New Haven was not like Capitol and Alexandria. People did not bustle to and fro, and they had walked the length of the city in less than an hour. One of the villages between Capitol and Alexandria had been almost as large. But at the far end was the ocean, wild and grey and beating against the rocky shore in anger. The day was overcast, and occasionally water spattered down on them from the sky. Their guide laughed at their surprise, and Aben was glad that it appeared all three families had never been outside a domed environment. Rain in domes happened as a gentle sprinkling during the night, not while people were out and about their business. The churning of the ocean was a new experience as well. He shivered as the wind whipped across the pounding waves to the small group on the shore road.
They were led to the town hall across the road from the docks. Large fishing boats rocking in the wind. They were allowed to wait inside the dim hall as the guide arranged for their new employers to be notified to come for them. Several benches lined the back half of the room. Light flashed, followed by a loud crack. Mia cried, his stepfather tensed, Cassie’s uncle dropped behind the first bench. The little boys ran to their father.
Their guide grinned. “Yep. Looks like we’re having a right nasty storm out there. We got here just in time.” He opened the door to allow them to see the water now raining down in sheets. Light flashed again, a jagged knife in the sky showing the trees straining and thrashing against the wind. Then the thunder boomed again. More forcibly than the tall trees or the rustling breeze, this storm told him that everything he had experienced on Luna inside its domes was safe and tame. This planet was wild and could strike him at any moment even without the man-eating dragons. As when he had confronted the dragon in the barn, he realized that educational pictures did little to capture the essence of the true destroying power behind the creature, or in this case, the planet itself.
They huddled in the town center until the storm abated. Then people were sent to fetch them. Cassie’s family went first. She gave him a feeble smile as she followed her uncle and aunt out the door with Sara on her hip. Then came someone for the family with the young boys. Finally a boy entered, about Aben’s age, and spoke with their guide.
“Well, looks like Raven, here, will take you to your new home. It was good meeting you all.” And then their guide disappeared out the door.
Raven greeted his stepfather with a handshake, and he spoke to Aben’s mother, but he ignored Aben. Irritated, Aben followed them out to the flat bed wagon. They were told to climb in the back, and then they rode west out of town.
“We have a large piece of land, but we’re still clearing some of it. We’ve got wheat, corn, cows, and a few goats. My mother has been sick, Ma’am, so you’ll be helping her inside and with the herb and vegetable garden. Sir, you’ll help my dad any way he needs.”
“What will I do?” Aben couldn’t help asking.
Raven gave him a sideways glance. “You help me an’ Kayne.”
Raven turned to his father. “Have you ever farmed before, Sir?”
“I’m willing to learn whatever your father will need me to do.” His stepfather looked back at Aben with a warning.
Aben rolled his eyes. He wasn’t trying to cause trouble. He just wanted to know.
The wind whipped droplets of rain into them. Raven snapped the reins, and the large horse picked up its pace. They started up into the mountains, but then before they’d gone far, the road leveled out, and the trees opened into a grassy field bordered by trees and mountains. A stream flowed behind the house which sat right before them.
Raven drove the horses to a barn, where a large man waited. He greeted all of them, even Aben and Mia, with a rough handshake. At first Aben thought Harmon Archer must be a hired hand, but then he noticed the slight resemblance to Raven in his facial features. But other than that, the man was much larger than Raven.
Another boy joined them and was introduced as Kayne. He was almost identical to Raven, except that his hair wasn’t longer than an inch in any one spot, whereas Raven’s deep brown hair was touching his shoulders. Raven grinned at his brother. “There’s only one. We gotta share.”
Kayne eyed Aben. But then his father growled, “Take that luggage into the house. Take Missus Little and the girl into the house.”
“Little?” Kayne mouthed with a smirk.
Aben grabbed his pack and the one with his sister’s belongings. “My name is Aben Vicente.” He stalked toward the house. Even though Frank Little had adopted him, he had let Aben keep his father’s name, although Aben barely remembered the man who’d left them when he was four. Aben had tried to find him so he wouldn’t have to come to Austin (Aussie, he corrected himself) but he was unable to.
Kayne caught up to him, carrying his stepfather’s pack. “Hey, you wait for us. That’s your job,” he whispered fiercely. But then said, “Your rooms are in the back here. You don’t need to go through the house.”
Aben’s mother came up beside him, holding Mia’s hand. “Oh, that will be nice,” she said quietly, giving Aben’s back a quick caress.
Nice was not the word Aben thought when he saw the two rooms assigned to them. One ratty mattress sat on the floor of the back room with a crooked set of drawers. In the outer room was a cooking stove in one corner near a small table; a box of dishes sat in the corner; and a cast off sofa spewing what little stuffing it had left stood by the door. Another door led into the Archer household. Kayne opened it and yelled through. “Hey, Mom, she’s here.”
A little boy of about five ran through first. Then came a small woman who appeared very pregnant.
“Leave your pack here and come on,” Raven growled, much as his father had.
Kayne motioned with his hand to reinforce the command. “We got cows to milk.”
Aben wanted to protest, but realized his stepfather was already working also. He wondered if they’d ever get a break or a day off if they didn’t even give them a moment to unpack. Aben followed them out.
They were silent as they walked across the wet grass and down the muddy path. When they rounded the barn Raven grabbed Aben and shoved him up against the building. “Let’s get this straight up front. You listen directly to us, and you don’t ask questions.”
Aben tried to jerk away, but Kayne caught his free arm, and then punched his stomach. Aben doubled over in pain. Kayne punched him again and then let him drop to the ground with a kick to his side.
As he drew back to kick again, Raven touched his brother’s arm. “Don’t maim him, or he won’t be able to do any work.”
Kayne grabbed Aben’s shirt and lifted his head a few inches from the ground. “Remember, you little green toad, we can beat you any time we want, and no one will stop us. You’re our servant. That is unless you want us to kick you and your little sister out for the dragons to eat.”
Aben’s jaw tightened as the anger coursed through him. Slowly he picked himself up off the ground.
Raven smirked. “Little sisters aren’t good for anything, you know. Just a waste of resources. She wouldn’t even make a decent meal for a dragon.”
“But she’d be mighty fun to watch as the dragon pulled her apart little by little.”
Aben lunged at Kayne. “Leave her alone, you bastard.”
Even though Aben was several inches taller than Kayne, he hadn’t spent years working on the farm, and he didn’t have the wiry strength Kayne did. He also didn’t have a twin brother to help him. Before he knew it, Aben’s face was slammed into the muddy grass as one of the two pounded his back.
“Hey,” Mr. Archer called. “Get to them cows!”
“Aben slipped on the mud. We’ll be right in.” Kayne pulled Aben up by the back of his shirt and lowered his voice. “It won’t be necessary to repeat this lesson often, will it? You cause trouble, you and your family are all dragon bait, got it?”
Aben tried to wipe the mud from his face, but his shirt front and his sleeve were both just as dirty.
“Do you got that?” Kayne jerked him again.
Aben stared at the mountains and refused to answer.
Kayne brought his knee up into Aben’s groin. As Aben doubled over in pain, Kayne growled, “You will show us respect. If you don’t, I can take your little sister up into the mountains where only the dragons can find her.”
“No!” He meant an angry protest, but the pain in his groin made the word a weak plea. He gritted his teeth to keep from making any more sounds.
“Yes,” Kayne continued. “I can snatch your sister away, and no one would ever know it. Children are always wandering off and disappearing around here. Am I clear?”
When Aben didn’t answer, Kayne struck him again. “Am I clear?”
“Yes,” Aben said through gritted teeth.
Kayne grabbed Aben’s hair and pulled his head back. “It’s ‘yes, Sir.’ Don’t forget the sir.”
“Yes, Sir,” Aben said, not looking at either of his tormentors.
Kayne released his hair and chuckled. So did Raven. “Good. Let’s get those cows taken care of.”
Aben followed them into the barn. Straightening his body to walk normally made the pain worse, but he would not give them any satisfaction. He would not let them see how he hurt.
The cows were to be herded in and then milked. Given scant instructions, Aben was kicked twice and bitten once on the shoulder by the cows annoyed by his inexperienced handling.
At dusk he was allowed to go to their rooms. His stepfather was already there, and his eyes widened when he saw Aben. He grabbed his arm and herded him back outside. “We’ve got to get you cleaned up before your mother comes back,” he whispered. “What happened?”
“She’s finishing up their evening meal. We get the leftovers.”
Aben sunk down against the tree just outside of the house, unable to keep the pain at bay any longer. “You call this better than prison? Do the guards beat you in prison? They’ve got laws….” He hated the tears which now ran down his face.
“Aben, you weren’t….” His stepfather swore. And then he swore again. He hit the back of his fist against the tree, swearing again and again in a hushed rage. He finally sunk to the ground beside Aben. “Maybe I can talk to Harmon. He seems decent.” His voice wavered, and Aben knew how deeply he didn’t want to make waves.
Then Aben remembered Kayne’s threat. If they got in trouble for beating him, they’d take it out on Mia. Aben glanced up into the dark sky and shivered. “I’ll be okay. Dragons might be out soon.”
His stepfather led him to the pump which was closer to the back door of the main house. “Can’t let your mom see how bad you are. She feels bad enough about you not being able to be a police pilot. This will tear her up.” He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wet it. Then he began cleaning his face, his hands, and some of the worst mud and blood from his clothes. Frank swore again every time Aben winced. He thought not to and then decided to let Frank know exactly how bad it was for him here. He told them he’d hate it, didn’t he? Wasn’t he right?
But then Aben caught a glistening streak down the side of Frank’s face. The man really did love him as a son. “Look, some of it was just the cows, you know. Once I get used to the animals, I’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, sure,” Frank agreed, his voice rough. “Tell your mom about the cows.”
“We better get inside,” Aben suggested, as uncomfortable with the emotion as he was with the pain he’d received earlier. “Dragons are worse than cows.”
Inside his mother had plates of some kind of lukewarm stew on the table. A small flame lamp lit the room, and briefly Aben was glad his mother wouldn’t be able to see him well. Mia was already picking at her food with a fork. His mother smiled. “I think this will work out well. Lena is so sick, and she’s grateful for the help. She’s lost so many babies, and maybe this time… well, I’m sure you men had an interesting time.” She looked expectantly at them.
Frank cleared his throat as he focused on his food. “Harmon seems like a decent man. Hard worker. The trail didn’t toughen us up near enough I think. But a couple weeks, and we should be right at home.”
Aben didn’t need Frank’s nudge to know he was expected to give his mother an encouraging report. “Cows are big animals, but pretty placid. I just have to learn how to keep them happy. And lugging the milk to the pasteurizer takes a bit of upper body strength. I’ll toughen up.”
“I wanna see the cows,” Mia said. “And the horses and goats and….”
“Stay with Mom!” Aben said sharply. “Don’t go near the barn.”
At his mother and stepfather’s startled look, Aben realized he was overreacting. “We’re too busy out in the barn. She could get hurt.”
“Aben’s right,” Frank said slowly, keeping his eyes on the food. “Even placid animals can be dangerous if startled, and the plows and harvesters are not toys. The horses are working also. Keep Mia with you, Amanda. There will be plenty of time to see animals.”
That night, Frank and his mother were going to sleep on the broken down mattress. His mother assigned the couch to Mia, but Frank interceded. “Let Aben have the couch. He’ll be stiff from working. Mia can sleep beside you, and I’ll take the floor.”
“But Frank, you work just as hard, and I’m sure we’ll get another mattress soon.”
Frank kissed her cheek. “This is temporary, but Aben was kicked by a cow today, and he’s very sore.”
His mother was at his side in an instant. “Oh, Aben, why didn’t you say something? Let me see. Maybe Lena has some salve….”
Aben jerked away from her. “I’ll be okay.” He grabbed his pack from the back room and brought it into the living room. Taking his blankets from it, he spread them on the couch.
They finally went to bed in the other room, and Aben was left to his pain and his thoughts. He’d never be able to rescue Cassie He didn’t even think he could rescue himself. He barely slept, pain and fever battling to keep him awake.
Go to Chapter 4
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.