The Dragon Keeper – Prologue

*This is an excerpt from the book I am currently working on.  I don’t usually share early, but I thought I would anyway.  Besides, it goes along with this prologue trend I have been on lately. 🙂

“Aubrey!  It’s time to come down for lunch!”

The little girl sighed as she heard her mother’s voice drift up the stairs to her.  She regretfully stepped down from the window seat, where she had been the damsel in distress for the past twenty minutes.  Even though her Ken doll had not come to save her yet, she wasn’t really ready to stop.   She picked her way to the door.  The dress-up trunk had spewed dresses, scarves, tiaras, and costume jewelry onto the floor, amongst books and toys.  “Coming, Mama,” she replied, but probably not loud enough for her mother to hear.

She slunk down the stairs and to the kitchen.  She could smell her mother’s homemade soup and hoped there would be plenty of buttered bread to go with it.  The honey butter would be even better.

“Honey, why are you still wearing your princess dress?” her mother asked as she entered the room.  “You know we are going to leave right after lunch to go shopping.”

“I know,” Aubrey replied as she sat down at the table.  “I just wasn’t ready to stop playing yet.  The dragon hadn’t even had a chance to lock the castle door yet.”  She looked down at her lap, admiring the pink satin as it draped itself around the chair.

“You will have plenty of time when we get back.  And maybe you could use some of your birthday money to buy a new book?  Or whatever else we might find.  It’s been awhile since we’ve gone downtown, and it’s not like we are just going for a boring old grocery trip.  You should be excited.”  Her mother placed a bowl of soup in front of her, along with two fat buttered rolls.  “Just be sure you hurry up and change after lunch, okay?”

“Oh, thank you, Mama!  I sure will!”  She dug hastily into the fresh rolls.

The sound of crunching gravel drifted in through the open kitchen window, and her mother turned from the stove to look out the door.  “It’s your dad,” she said.

“Papa!”  Aubrey was out of her seat and out the door before her mother could tell her to sit down and eat.  She raced to her father as he climbed out of his sedan.  “What are you doing home?”

Her father wrapped his arms around her, princess dress and all, and carried her towards the house.  “Well, hello to you, too!  I had things fairly well wrapped up at the office, and I thought I would take off so I could come shopping with you two!”

“Really, Jim?”  Her mother asked from the open doorway.  “That would be wonderful!  I can’t remember the last time you were off work for anything fun.”

“Daddy, will you take us to the toystore?” Aubrey asked.  Her father set her back down in front of her soup.  “Katie says there’s a whole new display of nothing but magic tricks and I really want to see it!”

He smiled at her over the steaming bowl of soup Mama had just set down in front of him.  “I’m sure we could do that.  You think you could be the next great magician?”

“Just watch my lunch magically disappear!” she announced as she slurped her soup.

“You really do have to change clothes, Aubrey,” her mother announced when she had finished.  The satisfied smile that the buttered rolls had brought to Aubrey’s face were quickly replaced with a small frown.

“Oh, just let her wear it,” her father said.  “It’d be fun to go shopping with a princess.”

“The dragon is going to get you, Mama!” Aubrey cried from the backseat.  She made the little plastic dragon in her hand stomp around the headrest of her mother’s seat.

“No, no!  Not a dragon in my hair!”  Mama waved her arms and shook her head.  “I need a knight in shining armor!”

Her father plucked a silver pen out of the cup holder.  “I’ll save you!”  He poked at the dragon with the pen.  “Feel the wrath of my sword, dragon!”

Aubrey giggled as her dragon flew back to his place next to her in the backseat.  “He might not be so easy to defeat next time, Daddy!  He might breathe fire!  Or, or learn magic.  Yeah!  Dragon magic!”

“Did you hear that, honey?” her father asked.  “That’s going to be one powerful little dragon.”

“Sounds like I might have to get myself a helmet,” her mother replied.  “Oh, there’s the turn for the mall.”

Her father smoothly piloted the car off the highway and around the ramp.  Aubrey watched intently out the window as the mall came into view.  Not exactly a castle, but exciting nonetheless.  “Can I bring my dragon in with me?”

“Does it fit in your purse?” Daddy asked.

She opened her sequined purse and pushed the dragon down inside next to her lip gloss and her mother’s old wallet that she had given Aubrey to use.  The sides of the purse bulged a little bit, but it worked.  “Yep!  I’m ready to go!”

Even though the mall hadn’t changed much since their last trip, Aubrey was fascinated by everything there was to see.  The crowd pressed around her as she studied the bright signs over each of the stores.  The escalators stretched away from her like giant undulating snakes.  Huge fountains spurted water into glittering arcs.

“I’m going to make a wish!” she exclaimed.  Detaching herself from her mother’s hand, she dug in her purse for some pennies.  The little plastic dragon stared up at her from the satin-lined depths.  “Mama, I found a nickel.  Do you think I would get five wishes if I used it?”

But as she looked up to her mother for the answer, Aubrey heard a sound so loud that it drowned out all other noises in the mall.  Flame and bits of merchandise exploded into the air from a kiosk only a few yards away from them.  Mama turned away from the fiasco and threw herself on top of Aubrey, just as the second explosion sounded.

Aubrey heard the whoosh of water around her as they crashed headlong into the fountain.  Somehow she managed to free her arms from her mother’s strong grasp as they fell, and caught herself before her head hit the bottom of the shallow pool.

“Mama!  Mama, what’s going on?”  She shook her mother’s arm, but she didn’t answer.  Blood trickled from the back of Mama’s head, down her cheek and into the water.  Her eyes were open in a look of surprised terror, but she didn’t blink as Aubrey squirmed out from underneath her.

She had lost her purse, but the little plastic dragon floated just a few feet away and she scooped him up.  Aubrey stood up in the fountain.  The crowd was swiftly dispersing, clamoring to get away from the fiery kiosk.  She searched desperately for her father, but she couldn’t see him.  “Daddy?”  She stood there, the bloody water up to her knees, watching the last few people stream toward the exit, clutching the little dragon to her chest.  She stood there for what seemed like hours, as the water ran off her dress and into fountain, and the water turned pink around her and her mother’s body.

She was knocked out of her stupor when a security guard swooped her out of the fountain and carried her out of the mall.

Aubrey didn’t remember much of the rest of that day.  People had asked her questions, looked her over, and asked more questions, but she wasn’t sure what she had said.  She knew there was a hospital involved, and maybe a police station before she was delivered to the steps of a large dismal house downtown that said ‘Littlewood Foster Home for Girls’ over the door.

A heavyset woman with a lined but not unkind face, who said she was Ms. Clavens, led her up the stairs and down a dim hallway.  The bedroom she left her in was clean but barren, with only a few beds and dressers.

“What about my dress-up trunk?” Aubrey asked, speaking voluntarily for the first time since the incident.  “And my books?”

“You can’t have all of that here.  Supper is in an hour.”

Aubrey set her dragon down on the bed that the woman had said was hers.  She ran a finger disdainfully over the scratchy blanket, but pulled it away from the pillow and climbed in.  She lay next to her dragon, in a foster home, in her ruined princess dress.

Time at the orphanage was indeterminate.  The daily routine was the same whether it was Sunday or Wednesday.  The girls rose promptly out of bed at 6:30 for breakfast, and were sent off for their chores as soon as they set their spoons down.  This quickly brought them to lunch, then studies, then baths and bedtime.  There were no bedtime stories, only a headcount before the lights went out.

And so it was that Aubrey had no idea how long she had been there when Ms. Clavens summoned her to the office.  As she crept up to the cracked office door, she could hear Ms. Clavens talking to someone.

“Well I just can’t tell you how thrilled I am that you decided to come to me to find the newest member of your family.  So many times the adoption agencies manage to overlook us, and we are positively full to the brim.”  Ms. Clavens gave a little laugh almost like a giggle, which Aubrey had never heard come out of her before.  “Now, then.  I think I may have just the girl for you.  You said you wanted just one child, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am,” came a scratchy voice.

“Alright then.  You’ll forgive me for double-checking, it’s just that I do have a couple sets of sisters that I’d really rather not split up, and seeing as how you don’t have any children of your own I thought it might be a decent fit for you.”

“Our home is really only suited for us to have one child.”

“Yes, of course.  Well, you’ll like our little Aubrey.  She’s quite shy, but I think she’s still in a bit of shock after the death of her parents, poor thing.  You remember those terrorists blowing up the mall last month?  Her parents were two of the victims.  They found the poor girl standing in a fountain next to her dead mother!  Can you believe it?  I’m glad to say she is the only orphan that we saw from that accident, thank goodness.  Plenty of our girls go through quite a bit of tragedy before they end up on my doorstep.”

“And there weren’t any other family members to take her?” asked a woman’s voice.

“The only relative the police were able to find was an aunt in Oregon, but she had health issues and said she wouldn’t be able to keep her.”

Aubrey put up a shaking hand to knock on the door.

“Come in, dear!” called Ms. Clavens.  “Aubrey this is Mr. and Mrs. Goodknight.”

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