The Dragon Bone, Chapter 6

Chapter Six, Aerol

The place where Aerol’s thumbs had been didn’t hurt as much today. He woke up on the bottom of a pile of children, realizing that he had slept most of the night without the throbbing pain in his hands waking him throughout the night; although, the nightmares hadn’t left him alone. The big, biting flies that normally buzzed around his head and arms weren’t so bad, either, but the stink of the pen was just the same as it always was.

He pushed a bigger child off his legs and stood in the sunshine. Yes. The spots where his thumbs had been were definitely less red and swollen this morning, and the scabs looked to be a dark brown; thick, hard and crusty, with a deep itch that said the wounds were healing. It had only taken five days for the pain to become bearable.

He touched the scabs with a gentle finger, brown and encrusted with the filth of the holding pen. It hurt, but not like it had. A tiny sob threatened to escape his lips, but he clamped down on it, refusing to show any weakness or fear. He was nearly eight years old, after all, and more than old enough to control himself, even if he was the only member of his entire family to survive the attack.

The memory of his father beheaded and cloven in two, hanging upside down in a tree with his blood pouring from where his head used to be threatened to turn the sob into a scream, but Aerol clenched his eyes shut and refused to let the scream out. He hunkered down, leaning against the pen’s wooden side and bit into the back of one of his hands as he willed the image to disappear, gulping huge breaths of air. After a few moments of deliberate physical pain and intense concentration, he successfully pushed the sight down into a black box in his mind and clamped the lid shut with an iron lock.

Once he had control of his memories and breathing, he stood unsteadily and made his way to the far side of the pen where an open pit held the stinking shit and piss of the herd of children. He pissed, deliberately aiming for the wooden stockade rather than the open sewer, the one action of rebellion left to him. Then he squatted over the hole, wrapped his arms around his knees and dropped his head into their meager comfort, and took his morning dump. His one dump of the day actually, because the Drakcons didn’t feed them enough to require more than the one.

Another day of intense boredom and misery stretched before him, and he wondered what his family had done to merit their deaths and his torture. He meandered over to the feeding area where most of the other children already stood, waiting for the buckets of gruel and water which was their only food. In the late afternoon, sometimes piles of nearly rotten vegetables and fruit were pitched into the pen, and then the enclosure would break out in pandemonium as the children scrambled for the extra forage.

Only six days ago he had been working in the fields with his older brother and father, planting the rich soil with seeds of corn and beans. The day had been bright and sunny, with just a hint of rain in the clouds for the afternoon. His mother and sister worked in the house, doing womanly things, mysteries to the young boy who only thought of the moment and dinnertime. He would have much rather been fishing for carp in the river, or shooting slingshots with his best friend, Herden, but Aerol knew his chores came before pleasure. He took pride in knowing his family responsibility and doing his best to live up to his parents’ expectations.

He was only half way through the first field when the terrifying sound of pounding feet and deep, menacing roars filled the air. Looking up from the row of beans, he stood paralyzed as his father ran towards him shouting something, and his brother, Erwol, dashed to the house. Streaming over the ridge, charging across their neatly plowed fields, were creatures only imagined in Aerol’s worst nightmares. Drakcon. He dropped his sack of seeds and ran towards the dubious protection of the house.

He pushed his memories aside again, and watched the children around him. He and one other, an older boy named Te`ran, were the only ones without thumbs. The rest of the herd had all been born in the birthing pens, didn’t know what freedom was, and so never thought for themselves. In the five days he had been here, he’d learned that even trying to carry on a conversation with any of them was next to impossible. Their language was crude and basic; mostly guttural noises, sad imitations of the Drakcon language made by creatures never meant to utter similar sounds. The few human words they knew and spoke were basic and one syllable, such as “food”, “eat” “sleep”, etc.

Not a one of them felt the need to escape the pens. Aerol realized the only thing they knew was life inside the wooden enclosure. The only family they had was each other, and they had no reason to expect more. Most didn’t even remember their own mothers. As soon as they were old enough to eat gruel, they were removed from the birthing pens and thrown in the nursery. From there, if they survived, they were moved into the youngling holding pens, like the one Aerol now called home.

Aerol figured there were about 386 children enclosed in the pen. He had tried to count them yesterday, but they kept milling around and bunching up into groups, often the younger ones jumping up and running off when he least expected it. The effort had kept his boredom at bay throughout most of the afternoon, and his mind off his missing thumbs. Just before sundown, Te`ran had found him and the two boys evicted some little girls from a quiet spot in the shade of a cornium tree.

“How are your thumbs?” Te`ran lifted Aerol’s hands into his lap, using his index fingers to help grab on to the younger boy’s wrists, and looked at the scabs. He spoke with a northern accent that Aerol had found difficult to understand at first, but after a couple of days he had become used to it.

“Better. They don’t hurt as much today, but they’re still a little red and puffy.”

Te`ran let Aerol’s hands go and leaned back against the tree trunk. It wasn’t much of a tree, only about the height of a medium-sized man, but it provided some shade from the hot sun, and gave the illusion that they were alone and private.

Aerol studied the older boy, watching the play of dappled shade as it moved across his face. Although both boys were filthy and wore only rags, they looked nothing alike. Te`ran had dull, black hair that reached down to the middle of his back, and hung in matted ropes. Aerol’s wheat-colored hair was much shorter, of course, but the older boy had told him he would show him how to mat his hair once it started to grow long enough to be a bother. All the other children had matted hair, which was probably the only way they could keep it out of their eyes since they never received a hair cut.

Te`ran’s eyes were a bright blue while Aerol had amber colored eyes. Te`ran’s nose was long and his jaw lean, Aerol had a short, stubbed nose and his cheeks still sported baby fat. Te`ran’s leanness and size proclaimed him to be in his mid-teens, and just on the brink of adulthood. He wasn’t sure himself how old he was, but Te`ran thought he was around fifteen or sixteen. The same age as Dolea, Aerol’s sister.

“How long did it take for your thumbs to be completely healed,” Aerol asked his friend.

“It was about a month before the scabs were all gone and it didn’t hurt to touch. But it took much longer for me to get used to not having them to pick up things. I went hungry for a while until I figured out how to grab and hold on to stuff, you know?”

Aerol nodded and thought about how hard it was just to pull his pants down so he could take a dump. If it weren’t for meeting Te`ran, he’d never be able to get any of the vegetables and fruits that were tossed over the wall in the afternoon. And he would never have learned about where he was and why he had been captured.

Over the course of the next few days, the boys became fast friends and shared everything from their backgrounds and where they had been captured, to their families and even plans for eventual escape. Te`ran explained in detail why the children were in the pens and what Aerol could expect, unless they escaped.

“The Drakcons raise humans for food. They consider us a delicacy and pay the butchers a lot of gold for man meat. These kids you see around you, the ones that still have their thumbs and only talk like babies, they were born in the birthing pens and are raised for meat. But sometimes the Drakcons capture humans and they slaughter them right away. But if they capture young ones like you, and like me when they caught me, then they throw us in with the children and wait until we’re old enough to eat.”

Aerol wanted to scream and cry, hearing Te`ran’s words. His father and mother – had they been eaten by those horrible beasts? What about Erwol and Dolea, where they alive or had they, too, been eaten by now?

“Why do those kids still have their thumbs and we don’t?”

“They’ve been here all their life. They don’t know what it’s like to be free, to have a family, to be any where other than the pens. They never try to escape because they don’t know there is a place to escape to. But us, we know. And we want to escape, so they cut off our thumbs to make it hard for us to do anything. And if we try and fail and keep trying, then they cut off our big toes to keep us from running.”

Te`ran’s eyes glistened with an almost maniacal fever. “We’re smart because we know what to expect. They make it so we can’t escape and run from them easily. But we can do it, if we try hard and out-think them. You and me? We can do it, Aerol. All we have to do is wait for the right time.”

The older boy’s words sent a chill down Aerol’s spine.

“How do you know this stuff? How do you know it’s true?”

“I’ve seen things, kid. I’ve been here for five or six years, and I’ve listened to those beasts talk every day and night. I taught myself to understand most of their words, and when I hear them talk, I listen real good. It used to scare the hell out of me, let me tell you, but being scared doesn’t do any good. Being smart, that’s what will get us out of here, and we’ll do it together. We just have to be smart.”

Almost like magic, the thought of his friend seemed to conjure him up, as the older boy slipped in beside Aerol while he waited for the morning food.

“Where’d you sleep last night? I looked for you by the tree, but didn’t see you in the pile.”

“By the time I got sleepy,” Aerol answered, “I couldn’t find a place that didn’t have a kid hogging the room, so I bedded down over by the shelter. It was okay. Nobody tried to kick me out or anything.”

“Let’s take our food to the tree. I need to talk to you about something.”

Aerol looked over to the tree and saw that only three or four little children were playing around it.

“Sure,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“Not now,” Te`ran said with a nervous look over his shoulder. “I’ll tell you when we’re eating.”

The two boys pushed and shoved as many children as possible when the food was finally dumped into the feeding troughs. They dipped their bowls into the slop, filling them to the top, then made their way to the tree. It only took a deep growl from Te`ran to scatter the few children who had settled around the tree. They made themselves comfortable, sitting side by side and using the prickly trunk of the tree as their back support. Aerol silently congratulated himself for having one of the oldest and most aggressive boys as his personal friend.

The two gulped their food, tipping the wooden bowls into their mouths and using dirty fingers to scoop the gruel from the bowl. Both were finished in less than two minutes, and wishing for more. Wiping the food from his mouth with his forearm, Te`ran put his bowl down and leaned toward Aerol so that his words could not be overheard by any stray child wandering by their sanctuary.

“I heard the beasts talking last night on the other side of the wall. There’s going to be a capture this morning, after the herd has eaten and settled down.”

Aerol looked at his friend in confusion.

“What do you mean? I don’t know how you can understand those creatures. Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. The beasts are going to come in the pen with ropes and rundown and capture as many of the older kids as possible.”

“Why? Is it some sort of game?”

“No game for us,” Te`ran said. “They take the bigger and older kids to the slaughter house. They’re old enough to eat.”

Unbidden, the terrifying image of his father hanging from the tree came to Aerol’s mind again, setting off panic and pain within him. He swallowed hard and clamped down on his terror.

“What’ll we do?”

“You don’t have to worry. You’re too small and you just got here. Just stay out of the way. But me, I have to hide.”

Aerol looked around the pen. The sides were as high as the stockade surrounding his hometown, built to keep out brigands and marauders. The entire enclosure was probably as big as his father’s plowed field back home, with only one shelter (a lean-to open on three sides, the roof sloping from one wall of the pen) and a few scraggily cornium trees scattered around.

“Where? There’s nowhere to hide at all, unless you jump into the shit hole and stay low until they leave.”

“Believe me, I thought about it,” Te`ran said with a ghost of a smile. “I think I’ve found a better place, but I’m going to need your help.”

“Where?”

“In the roof of the shelter.”

“That’s crazy,” the younger boy stated. “They’ll spot you for sure! There’s no cover up there.”

Te`ran stood up, taking both of their bowls.

“Let me show you.”

He dropped the bowls in the empty food trough and then led the way over to the shelter. A number of children were sitting in its shade, some of the younger ones playing simple finger and hand games, while older girls sat in a line rolling and matting each other’s hair, chattering nonsense and laughing at what Aerol thought was nothing.

“See?” Te`ran stood inside, nodding up towards the highest part of the roof on the left side. “Don’t point, but look,” he whispered. “There are beams to hold the wood up, and in the corner there’s a spot that I think I can squeeze into. They’d never notice me up there, unless someone pointed me out.”

“How are you going to get up there without anyone seeing you?”

Aerol looked at the roof, checked the pen’s wooden wall, and walked over to the opposite corner where the roof sloped down from the stockade. He could not determine how the roof was attached, but he assumed the Drakcons used nails or something similar. He was sure he could climb up using both the wall and the supporting post, but without his thumbs, it would take a lot of effort. And time. Time, which Te`ran wouldn’t have once the beasts entered the pen and began their capture.

“Once they open the pen and start running down the kids, the herd will panic and total chaos will break out. I need you to stand in front of me and cover me as I climb. If any of the Drakcons come close to the shelter, run in front of them and try to divert them.”

Fear crashed into his chest, the breath catching in his throat, his lungs refusing to function.

“What if they catch me?”

“Don’t worry, Aerol. Even if they catch you, they’ll let you go. I told you, you’re too little, and you just got here.”

The older boy put his hand on Aerol’s shoulder, forcing him to look into his eyes.

“Can I count on you?”

Again the picture of his father hanging from the tree in two pieces crashed through his brain, and the sound of his mother’s screams filled his ears. He didn’t know how he could divert those terrifying monsters from anything, but he would be damned if he didn’t try to do something to save someone he cared for. He couldn’t help his family, but maybe he could be of some use to his friend.

“Yes. You can count on me.”

Te`ran patted his shoulder once and gave him a quick nod. Then the gates to the pen opened and Drakcons poured into the enclosure.

“Quick!” he shouted over the screams and moans of the terrified children. “Get up there before they see you!”

He gave his friend a quick boost and watched as the boy scrambled up the wall. Then turning away, Aerol did his best to roar loudly as Te`ran had taught him, and chased the screaming children out of the shelter. With a quick look over his shoulder to see if Te`ran had made it up, he ran from the shelter, waving his arms and roaring like a banshee, his only thought to run to the tree and climb into its branches to get out of the reach of the Drakcons’ rope.

But the beasts were everywhere, and 386 children running around, screaming and crying made it impossible for him to run to the tree without ducking and scrambling, falling and rolling, trying to evade the ropes which would drag him to his death. He knocked down younger children, pushing and shoving his way through the crowd, trying to reach the tree before he could feel a rough cord around his neck.

Suddenly a huge, greenish-brown body loomed in front of him, so close the scales covering its hideous body glistened close to his face. So close he could smell the musty stench of the beast, and his stomach churned with fear and revulsion. The creature roared in his face and swatted him to the side. Aerol fell to the ground; the air knocked from his lungs, and watched as the same Drakcon roped a teenage girl around the neck and dragged her to the gates. The girl just followed the beast, crying and wailing the whole time, but never once did she try to remove the rope from her neck.

Casting a look towards the shelter, he was glad to see nothing of his friend, and not a single Drakcon inside the structure. Te`ran must have made it safely to the hiding place. If his luck held out, he wouldn’t be collected for the slaughter today.

Aerol picked himself up and continued his hectic way to the tree. Piles of children huddled under its limbs, crying and wailing, but not a single one had climbed into the safety of the branches. He shook his head in disgust at the stupidity of the herd.

Finally, after what seemed like hours of dodging Drakcon and pushing small children to the ground, Aerol reached the safety of the tree, and clawed his way through the mob clustered around the trunk. Stepping on children without a single feeling of remorse, he clambered onto the backs of fallen kids and reached up into the lower branches, swinging himself onto a limb that he hoped would hold. It dipped and swayed with his weight, but held as he climbed onto a thicker branch, and found a safe perch. Wrapping his arms around the trunk, because without thumbs he found it next to impossible to keep a secure hold, he looked out over the enclosed area and watched the beasts capture their quota of human meat.

And then a voice pierced through his heart and mind like a thunderclap. A Drakcon had spotted Te`ran as he hid in the roof. A quick toss of the rope found it’s mark around the boy’s leg. With a vicious pull, Aerol’s friend fell from his perch, yelling and swearing, desperately trying to remove the cord from his leg. Another beast ran over and threw another rope around the fighting boy, pinning his upper arms to his sides and dragging him from under the shelter. A third Drakcon joined the fray, and quickly bound Te`ran’s legs together.

Aerol watched in horror as the huge creatures picked up the boy and tossed him over one of their shoulders, carrying him out of the pen. Just before the gate closed, Aerol met the terrified eyes of his friend. With the capture of Te`ran, the Drakcons left the enclosure and closed the gates on the remaining children. Tears rolled down Aerol’s cheeks, then he buried his head in his arms and sobbed.

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