Aben readied himself to dive, waiting as long as possible to take his breath.
As the flame dragon drew closer, Aben saw its teeth in its open mouth. “If it eats me, maybe the cycle will be broken. Maybe it will go away.” But even as he thought it, he drew in a deep breath and dived. He felt the splash, above him, but he wasn’t touched. He burst from the water to breathe.
There it came again. It was almost upon him when a second dragon shot toward the flame one. They both drew nearer. Then a beam of red light shot from the second dragon into the red dragon. The red dragon split in two, its head tumbling into the water fifteen feet before him. Aben was so amazed he forgot to dive as the dragon’s body slammed into him, pushing him down into the water.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Aben awoke in a dark, warm place. Fur as soft as a teasel’s surrounded him. The fur moved to reveal the lighter darkness of night.
“You’re safe, my friend,” came a soft voice. “You were knocked unconscious by the dead dragon, but you have suffered no brain or spinal injuries.” And then the dragon’s head came at him, blocking out the night.
Aben screamed and tried to jump up or away — anywhere!
But the soft fur enfolded him tighter. “You’re safe,” the voice said again. “Safe. I will not hurt you.” The fur rubbed over him as if in reassurance. “I’m a mammal dragon. I do not eat people.”
“I’m in hell,” Aben groaned. “The preacher said worms, but it’s filled with dragons.”
The voice gave a deep chuckle. “I have heard that, but only from residents of Aussie. None of the ancient writers imagined such a thing. My friend, I will not hurt you. Where do you live?”
“Why? So you can eat my friends? Eat me and get it over with.”
“I do not eat people.” His voice (and it was a rich male voice) sounded a bit disdainful.
But Aben knew it was a lie. “You ate Kayne. I saw you. You looked me right in the eye, and then you tilted your head back and swallowed him. I see you in my nightmares, you bastard. And you keep killing. Again and again.”
The dragon brought his nose to Aben’s head, and Aben shut his eyes tight, waiting. But all he felt was a slight heavy breathing over his hair, a metallic odor, like blood. “I still detect no brain injury, but you are experiencing some confusion. I am not the dragon who ate your friend.”
“Kayne was never my friend. I hated him. He would have tortured you for hours if he could have. He thought you were a bleater or a hopper. I hated him, but I didn’t kill him. You did. Maybe I should have left Raven for you to eat, but I didn’t. I pushed him under the thorns where he’d be safe, and he tells them all I kicked him and tried to kill him. You bastard. You ate that little boy, too, didn’t you? Cassie’s cousin.”
The voice sighed. “My friend, I wish I could be everywhere, but I am only one dragon — the only mammal-dragon on the planet. And I live far from here. A friend told me there was trouble, and I came. I’ve killed three red dragons tonight, all slightly different, but still all red. It is interesting as Collin Hansell designed the color to randomly non-repeat. In other words, a red dragon should not produce a red dragon or produce two in one clutch. Quite interesting. I will have to analyze the DNA from all three beasts to determine how this occurred. Collin Hansell was quite thorough with his color computations. They took him a whole year.”
Aben realized he must be having delusions or some kind of self-aware nightmare. Slowly, as he tried to determine exactly what state he was in, he felt his body relax. He tried to sit up, and the dragon let him. Aben turned his attention to him — in the dark a huge, silvery, blue-gray beast.
“You killed three red dragons?”
“What do you do with them?”
The voice chuckled. “That isn’t important, is it?”
“So we’re safe here?”
“No. No one is ever completely safe. There are too many reptile dragons. But I got three. I think these are the recent murderers.” The dragon made a motion with his wing, and now Aben saw six bundles lined up before the shrubs of the river. Another bundle sat near them.
“My pack.” Aben went to it, and the dragon did not stop him. It was soggy, and when he tried to lift it, water ran from it.
He turned and expected that the illusion of a talking mammal dragon would be gone, but it was still there, sitting serenely on its chest, watching him. Slowly he walked back to the dragon. “You are tame. Like a wingdeer.”
The rumbling noise in his chest sounded threatening, and Aben backed away. “Does a wingdeer speak to you? Does a wingdeer kill reptile dragons? I am not a glorified wingdeer.”
“I… I’m sorry. I… I….” He stumbled back over the large bundles, bundles of reptile dragon hide, he realized as he lay among them.
The dragon’s voice was soft again. “I’m sorry. I will not hurt you. I just have a friend back home who believes I am a glorified wingdeer and it irritates me.”
The dragon chuckled. “Well, I would be his friend if I could, but he is not ready for it.”
“Would you be my friend,” he asked boldly. He was dead anyway, wasn’t he?
“My friend, I will, but I will not be here, and I may not return for a long time. My duties are south of here. As my friend though, you must promise me something.”
“Anything,” Aben promised, daring to walk closer to the huge beast.
“You must not tell anyone that you saw me. You must say nothing about the dragons I killed. Let the city discover for themselves. It will not hurt them to remain cautious. There are other killers. Do you want a ride? You look dry enough now.”
“A ride? I really am dead.” But he discovered that the dragon wore a strange, elongated saddle. Aben followed his instructions, strapping himself on. “What is your name, mammal dragon?”
He chuckled. “Jamel.”
“I met a Michael Jamel once. I wonder if he is alive?”
The dragon chuckled again. “He’s still alive. Met him on your way here, I presume. I suspected you were new. Hold on tight.”
Aben was grateful he did not say “new convict.”
But then the muscles bunched beneath him, and he was in the air. The wind whipped past him, faster than Dannel’s wingdeer. Faster than he’d ever felt in a shuttle. It was power, and it was not tame. How could he have ever thought a dragon could be tame? He spun into the air, and then rushed back at the ground. When the ground and sky began to spin, the dragon abruptly landed near his rolled up hides.
Aben closed his eyes and tried to regain his balance, taking deep breaths of the night air.
“You did well,” the dragon said with a chuckle. “But it is almost dawn. You must go home, and I must leave.” He helped Aben from his back.
“I… Jamel… I….”
The dragon, Jamel, wrapped his wing around Aben, tucking him into the safe, fuzzy cocoon he’d woken up in. “Don’t tell anyone, my friend, and maybe some year I will see you again.” He backed away from Aben then and handed him his still wet pack. Then he attached the bundles of hides to hooks along his saddle. The movement seemed odd for a creature of his built and size, but he had no trouble twisting to reach along his back with his large clawed paws.
The dragon glanced at Aben one more time, and then withdrew something from one of the bundles with his teeth. He stretched out his neck to Aben. “Here,” he said, his clenched teeth not affecting his speech. “I will cut myself three more samples before I give these to Ulan.” He dropped the items and then leapt into the air. “Remember. No one,” he called.
Aben watched him until he disappeared into the night. Then he slowly reached down for the dragon’s gift. Three ten inch squares of hide — soft reptile hide. Aben sunk to the ground. One square from each of the three flame dragons. “This can’t be real. It just can’t be real.”
Aben carefully rolled up the three pieces of hide and hid them in his wet and mutilated pack. Then he made his way down the river, through the back streets to the Tole household and up to Seavan’s room.
“Thank you, Lord,” he heard Seavan breath. He sat up. “Did you have trouble?”
Aben hesitated, sorting out what he could say. He set his wet pack on the floor. “Yeah. Guess I did. Ran into a dragon at the river. Had to jump in. Not sure how long I was there. Everything’s wet.”
Seavan lit the lamp to supplement the pale dawn light. He groaned as he stared at Aben’s pack. “You were almost killed. It’s ripped to shreds.
Aben noticed his pack did look much worse in the light from the lamp and the early dawn just tinting the sky outside the window. And bits of clothing stuck out through the slashes. Aben groaned, too. “Looks like it didn’t help to find it again.”
“Maybe it didn’t get all your clothes. I knew you shouldn’t have gone.”
Aben opened the top of the pack and saw the rolled up dragon hide. He pulled it out with one of his shirts and discretely tucked the hides under his pillow. “I had to go. My parents need me. They don’t have a saint for a boss like I do.”
“You didn’t get any sleep, did you?”
“No. I don’t think. Might have hit my head and lost track of time a bit. Maybe I slept then. I can work.”
“We better let Mom look at those clothes. Maybe she can salvage some of them. Looks like your pack is ruined.”
“Yeah.” Aben glanced at his friend and noticed the puffiness under his eyes. He’d not slept while waiting for him. “Sorry, Seavan. Didn’t mean to be so long. But I have to see them, you know. They need me. She’s pregnant again.”
“Real poor timing. She’s worked to death over there. And Raven’s punching on Frank now.” Aben shook his head. “Sorry. Just frustrated, I guess. Whatever you need me for today, I don’t need any sleep. I get more than plenty of rest here. Besides, I’ll probably keep seeing that stupid dragon in my dreams and won’t be able to sleep anyway.” But he suspected it’d be a wonderfully, wild and beautiful silvery blue dragon in his dreams from now on.
“Are you sure?” Seavan asked softly.
Aben smiled at his concern. “Yeah, Seavan. You’re the best. I never want to take advantage of your friendship. Let me work, okay?”
Seavan returned his smile. “You let me know if you start dozing off.” He grabbed Aben’s wet pack, and they went downstairs to start the day.
Go to Chapter 15
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.