Dark Cloud Rising
Note: Italics -if they show up (my fingers are crossed) -means telepathic communication between a dragon and its rider
Pulling the thick red velvet sack up around the precious sky-blue colored egg, the rider of the silver dragon sighed deeply. He’d carried this particular egg over half the kingdom for nearly a year and still the slumbering dragonling refused to pick a rider. He was getting tired of the search even though riding Rayer was ever a joy to him. He was just getting too old for this, he thought, which was why he’d been relegated to this chore, generally considered a simple one. He was one of many riders, past and present, who had served his king and kingdom since his youth and had proven his worth to both. Yet now that he had waxed older, showing silver at his temples and moving much slower, he’d been entrusted to more simpler tasks while younger riders stepped forward to take over the greater task of protecting Amulah.
As for the newest rider, he gazed wearily at the dragon egg in his hands, this dragonling was very particular and stubborn in choosing his life-long rider. Not for the first time he wondered if maybe there wasn’t a child within Amulah’s borders that was acceptable to the little dragon, for it had come from a far distant land. Maybe its destined rider lived elsewhere. Soon he would finish visiting all the cities and villages that lay within the western Amulah, then he’d have to journey to the eastern, and if the dragonling hadn’t chosen a rider after visiting the villages and cities there, they would probably have to send it back to its home lair, far across the Osporin Sea.
Looking up to the village leader, he raised a weary eyebrow and asked, “Are you sure there are no more children to be presented?”
Charn, a large, barrel-chested man who spoke for the village of Ha’ber, rubbed his hand over his thick and neatly trimmed dark-brown beard in a thoughtful manner. “You have seen the pride of our village. It’s a pity the dragonling didn’t chose one of them.”
“That it is,” the rider said with honest regret. “But he’s passed by many that were royal and peasant, so I hope that neither you nor your village will take offence.”
“No, of course not. Will you accept our hospitality and stay the night, Rider Garron? The sun is setting low in the sky.” Charn said politely.
Seeing the approaching darkness, the dragon rider realized with a sinking heart that he would spend yet another night away from the comforts of his home and bed. “Thank you,” he said with a gracious smile. “I accept your generous offer.”
The open center of the village was filled entirely with its inhabitants, all of which were gawking at Rayer and himself with faces flushed with both fear and awe. Garron was pleased to note the village well known for its weaving had been blessed with quite a few children. It had been more fortunate than other villages he’d visited where few children survived infancy due to wide spread illnesses.
There is another.
Gerron’s head snapped up at his dragon’s statement. He looked at the village speaker unhappily. “There is another child that has not touched the egg today. Why have you forbidden the child this honor?” he demanded angrily.
It was easy to see from the look in the man’s eyes that Charn had deliberately lied to him. Caught in a fib, the village speaker sputtered, obviously flustered and embarrassed as he rushed to apologize and explain himself. “Forgive me, Rider Garron, for misleading you. Yes, there is one, but he is our dark cloud. Trouble follows the boy and I assumed no dragon would pick one such as he. When he didn’t come to the circle, I thought we would spare you from wasting your time with him.”
He’s almost to the village. He’s running now that he has seen me.
“I want this child brought to me the moment he arrives,” the rider said firmly.
Charn looked appropriately contrite as he nodded, then turned. “Laret. Notan,” he called out sharply to the two strapping young men standing close by. “Find Duo and bring him here.”
Garron recognized both young men who had earlier put their hands on the egg and had been visibly disappointed by the lack of response from the dragonling. At Charn’s sharp command, the two sturdy lads snapped to attention and darted off into the crowd, eager to do his and the speaker’s bidding.
“Again I beg your pardon, Rider Garron,” Charn said with a low bow from his thick waist.
Garron nodded curtly at the man’s apology, showing him that it had been accepted, but he was still displeased by the speaker’s actions and explanation. Only fools believe in such superstitions as a dark cloud, he told his dragon.
These are simple people. They are perhaps ignorant of each other’s worth . Rayer turned his head to survey the small crowd before them, his jeweled eyes of blue glittered in the fading light of day. He brought his silver scaled cheek close to his rider indicating he wanted his touch. Knowing his dragon well, Garron reached up with his gloved hand and stroked the side of his beloved dragon’s face.
You are the most magnificent of all dragons, Rayer, he told his faithful companion through their link. A loud rumbling came from deep inside the dragon’s chest, which Garron knew was his purr of pleasure in response to his flattering words and his touch. He chuckled after seeing the villagers back away warily from them upon hearing the unfamiliar sound, perhaps fearful of the fire that stirred within the mighty beast’s belly.
Rayer’s eyes closed with contentment for several moments, enjoying the touch of his rider. Then suddenly the jeweled orbs snapped open. He’s here . The dragon’s head rose and tilted slightly to the side to watch the scene unfold before them. The two young men who had left on the speaker’s errand had returned, dragging between them and by the collar of his shirt a much smaller and very dirty lad. The village as a whole went silent and made a wide path for the three, many of them frowning with disapproval at the sight of the unkempt child.
“Bring him closer,” Garron ordered, shocked at the boy’s slovenly appearance. Holding him by the shoulders of his filthy shirt, to two taller boys bought their charge forward and stopped immediately before the dragon rider. Releasing the lad, they make a public show of wiping off any dirt they might have gotten on their hands from touching the boy before they melted back into the crowd to join the rest of the village watching for whatever might unfold.
Garron observed the little boy’s eyes widen with awe when they fixed on Rayer’s scaled face looming above the both of them. He could feel his dragon’s curiosity directed towards the small lad as he returned the boy’s gaze. Garron took that opportunity to study the boy. His hair was gray with dirt and badly matted from lack of care. The clothes he wore were more or less rags that hung loosely from his small and thin frame. The boy’s bare hands and feet matched color of his hair as did his face, except for the pale, smeared streaks on his cheeks that had obviously been formed by tears. Despite his shoddy appearance and the dimming light of day, Garron could see that the child’s eyes radiated life, wonder and curiosity. Surprisingly, the rider could not detect any fear from the diminutive lad, for either himself nor his sizeable dragon.
I like this one, Rayer stated, mirth in his voice. Though he smells as if he lives in a hill of dirt rather than a human dwelling.
“What is your name, child?” Garron asked, gentling his former ire that had been directed towards the village speaker.
Reluctantly, the boy’s eyes lowered from Rayer to himself and he was taken aback by the unusual size and hue of those curious orbs, barely visible through the long fringe of hair over his forehead. “Duo,” the boy answered shyly.
“Do you have family present?”
The boy shook his messy head. “I’m twice orphaned,” he replied in a quiet yet straightforward manner.
The village speaker cleared his throat to catch the rider’s attention. Garron motioned for him to wait, then turned his attention back to the sorry child.
“Why didn’t you come when Rayer and I first arrived?”
Duo’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry,” he rushed to give his explanation, pointing to an area behind him. “I didn’t mean to offend, but I was in Howard’s hut at the foot of the hills and we didn’t see you come.”
The rider’s eyes widened a moment at the name the boy mentioned, but let it go in favor of questioning the boy further. “Do you know why I’m here?”
The boy scratched at his matted hair. “Not really. Could it be because of what’s in the pouch on your lap?”
Rayer purred again, signaling his continued pleasure with the boy. “Yes,” Garron grinned. It was refreshing to have a child respond so openly with him. Riders were usually held in awe and fear, and even grown men shrank back from them. “I’ve brought a dragon’s egg with me.” He untied the cord that held the pouch closed and pulled the soft velvet fabric away from the egg that had the appearance of a smooth sapphire-colored stone.
“You’re looking for its rider?” Duo asked, his eyes studying the egg.
“Yes. But this is a very stubborn dragonling. I’ve carried it for nearly four seasons in search of its rider. So I don’t want you to be upset if he doesn’t choose you, for he’s rejected all children who have touched his eggshell.”
“You want me to touch it?” Duo’s head tilted slightly, his face showing his confusion.
“Yes. All city and village children are eligible, regardless of their wealth or lack of it or their status in their communities. The dragonling chooses his rider for his or her own reasons, we only provide the opportunity for it to choose.”
Duo looked from the egg to the rider and then shifted his gaze to his dirty hands. “I don’t think you want me touching your egg, Master Rider. I’m the village’s dark cloud. Nobody wants me, why should a dragon?”
Garron felt his ire rising again, but it wasn’t directed at the boy, it was aimed at the people who had marked this child as bad luck. “Never mind your hands,” he told the boy gently, feeling a well of sympathy for the unwanted child. “The dragonling looks at the soul and heart of a person, not the outward appearance. Just put both of your hands on the egg’s surface and hold them there. You’ll know within a few moments if you’re accepted or not.”
The little boy appeared apprehensive, but slowly both of his soiled hands inched forward towards the egg that was roughly the size of a large man’s head. The crowd stilled as two small hands set themselves on either side of the egg.
Duo was surprised to feel that, contrary to how smooth the egg appeared, there was a roughness to it that could only be detected by touch. He leaned his head forward and whispered to the hard shell, “Hello there, little dragonling.” He figured he should properly address the magical creature within.
A warm tingling spread from the egg to his finger tips and up his arms then into his head. A strong sense of relief went through him, but he didn’t understand why. He decided it was his own feeling of relief that the dragonling inside the egg hadn’t harmed him, being as unworthy as he was. He shouldn’t have worried though because Howard had never told a story where a dragonling hurt anyone who dared touch its egg to see if they were acceptable.
An odd sense of curiosity filled him and he wondered what a dragonling was like. What would it look like? How would you feed it? When would it fly or breath fire?
Suddenly, a feeling of yearning to belong swept through him and a stab of pain flashed behind his eyes. Shocked at the sensation, Duo abruptly released the egg and stepped back, keeping his eyes to the ground so the rider wouldn’t see his confusion.
“Did you feel anything?” the dragon rider asked as he carefully watched the lad.
The feelings Duo had experienced moments before were gone, and knowing he was the center of attention, with the whole village watching, he debated whether or not the things he’d experienced were his own thoughts and imagination or something else. If he claimed to have felt something from the egg, he would be teased and ridiculed by the village for claiming the dragonling had taken any notice of him. So he did the only thing he could think of to save himself more endless teasing and bullying, he shook his head while keeping it bowed so that his lie couldn’t be seen by the rider or his beautiful dragon. After all, why would a dragon notice the lowest of the low?
“There, you see it was all a waste of time,” the village speaker said as he stepped forward, looking self assured now that he’d been proven right. Charn had a voice that carried, and he’d purposely spoken loud enough for the crowd around him to hear. To the rider, it seemed as if the village acted as one when the men, women and children of Ha’ber all nodded their heads and murmured their agreement. Garron noted the slump of the pitiful little boy’s shoulders as the speaker’s words labeled him as worthless.
The dragon rider’s heart went out to the lad, but there wasn’t anything he could do to help his situation other than admonishing the village speaker to take better care of the orphan boy before he left in the morning. He felt a stab of disappointment that Duo hadn’t been accepted and regretted that his search for the dragonling’s rider would continue for at least one more turn of the moon before he turned to the east. If the search proved fruitless after that, arrangements would be made to send it back across the sea with the hope that a rider could be found in its own land. It would be a disappointment to his fellow riders if a rider for the foreign dragonling couldn’t be found in Amulah. They had hoped the new dragon would one day mate with one of their own, strengthening the bloodlines of Amulah’s dragons that were beginning to weaken from inbreeding. Yet those hopes diminished after a good portion of the children of Amulah between the ages of eight and eighteen seasons had touched the sapphire egg and none had been chosen.
The little one grows restless, Rayer said, breaking through his rider’s thoughts. Garron knew he referred to the dragonling.
Then all it needed to do was pick one of the many children who have placed their hands on the egg as its rider and his quest would have been over, he answered. He then looked up to his beloved dragon. I grow tired of this search also. Can you not influence the dragonling, help it make a choice. No one is perfect.
It is not perfection we seek, his dragon answered with endless patience. We desire a harmonious union with a human soul, such as the oneness you and I share.
Garron nodded, understanding completely. There was nothing to compare to the bond he shared with his dragon. He’d never loved another person nor felt the same kind of intimate mental connection like that which he shared with Rayer.
I wish the last little boy had been chosen/ his dragon said, sympathy lacing the voice only his rider and other dragons could hear.
As do I.
What will become of him
I don’t know, Garron answered as he began to pull the velvet sack up around the egg once again. I suppose it’s none of our concern, but I intend to have a talk with the village speaker.
Again there was a disturbance in the crowd of villagers, and Garron looked up to see a gray-haired man limp towards his direction. His bearded face was turning left and right as the man called out the name of the boy who had been the last to touch the dragon egg. On the second call of the boy’s name, a flash of recognition and shock lit the rider’s face, and a slow, wide smile grew on his lips as turned away from Charn’s continuing prattle. With the dragon egg in his hands and eyes locked on the approaching man, Garron stood and moved through the crowd to intercept him.
“Howard!” he called out, instantly gaining the bearded man’s attention as well as the entire village. The local hermit did not seem the lease bit surprised by the rider’s greeting.
“I thought I recognized that silver beast of yours,” Howard said, seemingly unimpressed by the rider or his dragon, sitting a short distance away. That reaction came as a shock to the village’s inhabitants who were closely watching the exchange between the men of similar age but varied backgrounds. “I’m looking for a little boy, yea high.” He motioned with his hand to the middle of his chest. “He’s covered in dirt and has large eyes that are usually filled with mischief.”
“He was here a moment ago,” Garron said, smiling at the man.
“Did he touch the egg?” Howard asked, his manner serious.
“Yes, he did.”
“Nothing. I think the hemelted into the crowd only a moment ago.”
“Pity,” Howard said with open disappointment. “There’s not a better child in his village nor in the whole Gerza Valley.”
Even though the speaker and those around him sputtered at Howard’s insult, the rider nodded his head. “Rayer liked him immediately, as did I.”
“Shows you’re still a man of good character.”
Both men looked at each other before their smiles grew to match each other’s pleasure. “How long have you been here, Howard? You left Rydell over ten years ago without a word to anyone, not even your closest friends. Why?”
“I no longer had a purpose there,” Howard answered quietly, a hint of the sadness that he would always carry visible in his eyes. “I left Rydell to seek out a new life, one with less painful memories.”
Garron’s face filled with sympathy. “Your loss was great, Howard, and we understood it, but it was our loss too. You shut yourself off from us when we would have done anything to help.” He suddenly became aware that there were many ears stretching to hear every word they spoke, so he waved off his seriousness and spoke in a less grave manner. “I’m just glad to see you’re alive and well, old friend. We came to fear the worse at your continued absence.” He reached out his hand to the bearded man.
Howard stepped forward and clasped the man’s left shoulder, his close proximity allowing the rider’s hand to do the same in a common gesture of greeting a friend or relative.
“It was not my intent to bring grief or worry to others,” Howard said sincerely. “But I was made aware of something that needed my attention, and duty pricked my dulled senses enough to awaken me, bringing me out of the stupor I’d been in. I left Rydell to follow that duty and eventually found myself here in Ha’ber.“
”You talk in riddles, my friend,” Garron said with a shake of his head, wondering what this mysterious duty was that Howard spoke of.
“I can not speak plainly when the knowledge I carry could have dire consequences to an innocent.”
“Now you truly have my attention,” Garron chuckled. “Come, the speaker has offered me food and lodging for the night. Sup with me.”
“I have no desire to infringe up on the gracious hospitality of the village speaker.” Howard’s statement was made with more than a hint of sarcasm, displaying his dislike of the man being spoken of. “If you prefer, I have more than enough stew for two, if you’d care to join me in my hut.”
A commotion sounded behind the man as the silver dragon moved to follow its rider and the village people scurried out of its path. Garron felt his dragon’s surprise as he recognized the man he’d been speaking to.
Aravell’s rider, the silver dragon stated as she lowered her head respectfully towards the newcomer.
“Hello, Rayer,” Howard said with great affection for the dragon. “You’re as strong and as beautiful as ever,” he added.
“He gives you his greeting and is pleased to see you are well,” Garron repeated the words he heard in his head.
“Rider Garron.” Their conversation was interrupted by the familiar deep voice of the village speaker.
“Yes, Speaker Charn.” The rider turned to face the man as he approached them from behind.
“If you’ll follow me, a meal and a bed awaits you.”
Garron made sure to look appropriately contrite as he said, “Forgive me, Speaker, but I have happily met an old friend of mine and will spend the evening conversing with him, catching up on our lives. I do sincerely thank you for your offer. It is most generous, but I’m sure you understand.”
The man’s eyes became almost bulbous as he realized that Howard the hermit was the friend the rider referred to. “The hermit?” the large man’s voice squeaked. “But my home is much more befitting a rider than what you will find in that man’s hovel.”
Garron’s eyes narrowed with disapproval at the man’s presumption that he would chose a stranger’s home over a friend’s. “The hearth and home of a friend is a welcome haven, even if it were a cave or a lean-to,” he replied.
“I meant no disrespect,” Charn hurried to say, holding up both hands defensively as Rayer turned to eye him.
“Then my business with your village is concluded,” Garron stated, dismissing the man. Charn was smart enough to realize the rider had been offended by his words and was now done with him. He quickly backed away.
As Garron turned back to Howard, he saw the other man searching the area around them. “I need to find Duo to make certain that he’s all right,” Howard said distractedly.
“Rayer, do you see the boy who last touched the egg?” Garron asked, looking up at his dragon.
The dragon straightened its neck so that its head was high above the many thatched roofs. The silver-scaled head and jeweled eyes searched the village and beyond before stopping to focus on one area. A woman of considerable girth has the boy by his ear and is dragging him into a dwelling, he reported.
Garron related the information to Howard and watched his old friend’s face grow dark and his expression turn stony. “I’ll be back,” he said, his voice carrying an ominous tone. The hermit of Ha’ber then turned his back on the rider and dragon and hobbled with amazing quickness from the village square.
It seems our friend has a new cause, Rayer said, his amusement evident to his rider.
Yes, Garron thought as he watched the retreating man. Howard always liked championing the less fortunate. It’s good to see that his sorrow hasn’t diminished that part of him. Turning to his dragon, Garron grabbed hold of the straps that secured the seat on his dragon’s back and tucked the sack carrying the precious egg under his arm. Seeing his intention, Rayer bent his front leg, giving his rider a step up. Garron climbed up his scaled leg, onto his dragon’s back and then turned to open his pack secured behind his padded seat. With practiced caution he placed the egg within it, then fastened the straps, and tied it in place.
Aware that the village’s eyes were still on him, he moved slowly to secure the leather straps around his legs, designed to hold him in place when his dragon leapt into the air. We’ll wait here for Howard’s return and see if he wants a lift to his dwelling, the rider informed his dragon.
Rayer’s throaty purr rumbled his agreement to the plan, sending a puff of steam out of his nostrils and the village’s people scampering away, leaving Garron inwardly amused - though he schooled his expression so as to not show his mirth. He wondered momentarily what could ever have brought someone of Howard’s background to such a humble place. Well, he had all night to wheedle it out of his friend.
As Howard approached the Groot’s dwelling, he heard the large and buxom woman shouting and the sound of a switch being used.
“No, Gerta. Stop. I said I’d do it. There’s no need to hit me,” Duo’s panicked voice cried out. Several of the Groots fat and cosseted children were hovering by the door to the family’s dwelling, eavesdropping on the orphan boy’s mistreatment by their mother. Their eyes were lit up with unholy glee at the sound of the switch that struck the unfortunate boy inside. On hearing his approach, the two chubby cheeked girls ran squealing in opposite directions while the older boy ran into the dwelling, yelling for his mother. Howard followed him inside, his temper causing him to move faster than he normally managed.
Inside the candle-lit room, Howard easily found Gerta Groot. Her wide, fat rolled body stood in a corner by the fireplace, a switch in hand as she loomed over Duo who was tightly curled into the corner with his thin arms covering his head in order to protect it from the mean-tempered woman.
“Gerta Groot! What is the meaning of this?” Howard thundered.
The large woman turned to face the intruder, her eyes wide with surprise even as her son incoherently babbled at her.
“Quiet!” she snapped at her boy, pushing him away from her skirts as her eyes narrowed on the older man. “What gives you the right to enter my home without invitation?” she demanded.
“I’ve come to rescue this boy from your cruel disposition, Gerta. Why do you beat him?”
“He was to come here before supper to clean out the hearth. Since he failed to show up before now, our meal will be late. If he is to receive our charity, he should work for it.”
“Come here, Duo,” Howard said firmly to the boy, determined to take the lad out of harm’s way. He would definitely have strong words with the speaker and with Hagar, the vile woman’s husband.
Slowly, the boy came to his feet, and with large, wary eyes never leaving the angry woman, he side-stepped out of her way and then dashed to Howard’s side, clutching at the older man’s clothing. Howard put a protective arm around the boy’s shoulder, noticing the flinch of pain the child made at the contact.
“Shame on you, Gerta,” Howard hissed in stern, frosty voice. “You would not harm your own children in such a way. Why do you do such things to a child who has so much less than any of us?”
“He’s a bastard and a dark cloud,” the woman answered haughtily. “Anything he receives from us is more than he deserves.”
Howard found his great distaste for the miserable woman growing. It had nothing really to do with her obesity, nor her beady eyes or the large mole just above her upper lip that had several dark hairs growing out of it. No, it was her nasty disposition and cruelty towards an unfortunate that turned his stomach as he looked at her. “With all his misfortune,” Howard began, teeth gritted, “this boy treats others with more respect and kindness than you will ever possess. It’s a true revelation of your real nature, Gerta, and showing you for the compassion less, repugnant and vile person you truly are.” Having said what was on his mind and seeing that Gerta was becoming more red-faced than usual and breathing noisily out of her nose, Howard turned and quickly led Duo from the dwelling. Together they walked towards the center of the village, which was quite for the most part, save only an occasional sniffle coming from the boy.
“Has she always been that cruel?” Howard asked as the evening advanced and the village people began to return to their homes from the excitement of that afternoon to prepare their meals.
“Only when Hagar is absent,” Duo answered quietly, his head bowed and eyes focused on the ground as they walked.
The older man patted the boy on his mangy head. “Looks like you’ll be having your supper with me and an old friend tonight. You can stay the night if you’d like.”
The boy nodded, grabbing hold of the hermit’s sleeve. A bright smile grew on his face as his gaze turned with marked adoration at the older man. “I like your dwelling the best, Howard.”
Howard smiled down at the boy in return, glad that he could give him a reprieve from the village, even if it was for only one night. “Then lets you and I see what’s happened to our visiting dragon and his rider. I hope Garron doesn’t mind my well-cooked stew.” Howard wondered at the look of apprehension that flashed in the boy’s eyes, but dismissed it, thinking Duo was understandably in awe of the magnificent silver dragon and his rider. He had no doubt the boy would relax after a while and enjoy the evening to come.