Dark Cloud Rising
The sister mountain to Cordith was Muir, and as Duo approached it on the back of the gray dragon he could see more clearly the mountain’s craggy surface which had snow dusting the rocks, boulders and sharp, jutting ledges. Dark holes marked the side of the steep slopes, pock marks on the uneven surface of the mound that rose abruptly from the winter-barren Grennal Plains.
As he flew the short distance between the two mountains on the back of the older rider’s dragon, Duo thought the air was even colder, more bitting than it had been before. Despite his wounded back, he huddled into the larger rider’s chest, trying to preserve what little bit of warmth was left in his body.
He felt numb by the time they reached the other mountain, yet the gray dragon banked to the right, flying halfway around the steep slopes before selecting one of the openings and landing with practiced ease on the lip of a cave. The dragon immediately tucked in its wings and took a step inside the dark tunnel. Deikum held the boy fast as the dragon began its awkward walk into the darkness. Duo thought it strange that as they progressed further into the cave the warmer the air around him felt.
He spoke not a word about his uneasiness at the engulfing darkness nor of the unexpected warmth. Knowing his value to the northern riders, he trusted that neither Deikum nor his dragon would bring him to any harm. He didn’t know if it was a trick of his eyes or if he was merely getting used to the dark, but ahead of them he saw a lightening of the dark passageway. As they drew closer, the light grew larger, dimly illuminating the path before them. Accompanying the light was an odd odor and a welcomed, growing warmth. The smell reminded Duo of the strong odor that followed after a dragon after released fire from its belly. Garron describe it as being the smell of sulfur, but to Duo it smelled more of eggs that had gone rotten.
Once they reached the light-giving, dragon-sized opening, Duo could see that it looked out into a grand, open cavern. It came as a surprise that Muir was hollow on the inside. The dim light from the cavern allowed him to regard the interior of the mountain, with its unusual surface and many dark openings similar to the one he was standing in. Leaning forward for a better view, the fledgling followed the direction of the light, looking upward to see that it came from a craggy opening at the top of the nearly hollowed-out mountain. His eyes blinked in wonder at the sight before him even as his pert nose wrinkled at the strong, distasteful smell of bad eggs.
Deikum nudged him, signaling that he should climb off of the dragon’s back. He climbed down carefully, keenly aware of the continued ache of his battered back. Once his feet were on the stone surface, Duo moved cautiously to the cave’s opening. With a hand steadying him, he leaned forward to look out in wonder at the interior of the large mountain. From this vantage point he could see more clearly the pocked-surface of the cavern and that there were at least six dragons lounging on the edge of some of the ledges, seemingly unconcerned about the great height. He guessed that they were enjoying the strange warmth that filled the cavern.
"This is Muir," Deikum said from behind the boy. "The bottom of the mountain contains the heart of this valley’s dragon. It pulses red and hot, giving heat to its children."
Duo had never heard of the Grennal’s dragon heart. The people of his kingdom had long revered dragons and named many of their places after them. It appeared as though the people of the North carried on some of the older traditions as well.
Removing the protective cloth from his face, the boy could feel a trickle of sweat running down his back. Despite his curious nature and the strong need to understand everything about Muir, he held his questions. The need to see his dragon overrode everything else. "Where’s Wu Fei?"
The man motioned for him to look down and to the right of the protruding lip of the cave opening. There Duo found a three-foot wide path that skirted around the inside wall of the cavern. "He’s in the next lair. Just follow this path and, whatever you do, don’t look down or fall. Hoarst is there and he’ll stay with you until it’s time for you to return to Cordith. I’ll wait here with my dragon until that time."
Duo nodded, then cautiously inched towards the unprotected ledge that led to his dragon. He swallowed down his fear knowing that he had no choice but to walk the narrow path in order to get to his dragon. In his heart he knew that he would do anything, even this, in order to be reunited with Wu Fei.
Chancing a peek over the edge before stepping onto the path, Duo felt a wave of dizziness wash over him after gazing at the great distance from where he stood to the deep-red churning far below. He quickly pulled back with a gasp after glimpsing what was said to be the heart of the valley’s dragon. It was a magnificent and terrifying sight, and sweat from both the heat and his fear formed on his upper lip. Gathering all the courage he could muster, he faced the wall and hugged it as well as he could manage while cautiously sidestepping towards the next opening.
//I’m coming, Wu Fei. I’m almost to you.//
The black dragon’s head poked out of the opening ahead. //Be careful. One misstep could mean your end and mine,// his dragon cautioned.
Duo rolled his eyes at the obviousness of Wu Fei’s warning. Regardless, he continued on, one small step at a time until at last he reached the lair’s ledge and found Wu Fei waiting for him. He clasped hold of his dragon’s face and held on for all he was worth while his dragon drew him further into safety of the cave that was now his lair. "Oh, Wu Fei, I missed you so. What’s to become of us?" Duo asked out loud in a trembling voice.
//I do not like being separated from you,// was his dragon’s reply as he settled them both on a bed of old straw.
//They haven’t mistreated you, have they?// Duo questioned, not quite ready to let go of his dragon’s muzzle.
//Other than being chained to the wall while you’re out of doors, no. The man seeing to my care has been kind.//
Duo nuzzled his face against the smooth scales of his dragon’s face. //And the other dragons? Have they been kind?//
There was a pause for consideration before Wu Fei replied. //The younger females vie for my attention as if desire something from me. The older dragons look at me with disinterest or disdain. I yearn for the dragons I am familiar with.//
//Do you wish me to mate with one of them?//
//No. But I don’t know whether you or I have any choice in the matter.//
//There is always a choice,// Wu Fei said calmly. //The females may offer, but I reserve the right to decline.//
//They may use me to force you to choose one, Wu Fei. What would you do if they applied physical harm to me until you chose a mate? Could you resist?//
It wasn’t often that a dragon was stumped for an answer, but the delay in the black dragon’s response hinted that he couldn’t come to a suitable reply. At last he spoke to his rider. //I would not have you harmed.//
Duo hugged his dragon tighter and fought back a wave of despair. //Then we are lost.//
A sound behind him reminded Duo that they weren’t alone. He turned to see a large, hulking man standing by the far wall. Duo reluctantly let go of his dragon’s face in order to turn and face the menacing figure. His stinging back reminded him that he didn’t want to be punished for being openly hostile like he had the day before, so he remained silent and eyed the man, noting his large size, including broad shoulders and thick arms and legs. In the dim light he could see that the stranger was dressed in clothing similar to Alec and Dorothy’s. He guessed that all those who lived in the north dressed in a similar manner. The giant of a man wasn’t a particularly handsome to look upon, Duo thought. Most noticeable was the long, thin covering of hair that made more pronounced a large forehead which dominated the large man’s face. Beneath bushy eyebrows were small eyes, placed too closely to a long and wide nose. Under the shaggy facial hair Duo thought he saw a pair of thin lips.
"I am Hoarst." The tall man with the balding head took several steps forward and bowed from the waist while saying in a surprisingly gentle voice, "I am honored to serve both you and your dragon."
"Thank you for taking care of him," Duo replied, surprised by the man’s seemingly gentle nature. "His name is Wu Fei."
The large man smiled fondly at the boy and then the dragon. "I know. He told me."
"He told you?" Duo blinked in surprise, especially when the man nodded. "Are you a dragon rider?"
"I was," the gentle giant said with his eyes going to the floor. "My Durian died of a weak heart many years ago."
"I’m sorry," Duo offered his sincere sympathy, his heart going out to this man who had suffered the same fate as Howard had. "How is it that Wu Fei told you his name?"
"I can hear all dragons. It’s a gift I was born with."
Duo’s eyes widened at the man’s words. "I’ve never heard of anyone other than a dragon’s rider being able to hear the voice of a dragon much less all of the dragons."
"The gift has been passed down through many generations from my father’s line. We traditionally devote our lives to serving the wise and wondrous dragons."
Recalling Alec and Dorothy telling him about this man, Duo found himself very much impressed by him. "You are indeed a very gifted man, Hoarst."
The dragon-less rider bowed his head. "It’s a gift and a curse," he said quietly.
"They are wonderful and mighty creatures, the dragons are. But at times they are often willful and demanding. One of them is always talking."
"You can’t close your thoughts off to them, nor theirs to you?"
The man shook his head and Duo felt great pity for him. Not having the ability to close the link, Hoarst must have voices in his head at all times of the day and night.
"Your dragon has been worrying about you," the man said, changing the subject that was clearly uncomfortable for him. "Are you well?"
"I was beaten by Finn." Duo noted that the man cringed at hearing those words.
"If you can, you must avoid Finn and his friends. They have been made angry and bitter by the harshness of their life in Cordith and tend to lash out their anger on those smaller and weaker than they. It’s a pity that they’ve soured the gentle disposition of their dragons."
"Those dragons, they won’t hurt Wu Fei, will they?" This is what had worried Duo the most. The tales he’d been told as a child came back to his mind, of the vicious nature of the northern dragons and their riders. His stinging back was evidence of their cruelty, but that was nothing compared to the frightening stories he’d heard from the older boys in Ha’ber. There was little doubt in his mind that he’d do anything to keep his dragon from being hurt or maimed by the other dragons.
"Not unless their riders ask them to," Hoarst replied to his question. "Dragons are reluctant to harm each other outside of battle. Yet when there’s a need, they will do what they must."
Hoarst paused and a look of pain crossed his plain face as he recalled an incident in the past. "A long time ago, a young rider conspired to escape this life with the hope of going to Amulah and joining the other riders and dragons there. His behavior became suspicious and caught the other riders’ attention. He was caught sneaking out of the dwelling in the middle of the night. After the truth was beaten out of him, he and his dragon were made blind by both riders and dragons." Duo couldn’t help the horrified gasp that escaped his throat. It appeared not all the tales of his childhood had been wrong. Hoarst continued. "Blinding them was their solution to keeping both rider and dragon here in Cordith and Muir. However, it was not anticipated that the dragon would fall into deep despair. When the blind rider was taken to visit his equally blind dragon, the unexpected happened. Abbel, the dragon, enfolded his rider in his talons and plunged them both off of the precipice of his lair into the dragon’s heart below, freeing them both from this life, their pain and darkness."
At the end of the sad tale, Duo turned back to Wu Fei and grabbed hold of his muzzle once more and held him tightly. "I won’t let them hurt you like that, Wu Fei," he said with conviction bred from fear and sorrow for the rider and dragon in Hoarst’s story. Duo suddenly felt more trapped in this cruel life than before and a sinking feeling of dread settled into his heart knowing he wouldn’t try escaping if the consequences were so severe.
Hoarst’s large hand came to rest gently on his shoulder; a touch of comfort in his unhappy circumstance. "I did not mean to upset you. I am sorry." The sincerity of his apology was evident in his voice.
"I won’t let them hurt Wu Fei," Duo said, sniffling back the encroaching tears.
"They’re counting on that fact."
Duo knew it was true, but there seemed to be nothing he could do about it. Every rider was committed to his dragon, to its welfare and happiness, and he was no exception
It took a while before Duo felt like speaking again. He’d calmed enough to rest in the crook of his dragon’s legs and lay his head against the black scaled chest. //I am here,// Wu Fei said every once in a while, and Duo couldn’t decided if his dragon was offering him reassurance or reminding himself of the reality of their dire situation.
Hoarst stayed nearby, silently watching and waiting. After a long while Duo opened his eyes and turned his head to focus on the caretaker of the dragons. "Dorothy says you live here with the dragons. Why?"
The man shrugged one shoulder. "I prefer the company of dragons to those who ride them."
"All of them?"
Hoarst’s mouth twitched slightly at the question. "No. Not all are bad, and the children are still good at heart."
Duo snorted his difference of opinion, which seemed to startle the older man. "Both Dorothy and Alec are good children, and their dragons retain their innocence. You and your dragon will do well to having one of them as a mate."
"Not if I can help it," Duo muttered, again surprising the other. "I don’t wish to be mated to either Dorothy or Alec."
"That may not matter what you desire," the man stated, a look of sympathy in his eyes. "Once a dragon’s lust is in the air, rational thoughts and firm intentions flee. Dragons mate as their nature bids them to, and through their link, their riders also succumb to that instinctual need to procreate, and so they also take a mate."
Duo’s hand absently pet the shiny black scales as he kept his face pressed against Wu Fei’s chest. "I hate everything about this place; that I’m not given a say in this mating and that I was brought here against my will with the intention to lure Wu Fei away from our lair in Amulah. If I understand you, Wu Fei will have no choice but to choose one of the dragons once they are in season in the spring, and their rider will be my mate whether or not I approve."
"You mustn’t resent your dragon for this," Hoarst said gently. "His natural instincts will draw him to the two females in season. They will offer and he will choose. Your bond with him will extend that instinct to you and you will be similarly affected. Your need to mate will overcome all hesitation on your part when the time comes."
"No choice," Duo said dejectedly. "I have no choice."
The older man studied the sad youngster for several moments before he spoke again in an effort to distract him. "Tell me of your home," he requested. "That is if the telling is not too painful."
Duo gave a slow nod of his head, glad for a change in topic. He began to tell the caretaker of his village, of Ha’ber and of his life there. Just as he got to the part where Rayer and Garron came to the village with the egg housing Wu Fei, Hoarst held up his hands, halting the boy in mid sentence as his eyes became slightly unfocused. "It’s time for you to go," he said. He then blinked and his eyes turned back to the boy. "Thank you for your tale. I hope you’ll speak further of Ha’ber when you return."
Duo realized then how lonely the man must be. Sure, he had the voices of all the dragons residing in Muir in his head, but it must be pleasant to have another person to tell him fresh stories and exchange conversation.
"When can I come back again?" Duo asked, climbing out of Wu Fei’s sheltering embrace.
"Most likely in a day or so. They won’t want Wu Fei to become too upset by your prolonged absence."
Reluctantly, Duo said goodbye to his dragon, holding onto his face with a fierce embrace for as long as possible before Hoarst reminded him that Deikum and his gray were waiting in the next lair for his return. The boy’s heart ached as he inched up the ledge again, each step taking him away from his black dragon, his only source of comfort.
to Chapter twenty-seven