It wasn’t until after lunch that Dannel motioned Aben to follow him out to the barn. Seavan urged him on. “Go talk your wingdeer talk. We probably won’t see him for another couple months.”
Dannel rolled his eyes and grinned. “Two weeks later than I said, but I had a good excuse. I was waiting for Dad, and he wouldn’t come without the stuff.”
“Yeah, but if you’re like Rigel, if you stumble on a good trail, you’ll be out in the woods for days.”
Dannel grinned. “I’ve been known to stomp around in the wilderness, mostly near rivers. Hans said he’s seen pegasus. He’s also seen another rare creature I want to find.” He grinned at Aben though. “Yeah, I’m looking for the animals so rare, they’re considered one of a kind. You’re right. If I’m distracted by a unique creature, I probably won’t stop until I own it.”
One of a kind. Hadn’t Jamel said he was the only mammal dragon? Or was he reading too much into Dannel’s words? He followed him out to the barn, Queenie and Skyler joining them as soon as they were out of the house.
“She’s growing, isn’t she?” Dannel asked. “She’ll need a bigger halter than that pony halter I gave you.”
“How soon?” Aben had hoped he’d have four or five months.
They stopped just outside the barn. No one was around but Queenie and Skyler. Jimmy had gone off to school, and Dannel’s father was off visiting with Dan. “Just a sec.” He ran into the barn and then came out carrying a large package. “Here. I saved this out for you. Worked the hide myself.”
Aben took the large burlap bag. Perhaps he was getting a jacket after all. But the package wasn’t as light as he’d expected, and it was solid. “You guys must have really loaded down Skyler,” he couldn’t help noting.
“Yeah. That caused us an extra day. Didn’t want to fly him too long without a rest cause we had so much. Dad wanted me to leave this behind until next time, but….” Dannel shrugged. “I figured it would relieve you to have it. Now you don’t have to buy one.”
“It’s not….” Aben couldn’t dare hope. He opened the burlap bag, pulling out its contents in one motion. “A saddle. A dragon hide saddle. Just like Skyler’s.” Only it wasn’t just like Skyler’s. Skyler’s was rich bronze like Dannel’s jacket and pack. This one was the brick red from the murdering dragons. “And a halter and bridle? All this is for me? It must cost….”
“Don’t talk of costs. It’s a gift. For Queenie.”
“Ah, man, Dannel. I can’t… I thought… your dad doesn’t like you giving stuff to strangers, does he?”
Dannel laughed. “You let me worry about my father. Besides, you’re like family now. Dad will see it soon, but I wasn’t going to push for a jacket this morning when I had argued with him about bringing this.”
Aben couldn’t speak. His throat was too tight.
“I didn’t forget about you this morning.”
“Thanks,” Aben managed. He didn’t know what else to say. What could he say? The gift was too great. “Wish I could go south when Seavan does. But I’ll do whatever you guys need me to do.”
Dannel gripped his shoulder. Then he grinned. “But there are advantages to living up north here,” Dannel said, his voice so low it was almost a whisper. “There’s more exotic wildlife here. You may just find yourself a mammal dragon next.”
Aben froze, still crouched beside the saddle, and stared up at Dannel.
Dannel crouched also. “Wouldn’t it be great? Faster than the fastest wingdeer. You met Jake, didn’t you?” It wasn’t really a question.
“Jake? I thought he said….” Jake, Jamel. He must have misheard him. Of course he wouldn’t have Michael’s last name. “Jake.”
“Jake Trapper. Did he give you a ride?”
Aben could only nod.
Dannel grinned. “Don’t tell anyone. I’m sure Seavan will get his ride when he comes south. Jake delivers more often than Hans now. What I wouldn’t give to own a mammal dragon.”
“Own? He didn’t appear to be easily owned.”
Dannel laughed. “I imagine, like a wingdeer, he has loyalty to his primary caregiver.”
“But he talked. He’s not….”
Dannel hushed him and glanced around. “I know. Not exactly like a wingdeer. But how do you think Hans got him? He must have caught him and taught him everything. I mean, he even laughs like Hans does.”
“How do you catch a dragon? You’d be slaughtered. Its mother would kill you, even if she’d taken a vow never to eat humans.”
“Yeah. I know. Don’t know what I’ll do if I actually see one in the wild. Probably get myself killed, I want one so bad. If only Hans would take me, I’d do every ugly chore he had, even cleaning out the dragon dung from the barn. But you can’t tell anyone. Not even Seavan. That’s the secret, or at least part of it. Seavan will find out from Jake and Hans.”
“I would think that a dragon as smart as Jake wouldn’t leave dung in the barn,” Aben said. He wondered if Dannel was the friend who thought Jake was a glorified wingdeer. But then Dannel would not hold back from any friendship Jake offered.
Dannel laughed again. “You’re right. Jake is so smart, he’d never dung up the barn. Hans told us he can conduct all Hans’ business for him when he’s not around.”
Aben saw Jimmy and his friends coming down the street, and he motioned toward them.
Dannel stood. “Let’s hide this in the barn. You don’t want some idiot stealing it, and trying to fit it on a plow horse. Best not let even Jimmy’s friends know yet. Once Queenie can wear it and people see it on her, they won’t be able to steal it and try to fight a claim.” Dannel took it into the barn, and they hid it up in the small loft behind the extra straw.
“Thanks again, Dannel. I didn’t know how I was going to save up for a saddle.”
He grinned. “No problem. Now you just have to buy yourself a winter jacket.” They walked back inside to the work shop.
Since Aben guessed that Seavan had wanted him to get a dragon hide item also, he told him about the saddle as soon as he saw him.
Seavan smiled, but it wasn’t as broad a smile as when he was completely happy. “I’m glad, Aben. You’ll have to show me before I leave.”
Dannel rolled his eyes. “Man, Seav. You act like you’ve just been sentenced to the pit. Equal heir your dad asked for, and I didn’t hear anyone quibbling about it. Once you get down there, you can get a wingdeer or whatever you want. You’ll have your own apartment — a big apartment, and you can buy whatever clothes you want.”
Seavan shook his head as he scraped the cow hide again and again.
“Seavan, I asked my dad before we got here about you. I’m giving you half my inheritance. Act a little enthused, will you?”
Seavan just kept scraping the hide, not even lifting his head to acknowledge him.
Dannel snorted in disgust. “I’m going to go find your brother. Maybe we’ll go hunting.” He studied Aben a moment.
Aben picked up his sheep skin and set the frame over the benches to work on it — another hide worked only on one side to keep the soft wool on top.
Dannel left them.
Seavan threw his scraper across the room. “I’m an ungrateful bastard, right? I should be overjoyed. I’m like those people he talked about.”
Aben let him rant on. He knew he just needed to let off steam. After his rant, Seavan went upstairs to sleep. Aben decided to go see Queenie.
“Why, Aben?” Dannel asked.
Aben whirled around, still keeping a hand on Queenie’s back, rubbing her itchy spot. “Why what?”
“Why is he mad at me?”
“He’s not mad at you. He’s just going to miss his family. Give him a bit of time, okay? It’s hard to move away from everything you’ve ever known.”
Dannel leaned against Skyler. “Guess you would know.”
“Yeah. I told him he could visit every month with you. He can, can’t he?”
“Sure,” Dannel said quickly. “He’ll get to visit.”
Aben felt a sinking in his gut. Dannel wasn’t lying, but he wasn’t being completely truthful. Seavan wouldn’t be able to visit near as often as Dannel did. That’s why Dannel gave up half his inheritance — so that he wouldn’t be stuck home running the family business.
At dinner, though, Seavan smiled and even asked his uncle some questions about the tannery and how the sewing fit into it. He was trying to appear grateful and enthusiastic.
They were all settled into the work room, and they listened as Ulan and Dan talked about the past and about people they’d known. Aben was glad they’d stopped talking about the tannery. Seavan had tried to be enthused, but Aben could see the strain by the set of his shoulders and jaw.
A knock sounded on the door. “Who could that be in the dark?” Dan wondered aloud as Rigel went to open it.
“Is something wrong,” he asked.
The shadowy figure at the door appeared bent over, and even from across the room Aben could hear his deep intakes of breath as if he’d run a long way. “Need… need Aben… Mia….”
“Frank!” Aben ran around the benches of hides as Rigel let Frank stumble into the room. “What is it? What happened?”
“Mia….” He took more deep breaths. The light in the room highlighted a bleeding scrape along the left side of his face. “Mia’s gone. Can’t find her. She wouldn’t run off. Scared… she was scared of dragons.”
“No! If he hurt her… if he….” He bit his lip to keep from speaking. It was Raven’s fault. He knew it was. And he wanted to pound him until he brought Mia back.
Dannel swore. “He’s not talking about your little sister, is he?”
Seavan was beside him now. “Think, Aben. Where do you think he’d take her? Rigel, run and get Petri Neville. He was a witness. If that girl is hurt, Raven Archer will not get away with it.”
Dan stood and nodded to Rigel who then shot out the door. “What was the exact threat, Seavan? Maybe that will give us a clue about where to look.” Dan directed Frank into the chair near the door.
Vanya who had apparently left the room now rushed back in with a wet cloth and first aid supplies. “Let me look at that bruise.”
“He said he’d kill Aben’s little sister if Aben didn’t give him Queenie.”
“No,” Aben corrected. “He said, I get your wingdeer or your little sister will die, just like Kayne did.” Just like Kayne did.
“But Kayne was dragon eaten,” Shalina protested. “By dragons that we now can wear. He can’t do that.”
“There are more dragons.”
“But you can’t just feed someone to a dragon without getting eaten yourself. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Maybe he took her out in the woods where he thought a dragon would be,” Dannel suggested.
“The dragon’s bed,” Aben said. “Where Kayne died.” He bolted for the door.
Seavan caught him. “Wait for us. I’m getting the guns. You wait for me.”
Petri and Rigel arrived just as Aben, Frank, Seavan, Dannel, and Dan left the house. Dan had ordered Ulan to stay with his family. Dan handed Rigel his hunting rifle. Petri had his own, and they marched toward the Archer farm.
“What happened, Frank,” Dannel asked. “How’d you get all beat up?”
Aben could tell Frank was struggling to keep up, but no one suggested slowing down. Frank wouldn’t want them to.
Frank shook his head, taking short, quick breaths. “It’s nothing. I’ll be all right.”
“Tell me about nothing,” Dannel insisted. “Did Raven give you that black eye? Don’t protect the bastard if he doesn’t deserve it.”
“Mia. We must find Mia.”
“He’s been threatening your daughter for a while, hasn’t he?” Dan guessed.
“Kayne would, too,” Aben admitted. “From the first day we arrived.” He didn’t look back at the men. All four moons lit the sky, but only one was full. He couldn’t be distracted by idle talk. The dragons could attack.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“Tell someone!” Frank’s voice was a weak cry. “Amanda mentions it to Lena, and the next day Aben is almost killed by the bastards. Then there’s trouble, and Aben is accused of hating them, of trying to kill them! Now I’m going to be kicked off the farm if Raven is the least bit injured, because now it’s a matter of record that we don’t get along.”
Frank stumbled and fell to the dirt road. “Go on without me,” he said weakly. “Find a way to take care of them, Aben. Find a way. Don’t let Raven kill your mother, too.”
Dan hesitated. “Petri, maybe you should take this man back to Doc.”
Petri helped Frank to his feet, as the rest of them continued on. Dan was right. Frank wouldn’t make it to the dragon’s bed.
They started across Harmon’s property. Harmon jogged to them with a lantern. Dan stopped to face him. “Did you find the child yet?”
“She must have wandered off. Probably fell in the river. We lost Kimi that way, remember?”
“Harmon, are you aware that Raven has been threatening to kill Mia? The last time he did it in front of numerous witnesses.”
Harmon scowled and motioned at Aben. “That boy is telling you stories. Raven wouldn’t hurt a child. Why do you think I ordered him from my property?”
“My father and I heard him,” Dannel said sharply. “Seavan heard him. Petri Neville heard him. He threatened that Aben’s little sister would die if he didn’t get his wingdeer. And we’re all willing to testify, so you better hope that girl is found without a human inflicted mark on her.” He slapped Aben’s shoulder. “Which way?”
Aben began walking again.
“Where are you going?” Harmon protested. “He’s not allowed on my property.”
“The dragon’s bed,” Aben said. “He said she’d die like Kayne did. We’re looking there first.”
“That’s crazy,” Harmon protested, but he followed them across the field of dried wheat stubble, his lantern bobbing shadows across the field. “Raven wouldn’t dare go near that spot again. He nearly died there.”
None of them spoke again. Aben kept a constant eye toward the sky. The field was too open. They would be easy to kill here. Then they reached the mountain and began climbing. They climbed past the thicket to the small clearing, but Aben kept going.
“You’re insane, Kid. That dragon could be in that bed.” Then he gasped. “Oh, gods, no!” His voice was a strangled whisper.
Aben whirled around. In the light from Harmon’s lantern he saw her hanging from a tree in the clearing. The rope was under her arms, and she bent almost in two. Blood obscured her face, and her clothes were mere ribbons, hanging on her frail, little body. He wanted to be sick, but he could not move his frozen limbs.
Dannel ran to the tree and lowered the rope. Dan caught her in his arms. Mia’s sharp scream cut through his nerves. She was alive! He ran and slid down the slope to her.
Now she whimpered, as if trying to keep her sobs inside. Dan tried to lay her on the ground, but she screamed in pain.
“Mia,” Aben said softly, drawing her into his arms. She was like a rag doll, and he held her to him. She’d lost weight in the last several months also. “Mia, you’re safe now. You’ll be all right.”
“Dragons….” A shudder rippled through her body.
“No dragons. I’ll protect you,” he promised. He stood, and Seavan and Dannel were on either side of him, steadying him. Dan and Rigel walked ahead. Harmon and the lantern were gone. When they reached the field, they could see him far ahead, as if he was running.
“I’m going to get your mother,” Dan said. “You take the child directly to Doc. Rigel, come with me.” Then he and Rigel ran after Harmon.
They walked as fast as they could. Mia had no strength to hold on to him, and eventually Aben was forced to admit that he needed help. Dannel and Seavan both took turns carrying her so that they could walk faster. It was Aben’s turn again for the last few blocks.
Petri and Frank stood as they entered the doctor’s waiting room. “Oh, no.” Petri looked about to be sick.
Frank touched his daughter’s forehead. “Is she…?”
The doctor ordered them to take Mia into his surgery, and then he told them to wait out front.
Petri ran to get the sheriff, who briefly looked in on the doctor. Then he took their statements.
Dan joined them with Amanda an hour later. The sheriff was still with them. “How is she?” Dan asked.
“Doc’s still working,” Petri told him.
Amanda slipped into the seat beside her husband. The sheriff greeted her. “I’m sure he’ll get the pit for this, Ma’am. We don’t tolerate cruelty around here.”
“Harmon got home soon enough to warn him. I doubt well catch Raven now. He’ll probably head for some obscure village.”
“I’ll put out the warrant and post it, and we’ll search the farm in the morning. No matter where he goes, the authorities will have his picture. They’ll catch him.” The sheriff sighed. “I don’t think the Littles should go back there. Is there a temporary home for them until we can send them back to Capitol for reassignment?”
Petri studied Frank and Amanda, and then Aben.
Dan spoke up. “I’ll make room. Not sure where, but my brother said he was going home tomorrow, and I can keep Jimmy in with Rigel. Perhaps Shalina can keep the little girl in her room.”
“I have room,” Petri said, his voice quiet. “Need the help anyway, since Dad’s stroke. He focused on Frank and Amanda. “You can stay with me, and perhaps when you’re both recovered, you wouldn’t mind helping me with the store, and Stella in taking care of Dad.”
Aben was too numb to realize his prayers were being answered. His family was now away from the Archer’s farm. Why had Mia had to suffer so before it happened though?
“But Mia….” breathed his mother.
“Of course your daughter would be welcome,” Petri said. “In fact, Stella will enjoy having a little girl around. We had only sons, and they’re both married and moved away to Melbin.” He gave a little smile then. “I even offered Aben a job the other day, but he turned me down. He’s a fine young man.”
The doctor came out. “You may see her now, but I’d like to keep her a few days. She’s lost too much blood, and she may have additional problems because of the way she was suspended on the rope.”
Mia was barely awake, and the doctor said that was because he’d given her a lot of medicine to relieve the pain and the muscle knotting. Her mother and father, and then Aben reassured her that she was safe now.
Then they went home, Frank and Amanda following Petri with the two packs Dan had brought when he got Amanda. “I couldn’t leave her there, or even conceive that they should go back there to gather their belongings later,” he told Seavan, Dannel and Aben on the way home. “If I hadn’t brought her and anything else happened….” He shook his head.
“Thanks, Dan,” Aben finally managed to say. “For everything.” And he could only repay him by doing whatever he wanted, even if that meant he’d be separated from his best friend. He tried to see the bright side. At least his family was safe now, and he’d be near them. Seavan was right. They had to do what was best for their families. “Whatever you need done, Dan. I’ll serve where you need me.”
Dan clasped his hand on Aben’s back. “I think we all need to get a little sleep.”
Seavan touched his arm — a slight movement, but he conveyed understanding. They would both do what Seavan’s father had asked of them.
Up in bed that night Seavan promised that he’d visit often after he left.
“And I’ll write every week,” Aben promised. “You write, too.”
“And when they no longer need me here. When Jimmy is old enough….” He trailed off. Maybe he was being presumptuous.
“Maybe you’ll come be my apprentice again.”
“Yeah. I will,” he promised.
Go to Chapter 19
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.