Cousin Came to Visit

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My handheld began softly beeping. I tapped it twice to silence and cancel the alarm. I slid off my bed and began rooting around in the “not too dirty” pile of clothes on the floor. I picked up and sniffed a sports bra. Oh god, that stinks! I tossed it into the actually dirty pile of clothes. I gave up looking on the floor and just pulled out a clean sports bra and underwear from my dresser. The sports bra fit extra snug, flatting out my chest nicely. Not as flat as a binder but I didn’t have one of those. Yet. A loose t-shirt and a pair of track shorts covered enough skin to make me decent.
I unlocked my bedroom door, slid it open, and walked into the kitchen. Mom was already in there drinking coffee at the table. I grabbed the small sauce pan off the wall, half filled it with water, cranked the handle into the red, and set it on the stove top. From inside the refrigerator, I plucked two eggs from their carton. I dropped the eggs into the just boiling water and glanced at the wall clock.

“Your cousin Hannah is arriving today,” Mom said.

“I know. You’ve only been reminding me for the last week,” I said.

“Lucy–”

“Luke,” I said to remind her.

“Right, Luke. It would be nice if you came with us when we picked her up.”

“Ok, do I have time to eat?” I glanced at the clock again. Wait, was the minute hand right on the four or a little before it the last time I looked.

“She doesn’t arrive for a couple of hours.” For a few minutes, neither of say anything. “Maybe you could take her flying later,” she said.

“I can’t just take the tug out for joy rides.” I grabbed two slices of bread and set them in the toaster.

“Why not?”

I counted off the reasons on my fingers, “One: it’s technically company property until I finish paying it off. Two: fuel costs money. Three: it has heavy weapons that I don’t want her accidentally firing.”

“I can give you money for fuel.”

“You have a few thousand laying around for a half hour joy ride?” The toast dinged and I set them on a plate to be sliced.

“No. It costs that much to fly?” she asked surprised.

“Yeah. Most contracts have fuel allowances so I only have to cover part of the fueling costs but it’s still expensive.”

“I didn’t know. Your eggs are done.”

I quickly turned back to my eggs and cranked the pot handle back to the blue. The rolling boil stopped. After a few seconds, I reached into the warm water to pull out my eggs and set them in egg cups. I carried the eggs and toast to the table, grabbed a spoon, and cracked the top off my first egg. It was fully hard boiled. I sighed.

***

The land here is dry, arid, dusty, sandy, barren, did I mention dry. Nothing but scrub brush can grow out here but that means land is cheap. One of the reasons my parents and I moved here. The other being the job opportunities in the City. The City is everything the surrounding land is not. Tall, clean, cool buildings, green parks, water fountains. It’s a man-made oasis in the desert. My parents have jobs in the city but we live outside it. I said land out here is cheap. In the city, everything costs more. Even with their fancy city jobs, we can’t afford to live there.

The bus station was just a small ticket booth next to a series of canopies. Several buses waited for passengers to get on or off. A crowd of people waited nearby for their bus to arrive. It’s hot but not any hotter than usual. Dad was wearing a casual tunic over light pants and sun hat. Mom had slipped on a cream colored maxi dress and wrapped a blue scarf around her head. I stood apart from them with my flight jacket over t-shirt and track shorts, aviator sunglasses, and work boots. I wiped the sweat from my forehead back into my short hair.

To most people, the jacket looked like a bad idea on a day like today but it kept me cooler than not. It’s designed for the variable temperatures a pilot might encounter. Flat gel packs with nanotube filaments regulate the temperature of the inner layer of smart foam. Basically, if I’m too hot it pulls heat away from me and if I’m too cold it warms up. That the chest and back parts end up looking like body armor is just a bonus. The arms even have transparent pockets on the inner arms for handhelds. I have pants with the same tech for when I accept contracts that take me to the upper atmosphere or higher but they don’t look as cool.

Hannah’s bus arrived a few minutes ago and we were waiting for her to make it out of the crowd to us. She pushed through carrying a bag and pulling a second smaller suitcase on wheels. Mom waved and she waved back

“Oh, look at you. You’re so tall,” Mom said while hugging her. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen the rest of the family outside of pictures or videos.

“Hey cuz,” I said and slapped her on the shoulder.

“Hey,” she said looking me over. I haven’t put a picture up online since before I shaved my head. It’s grown out a little but it’s a radical change from how I looked before.

We piled into Dad’s ten-year-old sedan and head home. Mom spent the trip home grilling my cousin. How is her mom doing? Did her sister get into college? Has her other aunt found a job yet? A hundred questions that could be answered by email but asking a person just feels more right. Even I asked a few questions about our other cousin.

***

After we got Hannah settled into my room, Mom suggested I show her the tug. The tug is my ship. It’s just a cargo hauler that I’m leasing-to-own from the shipping company. For a cargo hauler, it’s nothing special, just a two person cockpit attached to a cargo frame with thrusters stuck on the sides and rear. The underside of the cockpit is a patch of unpainted armor because I had to have a rotted out section replaced and I haven’t bothered to repaint it. I kind of like the junkyard look it gives my ship.

The cockpit seats two, pilot in front and gunner behind and above, but I can and usually do fly solo. The turret on top of the cockpit has full range of motion and is controlled from the gunner seat but I have a cheap auto-targeting computer wired into it. It’s pretty good at lining up shots on things in the sky but it can’t really tell friend from foe so it just shoots everything. In the front, under the cockpit are a couple of cannons I can control and fire from the pilot seat. They have limited range of motion but at least I can see what I’m shooting at.

The tug stays in an empty field a few hundred yards from the housing rows. Another guy keeps his ship out here too but we rarely talk. He’s twenty years older than me and a company lifer. The company has been great for getting my license and training but I hope to do more after I’ve paid off the ship.

On my handheld, I entered the access code for the cockpit and it popped open. I reached up and grabbed the lowest rung of the ladder built into the side of the cockpit. The landing gear is supposed to retract to a mid-level when the cargo frame is empty but the controller circuit with multiple settings cost more than the one with just two. I pulled myself jerkily up the rungs until I could stand on the lowest rung and take a short breather.

Hannah started a slow clap. “That was … That was almost not pathetic. I’ve seen three-year-olds climb faster than that.”

“Shut up,” I yelled down but I was laughing between deep breaths.

“Why don’t you have a ladder or stairs or something?”

“I had a pool ladder but someone stole it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, but no one around here has a pool so I don’t know why they wanted it.” I climbed the rest of the way to cockpit edge. “Ok, your turn.”

“What?” she asked.

“You want to see my ship you have to climb up on your own.”

“Come on. You don’t have a rope you can throw me?”

“Nope.”

She looked up at the ladder and stretched out her arms. The lowest rung was just out of her reach. “I can’t reach.”

“Jump. It’s right there.” She reached back up, jumped, and grabbed it. “There you go now just climb up.” I watched her struggle up rung by rung until she could stand on the lowest rung for a breather. “Not so easy is it?” I asked.

“Shut up,” she said between breaths. After a couple of minutes, she climbed the rest of the way up. I showed her where to step to reach the gunner seat without stepping on the console. I showed her the basic controls and let her swing the turret around but kept the guns offline.

My handheld buzzed. I flipped my arm over and tapped on the screen to discover what set off the notification. I have to take a certain number of contracts in a month in order to maintain my lease agreement but this week I had planned on staying mostly grounded while Hannah was staying with us. Only a high pay and short distance contract should have made it through the filter. Huh, moderate pay and short distance. I should send my cousin home but it’s a short ride and no threat level.

“Hey, you want to take a short trip?” I called back to her.

“To where?”

“There’s a contract I’m to take. You want to come with.”

“Can I?” she asked

“Sure, it’s an easy run. Might be boring though.”

She thought about it and said, “Sure.”

“Ok, strap in and don’t touch anything.” I tapped on my handheld to accept the contract and sent the location data to my ship’s computer. A flight plan appeared on the main monitor. I tweaked the path to keep us clear of the western border and transmitted it to Flight Control. I flicked a few switches to ready the engines. They rumbled to life behind me.

A minute later, a voice spoke through my headset, “Tug-1407 you are cleared for take off.”

“Tug-1407 cleared for take off. Thank you, Control,” I replied. I grabbed the controls and took the ship straight up to cruising altitude before turning and heading for the pick-up site.

I heard a muffled “Fuck!” from behind me. I didn’t need to slam us down in our chairs but the rest of the trip is going to be pretty bland. It only took a few minutes to reach the warehouse outside of the city where the cargo was waiting. I connected with the ground crew and got a landing pad assignment.

“Now what?” Hannah asked as I set down and shut off the engines.

“Now, we wait for the ground crew to load the cargo. Could be five minutes could be two hours.”

“So, this is what it’s like to be a pilot?”

“No, this is what it’s like to be a cargo pilot. Once I get my full certifications and pay off the company I can start applying for real pilot jobs.”

“Like what?”

“Like with the space agency. They always need pilots on the moon.”

“Have you been to space yet?”

“A couple of times, the tug can make low earth orbit but it burns a lot of fuel. The view is … the pictures they show us aren’t enough. It’s so much bigger than the pictures make it look.”

My comms beeped. “Tug-1407 we are ready to load your cargo container.”

“I copy. Go right ahead.” In the rear cameras, I watched as the rectangular container is slid underneath the cargo frame. I felt a slight jolt as it reached the back of the cockpit. The cargo hooks lowered and grabbed the container and green lights came on letting me know they had a solid lock. “Cargo hooks engaged,” I told the ground crew. The truck unhooked from the container and drove away. I restarted the engines and took off, slower this time so the ground crew wouldn’t complain about me. Once I got to altitude, I headed for the first nav marker of my flight plan. I could have engaged the autopilot but I like flying the tug myself and I needed the hours of unassisted flight.

“So, how are you doing in school,” I asked once I was level and flying more or less in a straight line.

“Fine. B’s and C’s,” she said.

“Just B’s and C’s?”

“I’m passing, ok?” Hannah snapped at me.

“Sorry, I was just teasing.” For a couple of minutes, I flew in silence. “Parents giving you a hard time about your grades?” I asked gently.

She didn’t answer right away. “They don’t know how hard it is. School, work, everything.”

“You got a job?”

“Yeah. In the mall, at the ice cream shop.”

“No kidding,” I tried to sound encouraging, “That’s great and you’re passing all your classes. Sounds like you’re doing ok.”

“Not as good as you. How much money do you make doing this?”

“Enough to make my lease payments, pay for fuel and repairs, and a little left over to help around the house. Cargo pilots don’t make a lot of money unless they own their own ship which I don’t. Yet.”

“You dating anyone?” she asked.

“What?”

“Are. You. Dating. Anyone?” she asked again enunciating each word slowly.

“No.” I paused thinking about how that question had become more complex over the last few months. “Not since high school. I’ve been busy learning how to fly. What about you?”

“No.” We lapsed into silence for several minutes. We reached the first nav marker and I adjusted course toward the second. She broke the silence, “How long is this trip?”

“About four hours round trip.”

“Oh.”

“How about some music?” I flipped my arm over, patched my handheld into the ship’s headsets and queued up something with a good beat to help us pass the time.

***

Author note: So that’s it. The whole story. Nothing much happened but I really liked writing this story. It’s longer than most single part stories I write and I thought about cutting it in two but felt it was better as just one story.

This I think my first time explicitly writing a trans guy. I hope I did ok on that front.

This started as a dream that I slowly reshaped into what you just read. I can’t remember what my dream was anymore, this story ended up taking it’s place in my memory.

The New Interview with a Vampire Part 3

<<Previous


“We are back talking to Monica the commander of the space mission to Kepler 186. Why don’t you tell us a little about Kepler 186,” the host prompted me.

“Kepler 186 is a star system about five hundred light years from Earth. We’re heading to the fifth planet out. It is slightly bigger than Earth so higher gravity but we think has a chance at being human habitable.”

“How habitable are we talking? Sunny tropical beaches?”

I chuckled. “Not that sunny. At noon, Kepler 186 is barely brighter than our sun is at sunset.”

“Sounds like a perfect place for vampires.”

“That’s something we’re going to find out. We honestly don’t know if it’s just our sun that will burn vampires or any sun.”

“The scientist at the space agency haven’t run tests? Have they tried using sun lamps?” The audience laughed.

“Ha, no most of the testing with sun lamps was done a couple of hundred years ago.”

“Was that when vampires became public knowledge?” she asked.

“Not exactly. There have calls to go public since before I became a vampire. I saw several during my first century but they always got shot down by older vampires afraid humans would try to exterminate all of us. It was a valid concern so no one went beyond suggesting we go public.”

“What changed?”

“IDs.”

“IDs?” the host asked.

“Yep. In 2234, the Global Identification System changed its encryption schema and made it virtually impossible to create new fake IDs. It was common at the time for vampires to change identities every forty to fifty years. Suddenly it looked like we were going to be locked out of human society and forced back into haunting abandoned buildings. Without the appearance of legal identification, we couldn’t own property, we couldn’t have jobs, we couldn’t receive mail, we couldn’t travel. It was the end of the world for us. Then someone suggested we go public. This time the idea wasn’t shot down right out of the gate. There was a year long debate weighing every possible pro and con. And in the end, enough of us said yes.

“I wish I could read those comments.”

“Actually you can. Someone compiled the discussion into a book after we were recognized as full citizens in 2262. It’s titled Road From Out the Coffin. Horrible title but the content is good.

“How did that lead to scientists running tests on vampires?”

“Right got sidetracked for a second. Basically, some of us revealed ourselves to doctors around the world and let them run whatever test they wanted on us to prove we weren’t vampires. Of course, they got odd to weird results back but couldn’t prove we weren’t vampires. With this wide range of doctors saying “I don’t know what these people are but they aren’t normal human,” we went to specialized labs and continued the cycle. We wanted scientific proof that we, vampires, existed. After several years, everyone was stumped on how our bodies worked but we had detailed reports that they did. Then began step two: petitioning the World Government to recognize vampires as legal citizens with all the rights and protections that entailed. We wanted to be people, not monsters anymore.”

“Is that how people saw you? As monsters?”

“It was ingrained in society. Except for some novels written during the early twenty-first century, vampires have been portrayed as blood sucking murderers. We were that at one time but over time we stopped killing and even stopped having to forcibly take blood from people. That was probably what helped our case the most.”

“You had blood donors?”

“Actually yes. In the 2100’s, some vampires established a worldwide blood bank.”

The host’s eyes widened. “Wait, the World’s Blood Bank is run by vampires?”

“Well, not anymore. It started as a small front to get people to donate blood that was then sold to local vampires on the side. It worked so well that they got vampires around the world to invest and opened a network of vampire controlled blood banks under the name World’s Blood Bank. Then a couple of years after they had started a series of hurricanes and tsunamis and an earthquake devastated local blood supplies around the world. Someone in a hospital somewhere remembered hearing about The World’s Blood Bank and called up to request some blood.

“There was mild panic online that our blood supply was going to be exposed. The vampires running the blood bank decided they couldn’t not help. They had been collecting world wide and felt like they had plenty to spare. Then more requests came and then more. It seemed like the whole operation was going to collapse but then people started donating in mass. Their false image as a blood bank for the world became reality. The vampires set up a corporation to control the blood bank’s finances and set up a board of doctors to monitor day to day operations. They set up small private clinics around the world that could request blood and distribute it to local vampires. Our detractors tried to use this against us, calling us leeches on the world’s blood supply but all the vampires in the world use less than one hundredth of a percent of the blood used in hospitals around the world.”

“Wow. I just donated blood last week.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Well, we’re almost out of time so do you have anything else you’d like to say about the Kepler 186 mission? What do you hope to learn or see?”

“I hope it is habitable. Earth is going to be here for a long time but humans might not. In the last five hundred years I’ve been alive, I’ve seen several man-made ecological disasters. Humans are getting better at cleaning up their messes but it just takes one mess too big to clean up to wipe us out. Too many eggs in one basket. So we’re heading out to find new homes for humanity. This is just the first of several vampire led missions to distant stars. We’re the first wave because we can sleep must of the hundreds of years it will take to get there. The hope is that by the time we get there and can send a message back new forms of transport will have been developed. My greatest hope is we arrive at an already populated planet.”

“You’re giving up your life for humans?”

“A few decades ago a conversation started about what would happen if all the humans died and only vampires survived. The discussion ranged from creating human farms to cloning blood to creating synthetic blood. There are many ways we could keep living if you wiped yourselves out but none of us want that world. Several of us were already in the space program and we suggested finding more worlds for humanity and us to live on. It seems very selfless but really we don’t want to be alone with only each for company.”

“Thank you, Commander Monica, for your time and service.

“Thank you for having me on.”

“That’s all the time we have today. Thank you for watching and don’t forget to donate blood.”

The show’s theme music blared one last time as the audience clapped.


<<Previous

 

The New Interview with a Vampire Part Two

<<Previous Next>>


The lights came up and the theme music played. “We are back and we are speaking with Monica who was about to tell us what the vampire community was like in the twentieth century.”

“Right. Well, the vampire community I entered into was almost completely online in secret groups on Facebook, password protected forums, and private websites. The internet, as limited as it was in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, allowed us to make connections, share info, negotiate territory. There were a few who had open journals or blogs but most normal humans dismissed them as works of fiction. A hundred years earlier, hell fifty years earlier, I would have been lucky to know more than three other vampires.”

“Why was that?”

“Mostly it was geography and lack of wide spread communications. Vampires rarely collected in groups larger than two in a city. A moderately sized city with an average crime rate in the twentieth century could support one or two vampires without their feeding creating a strong pattern. More than that and people start to notice and then concerned citizens start burning down houses.

“The exact number of vampires a city can support scales as the size of the city increases. New York City had a couple dozen dispersed throughout its boroughs. By the time I entered the community there were twice that many who regularly flamed each other online about intruding on their territory. I say community but they were about as cohesive as the trans community at the same time.”

“Trans community? What was that? A community of transportation fans?” She smiled and the audience chuckled.

“Ha, no. It’s an arcane term from the twenty-first century. So … it’s not important.”

“No, go on. I’m interested in hearing about this trans community.”

“Ok. I’m what was called a trans woman.”

“What’s that?”

“It meant I am a woman who was born with a penis.”

“So … ?”

“At that time any person with a penis was considered male and a man and any person born with a vagina was female and a woman. Anyone who didn’t fit into those narrow definitions was made to fit.”

The host recoiled slightly. “That’s hideous! Sex and gender don’t work like that.”

“No, they don’t but it was the general belief of society at the time. There were those like myself that defied the norms and demanded to be respected as our true genders.” I paused as memories bubbled to the surface of my mind.

“But to get back to the vampire community. For two hundred years not a lot changed for us. We stayed hidden, some of us made new vampires, some of us disappeared. Most times a vampire would announce their intention to walk into the sun but sometimes a vampire just disappeared. We could never be sure if they had killed themselves or just dug into the earth and fallen asleep.”

“What do you mean fallen asleep?”

“That is a quirk of vampire physiology. We can enter a dead-like-sleep that can last for centuries. It’s a way for us escape the world for a while. A vampire doesn’t have to kill every time they feed. It was actively discouraged as early as the second century in parts of Asia but that attitude wouldn’t come to Europe until around the seventeenth century. Vampires before that would feed on small communities until they were all dead. Then they would find a safe place and sleep until more people moved into the area. In the last seven hundred years, it has been rare for a vampire to overfeed on a population in that way, so sleeping away the years has become a voluntary affair. Vampires from older time periods sometimes do it because they can’t cope with the way the world has changed.”

“Have you slept any years away?”

“Only a year in the twenty-fourth century. I was reading “The Blue Death” by Gabbalta Joennes and didn’t want to wait for the next book in the series. So, I took a nap until the sequel came out.” The audience laughs.

“Really? You slept for years just to read the next book?”

“I was three hundred, almost four hundred years, old at the time. Honestly, I had lost the thread of what life was supposed to be. I had realized I had time to read all the books I wanted. I wasn’t wasting my time reading day after day because I had all of eternity before me. So, I spent ten years reading book after book trying to catch up with all the books I had neglected to read in the previous three hundred years.

“And then I read “The Blue Death”. It was the first of a promised series and I loved it. I spent five months re-reading just it. The sequel was to be published in a year so I took a nap to pass the time. When I woke up, the second book had been published. I was ecstatic to read more until I saw a note in the front of the book. The author had died in an accident. Another writer had taken her mostly finished manuscript and notes to completed it. There were no plans to continue the series. I read the new book and it was good but I could sense the hand of the new writer subtly guiding Gabbalta’s brilliant prose in slightly more conventional ways. I …,” I blinked and glanced around the studio suddenly back from the memory I had been reliving. “Oh, I got a little ah caught up in that memory. I didn’t mean to go on so long about that.”

“You looked like you were someplace else while you were telling that story.”

“A hazard of having a perfect memory. Our memories can seem so real we get lost in them.”

“You remember everything from the last five hundred years?”

“Everything I’ve experienced. Don’t ask me about historical events cause I rarely paid attention to the news. I’m barely better than grade school history book.”

“We have another break for our sponsors and when we come back Monica will tell us about her mission to Kepler 186.”

The lights dimmed and the music played.


<<Previous Next>>

The New Interview with a Vampire Part One

Next>>


A short music beat played and the host began, “Today, we have a special guest. She is the commander of the space mission to,” she glanced down at a note card in her hand, “Kepler 186, the oldest person to command a space mission, and a vampire. Let’s hear a round of applause for Monica.”

The show’s theme played as I walked out. I waved to the audience and took a seat opposite the host. “Hello, Grenda. I’m happy to be here,” I said.

“Space mission blah blah blah. What can you tell me about being a vampire?”

I laughed. They always wanted to know about being a vampire. “Well, it’s pretty much like being a regular human except I drink blood instead of eating and barring any accidents, I’m probably going to live a very long time.”

“How long are we talking about? Three hundred years, four?” the host asked with a grin.

“I’m five hundred and fifty-six years old.”

“Five hundred and fifty-six. You don’t look a day over twenty-five.” She winked at me.

“I was thirty-one when I was turned into a vampire so I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“You were born in what year?”

“I was born in 1980 and turned into a vampire in 2011.”

“Did you have a master or sire or something?”

“I …” I didn’t normally talk about my early days but this might be the last chance I would have to talk about them.

“It’s alright if you want to skip the question,” the host said softly leaning closer.

“No, it’s alright. I didn’t have a master or anything. I was an accident left to fend for myself. The early days of a new vampire are confusing and quite bloody if they don’t have someone to guide them.”

“Did you ever kill anyone?”

“Yes, a few people before I learned to feed before the hunger became too great to control. If a new vampire feeds regularly there is no reason for them to kill but I didn’t know that. My birth or creation or whatever you want to call it wasn’t planned. It was violent and terrifying.

“I was at a beach party with some friends. There was a guy there. I was drunk and having a good time and I let him lead me to a dark private part of the beach. It was fun at first with the kissing and touching then he pushed me onto my back. He pinned my hands to the ground leaned close and said, “Don’t struggle and it’ll be over soon.” I felt a sharp pain in my side.”

“He didn’t bite your neck?”

“Biting the neck was almost strictly a movie thing at the time. Most vampires preferred to use a knife to make a cut and suck on it. It was cleaner, healed easier, and didn’t leave dental impressions. This vampire used a box cutter. I don’t know how many people he had fed on using this technique but apparently, none had fought back as hard I did. Vampires are stronger than normal humans but we don’t have super strength.

“I was fighting for my life and managed to get a hand free. I reached around me for a weapon but could only find sand so I threw sand in his face. He screamed, let me go, and I managed to get up and start running back to the party. I got several feet before he grabbed me and threw me to the ground. This time when my hand searched the ground for something, anything I could use as a weapon, I found a rock. He sat on me, screaming about what a bitch I was and tried grabbing my hands again.”

“No one heard him screaming?”

“We had walked far down the beach to get away from the party, the very noisy party. So, no they didn’t hear him or me screaming. I swung the rock at his head and hit him. I hit him a couple more times before he stopped trying to grab for my hands, wrapped both hands around my neck, and squeezed. The last thing I saw before everything went black was his bloody face. I woke up the next morning with a monster headache.”

“And you were now a vampire?”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t the sun burn you?”

“No, our weakness to sunlight accumulates as we age. For the first decade, a vampire doesn’t have to be any more careful about the sun than most people. It varies from vampire to vampire of course. Around a hundred years direct sunlight will start to burn us after a few minutes and by two hundred you can’t even stand indirect sunlight.

“So, I woke up on the beach thinking I had been attacked and choked until I passed out. That’s not what happened. I had died that night and woken up a vampire. That’s how you make a vampire. You kill a person and give them some of your blood, either orally or by injection. It’s harder than it sounds. Wait too long and nothing happens. Do it before they’re dead and nothing happens. And you don’t know until the next morning when they either wake up or not.

“I was an accident. Killed by a vampire that was bleeding from a head wound. Vampires can bleed and just like humans head wounds bleed a lot. I won’t bore you with the next ten years of my life as a lonely vampire until I managed to meet another vampire and was welcomed into the larger vampire community.

“We’ll come back to that after the commercial break.” The theme music played and the lights dimmed to let us know we were off the air.


Next>>

Dragon’s Hoard – Deer’s Hide 4

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“And why would we do that?” Olga asked.

“You can take as much gold as you can carry if we succeed.”

“How do we even know if any of this is true?” Brent asked. Jasper reached into a pocket and pulled out a coin. He dropped it on the table between the three.

“Look at that and tell me what you notice.”

“It’s just a gold coin,” Brent said.

Annie leaned forward to give the coin a closer inspection. “The eyes are not scratched out,” she said. She picked it up. “And it isn’t worn smooth.”

“Exactly. It’s a coin of the Empire but unlike most coins from that time, the Emperor’s eyes haven’t been scratched out as many people did around the time of the Empire’s fall as a sign of rebellion. Also, it’s in almost new condition because it hasn’t been handled in over a thousand years.”

Brent extended his hand for the coin and Annie passed it to him. After he had looked at it for a minute, Olga offered her hand and the coin was passed to her. She looked at it for a bit and set it back on the table.

“How exactly did you find this Dragon’s Hoard?” she asked.

Jasper sat down and lean forward onto the table. “I was part of an exploratory mission of historians that went into the Dragon Mountains. We weren’t looking for the Dragon’s Hoard. The cave looked like any other cave with a few skeletons and weapons from the era of the last emperor. Deeper in we found a maze of traps, all inactive. Of course, it took us weeks to verify that it was safe to wander through the maze. Eventually, we found the vault doors. They were locked but one of our group was familiar with locks from that era and was able to open it. Inside were stacks of barrels and bags filling a huge carved out cavern. Along one wall were shelves of sealed scrolls. We opened a barrel and found it full of gold coins.

“A bandit group stumbled upon our camp. I was in the maze when I heard shouting from outside. I made it to the opening section just in time to see the last bodyguard killed. Most of the other historians were cowering on the ground but a couple had been cut down in the initial rush. Then the bandits began searching the camp and wagons.

“We had moved a couple of barrels and several scrolls to the smallest wagon to send back to the Historical Society. Luckily in their first quick search, they did not open the barrels. I was going to hide in the cave until full dark, activate the maze traps, try to escape silently on the small wagon, and get help from the Society. That was the plan I came up with and immediately had to scrap when one of the bandits started walking into the cave. I retreated further back into the cave to the maze entrance. There was no way I could let them have the Hoard.”

“Of course not, gold makes misers of us all,” Brent said.

“Never mind the gold. The scrolls represent hundreds of documents from the time of the Empire. Even if they’re nothing more than tax records, they will be invaluable in advancing our understanding of the Empire. I couldn’t let them have it so I activated the maze traps. There were a series of thumps and rumblings as the ancient counterweight system engaged. This is likely what drew the bandit deeper into the cave. I turned to see him holding a mace in one hand and a lightstone in the other. I don’t remember exactly what happened next. I charged him and we struggled on the ground. Then he stopped moving. When I got up, I saw a dagger in his neck and blood on my hands.

“I ran from the cave, jumped on the small wagon, and drove it away from the camp as fast as the horses could run. A couple of bandits tried to chase me down but my lead was just enough to keep them from catching me before they gave up. I made it to Franhal and sent word to the Society about the Dragon’s Hoard and the bandit attack and the others I had been forced to leave behind. They replied with instructions to return with the barrels and scrolls I had escaped with and they would decide what to do about the bandits. No mention of the those that had survived the attack. No mention of a rescue attempt. Just, come back now.

“I could not just leave my friends to die. So, I used some of the gold to finance this operation. I’ve had spies watching the bandit camp so I know they are still there along with a few of my friends. Others I paid to find fighters that I could trust. Regular mercenaries might be tempted to betray me and take the Dragon’s Hoard for themselves. All of you can be motivated by money or other rewards but you are all trustworthy and loyal. That more than anything else is what I needed.

“And you think we won’t double cross you once we get to the gold because we’re loyal?” Brent asked.

“You might but I’ve already promised you as much gold as you can carry. You could take a wagon full of gold and barely put a dent in the Hoard. So, why would you double cross me, for more gold than you could ever use?”

“Well when you put it that way, I guess not.”

“So, are you in?”

“For a wagon full of gold? Yes,” he said with a grin.

“Great. What about the rest of you?” Jasper asked.

“It has been a number of years since I went on an adventure so sure I’m in and I’ll only take half a wagon of gold,” Olga said.

“Deal. And you Annie?”

“Yes, I’m in for what you offered me before and the other half of her wagon if she doesn’t mind sharing the space.”

“Of course not deary,” Olga said patting Annie’s arm.

“Now that we have that all squared away, I bought us some rooms upstairs. Tomorrow we leave for Franhal to get outfitted for the fight and the journey.”


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Dragon’s Hoard – Deer’s Hide 3

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Brent the greatest archer south of the Fire Mountains. Brent the fastest blade in two nations. Brent the beggar, sat watching the latest person to join the table. She looked like a matronly older woman but she moved like a tiger.

He had arrived at the Deer’s Hide Tavern still playing the role of the dirty beggar. With the money from Jasper’s coin purse, he could have bought new clothes, paid someone to shave and tidy his hair, and arrived on horseback. Instead, he had only bought new boots. After scuffing the boots up, wrapping them in rags, secreting the rest of the coins on his person, he set out through back roads to Berdla. He still didn’t trust Jasper and at worst he could return to begging on the street if this didn’t work out.

Jasper, the woman from the ally, another man, and an orgeslayer had arrived before him. He had hoped to sit back and listen to the others talk but the young woman, Cassie, didn’t seem to speak and neither did her friend Santiago. They conversed with their hands through motions and gestures. The Orgeslayer had been even less talkative forcing him to attempt to engage her in conversation. In the end, he had learned little more than he already knew.

The last person to join their party looked like a matronly older woman but moved like a tiger. At first sight, he had pegged her as an investor or backer of Jasper’s endeavor, whatever it might be. While her clothes were nothing special, replacing an eye with a golden socket and jade stone had to have cost plenty of coin. Watching her nearly decapitate the poor barmaid changed his mind about her. Another fighter for a group that already had himself and an orgeslayer.

Once their last member had arrived, Jasper had excused himself from the table, promising to be right back. Evening came and went with no word from him. With midnight approaching and the tavern crowd thinning, Brent began to wonder if this meeting was some sort of trap. There were several people who would pay for his head. Annie and Olga seemed more than capable of overpowering him if it came to that. Were they waiting for the tavern to empty out for the night? Time to disrupt their plans.

Brent raised a hand in front of Cassie’s face and began snapping his fingers. “Hey, sweetheart how much longer do we have to wait?” Santiago shot his hand out grabbing Brent’s hand. Brent let him.

“Don’t do that. If you need to talk to her I can translate. Understand?”

Brent jerked his hand free. “Yeah, yeah, sure. Ask her how much longer.”

Santiago signed to Cassie and she signed back. “He’ll be back soon,” he said.

“Soon, soon. He said he’d been back soon now you’re saying soon. Y’all have a funny sense of soon.” He raised his voice steadily until he was almost ranting.

Cassie signed back her motions sharp and curt. “Then go. Nothing is stopping you,” Santiago said in a restrained voice.

“Ok, I will.” He stood up shoving his chair back with his legs. Brent headed for the front door tying his cloth sack around his body. If there was a trap he hadn’t sprung it and he was leaving before it could be. Halfway to the front door, it opened and Jasper entered.

He walked to Brent, placed a guiding hand on his shoulder and said, “Leaving so soon? Some last minute business kept me but I am back now and ready to fill all of you in on why I’ve asked you here.” Jasper gently led Brent back toward the table while he talked. “So, would you take your seat and we’ll get started.” Brent shuffled around the table and sat down. Jasper retook his place at the head of the table.

“First some introductions. I am Jasper Dalton, historian and currently the leader of this team.” He gestured to Cassie and Santiago. “This is Cassie, master artificer, and Santiago, her partner and translator.” He turned to the side. “Olga, former mercenary, currently a tavern owner.”

“And head cook,” Olga interjected.

“Yes, and at the end of the table, Annie, former Orgeslayer, currently …”

“Farmhand. Just the one,” she said waving with her only hand.

“Ha, farm hand. And Brent, former bandit, currently unemployed.”

“You can just say beggar. I don’t have a reputation to protect,” he grumbled.

“Right, Cassie and Santiago have already signed on and know all that I’m about to tell you.” Jasper took a deep breath. “Have any of you heard of the Dragon’s Hoard?” He paused to look around the table.

“You mean like in stories when dragons make nests of gold and gems?” Annie asked.

“Dear, you do know those are just stories, right? Dragons never hoarded gold,” Olga asked Jasper.

“Yes. I know those are just stories. I’m talking about THE Dragon’s Hoard. Before the fall of the last empire, the last emperor had several vaults for the Empire’s wealth created. Most were beyond the mountains that separated the capital lands from our own but one was in the Dragon Mountain range. After the trade passes were collapsed, it was lost. Over the centuries it became a legend, then a folk story, and then it mostly faded from common knowledge.” He paused locking eyes with Olga, Annie, and Brent in turn. “I know where it is and there is more gold than all six of together could spend in our lifetimes. Right now, it is under the control of a group of bandits but they can’t get inside. I need your to help me retake the Dragon’s Hoard.”


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Dragon’s Hoard – Deer’s Hide 2

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In the evening, a woman with a false jade eye and golden eye socket entered the Deer’s Hide tavern. She walked through the evening crowd straight to the bar to talk to the barkeep.

“I’m looking for a man I’m supposed to be meeting here,” she said.

“Lot’s of men in here,” he said while pouring a beer for another customer, “What’s his name?”

Seven Days Ago

“Hello, you must be Olga.” The man standing at the bar said with a wide grin.

“What makes you think that?” Olga said.

“I’ve heard stories about your beautiful eyes.” He winked his right eye.

She snorted and said “Really? And stories would those be?”

“We can talk about that later after you come work for me.”

She cackled at the boy trying to act like a someone. He leaned closer and motioned her to do the same.

“I’m going to be blunt because I think you will respect that. I know you’re not just an old bar matron. You were once a mercenary who was, actually still is, really good at killing.” He lowered his voice further, “I know you slaughtered a bandit group a few months ago.”

Olga’s smile slowly turned into a grimace and the twinkle of mirth faded from her good eye. “Was it John whose been telling stories out of turn? I know it wasn’t Lisa because the dear girl didn’t see anything.”

The man stood back up straight, “I can’t reveal my source.”

“So, it was John. Gonna have a talk with him next time I see him. Why do you think I care if anyone knows that I was a mercenary?”

“Maybe you don’t care but I know some people who still have grudges against you. You’ve made a nice life for yourself here and it would be a shame if they came and ruined it.”

“What do you want?”

“I’m putting together a team for a special venture and I’d like you to be apart of that team. We’re meeting at the Deer’s Hide tavern in Berdla in seven days,” he said.

“What if I just killed you right now?”

“My threat isn’t contingent on me leaving here alive. It goes off whether or not I’m alive. The only way to stop it is to come to the meeting. After that, you can walk away but I need you to hear me out.”

“Can I kill you after the meeting?” she asked a new smile creeping onto her face.

“If you still feel that way, yes.”

“Seven days isn’t a lot of time. I’ll have to arrange for extra workers, I’m going to miss my regular shopping day so I’m going to have to make arrangements for that, plus the beer needs to be checked before the end of the week.”

The man set a bag on the bar. “I may be blackmailing you into this meeting but I am still paying for your time.”

Olga opened the bag and smiled She reached in and pulled out a small handful of gold and silver coins. “Well, you should have said that in the first place. I guess I’ll be seeing you in seven days.” She dropped the coins back in the bag. “What’s your name?”

Now

“His name is Jasper Dalton.”

“Oh, him. He’s in the back with the rest of your group. Straight back, past the stairs.”

Olga walked in the direction the barkeep had pointed and found a group of people seated around two tables pushed together. At one end was a tall large woman missing one arm. On her left was a man who looked like he was in desperate need of clean clothes and a barber. His beard was flecked with bits of meat from the turkey leg he was eating. Next to him was a young woman with short hair wearing a leather vest. Scars and burns dotted her arms. Across from her was a big muscular man, though still smaller than the woman at the end of the table, in a leather jacket. And at the head of the table Jasper Dalton. A little cleaner looking but wearing the same clothes from a week ago. He stood up when he saw Olga.

“The last member of our team has arrived. Please take a seat.” He gestured to the empty chair next to the muscular man. She sat down. “Would you like anything to eat or drink before we get down to business?”

“Wine, a turkey leg,” the dirty man saluted her with his own, “Bread and soup as well.” Jasper motioned to the barmaid and relayed her order.

“Well aren’t you the odd one out. Annie and I are almost a matched set.” He lifted his right arm and shook away his cloak to reveal a scarred stump instead of a hand.

“She is missing an eye,” the large woman, Annie, said.

“True but it’s not quite the same as an arm or hand. I’m Brent by the way and you are?”

“Olga,” Olga asked.

A hand slid into Olga’s view from her right, her blindside. She grabbed it with her left and began to drive her right elbow back but stopped as she turned and saw the barmaid. Olga dropped her elbow took the soup the barmaid had been trying to serve to her, set it on the table, slid out of her chair and began comforting the barmaid.

“Oh dear, I am so sorry. You came up on my blindside and startled me. Are you alright? I didn’t squeeze your wrist too hard did I?” she asked in a high pitched voice.

“No ma’am.” She rubbed her wrist where red finger marks were slowly fading. “I’m sorry I startled you.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for. I scary to easy for an old woman. Just come from my left so I can see you. That’s a good girl.”

Olga retook her seat aware everyone was staring at her. “What? Did I spill the soup?”

“You almost knocked that girl’s face in,” Annie said

“But I didn’t. I have a bad startle reflex on my blind side, so be mindful of it.”


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Dragon’s Hoard: Deer’s Hide 1

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On a stormy morning, a tall broad figure with only one arm entered Deer’s Hide tavern.  Rain drained off her hooded cloak as she stood in the doorway.

“Hello sir,” the barkeep called from across the room, “We’re normally not open at this hour but I won’t send you back out into the rain.  Hang your cloak up and I’ll be with you in a moment.”

“Thank you. I’m not a sir.” She pulled her cloak off and hung it on the wall next to another. It trailed onto the ground next to the barkeep’s cloak which did not.  “My name is Annie.  I’m supposed to meet a man here today.”

Several days ago

A man pulled a chair to her table and sat down with his drink.  Annie took another drink from her mug, a hearty swallow that would put most men down but merely softened the buzz in her mind.  After a moment, the man said, “Hello, I find myself need of a woman of your talents.”

“And what talents would those be?” she asked.

“I need an orgeslayer.”

“You’ve come to the wrong place,” Annie said the obvious lie hoping he would take the hint and leave.

“I think not.”

She considered the man before her.  Short, stocky build mostly hidden under a cloak.  A nice cloak. No rings on his hands but there was grease under his nails.  Ragged nails, bitten or torn off.  A craftsman of some sort but not rich.  “There are no ogreslayers here,” she said loud enough for the barmaid to hear.  Annie watched as she pulled a crossbow from underneath the bar and stood ready to use it.

“I can equip you.  Armor and a weapon arm.  And I can pay you,” the man said leaning over the table.

“I’m retired and don’t need money that badly.  Find someone else to fight orges for you.”

“It’s not orges I need you to fight.  I need a good fighter and you come recommended.”

“There are hundreds of mercenaries you could hire just as good.”

“I could get you an arm.  Not a weapon arm.  Something you could use every day.”  she considered his offer.  He pressed on, “And potions.”

“Potions?” she asked.

“Maybe something stronger than what the local witch can offer you.”  He held his hand out. “Not strong enough to break the military grade enchantments but maybe strong enough to bend them.”

She weighed what he wanted against what he was offering.

“Well, if you decide to take me up on my offer come to the Deer’s Hide tavern in Berdla in eleven days.”  He dropped a small bag on the table that landed with a thump and clink of coins.  “Consider this an advance for traveling expenses.”  He finished his drink and stood up.  “It was a pleasure meeting you, ma’am.”  On his way out he dropped a couple of gold coins on the bar.

Now

“Annie?”  The barkeep squinted up at her and shrugged.  “Pardon me, ma’am.  What’s this man’s name?  Maybe I’ve heard of him.”

“He never said.  He just said he’d be here today.  I might be early.  Can I have a table in the back to wait for him?  Is there anything to eat?”

“You’re just going to wait here all day?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I have some jerky to offer you right now or stew will be on for lunch soon.”

“Stew sounds great.  I’ve been eating jerky for the last few days on the road.”  Annie reached into her coin purse and pulled out several gold coins.  She offered them to the barkeep.

“This is … This is too much.”

“Consider it an advance for my supper and drinks.”  She walked to an isolated table in the corner, looked at the chairs, and turned back to the barkeep.  “Do you have a bench I can sit on?”


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Author note: The next few stories will bring the main characters together and the titular Dragon’s Hoard will be revealed.

The Alibi – A Francine Non-Adventure

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I opened the door to my apartment, reached to the side and flicked on the light.  I froze staring at the gory and grisly scene that was my living room.  A man lay covered in and in a pool of blood.  A knife, one of my kitchen knives, protruded from his chest.  I closed the door and stood in the hallway silently cursing.

Time to take stock.  The dead man was an obvious crime thriller story hook.  I hadn’t actually walked into the apartment so I didn’t have any trace evidence from the victim on me and I had an alibi of sorts for most of the night so this probably wouldn’t turn into “Fugitive” scenario.  There was a dead man in my apartment which meant “someone” had killed him.  An obvious statement but it helped focus my thoughts.  Who had killed him?  Organized crime?  Maybe this was a burglary gone wrong.  Double crossed by a partner?  Whatever had happened I was stuck in the thick of it for now.  I could try to avoid the rest but I had to deal with this.  I needed to call the police.

I considered calling Jenny to come back so I wouldn’t have to face the police alone.  It might look odd, possibly incriminating, if I called my friend before I called the police.  I dialed 911.

***

An hour later, I was talking with a homicide detective who looked like he had stepped out of a primetime police procedural.  His hair was black slicked back with traces of salt at his temples.  Clean pressed shirt and tie.  Only a faint beard shadow betrayed how long he had been on shift. From inside his leather jacket, he pulled out a small notebook, flipped it open, and began speaking to me.

“Are you Francine Espinosa?” I nodded.  “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“No go right ahead,” I said feeling my hands were tied.  In most cases, it is ill-advised to talk to police but if this was playing out as part of the story hook, I would look like the prime suspect if I didn’t answer some questions.

“Did you know the victim?”

“No.”

“Have you ever seen the victim before tonight?”

“No.”

“The coroner places the time of death at around an two hours before you called 911.  Do you have an alibi for the time leading up to the time of death and after?”

“I do but it’s complicated.”  Why did this happen on tonight of all nights?  Not that any other night would have been better to find a dead body.

“Just start at the beginning,” he said with his pen poised over his notepad.

“Well, I was scheduled to work the evening shift–”

“And where do you work?”

“RJ Dudds.  The one in Southshore Mall.  But I called in sick to go see a movie.”

“What showing and did you go alone?”

“No, I was going with my friend.  The 7:10 pm showing of Mutant High 2”

“And their name?”

“Jenny, Jenny Farris.”

“So, you were watching a movie while the murder was being committed?”

“Not exactly.  Just before the movie started this woman I met online texted me.  We’ve been trading messages for a few days and seem to be hitting it off.  She wanted to meet in person for a date.”

“You left your friend at the movie theater to go on a date?”  He stopped note taking to look at me with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes.”  As long as I stuck to the truth I wouldn’t get tripped up.

“Ok and what is her name and where did you go?”  He resumed note taking.

“Amy Richards. Her profile name is catgirl4380.  We went to Josie’s Bar and Diner on Eighth St.”

“And the two of you were there for how long?”

“I don’t know how long she was there but I left after about half an hour.”

“You just left her in the bar?”

“No, I texted my sister to call me and pretend one of our aunts had a stroke.”

“You did what?”  He voiced raised slightly as his eyebrows shot up his forehead.

“Look, Amy seemed nice and sweet online and through texts but in person, she had some rough edges. So yeah, I used my escape codeword with my sister and left her in the bar.”

I didn’t need to tell the detective that she had given off major chaser vibes.  Telling me she never would have known if I hadn’t told her.  Asking me when I was going to have the surgery.  Complimenting me on my make-up.

“Ok and what time was that?” he asked.

“About eight o’clock.”

“Did you go home at that point?”

“No, I grabbed a cab and texted Jenny and let her know that the date was a wash I would meet her at our after movie hangout.”

“And where is that?”

“Pancakes on highway twelve.”

“Did you go straight there after your date?”

“Yes, I sat and drank coffee for forty minutes until Jenny showed.  Then we ordered a short stack of buttermilk pancakes and talked about the movie for and hour.”

“If you didn’t see the movie, how did you talk about it for an hour?”

“I saw it opening weekend but Jenny doesn’t like to be super crowded so she’s been waiting for a weekday.  I was going to go see it again with her so we could do Pancakes after.”

“I see.  And after that?”

“Jenny drove me home.  I walked into my apartment, turned on the light, saw the dead guy and called 911.”

“So, let me get this straight.  You were scheduled to work at the time of the murder but called out sick to see a movie with your friend, Jenny.  At the last minute, you got a date with Ms. Richards so you canceled on your friend Jenny.  You left your date because she had some “rough edges” and had your sister call you with a fake family emergency.  You took a cab to the restaurant you and Jenny go to after movies and waited there for forty minutes until Jenny arrived.  The two of you had a stack of buttermilk pancakes and talked about the movie you didn’t see tonight but had seen previously.  Jenny drove you home and when you entered your apartment the unknown man was already dead.  Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any receipts from the cabs or the bar?”

“I do.”  I reached into my purse and pulled out the untorn ticket stub, two cab receipts, the short bar tab, and the receipt from Pancakes.  I shuffled them into the correct order and handed them to him.  He looked at them noting the timestamp on each paper slip.

“I’ve read political thrillers that weren’t that complex.”  He slapped his notebook closed.  “Even with these receipts, it’s going to take me all day to verify your story.  Are all your nights like this?”

“No, most nights I don’t find a dead man in my apartment.”


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The Dragon and the Girl – A Story of The Path

In a dragon burrow, a woman sat reading a letter.  Most dragon burrows are just large enough for the dragon and its mate.  Sometimes extended families of dragons create branching systems of rooms.  This burrow had just one dragon but room enough also for the woman to have a table and chair, a bed, and a little walking about space.

“My sister gave birth to a daughter,” she said.

A gentle inquisitiveness entered her mind.  “Will you ever have children?” the dragon rumbled.

Maria felt something turn inside her.  “I…maybe.”  It wasn’t that she didn’t want children but she couldn’t bear them herself.  If she found a wife she could mother a child with her then but she had no luck over the years.  She was still relatively young, only twenty-nine years old.

“I’m sorry I distressed you,” the low rumbly voice said.

“I’m not distressed.  You just took me by surprise.  Why do you want to know anyway?”

“For five generations, I have been pledged to aid your family.  The pledge is passed from parent to oldest child.  If you have no children, my pledge to your family ends.”

“Eh?  Are you looking for a way to escape me?  Go!  I won’t stop you.”

“No, I do not wish to leave you.  I have grown … fond of your family.  I wish to remain with them even if you do not have children.”

“Then go to them.”

“It isn’t that easy.”

“Why not?  I release you from your pledge, now go and live with the family that tossed me out.”

“They didn’t toss you out.  You left.”

“They would have.”

“Your father-”

“Don’t talk to me about my father!”

“I can not just go to them.  The bond we share is forged by time spent together.  They would not be able to understand me as you do.  I need you to come with me, to help them understand me.”

She poked the fire sending small bright embers flying.  Thirteen no fourteen years since she ran away her family.  Ran away from her father.  “Dragon you ask too much of me.”

“I understand.”

— Years ago

She runs outside to the workshop.  Tears spilled from her eyes.  They just didn’t understand her.  He didn’t understand.

“Are you all right little one?” a deep rumbling voice asks from behind and inside her head.

Behind her, a dragon uncurls from behind the kilns, “Yes, I’m fine,” she says and tries to project the feeling as well.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, just … my father … I …”  She doesn’t know what to say.

“Hmm, your father calls you his son but you are not a boy, why?”

“What do you mean, I’m not a boy?” she asks.

“I feel it in your thoughts,” the dragon says his voice rumbling, massaging deep into her mind, “You feel like your great grand aunt.  She and her sister were twins but so different.  She was born second and so was not the pledge bearer but we were friends.  You feel like her.”

“How long have you known?”

“It has become apparent over the years.”

“Could you tell my father that?  Maybe he would believe you.”

“Your father does not wish to listen to his own daughter.  Why would he listen to an animal like me?”

“You’re not an animal.”

“I am to your father.  I’ve felt it in his mind.”

“Why don’t you tell him not to think that?”

“I am pledged to aid your family till its end or mine.  This is how your father has chosen for me to aid him.”

“It’s not right.  You should say something anyways.”

“It’s not right how he treats you.  You should say something.”

“I’m not a dragon.”

“No, you are not.  I’m sorry for forgetting that the most your father can do to me is speak harshly.”

An idea springs into her mind.  A wild idea that she has thought but never said aloud.  “I’m going to run away and I want you to come with me.”

“I’m pledged to your family.  I can not abandon them.”  There are concern and fear within the dragon’s rumblings.

“I’m not asking you to abandon them.  I’m asking you to help me.  I can’t stay here any longer.  Father won’t let me be who I need to be here, so I have to leave.”

“Why do you need me to go with you?”

“I … I’m scared to go alone but I will if I have to.  I thought … hoped as my friend you would come with me.”

“I am bound to your father by my pledge.”

“I’m next to be pledge bearer.  You won’t be breaking your pledge to go with me.  You’re supposed to aid the family; well I’m part of the family and I need aid.”

“You are stretching the meanings of words.”

“Will you come with me or not?” the youth pleaded.

The dragon drew its head back, tucked its chin down, its wings pulled tight against its body and it became still, even pausing its breath.  The girl waited and watched the dragon.

— Now

“Dragon, I was cross with you last night and I am sorry.”

“I know.  I felt it last night while you slept.”

“Can’t keep any secrets from you can I?”  She paused and waffled on her decision before plunging forward, “I’ve decided to return home.  I want to see my newborn niece.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.  I miss my family.  My sister will be more than happy to receive me.”

“And your father?”

“I don’t know.  But I’m not the scared little girl who ran away anymore.  I will go and see him whether we see each other after that will be up to him.”