Dark Cloud Rising
It was comical watching the boy approach with his head bowed and eyes cast down, oblivious that he was headed straight for Rayer’s leg. Garron chuckled out loud when Duo stopped abruptly, just inches before the scaled foreleg, and jumped back. His head shot up and his eyes widened impossibly as they rose to greet the silver dragon and his amused rider looking down on him. “Oh!” was all the scruffy boy could manage to say while Howard chuckled and patted the lad’s shoulder.
“I thought the two of you would enjoy a ride back to this hut your speaker has spoken so fondly of,” Garron said in a wry tone, sharing Howard’s amusement. “Is it far?”
“On this side of the eastern mountains,” Howard answered.
“Then climb up and we’ll be off,” said the rider. He then addressed the astonished looking boy. “Are you coming, Duo?”
The lad’s eyes shifted from the rider to Howard, silently questioningly his one true friend on how he should answer. The hermit gave him an encouraging smile and answered for the boy. “Yes. I think after what he’s just been through that Duo deserves something special. Riding on a dragon will undoubtedly make us both the envy of the entire village.”
The rider wanted to ask the other man what he meant by that statement, but his questions were temporarily waved off by his old friend, so he let it go. No doubt he’d find out later what had happened to the boy in the short time from after he’d left the village center. Extending his hand down in invitation, he said, “Hand the boy up. I’ll set him in front of me and hold him in place. You can sit behind me, Howard, and hold on for dear life.” The grin he gave his friend was a teasing one.
When Howard pushed him forward, the boy’s feet seemed rooted to the ground. “It’ll be fine, Duo. It’s completely safe. I’ll be there with you.”
Woodenly, the boy stepped forward and reached up to clasp the hand of the rider, who was leaning far over his seat on the dragon’s back, reaching down for him.
Howard positioned himself behind the hesitant boy and with a grunt, bent to push him up by holding onto his thin thighs. He was shocked by how little there was to the small lad, his hands nearly circling the tops of his legs. Garron grabbed hold of the upraised arms and pulled the wide-eyed boy up until he was settled in front of him, sitting astride the crook of the dragon’s powerful neck where it met the wide shoulders.
Howard used the edge of the dragon’s scales as footholds and the strap attached to the belt that circled the mighty chest to pull himself up. Thanks to a hand from his old friend, he was soon sitting behind the rider, grasping hold of the man’s waist. Once settled, he gave himself a moment to enjoy being astride a dragon once again, experiencing a rare and wonderful feeling blossoming in his chest.
“Howard!” Duo called out, panicking as Rayer shifted.
“Hold onto the leather strap,” Garron calmly instructed as he pulled the boy tighter against his chest in preparation for the short journey. “Rayer’s giant strides to gain speed are the most jarring part of the ride. Once he’s airborne, it’s smooth sailing.”
Duo’s hands fumbled and then found the strap at the front of the padded seat and gripped it tightly just as Garron’s arms encircled around him as he also grabbed hold of the strap. With the rider’s arms around him, Duo felt a bit more secure. Howard’s arms wrapped around the rider’s middle and grasped hold of Duo’s shirt, signaling he was ready. “Say goodnight to your village friends,” the dragon rider told the boy, indicating the group of wide-eyed children that had remained behind after their parents had returned to their homes or work.
“They’re not my friends,” the boy replied in a flat voice.
“All right,” Garron sighed, feeling sorry for the little boy once again. “Rayer, let’s fly.”
Duo held tightly to the strap and fought the strong urge to close his eyes, fearful of the unknown as the dragon’s muscles tightened beneath his legs. A moment later he discovered that what the rider had said was true as he fell heavily against the man when the silver dragon lurched forward, taking several giant and jarring leaps in the village’s near empty center. On the third hop the powerful, leathery wings shot out and began to flap, lifting the scaled dragon and his three passengers over the tops of the thatched roofs of the village. With each beat of the magnificent wings they rose higher into the air.
Duo gasped, fear stealing his breath away as they gained distance from the ground. He clutched desperately to leather strap, making his hands ache. As Rayer ascended towards the blue sky, the boy struggled to catch his breath as he drew near to panicking. “Don’t look down,” the rider said firmly into his ear. Taking his advice, Duo looked out at the distant horizon. The sun was setting in the west, with only the very top of the brilliant orb showing behind the crest of the distant Rinalla mountains. Streaks of the fading light threw a reddish hew onto clouds that stretched across the sky, painting beautiful, vibrant colors against a golden-orange sky that marked the end of the day. He was sure he’d never seen anything as beautiful as that sunset.
“Are you all right?” Garron shouted into his ear. The loud beating of the dragon’s wings and the rush of cooling air seemed to carry the riders words away.
Duo nodded, finding words to express what he was feeling at the moment impossible to speak. Behind him, he thought he heard Howard give a shout of jubilation, and slowly his initial fear began to fade and transform into a feeling of awe. He was seeing and experiencing things that no child of Ha’ber had, at least not from the back of a dragon. He was actually flying and viewing his world anew. Overwhelmed by the experience, Duo again fought the urge to close his eyes in order to simply enjoy the sensation of flying, to feel the cool wind rushing over his skin and through his hair, to lose his breath on the wind and experience freedom as he’d never felt it before. No, closing his eyes wasn’t an option, he didn’t want to miss anything about this once-in-a-lifetime moment. For the first time in his short life his lack of a family, a home and the label of being a dark cloud vanished completely, and a smile of pure joy grew on his chapped lips. For those few moments he truly felt privileged and free. He promised himself that he would never forget this gift that the rider and Howard had given him.
Without a word spoken from the rider, the dragon circled the valley, giving the boy a view of the land below that no one in his village had ever seen. In the fading light of day, Duo could see that the green, fertile valley where he lived was beautiful, and his village from the sky looked so small, its inhabitants mere specks on the ground. This unique vantage point made him feel... powerful and insignificant at the same time. Those feelings were short-lived, however, when too soon for his liking the dragon began to descend. With his mighty wings stretched out, catching the wind beneath them, Rayer glided smoothly to the ground and landed with five jaw-jarring steps not far from the familiar hut.
Duo’s dragon ride had come to an end, leaving him feeling somewhat disappointed that it couldn’t have gone on longer. He put that momentary disappointment behind him as he watched Howard dismount after the dragon crouched down, as if he’d been doing it all his life. With Garron’s help, the awe-struck boy was the second to dismount, lowered from his perch on Rayer’s neck and into Howard’s hands. The older man caught him and gentled his landing. The dragon rider began to undo the straps that bound his legs to the belly straps, then untied the packs strapped to the back of his seat and handed them down to Howard, standing ready to help. Garron then hopped off the back of his dragon and joined the other two on the ground. He smiled at seeing Howard give one of his packs to the boy to carry, and that the simple chore brought a beaming smile from the child.
Before the three of them turned to make their way towards the hut, Duo purposely touched the dragon’s leg and whispered, “Thank you for the ride, mighty dragon. As long as I live I’ll never forget it.”
Garron and Howard exchanged a look that spoke of their mutual fondness for the boy. “Rayer says he was pleased to carry you on his back,” the rider repeated his companion’s words that only he could hear.
Duo turned, and looked shyly at the two men before he suddenly turned and bolted past them towards the hut, leaving them to follow.
While Howard re-lit the fire under the pot of stew they’d shared at midday, he sent Duo out again to bring in more wood from his stacked pile for the night. Garron set his bags down, careful to put the one carrying the dragon’s egg in a safe place in a corner of the hut. Now that the two men were alone, the rider felt free to express what had been on his mind from the moment he’d seen his long lost friend. “Is this the best you could do for yourself, Howard?” he asked, his eyes taking in the shabby dwelling. “You have a permanent home in Rydell that is more suitable to your status. You shame us and yourself by turning your back on who you are and living in such conditions.”
Howard turned his head to glare at his friend. “Don’t presume to judge me, Garron. I have reasons for living the way I do. Besides,” he turned back to stir the meal in the pot. “I no longer have any status in Rydell.”
The rider sighed, then moved to pick up a long skinny stick and placed the tip of it in the fire. He took the burning end and set it to the candles on the table to brighten up the room. “I’m sorry. I should not have spoken in such an abrupt manner. You have always chosen to follow paths that were unclear to me. I suppose I can only hope that this one will lead you back to us.” He turned to face his old friend. “You are missed, Howard, by me and the others. With a new generation of riders, we could use you to impart of your knowledge and wisdom to their young ears.”
“Young ears almost always tune out the sound of an elder’s voice,” Howard replied without turning around. “And wisdom comes only from living, trying, succeeding, failing and learning from those experiences and failures. It’s a fact we both know very well.”
“Aye, we do,” the rider answered thoughtfully as he sat down on the bench adjacent to the small wooden table. “So tell me of this boy, Duo.” He noted a stiffening of the hermit’s shoulders at his request, though when he spoke, Howard used a monotone, even bored sounding voice.
“He’s an orphan and treated as a burden by this village, and at times such as tonight, like a slave.”
“But you see him as something different?” the rider questioned with a knowing smile.
Howard huffed indignantly at his friend. “I think your sharp pointy nose has grown since the last time we met.”
“And you haven’t changed much either, have you? Still looking out for the less fortunate and downtrodden.”
“Both of which happen to describe Duo,” Howard said more soberly.
“Any chance we can clean him up tonight?” Garron asked, not looking forward to spending a night in the small hut with the smelly boy. He couldn’t help getting a good whiff of the boy’s bad odor as he held him in front of him.
“There’s a stream up the canyon that I damned up for bathing and washing purposes. If you’d like, you can have the honor of bathing the boy after we eat our supper and I’ll clean up here while you’re gone.”
Garron’s eyes widened. “You mean you’re going to let him eat in such a filthy state?”
“He’s been living like this for the past six years and he’s rarely ill,” Howard answered.
“Howard!” Garron was shocked that his friend would condone such filthiness as he’d seen on the boy. “I can’t believe you haven’t stepped in to help his situation. Why haven’t you taken him in?”
“The village assumed responsibility for him when his second set of parents died,” Howard answered. “They needed to learn compassion from the experience, and the boy has learned strength as well as humility. At one point I did ask Charn to grant me guardianship over him, but the village’s strong prejudice against him, believing he’ll bring death to anyone who cares for him, caused him to refuse me. The arrangement of taking turns to feed and shelter him was designed to keep the village unattached to Duo, thus sparing their lives.” Garron sniffed with disdain at such foolishness and Howard couldn’t have agreed more. “He’s strong, Garron. Because of how he’s lived he has come to possess a fortitude I’ve rarely seen, plus a good, sound character. He understands life in a way very few people do and had a good deal of empathy, for his own life has been harsh. His experiences have made him wiser than any child his age and most of the adults he knows. I step in and help when necessary, like tonight, when a shrewish woman decided to beat him for being delayed in arriving to clean her fireplace in exchange for her poorly cooked meal. He knows he can come here for comfort, solace and food whenever he needs refuge.“
”And what is the purpose for this ‘strength of character’?” Garron challenged his friend. “He’s considered the village’s bad luck. It’s fairly clear that they’ll never truly accept Duo nor allow him to be a member of equal standing in the village. He will always be at their mercy, eating their table scraps and receiving their charity.”
“No!” Howard said firmly. “That boy is destined for greater things.”
“How can you know that?” the rider asked testily.
The hermit looked at his old friend with sharp blue eyes sparking with intelligence, knowledge and a twinkle in them that hinted that he knew something the other man didn’t. Yet instead of imparting his coveted secret, he merely tapped a finger to his head as his answer and gave Garron a knowing smile.
The rider threw up his hands in frustration and resignation. His friend always did employ uncanny ways to end their arguments.
The door to the hut opened, and the shadow of the small lad stood in the doorway, his arms filled with wood. “Is this enough?” he asked.
Howard straightened from the pot. “That’s fine, Duo. Put it in the wood box.” The boy dutifully complied, going to the wooden box that sat on the far side of the stone hearth that Howard had constructed himself when he’d first arrived in the Gerza Valley and quickly set out to build his hut.
While the boy dutifully began to set the wood in the box, Howard addressed him. “Garron has volunteered to take you upstream for a bath.”
“What for?” Duo asked warily, his good nature suddenly vanished and was replaced by suspicion.
“Because you’re dirty.”
“Never bothered you before,” the boy shot back with a frown.
“It’s at the rider’s request. Are you going to refuse him?”
That seemed to stop the boy in his tracks. Howard knew Duo had a stubborn streak in him as wide as the Gerza Valley, but after all the stories he’d told the boy, he knew the lad revered the dragons and their riders above all else.
Duo’s eyes shifted to Garron. “Do I smell very bad?” he asked, suddenly self conscious of his unkempt state.
Not wanting to be cruel or hurt the boy any more than he had already been by his circumstances, the rider chose his words carefully. “Just a bit,” he replied. “I apologize, for you see, I do have an oversensitive nose, and after riding Rayer all day I have an odor of my own that I wish to wash off. Don’t you think we’ll all be more comfortable if we clean ourselves up before supper?”
Duo turned to finish his chore and didn’t look up until the last piece of wood was in the box and the lid was closed. “All right,” was all he said in reply.
“I was going to have you go after supper,” Howard said, not surprised that Duo had capitulated to the rider’s request. “But if you go now, I’ll make something extra to put into your bellies when you return.”
“Sounds good,” Garron said, eyeing the boy who wasn’t looking overly enthusiastic at the prospect of bathing.
“Go out and get a torch, Duo. It’s dark now and I don’t want you breaking your neck tripping over a tree root or stone.” Duo nodded dispiritedly. “I’ll be making biscuits while you’re gone,” Howard added, and that statement brought the boy’s head up and a bright smile could be seen in the dim-lit room. With the tempting incentive, the lad dashed out of the hut and went in search of the torch.
Howard chuckled as he eyes followed the boy’s exit. “That boy’s crazy about my stone biscuits.”
Duo returned several moments later with a long stick in his hand, one end heavy with braided twine dipped in candle wax. Howard praised his quickness then turned to Garron. “I have cleansing cloths and soap in the basket by the door. Take them and bring them back when you’re done.” Garron moved to that section of the hut to retrieve the items. Howard moved to a rough hewn chest at the end of his bed and opened the lid. He pulled out one of his shirts and gave it to the boy. “Put this on after you’re clean and give those rags of yours a good washing.”
The boy nodded that he understood, although Howard noted his bottom lip was protruding slightly. He took the torch from the small hands and bent the heavy end into the fire to light the tip. He then carefully handed the burning torch back to the boy. “Lead Garron to the pool upstream, Duo, and mind that you wash your face, neck and ears, all right?”
“Yes, Howard,” the boy answered dutifully with his feet shifting, showing his anxiousness to get on with it. Garron held the door for the boy, who was being careful that the torch and clean shirt in his hands didn’t touch each other, the hut’s walls or himself. Howard smiled after them, knowing his friend was about to experience what it was like to bathe with a lively, rambunctious lad.
It was a good and long while before he heard the sound of the two returning, and both the stew and biscuits were ready to eat. Picking up several of the biscuits from the hot stones, he placed them on top of the sparse meat and vegetable stew that sat on three wooden plates, then set them on the table and waited. The door was flung open a moment later and Duo jumped into the room, clean, but without a stitch of clothing on.
“What happened to the shirt I gave you?” Howard asked, amused and trying to hide his smile.
Duo began to explain his naked state as he moved towards the fireplace to warm his goose pimpled flesh. “Garron said we had to wash our clothes before we could come back, and then I guess my splashing got our dry clothes wet. We didn’t have anything else to wear.”
Howard went back to the box at the foot of his bed and drew out another shirt, then moved towards the boy, intending slip it over the boy’s wet head and place it over his thin, chilled and trembling body. He paused a moment before actually dressing the boy to study his exposed flesh. Duo was reed thin, his ribs and hip bones stuck out sharply. He still lacked the body hair that marked the transition to manhood and Howard wondered if his arrested development was due to the harshness of his life. His eyes could not ignore the many bruises that were visible on the clean and pale flesh, nor the fresh welts on his shoulders that the boy had received that evening from Gerta Groot. “Where’s Garron?” Howard asked, trying to keep the anger he felt on the boy’s behalf from his voice.
“He’s hanging the wet clothes on the bushes out back.”
Howard sighed as he pulled the shirt over Duo’s head and wasn’t surprised to see it dwarfed the boy. “Come and sit at the table and eat your supper,” he instructed, turning the boy by his shoulders and leading him to the table.
Moments later, the rider entered the hut, his expression grumpy and wearing only his damp undergarment. His shoulder-length brown hair dripped little droplets onto his shoulders and down his strong chest. He went immediately to his pack and pulled out an extra pair of loose-fitted clothing. “You didn’t tell me I’d be bathing a hellcat and not a little boy,” the rider grumbled in a tone that let the other two know he was put-off by the whole bathing experience. With his back turned, he stripped off the lone, sodden garment he wore and dressed quickly into fresh clothing. When he finally turned around, he noted Duo was scraping up the last of his meal and Howard was looking at him, the corners of his mouth twitching.
“What are you smirking at?” the rider groused.
“I never said it would be easy,” Howard chuckled and exchanged a look at the boy. “Despite his initial reluctance to bathe, once he’s in, Duo loves the water and it’s rather difficult to get him out again.” Duo looked up to see the hermit’s grin and immediately latched onto the older man’s good mood and also began grinning. Garron shook his head as he moved across the small space to join the two at the table.
“That bit of information would have been nice to know before leaving the hut,” he replied, then picking up the wooden spoon in one hand and a biscuit in the other, he began to eat the hot and hearty stew. The meal was eaten in relative quiet, other than Howard randomly chuckling at something that struck him funny. He didn’t bother to share what he’d found so amusing with the other two.
Duo looked up from under the wet fringe of hair that practically covered his eyes and studied the man sitting across from him. The soft light of the fireplace illuminated the rider’s face as he ate his meal. Garron wasn’t a tall man, at least by village standards. His body was trim but obviously strong enough to ride a dragon. Duo decided the rider wasn’t a handsome man because his face was too narrow, his nose rather long and pointy. His eyes were beady like that of a small wild animal’s, but the boy sensed that he was a good man with a kind heart. He’d always had a knack for judging a person’s character, or so Howard had told him. He just seemed to be able to tell if they were good or bad, truthful or dishonest. Judging from his gut feelings, his village consisted of people of whom half of them were good and decent, their hearts full of kindness, and the other half were... well, not so good; their hearts were dark. He wondered if that was how most villages were, a mixture of people who looked similar but were so different in thoughts and deeds.
He yawned as he popped the last of his second biscuit into his mouth, chewing slowly in order to enjoy it to the last bite. He was suddenly very tired, the whole day, good and bad, was catching up to him. He mumbled his excuse for leaving the table and went to the hearth, where he curled up on the warm stone and promptly fell asleep.
Garron paused in his eating to watch the boy with disbelief as he fell asleep on the hard stone surface. He opened his mouth to comment, but was forestalled by Howard’s hand, raised to silence him. The two men finished their meal, their eyes often drawn to the slumbering boy, his face now clean and beautiful in its pose of peaceful innocence.
Howard stood and moved silently as he left the hut. He returned several moments later, limping through the threshold with an armful of straw. He placed it down on the dirt floor, next to the fireplace. Taking a blanket from off his bed, he laid it down on the makeshift bed, gently picked the slumbering boy up and set him down on it. Seeing the boy was comfortable, he wrapped the rest of the blanket over him.
Waiting until Garron finished his meal, he motioned for his friend to follow him out of the hut so they could speak to each other without disturbing the boy’s slumber. The rider followed his old friend out the door, a thoughtful frown wrinkling his forehead.
“There’s something you’re not telling me about the boy, isn’t there?” Garron guessed as they walked towards the resting dragon. The night was cooling but it would not get much cooler, which was a relief to the rider since he intended on sleeping close to Rayer. The heat emanating from his belly would probably keep him warmer than Howard’s drafty hut. He turned to his friend, expecting an answer to his question.
“He is more than the beggar you see,” Howard said after a delay, then proceeded to give his friend a sketchy outline of the boy’s life. “When his mother first stumbled into the village, weary, worn and large with child, the village women took her in and cared for her. She gave birth to Duo days later and it proved to be a very difficult birth. She and her baby were cared for by an elderly couple, who could no longer labor in the fields or over the weaving looms. She recovered from the birthing, but they told me she never regained her strength. I arrived several months after her arrival, but didn’t make her acquaintance for a while as her health was precarious and I lived on the outskirts of the village. I had been told of her arrival, of course, that her journey here and giving birth to her only child had taken the very life out of her. She faded slowly before everyone’s eyes until one morning, three years after having come to the village, she failed to wake up.”
“And she never spoke of a husband or the child’s father?” Garron asked as he leaned heavily against the scaled foreleg of his dragon, absently scratching the large head that had curled around to find his touch.
“She told not a soul in the village where she came from or of the baby’s father.“
”But you know, don’t you?” He could tell from the look in Howard’s eyes, even in the moonlight, that his friend knew the truth. But it was also quite apparent that he wasn’t going to divulge the information any more than the deceased mother had.
“Do you go back to Rydell tomorrow?” Howard asked, abruptly changing the subject.
“Yes. I’ve been carrying the egg around for nearly four seasons and my old bones need a rest. I’ll return home, enjoy my family and rest a day or two before I head to the villages in the Hills of Shinda.
Howard sighed while looking up at the stars above. “I don’t envy you your travels, Garron. I have to admit that it’s been nice to stay in one place for a while.” He lowered his eyes to gaze upon his friend. “But I have missed my old acquaintances. Can you tell me of Rydell? Of our other friends and if they are well or not?”
And so the two friends, separated for many years, began to reminisce about their youthful days and of their shared friends, both living and dead.
An odd cracking sound woke Duo from his sleep. “Howard?” he called out softly, temporarily startled at having been awakened. When the sound came again, he turned to his side and bent his elbow to prop his head up on his hand. The faint glowing fire in the hearth gave him enough light to see that the hut was empty except for himself. The sound that had awakened him had ceased, and he wondered if maybe Howard and Garron were making some kind of noise outside or if it had been the popping of the fire that had disturbed his sleep.
He put his head down once again and closed his eyes, ready to resume his slumber. Yet no sooner had his eyelids closed but the sound came again. A curious boy by nature, he looked the room over once more before crawling out from under his blanket. On hands and knees he followed the small, sharp sound. In realizing where it was coming from, he sucked in his breath and looked fearfully at the rider’s pouches. When a squeak came from the leather bag, Duo hesitated only a moment before he closed the distance to the corner and his hands quickly began to unlace the pouch. He pushed back the pouch’s sides to concentrate on the thin leather ties that secured the top of the soft fabric sack. He knew by sight and touch that this was the velvet bag he’d seen in the rider’s hands earlier. It was the source of the strange noise... and it was moving. He looked around the room, feeling guilty about what he was about to do. Since there was no one there to instruct him, he followed the odd sense of urgency that filled his entire being and turned his attention back to the task at hand. Removing the tie completely, Duo pushed the soft cloth sides down to reveal the sapphire egg. Pulling his hands back, he crouch on his haunches to watch. In the dim light of the room he could see the egg was rocking back and forth and that there were tiny fissures in the shell’s surface.
Looking quickly to the door of the hut, the boy wondered if he should call out for help. After all, it was a baby dragon that was trying to get out of its shell. It could be dangerous to be near a hatching dragon, he thought, but then another squeak came from inside the shell and his fears were pushed away as he gave his full attention to what was happening before him. In the moment that he’d been distracted by thoughts of getting help, a hole had been pecked out of the strong casing and a bejeweled eye was staring out of it ... looking straight at him. The sense of urgency he’d felt increased tenfold, and he knew beyond a doubt that the dragonling wanted out of its protective shell. With fingers that were now clean, he didn’t hesitate to reach for the open edge and pull at the thick covering. He smiled triumphantly as a small portion gave way into his hands.
A black as night talon found purchase from the inside and began to break away the hard covering that imprisoned the small creature within. Carefully turning the egg, Duo put his fingers on the top edge of the widening crack and pulled upwards with all his might with the intention of taking the top off. It reluctantly gave way with a quick and loud snap, causing the boy to fall back and onto to the ground where he sat sprawled out, still as a stone and staring wide-eyed before the broken egg. He noted that the feeling of urgency he’d felt before continued, and he knew something was wonderful was about to happen. Yet for all that, all he could do was sit, stare and wait for that “something” to happen.
With only the light of the dimming fire illuminating the room, the lad watched with fascination as the egg fell over to its side and a membrane-covered dragonling struggled to get out of the opening. Transfixed by the sight, the boy couldn’t think of anything else he could do to help the creature, so he settled for watching over it as the dark creature plopped out of the protective shell and onto the straw on the dirt floor. The dragonling then began to pull at the membrane that covered its body with its sharp-looking claws, eating the wet, filmy substance as it was pulled from off the shiny, leathery body. The feeling of urgency Duo had felt moments before had now given way to a sense of relief and curiosity. He wondered why the tiny dragon chose now, in the middle of the night, to emerge from its egg. There was no one there but himself for it to claim as its rider and he’d already been rejected. He wondered if there was such a thing as a riderless dragon.
As the dragonling continued to eat the stringy membrane, Duo eased himself away until his back settled against the hut’s wall. Strangely, he didn’t feel afraid of the newly-hatched creature, and he couldn’t help but wonder to himself how many people had actually seen a dragonling hatch. He was pretty sure no one else in his village had, and for the second time that day he felt privileged, especially since he was the only one to witness such a rare event. Of course, no one would believe him when he told him what he had seen, except Howard and the rider.
The small creature, he observed, was the size of a cat, a full grown, black and wet cat. Remaining still and silent, he watched as it finished the chore of eating the last remnants of the membrane, then the black, glistening creature lay panting on the dirt floor on its belly, recovering from the ordeal of hatching. Duo gazed in wonder at the wet leather hide, remembering Howard saying that dragons developed scales as they aged, that dragonlings were soft and smooth to the touch for at least two seasons. He searched his mind, but in all of Howard’s stories of dragons and their riders he couldn’t ever remember hearing of a black dragon.
When the small creature didn’t move further, Duo inched forward, thinking he would touch it to see if its skin felt as smooth as it looked. But the instant his hand touched the dragonling’s flank, two things happened simultaneously and faster than the boy could blink. The dragonling’s tail whipped forward to curl around his slender wrist, holding the boy in place, while the flexible creature leapt forward, its open mouth momentarily revealing sharp tiny teeth that, despite the cloth of the large shirtDuo wore, immediately imbedded into the boy’s upper arm. The sudden pain caused Duo to cry out and shake his arm in an attempt to get the creature off of him. Try as he might,he was unable to dislodge the dragonling, now twisting to fasten its forearms around his abused arm and dig its talons through the shirt sleeves and into his flesh. Even in his panic, Duo was aware of an uncommon sensation, beginning from the point where he’d been bitten. It felt as if a hot, burning liquid had entered his body and the heat immediately began to move up his arm from the place where the dragonling’s teeth were still firmly embedded in his upper arm. He wondered if he was being slowly set on fire from the inside while at the same time his skin felt as if it were turning to ice. “Howard!” He managed to strangle out the older man’s name before he fell over, pulling at the dragonling’s tail as the icy-hot sensation spread quickly from his upper arm into his shoulder and neck. He gasped in shock as he felt the burning heat creep into his head, and suddenly his vision began to narrow. He fell limp upon the straw hewn floor as unconsciousness began to steal over him, leaving him only vaguely aware of the two men bursting into the hut. Unfortunately, their words and movements were lost to him as his eyes began to close. The last thing he recalled seeing was the glittering dark eyes of the dragon fixed solely upon him just as surely as its teeth were fixed onto the flesh of his arm. He was drawn into those unfathomable orbs and felt a sense of calm steal over him, easing his panic, and then he knew no more.