Aben couldn’t help his euphoria every time he thought of the mammal dragon. And then he’d convince himself it had been a dream until he snuck upstairs and studied his three squares of dragon hide. Jamel had been right. They were three slightly different shades of swirling red. One was closer to orange, another almost a pure red, and the third a brick red.
And the name! He said he knew Michael. Maybe the mammal dragon was somehow related to Michael’s executive sheriff status. Maybe Jamel was Michael’s dragon — except that he had a hard time imagining that anyone could “own” Jamel the dragon. He was indeed his own person, and no one could keep him where he didn’t want to be. Maybe Jamel was a secret government code, and it wasn’t really Michael’s name either. After all it was a prison. Maybe Michael and the dragon were both secret guards.
But whatever the dragon was, he’d allowed him to climb on his back, and he’d given Aben a ride he would never forget.
Aben wanted to preserve the hides, but he knew none of his friends knew the secret, except Dannel. And how could he ask without giving away Jamel’s secret? Instead he discretely stretched and cleaned them, but without the extra secret step, he knew the square pieces of hide would slowly deteriorate and lose their rich colors. He casually asked Seavan how long an untreated hide lasted — one stretched and worked without the preserving agents, and found out that he would have his hide pieces for at least five or ten years if he was careful. Longer if he didn’t handle them. But he couldn’t help touching them and gazing at them in the sunlight whenever possible. It was his only tangible proof that he had indeed met Jamel the mammal dragon, and that three red dragons were really dead.
There was no other proof that the dragons, or dragon as the rest of the city called it, were dead. Except the deaths did stop. And the sightings were scattered and vague, perhaps being of the other dragons Jamel had mentioned.
With his next allowance, Aben bought the special food and pain killers for his parents. “Do you remember if your mom ate anything special when she was pregnant?” he asked Seavan one night as they prepared for bed. “What does she need? The Archers have to pay for her prenatal, don’t they?”
Seavan didn’t meet his gaze. “I found a book on law, but we can’t buy it. We have to read it at the police station.”
“Well, I know medical for new convicts is required.”
Seavan slowly raised his eyes to his. “But they aren’t required to accept any more children into the family.”
Aben shook his head. “You’re not making sense.”
Seavan had that sympathetic look again. “Harmon Archer is not required to pay any expenses or give any extra food or do anything to support additional children. He can even request the child not stay on his property, as he requested you to leave. It is totally up to his discretion.” But then Seavan gave a small smile. “I did however find out that he illegally evicted you from his property. You are considered a dependent child until age 16 — a dependent child that he signed a contract to provide shelter for. It was as if he’d evicted your little sister, Mia. I will mention that little law to Dyami, and if there is trouble, perhaps he’ll pass on the information. Harmon Archer will most likely avoid the fines that he will incur if you take him to court. Besides he needs your mother’s good will. His wife cannot handle twins and Eddie and all the chores of a husband and grown son alone.”
“And if he pushes it?”
“He may. He may feel he’ll get the sympathy of the judge because of Kayne’s death. And he may. That’s the tricky part about pushing law. Most cases are decided on the decision of one judge, and if he has sympathy for one side, however just or unjust, the other doesn’t stand a chance.”
Aben sighed. It didn’t sound like a good option. Hopefully Harmon was decent and would accept the child. But he probably wouldn’t pay a coin more than he had to.
“I guess if he doesn’t help, I’ll have to.”
Seavan touched his shoulder. “Don’t worry. The twins should have some cast offs by the time your little brother or sister needs them.”
Aben visited his parents once a week now on Sunday nights, always bringing extra food, vitamins, and medical supplies. He found a salve for bruised muscles and bought that for Frank.
And it seemed he just couldn’t get his saddle fund started. He knew Seavan wanted him in better clothing, so he dutifully spent part of his allowance toward that endeavor, picking up a new item each week.
A month had passed since Dannel had left, and Aben noted that he wasn’t the only one looking forward to his return. But he didn’t come. A week and a half later Dan snapped with an explosive anger over a simple question from Jimmy. He left right then into the night, taking his rifle. Up in their room Seavan said that he suspected his father might be feeling like his family had rejected him all over again. And it certainly seemed like Dannel had not kept his promises. Aben didn’t like to think that perhaps he was detained by a more tragic reason.
Aben visited his parents again the next Sunday night. Harmon had finally bought the family their jackets and shoes. However it was two days after Amanda had her miscarriage. She was still quite weak when Aben visited. “She’s lost a lot of blood, and she still needs to help out during the day,” Frank confided. “Lena is doing more, but she won’t let your mother have even half a day off. Mia’s doing a lot of the running.” He cursed. “And now she’s washing diapers. Six years old! She should be in school, but we can’t take her out there. I suggested she go in with the milk wagon, but Harmon said she was needed here. Eddie isn’t going yet because he’s milking now.” Frank shook his head. “I know he’s not working Mia any harder than Eddie, but she needs an education!”
The visits to his parents were becoming the hardest thing he did each week. He loved working with Seavan. He was even beginning to enjoy working the leather with rich oils, the scent filling the room, until he could rub the smooth, soft leather against his cheek, inhaling deeply of its special aroma, slightly different for each animal’s hide. But he couldn’t bear to see his family hurting. Each Sunday night he walked away praying he could do more — praying, because he knew only Seavan’s God could do anything about the situation.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Seavan watched Aben removing the lacing from the newly tanned velwolf fur, a mid-sized carnivorous animal. The only reason it was hunted was to keep it from domestic sheep. But it did have a unique mauve color which some people liked. Aben worked intently with a slight smile on his face. Over the last month Aben had lost the last of his fears. In fact the drastic change seemed to occur all at once — the night he was attacked by the dragon. It was almost as if he’d wrestled with the demons that haunted him, and he’d won. Although he’d always been quick to run Seavan’s errands, now he seemed to spring into action — an eager movement and not a fearful one.
And when Aben walked to the store, Queenie flew overhead. The people in their neighborhood were now used to seeing them, and they knew Aben was his apprentice. Several people said it looked like he’d done the boy good. One summed it up by saying, “I was sure you’d get burned, taking in a new convict like that, especially after young Kayne’s death, but look at the boy. He’s turning into a right fine young man.”
Aben finished removing the fur from the frame and rubbed it against his cheek. His eyes were closed and a slight smile played over his face.
“You look like you’re starting to enjoy your work.”
Aben opened his eyes, his smile remaining. “Yeah. I love it here.” He grinned. “Can’t believe I said that.” He shrugged. “Your family is great. They’re so relaxed. You were right. No stress. I’ve got a great friend and boss and the sweetest wingdeer on the planet. A soft bed, satisfying work… I could go on.”
Seavan laughed, but then sobered. “I know it’ll never be as great as the police corps you wanted to join — this unexciting business of rubbing leather smooth.”
Aben took the velwolf hide to the pile of furs to take to Neville’s. “There’s flying and then there’s flying. I’ve got Queenie. And maybe someday….” He glanced back at Seavan, and his eyes shown with that same secret excitement he’d had ever since that night of the dragon encounter.
“What?” Seavan prompted softly.
Aben hesitated. Then he shook his head. “Just a daydream. But I’ll fly Queenie, and that will be my piloting.” Then he grinned. “Besides, how much more excitement could the corps offer me than running from three dragons. I really have all the excitement I need.”
Seavan agreed and sent Aben to the store with a fresh batch of hides. Then he began working a standard cow hide. “Wait a minute. He ran from three dragons that night? He never….”
A knock sounded on the door, and then it opened. “Hey,” called a familiar voice.
“Dannel! You’re back.” Seavan came around the frame as another man followed Dannel inside. He, too, wore a dragon hide jacket, and he had a dragon hide pack over his shoulder.
“Seavan, meet my dad, your Uncle Ulan.”
“Oh, wow. Is Dad going to be happy to see you. Come on in. Mom!” Seavan called into the house. “Dannel and Uncle Ulan are here.”
His mother and sister rushed into the room. Vanya arranged for her guests’ stay and where they might put their luggage.
“Where’s Aben?” Dannel asked, glancing around again as if he’d missed him the first time. “He didn’t take off again, did he?”
“No. He’s great. I sent him to Neville’s just before you came. I’m surprised you didn’t see him. I’m sure Queenie is frolicking close by.”
“Why don’t we walk over there, Dad, Seavan,” Dannel suggested, “and see if they’ve done anything with the stock I left.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Aben carried the hides to the store, teasing and playing with Queenie along the way. Then inside the store he waited while Petri Neville checked each hide and fur before accepting it for consignment. Aben wanted to look around the store to find something special for Mia. Her birthday would be soon, although it was hard to tell anymore, as he had no measure of universal time, only planetary. But he couldn’t look until he’d supervised Petri’s complete inspection.
“How’s your father? Doing any better?” Aben ventured, not sure if the inquiry by a new convict would be seen as sincere or not. The senior Neville had worked in the store he’d started fifty years ago until last week when he collapsed with a stroke. The place seemed empty without his tiny, gray-haired form puttering about, setting items right, removing stray dust, and exchanging news with every customer who came in.
Petri sighed. “Doc says he can come home, but he can’t walk or use his left arm. He can’t talk either. Doc says it’s never certain how much will remain permanent. I guess I’m going to have to hire someone to help out here.”
“My mother and father, Frank and Amanda Little, used to have their own store.” He shrugged. “Not sure what the laws are around here about switching assignments.”
Petri gave a slight grimace. “Wasn’t looking for someone to live with me. Course Stella could probably use help with Dad.” He shook his head. “Sorry, ‘Ben. I’d hire you, but I’m not looking for a new convict. Besides I wouldn’t steal Harmon’s workers from him after he’s lost his son and all.”
Aben gave a teasing grin to take the sting away. He really didn’t think Petri could or would solve his problems with his parents. “I’d help you, but Seavan already claimed me. He’s the best boss a guy could get.”
Petri smiled and shifted his notes for Aben to inspect. “Did you get the same figures?”
Aben inspected it as Seavan would. He’d asked before what Seavan looked for, and he admitted it was mostly for show. He trusted Petri, but sometimes he found a miscalculated number. Honest errors, Seavan was sure, because sometimes they were in Seavan’s favor. Aben found no errors and signed the bottom of the sheet.
Now he could do his own shopping. As he studied the medical supplies, Petri joined him. “Looking for something in particular? You buy a lot of vitamins.”
“For my mom,” he admitted for the first time. “She was pregnant, but now… Is there something to help build up her strength?”
Petri helped him pick out additional snacks and vitamins. Then Aben looked over the small selection of toys. Three plush animals sat between two dolls. “Hey, when’d you get this?” Aben said, grabbing the toy wingdeer.
“You want that instead of a shirt this time?”
He grinned. “My sister is turning seven, and she loves Queenie.”
“I was under the impression you couldn’t visit your family.”
Aben hesitated, studying his choices on the counter. Had he said too much? Had he relaxed more than he should? “Mia saw her once,” he mumbled. “Hasn’t seen her since.” He withdrew his money and paid for his purchases, not meeting Petri’s gaze. He loaded them in the pack he’d brought the hides and furs in.
“You sneak over there, don’t you?” he whispered.
Aben didn’t answer him. He didn’t want to lie, nor did he want to confirm that he’d disobeyed Harmon Archer and trespassed on his property.
“Guess I can’t blame a guy for wanting to see his mother, especially when she’s sick.”
Aben hoisted the pack on his shoulder. “See you next week.”
Aben walked out of the shop. Immediately his arm was grabbed, and he was swung around until his face banged against Neville’s large front window. “Hey, little toad,” growled a familiar voice. “I’m looking for a wingdeer. I see you found me one.” Raven sounded more like Kayne, as if the intervening two months had hardened him into his dead brother.
Aben had a brief sensation of the hopelessness that he’d experienced back on the Archer farm, but then his anger returned. He pushed off the window and jerked away from Raven’s grasp. Only the knowledge that he was still new and Raven was a long time, even respected, resident, kept him from punching him in retaliation. “I’m not your slave anymore, Raven. Leave me alone.”
Queenie, seeing him, landed close and stretched her nose to him.
Raven grabbed her halter, jerking her toward him, his grip sure from working with the cows. “She’s mine now, little toad. If I see you with her again, I’ll get you for theft.”
“You can’t steal her. She’ll never stay with you.”
Raven jerked Queenie’s halter, and Queenie squealed in alarm, her wings stretched out in panic.
Aben rushed at him, attacking the wrist of the hand on Queenie’s halter. “Leave her be, you bastard.”
Raven brought his left fist around to the side of Aben’s face. The blow caused him to buckle, but he threw his weight on Raven’s wrist as he did, causing him to release Queenie. She immediately flew away. Raven pounded his back. Aben straightened, bringing his fist up under Raven’s chin.
Aben paused to see if Raven would continue and which way the attack would come.
Raven reached for his hip and withdrew his hunting knife. He slashed out, and Aben jumped back against the glass. “Hey, you idiot. You kill me, and even you will get the pit.”
“I get that wingdeer, or your little sister will die just like Kayne.”
“Raven Archer!” came Petri Neville’s voice, as Dannel and Seavan stepped up beside him. “Put that knife away. No one will die today. Especially in front of my store.”
Raven straightened and then shook his knife toward Aben. “Remember what I said, Toad.” Then he stuffed the knife into its holder and stalked away.
“He pulled a knife on me! What’s he doing to Frank?”
“Hey,” came Seavan’s calm voice. “Let’s get inside and get a look at that wound.”
Aben shook off the hand on his arm, searching the sky. “He hurt Queenie. Did you hear her cry?”
“She’s over there with Skyler,” Dannel said, pointing to the roof of a barn across the road. “Come on. Let’s look at your shoulder.”
“My shoulder’s fine. I’ve got to check Queenie.”
“I’ll check her,” Dannel said. He touched Aben’s shoulder and then lifted his hand in front of Aben’s face. Blood smeared across it.
“You’re hurt. How’d you get hurt? The bastard. I should have let the dragon eat him.”
“I am not hurt,” Dannel said, enunciating each word. “You are. It looks like he’s got a head injury, too,” he told Seavan. “He’s rather dense today.”
Petri Neville walked between Seavan and Dannel. He took Aben’s arm. “Come with me,” he ordered. “You will check the wingdeer,” he said to Dannel. Petri drew Aben back into the store and ordered him to sit on the stool behind the counter. When he started to unbutton Aben’s shirt Aben realized what had happened. He glanced down and saw the rip and the blood staining it. “Oh, great. I’ve only had this two weeks! Why can’t he just leave me alone? Why can’t he leave Frank alone? Is he knifing him, too?”
“He wouldn’t pick on his father’s assistant, would he?” Seavan asked. “Frank should be….”
“He’s been beating him ever since he was well enough to go back out to the barns.” Aben shook his head. “Why can’t anyone do anything? People can just pound other people to death here and nobody else cares. Nobody gets involved. Even in a prison you’re not allowed to beat people to death, but here it’s just normal.” He felt the stinging antiseptic seep into the shallow knife wound, but he ignored it.
“Seavan, run get the doctor to put in a couple stitches,” Petri said. “It looks like this boy isn’t going to sit still for anything.”
Aben curled up and leaned on the counter, resting his burning face on his now bare arms. Everything had been going better. He had been succeeding. He’d even ridden a dragon, hadn’t he? But Raven would destroy him again. He just knew it. Everything would be taken away again.
A hand rested on his back. “Hey, Aben,” Dannel said. “I checked Queenie. She’s fine. Just a bit shook up and nervous.”
“He’d beat her to death. Torture her just like Kayne used to.” He didn’t lift his head. He didn’t even know if his words were clear, but he didn’t care. “You didn’t see that poor bleater he caught. And Raven sounds just like him now. Should have left him….”
“No!” Dannel said sharply.
Aben lifted his head from surprise, but wished he’d kept it down as his gaze locked to Dannel’s. He knew they’d hate him if they knew how he really felt.
“No, Aben,” Dannel said again, and this time his voice was soft. “Don’t let him tear you apart inside. Never regret helping someone. Never. No matter how much of a jerk they are afterward. Never quit caring.”
Aben couldn’t speak. He couldn’t sort through all his conflicting emotions. It hurt so much to care, and he just wanted to give up.
“It’s happened to me, too, you know,” Dannel continued, resting his hand on Aben’s shoulder. “I’ve helped people who spit at me afterward, mad I didn’t do enough, mad the results weren’t what they expected, mad because they were just mad people. But I’ve also got a lot of great friends, people I helped; sometimes the help is nothing more than a wingdeer ride from here to there. Nothing spectacular, and I enjoyed the company, and they’re always glad to see me. You can’t let a jerk like Raven cause you to regret doing the right thing. I’m just glad I had so many good experiences before I had the bad ones, or I might be tempted to be bitter, too.”
Aben bit his lip and let his gaze fall to the counter, now smeared with blood — his blood.
“You’ve got it in you, Aben. You’ll help people, and you don’t need to be a police officer.” He paused. “But you can do more, the more established you get. Don’t get yourself in over your head, or you won’t be able to help anyone.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Aben protested. “I just walked out the door and he grabbed me. I didn’t even know he was out there.”
Petri nodded as if confirming his words, and Aben noticed a man in a black dragon hide jacket trimmed with rose. He looked a lot like Dan, but he was a bit shorter and a little stockier. He was looking at Dannel, though, as if he didn’t know him.
Dannel grinned then. “You know, Seavan was just telling us on the way here how much you’ve change and how happy you are now. Was he lying? You look a little depressed to me.”
Aben had to smile. “Seavan doesn’t lie. It’s great working with him.”
The doctor came in with Seavan then. He tisked over the blood. “Next time,” he told all who stood around, “hold something over the wound to help clot the bleeding. You’ve wasted a lot of this man’s good blood.”
Aben lay on the floor, Petri bringing a cushion for his head, as the doctor stitched. He rubbed something over his shoulder to stop the pain, so Aben just had to remain still. He heard Dannel introducing his father to Petri Neville as Seavan cleaned up the blood, apologizing for the mess until Petri told him he was going to soak his furs in it if he didn’t shut up about it.
When the doctor finished, Seavan paid him, although Aben felt he should, but he didn’t have the money. Then Petri handed him the pack with his purchases that he’d forgotten about, and they walked home.
Go to Chapter 16
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.