Dark Cloud Rising
Duo jerked awake as the bed covers were abruptly pulled back. The icy cold of the room was a shock to his warm body. In front of him, the blond rider groaned and curled up tighter against his chest. Duo looked up to see the craggy, candle-lit face of one of the older riders. He wasn’t sure who it was until Alec spoke his name.
"Damn you, Dermail. It’s freezing."
"Then I suggest you get up quickly and get dressed. Dorothy has your breakfast ready," the older rider said.
"You heard the man. Get moving," Alec grumbled, giving the braided boy a shove with his shoulder.
Duo did as he was told and quickly climbed out of the bed. Though he’d kept his socks on, the deep cold emanating from the wooden floor went right through the woolen material and sent a frigid chill up his legs and then to the rest of his goose-pimpled body.
The two boys scrambled to get their clothing on as quickly as possible while older rider stood back and watched, chuckling with amusement as their clumsy fingers fumbled with their ties.
After a long pause, his dragon’s voice, sounding tired and worn, answered. //I am here.//
//Rest for now and regain your strength. I’ll see you when I am able.//
Dermail waited until the two had finished dressing and had their outwear in place before he turned to the door and led the boys out of the room.
With the window to his room shuttered, Duo couldn’t tell if it was truly morning, and the dark and gloomy great room didn’t answer that question either. Once again the interior of the room was lit by only a few torches that were set close to the blazing hearth. The majority of the room remained dark and foreboding. The crackling fire appealed to the shivering boys and its promise of warmth lured them closer.
As they drew near, Duo could see several black pots were suspended above the flames, held there by metal hooks that were set into the inside of the large, stone fireplace. Dorothy hovered over the largest pot, stirring its contents. She glanced up from her work as the boys approached. Without speaking a word, she bent to grab up one of many stacked, wooden bowls that sat on the hearth, and used the large wooden spoon she’d been stirring with to scoop up a large portion of porridge. Though his stomach was empty and cramped with hunger, Duo thought he’d rather starve than eat the unappetizing food that had always been his least favorite of breakfast offerings. Sensing that he could either eat or starve, he reluctantly accepted the offered bowl. Looking down into the cooked grain, he couldn’t resist the urge to sigh.
"What? You don’t like my porridge?" Dorothy asked, more than a little irritated as she brushed back a long strand of white hair that lay against her cheek with the back of the hand that held the spoon. She then filled a second bowl and handed it to Alec before giving the braided boy a pointed glare, waiting for an answer to her question.
"Not yours, I just don’t care for porridge." Duo said in a rueful voice.
"I’d advise you to eat it anyway, otherwise you’ll have to wait until the next meal. After losing your meal last night, you have to be hungry."
Duo shrugged then turned away.
"Wait!" Dorothy stopped him. He turned back and waited while she went to the next pot and drew out a ladle and poured what looked like hot ale into a wooden cup. She then handed it to him and returned to repeat both tasks for Alec. With filled cups and bowls, the two boys made their way to the tables, selecting a place nearest the fire.
Duo took a sip of the hot ale. It was bitter on his tongue but he appreciated the heat as the hot liquid warmed his throat and belly. With a great deal of hesitation he picked up the wooden spoon and looked down on the porridge. He filled the spoon with the thick mush and then closed his eyes as he shoved it into his mouth.
Alec chortled as his face scrunched up in distaste, but Duo chose to ignore him. Chasing the thick, starchy mouthful down with a sip of the ale, Duo paused to look around the empty room. "Where is everyone?"
"Asleep," Alec replied. "We’re the first to get up. Dorothy makes breakfast and we go outdoors to chop the wood needed for the day’s fire."
Duo looked with disbelief at the other boy. "You don’t have training?"
"Chopping wood is considered training, building strength in my arms, chest and back. The rest of my training resumes in the warmer months," the blond answered. "With the winter dragon’s breath upon us it’s too cold out of doors for us to train on the backs of our dragons. Come the spring we’ll begin to train again."
"The winds of winter are definitely here," Dorothy stated as she placed her own bowl and cup on the table and sat next to Alec.
The blond boy groaned and looked miserable. "What?" Duo asked.
Blue eyes rose to look into his own. "Despite the miserable cold, you and I still have to go out and chop wood. I hate winter," Alec added sullenly.
"Never fear," Dorothy said, catching the blond boy’s eye. "I’ll help you warm up again."
The expression on the girl’s face and the tone in her voice told Duo she didn’t mean to warm him up with a blanket or a hot drink of ale. Alex’s lips twitched upwards in response to her statement just before the wooden spoon of porridge went into his mouth, suggesting to Duo that the two blonds had probably practiced kissing to pass their time. He dropped his eyes to stare at his unappealing breakfast. Changing the subject, he asked, "When can I see Wu Fei?"
Dermail came up behind Duo with his breakfast and sat next to the braided boy. "One of us will take you to see your dragon after your morning chores are completed, weather permitting. Colgan, my dragon, tells me the black dragon is resting comfortably after his long flight."
Duo nodded while a longing for the Halls of Dornan swept over him again, for his room and his dragon’s lair attached to it, making Wu Fei accessible to him any time he could get away. He wondered what his friends thought of his disappearance. Did they think he’d come here willingly? Did Heero? The memory of their kiss still burned brightly in his mind, and he almost touched his lips with his fingers as he recalled the touch and warmth of Heero’s lips on his own. He stopped himself from doing so, however, aware of the three riders seated at the table with him. Besides, he was a long way from Amulah, from the Halls, his friends and Heero. If these people who had taken him from his bed in the dark of night had their way, Wu Fei would be mated in the spring to one of the two blonds’ dragons. If that happened, he’d have no choice but to stay here with his dragon, the both of them bonded to their mates and this place.
Suddenly, he found that he wasn’t hungry anymore, and his heart felt heavy that he should have so little to say about his future. His eyes rose to scan the dark, dim-lit room. The wooden walls were so different from the white stone that made up the Halls of Dornan. He thought that surely he would perish in a gloomy place such as this.
"What’s with the frown, boy?" Dorothy asked.
Duo looked back to his unappealing meal to avoid looking at the girl. "The darkness of this place makes me uncomfortable," he said, not wanting to admit he was desperately longing for both the familiar and his dragon.
"It might take a while," Alec said. "But you’ll get used to living here. I also hated it when I was first brought here."
Duo’s head snapped up and his eyes sought out the other boy’s. "You were brought here against your will also?"
A brief nod of the head was the blond boy’s answer. The older man, sitting next to Dorothy, expounded further with more than a hint of pride in his voice. "It was quite ingenious, you see," Dermail began. "We had two dragon eggs, seemingly healthy, but the dragonlings didn’t accept any of the children from the area surrounding Muir and Cordith. Quinze took the eggs farther south, into Amulah border lands to the south-west, and passed himself off as a dragon rider of Amulah. He eventually selected Alec and later Dorothy as acceptable riders for our dragonlings. He brought them back here where we had the two children impressed upon the dragons. We closely supervised the care of each child and dragonling as they endured the dragon’s bane and became bonded and one of us."
Dermail laughed at this point in the story. His humor was obviously not shared by the three sober-faced youths. "In their ignorance of how things are properly done in finding a rider for a dragonling or the bonding of dragon to its rider, their families and village were so busy celebrating the fact that they had spawned children worthy of becoming riders that they didn’t notice their abduction until Quinze was in the air, carrying both dragon egg and soon-to-be rider of Cordith. Alec was the first to be brought here and impressed, Dorothy came several months later."
"I don’t understand what you mean by impressing," Duo told the man.
"I can only assume that you were chosen by your dragon while he was still in his shell."
"Yes." Duo recalled that night clearly. It was the days following that were a bit of a blur as he suffered from the dragon’s bane.
Dermail nodded. "We discovered that once we selected a rider, we could carefully open the top of the dragonling’s egg and put the child’s hand inside. Unless the dragonling was sickly and too weak to respond to the invasion, it instinctively latched onto the intruding arm, biting it. Thus the dragonling and rider were bonded."
"And the dragonlings didn’t reject your choice of rider?" Duo asked, shocked that the decision for choosing a rider could be successfully taken away from a dragonling.
"We chose our riders carefully, looking for children with strong bodies and minds, who also displayed leadership abilities. Our reasoning proved true, that once the dragon and child survived the sickness and fever, their bond was too great to be severed by all things other than death."
"I was impressed upon Shadow nearly four years ago," Alec said, his face reflecting that the experience was not a good memory.
Dermail frowned at the boy. "Don’t interrupt me," he warned the blond boy and delivered a sound slap to the back of Alec’s head. The older boy ducked his head in an act of submissiveness. Seeming to be satisfied that he’d gotten his message across, the older man turned his attention back to Duo. "Your dragon’s seed will give us a whole new generation of dragons, not to mention the offspring your royal blood will produce from Dorothy’s body. Your children will secure our place in Amulah’s hierarchy, giving us our rightful place in the palace that has long been denied us. We will rule both the people of the south as well as here in the north, and the dragon riders will be forced to join with us because our newly crowned king will be of Haldash blood, as will your offspring, your heirs."
"What if Wu Fei is chosen and accepts Alec’s dragon’s offer to be her mate?" Duo asked, trying to hide how appalled he was by the older man’s words and his part in his plans for Amulah and his future.
Dermail shrugged. "It doesn’t matter. You will eventually be required to mate with Dorothy. She is the only female in the north that is of true Amulah blood and the nearest in age to you that you’ll encounter in Cordith. Unfortunately, our other female riders have mates and their wombs have proved fallow, which means that Dorothy is the only one left to provide you an heir."
Duo bit back the retort that he’d rather mate with a wolderbeast than the sharp-tongued girl, and the fact that he preferred one particular, dark haired boy back in the Halls of Dornan.
"Accept your life here," Dorothy said dispassionately and without her usual tone of snideness. "The sooner you accept the fact that you can’t go back the easier it is to make your place here." The hint of sadness in the girl’s face told him that she still missed her home.
As soon as they finished their breakfast, Alec took Duo to the back of the long room, to the only door that led to the outside of the building. Numerous animal-skinned outer clothing hung high on wooden stakes that had been set into the wall. Alec grabbed a fur-lined hat, coat and gloves and fitted them on the younger boy.
"You might manage to get warm while chopping wood, but never, ever take off your outer clothing. The winter dragon’s breath can freeze a man’s nose and ears in a short amount of time. I won’t be so attracted to you if you have no ears or a rotting nose."
Duo stood silent and passive while Alec dressed him appropriately. His cloak was removed and replaced by a large fur jacket that was lined on the inside with sheepskin. A thick piece of cloth was wrapped around his nose and mouth, leaving only a narrow strip of skin showing between that cloth and the thick, furred hat that sat low over his forehead. Alec then dressed himself in the exact manner and motioned Duo to the door the moment he was finished. At the first crack of the opening door, a strong, cold wind whistled through, giving both boys a hint of what was in store for them outside.
Stepping out of the door, just behind Alec, Duo noted the large panel of animal hides, stitched together, was placed over the doorway, acting as a buffer to the northern wind. The door was quickly shut behind them, the latch pulled down, then Duo followed the older boy from out of the covering and into the open.
Stepping out from behind the protection of the animal skins, Duo blinked at the sight surrounding him as the icy wind buffeted against his body. It was indeed morning, just barely, with the night sky turning grey as the sun prepared to rise over the eastern mountains. The thin light allowed the fledgling to observe his surroundings. Not too far from where he stood was a small mountain of trees, stripped of their branches and set on their sides, stacked on top of each other. The eerie sound that filled the air came from the heavy winds whistling through the cracks in wall of logs. He decided that the trees had been purposely set to act as a buffer, taking the brunt of the northern winds and giving some protection to the wooden structure that the riders of Cordith lived in.
Turning in a slow circle, he determined that the lone structure sat on the very top of Cordith, which was a flattened surface. The log building was situated on the southern edge, overlooking the Plains of Grennal and towards the direction of Amulah. He recalled the window of the room that he now shared with Alec, how he had looked out to see the straight cliff and dizzying drop to the valley’s floor. Assuming that the rest of the mountain was the same, there would be no easy escape from this mountain top, other than on the back of a dragon.
"This is our wood source," Alec said, drawing his attention back to the large pile. "The people in the northern villages cut and trim the trees and the dragons carry them here to Cordith. You and I, being the youngest, are responsible for cutting the wood for the daily fire. Tsuberov says chopping wood every day prepares us to wield any number of weapons. I’ve come to learn that when Tsuberov says something, he’s almost always right. I’ve gotten to the point where I can chop wood for a long period of time, and you will too after a while."
Duo followed the other boy as he walked towards the stack of cut tree trunks. Several of them were on the ground, next to the larger mound. There were also three very large stumps, and embedded in two of them was the tip of an ax, the long wooden handle standing up, ready for use.
Blue-violet eyes watched as Alec worked the ax out of the ringed stump and walked over to one of the smaller logs on the ground. Duo observed that the circumference of the tree trunk to be five hands high.
Preparing to swing his ax, Alec paused to turn and look over his shoulder at Duo. He nodded his head towards the block with the remaining ax, indicating he should follow his example. Taking a deep breath, Duo moved forward, grabbed the handle and worried the blade out of the block. Once it was free, he went to the other end of the same log as Alex. Following the other boy’s movements he began the backbreaking chore of chopping wood for that day’s fire.
He didn’t believe it was possible, but after an extended period of time spent swinging the ax over and over into the log in front of him, Duo became uncomfortably warm. He wanted to remove the leather strip from the front of his face, but Alec’s earlier warning was still strong in his mind. He stopped working to rest his aching arms, which caught the blond’s attention. Alec let him rest for only a few moments before he set him to chopping the sectioned rounds into smaller pieces. Inside the fur-lined gloves his hands were sore, his fingers numb, and the thought of doing this every day was almost more than he could bear. Yet following the blond boy’s example, he kept working, not willing to look weak in front of Alec.
//You’re in pain.// Wu Fei’s voice came to Duo just as he was about to collapse onto the frozen ground. His shoulders, arms and back were cramped from the strain of working muscles that were not used to this type of labor. He fought back the overwhelming feeling of misery, not wanting his dragon to worry about something he could do nothing about.
//Are you all right?//
//The straw here is old. It smells of mildew and decay.//
//Are you hungry?//
//I think you need to tell the other dragons. Maybe they’ll show you where to hunt.//
//Come to me.//
Duo sighed, wanting more than ever to do as his dragon requested. //I will as soon as I’m permitted. They said you’ll need to be chained while I’m with you to prevent us from flying back to Amulah.//
//The dragon tender is fitting it on me now. I don’t want to be chained down.//
//I don’t want that either, but the elders here assure me that it will only happen when we’re together.//
There was a long pause before Wu Fei replied. //I will permit it in order for us to be together. It is not right that we are kept apart.//
//No, it’s not right, but I’m learning that here on Cordith and Muir we have very little say about what happens to us.//
"That’s enough for today," Alec’s muffled voice called out, barely heard over the howling wind and cutting into Duo’s conversation with his dragon. "Pick up as much wood as you can carry and we’ll take it to the dwelling. There’s a long wood box to the right of the outside door that will hold a day’s worth of firewood."
//I’ll try to get permission to see you after you’ve eaten,// Duo told his dragon as he bent over and began to stack the chopped wood in his arms. After carrying several armfuls to the appointed wood box, Alec motioned for him to move behind the hanging animal-skin covering the doorway. Duo went as directed then turned to the boy who had followed behind him.
Out of the freezing wind, Alec removed the material around his face and said, "That’s enough for you today. Go inside and warm yourself by the fire. Shadow intends to take your dragon hunting soon."
"Are you coming inside?" Duo asked, pulling the strip of fabric away from his mouth. He really didn’t want to be left alone with Dorothy for too long. The girl definitely made him feel ill at ease.
"No. There’s more wood to chop and carry to the box." Having said that, the blond boy re-covered his face and disappeared back out of the sheltering cover, earning Duo’s grudging admiration for his strength and endurance.
Resigned to returning to the indoors, Duo opened the heavy wooden door to the great room. Again, it was dark, but near the firelight at the opposite end of the room he could see there were now a number of riders sitting at the tables and conversing with each other. He removed his outerwear and fumbled in the dark to put them back on the wall and quickly replaced them with his own cloak.
As he approached the massive fireplace that took up a good portion of the southern wall, the conversations waned and every eye turned to follow the newcomer’s movements. Ignoring them for the fire, Duo put his numb and aching hands out towards the bright flames to try and warm them.
"I thought you said the new rider was a boy," one of the men in the group behind him said in a boisterous voice.
"He is, Finn. What are ya, blind?"
"The kid’s too pretty to be a boy." A smatter of laughter followed that comment.
"Maybe we should check what the fledgling has in his pants, just to make sure."
"You go ahead and do that, Finn," a female voice urged the other on.
From the corner of his eyes, Duo saw a man rise from the table to his left and just behind him. His body stiffened and he desperately searched around him for something to use to defend himself. To his left he spied the long, metal poker used for shifting the logs within the fire. He thought the tool was his best chance at protecting himself. He leapt forward and grabbed hold of it even though his pained arms protested against the sudden action. Spinning around to face the older rider, he took a defensive stance with the metal bar clasped in both hands, ready to defend himself.
"Stay back," Duo warned the man he could now fully see. At a glance he observed that the approaching man was tall, much taller than he was, and though it was hard to tell what lay beneath the man’s thick clothing, Duo was sure the rider definitely outweighed him. The rider was dressed in animal skins and wore his hat so that the lower brim rested over his eyebrows, giving his narrowed eyes a more sinister look. His lips were thin and almost invisible under the brown, shaggy mustache and the slant of them bore a look of cruelty and set Duo’s nerves on edge. The fledgling deduced that the man approaching wasn’t one of the older riders that he’d met the night before, those men were absent from the room, a conclusion he’d come to after seeing and the empty chairs set in front of the hearth.
The menacing rider stopped a few feet away from the boy. With his hands on his hips and sneered. "You would dare to raise a weapon against your elder?" he asked, looking angry from the boy’s show of defiance.
"You will not touch me," Duo said clearly.
"And you need to learn your place, young pup. A sound thrashing should teach you to respect your betters."
"My betters are back in Amulah," Duo shot back. "You brought me here against my will, did you think I’d be happy about it?"
"Happy or not, you are ours now, to do with as we please." A slow leering grin grew on the weathered and bearded face. "You won’t be so cocky and proud once I’ve finished with you."
The threatening man took a step forward and Duo instinctively jumped into action. He swung the metal bar low and hit the man’s calf, hoping to bring the rider down. But the man ignored the blow. Before Duo could jump away, the man named Finn dove at him and received another blow from the poker before both riders hit the cold, uneven wood floor. The air whooshed out of the Duo’s lungs as he hit the floor with the heavier man partially resting on top of him. He was shocked to discover his hands were empty, that he no longer held his weapon.
With a grunt, the man lurched to his feet and pulled the slighter body with him. Duo continued to kick, hit and do as much damage as he could while the riders behind them cheered and jeered as the one-sided struggle continued.
Duo used every trick he’d learned while training in the Halls, but he was quick to see that he had much more to learn. With his limbs becoming entangled in his cloak and his arms heavy and aching from the morning’s chore, any attempt to defend himself was proving pathetically ineffective. The burly man he was trying to fight off was undaunted and only becoming angrier with each blow that connected. Without a doubt Duo knew that he was in trouble. As the man’s un-gloved hand moved to grab his hair, Duo turned his head in time to bite down on the soft flesh on the underside of the thick thumb. Something in the other man seemed to snap and with a vicious snarl he grabbed hold of the boy and flung him to the floor and in an instant had the fledgling pinned beneath him. The short battle was clearly over.
A large, meaty and tooth-marked hand grabbed hold of the hair at the top of his head and once again Duo was pulled to his feet. Bringing his hands up, the boy struggled to pull the pain-giving hand out of his hair while he was propelled to the far wall, opposite the side of the room where his room was located. Because of the perpetual dim light within the room, he hadn’t noticed that there were wooden pegs imbedded half-way up the uneven wood walls.
"Hal, strap his hands," his captor barked out the order to someone behind them while keeping a secure and painful grip on his hair. A moment later, Duo felt his hands grabbed and forcefully pinned above his head and against the wall. A leather tie was then secured tightly around his cold wrists. He kicked and screamed, demanding to be released, but his desperate words and actions fell on deaf ears. When at last he was secured to the wall, the cruel hands released him.
"Strip him." The order coming from his attacker filled the boy with terror, which increased tenfold when his cloak was removed and the blunt edge of a knife settled against his neck and cut though his clothing.
//Wu Fei!// he cried out desperately to his only friend and ally.
//What is wrong?//
//They’re going to hurt me,// he answered, panicked by what was happening.
The distant sound of a dragon’s cry of distress sounded in the space between the two mountains. //I’m chained to the mountain.// Wu Fei reported, his reply filled with anguish at his inability to come to his rider’s aid.
Duo whimpered from both the severe cold and fear as he felt the last of his clothing cut from him and exposed him to the full chill of winter. The front of his bare body lay against the wooden walls, which gave off no warmth or comfort.
"I’ll finish my meal before teaching you some manners, boy," the man Finn said, chuckling darkly behind him. "The tightness of your cold, exposed skin will make the lash hurt all that much more."
Turning his head, Duo could see the two riders leaving him, returning to the group seated at the tables closest to the fire. His goose-pimpled body trembled from the cold and his rapid breaths formed clouds that disappeared a moment after escaping his mouth. He didn’t think he could survive the bitting cold for very long. Finn’s parting words added to his growing feeling of terror. The only thing that gave him the courage to not cry and beg for mercy was the thought that he would remember the name Finn and one day he would get his revenge.
Another frantic dragon cry sounded and Duo knew Wu Fei was suffering along with him. He couldn’t help himself at the moment, but he could ease his dragon’s mind. He forced himself to a more calm state before he attempted to reassure his dragon.
//It’s okay, Wu Fei. Calm down.//
//Have they harmed you?// came the rapid, anxious response.
//Not yet, but I think I’ll be getting a beating for attacking one of the older riders. I’ll do my best to shield you from it.//
//No. If they harm you, I would feel it too, then I will know whether or not to injure or kill those who harm you.//
//I need you to stay calm, Wu Fei. I can take a beating but I couldn’t bear it if they harmed you because of my rash actions.//
//They can not harm me.//
//Yes, they can,// Duo answered emphatically. //They could easily have one of their dragons damage your wings and then you wouldn’t be able to fly.//
There was a moment of silence before a feeling of disbelief came to Duo from his dragon. Then a quiet, resolute voice said, //I would die for you.//
Duo swallowed down the urge to cry at the devotion of his beloved dragon. //I know, and I would do the same for you, but I would prefer you to live for me, and for the hope that one day we can fly back to our home lair.//
//I can not bear this,// the black dragon said in a mournful tone. //I need to help you.//
//Then tell me a story. Speak to me of the day we climbed the mountain and you jumped off the ledge and flew for the first time. You were incredible and so beautiful that it took my breath away.//
And so Wu Fei began the tale, recalling with the finest attention to detail that memorable day, of the sun, the cool spring air and white/gray clouds that dotted the bright blue sky. Dragons, Duo had learned, were wonderful and garrulous story tellers, and his dragon was no exception.
Even as his body trembled, reminding him of the dangerous cold, Duo’s mind pictured the day Wu Fei spoke of, and he was climbing the rocky mountainside at the side of his black dragon and Howard.
A sudden sound behind him drew him out of his thoughts. It was the sound of a leather strap being snapped in readiness for his punishment. Twisting his hands, Duo gripped the straps holding him to the wall. He set his mind against crying out or begging for mercy. He would be brave, he told himself, but he would also shield Wu Fei from the pain. With that decision in mind, he closed his link with his dragon and prepared himself for what was about to happen.