Even before he came to full wakefulness, Duo felt the cold. He was in bed with blankets covering him, but his feet felt like he’d walked barefoot on ice and his face was pinched with cold. Despite his discomfort, he wondered why he was having such a hard time waking up. His stomach felt empty, his mouth was dry and needing refreshment and his eyelids were almost too heavy to open. He shivered, and dimly thought that the fire in the hearth must have gone out because the air surrounding him felt as cold as the outdoors.
He yawned and stretched under the blankets before forcing one eye open. Several candles were lit and set about the room, emitting enough light for him to view his surroundings. Both eyes blinked open with confusion upon realizing he was not in his own room, but in one that he’d never seen before. Clutching the blankets to his body, he eased himself up to a sitting position in the bed and gazed with bewilderment and some fear at the unfamiliar space.
The four walls surrounding him were not the familiar white stone, tapestry-covered ones from the Halls. Instead, they were formed by large logs, stacked lengthwise, one on top of the other, with some kind of filler between the spaces to keep the wind and rain out. The overwhelming cold he felt was explained by the absence of a hearth and fire to keep the chill of winter at bay.
His astonishment at waking up in a strange place turned instantly to alarm. Struggling to free himself from the blankets wrapped around him, he scrambled to his feet, almost tumbling to the floor as dizziness assaulted him. He pulled his cloak around him, and only then realized that he had been sleeping fully clothed, including his fur-lined cloak. On the uneven wood floor he found his boots, which he quickly put on in an effort to warm his cold feet.
//Wu Fei!// he cried out with fear and panic. //Wu Fei, where are you?//
A long moment passed before a very faint, barely detectible reply came. //Where?//
He realized that he’d sensed the question rather than having actually heard Wu Fei’s voice. Even so, he felt a measure of relief in knowing that his dragon would find and come for him. The problem, though, was that he didn’t know where he was. Moving to the shuttered and barred window, he lifted the latch and pulled the crudely formed shutters open. His breath caught in his throat by both the assault of the frigid air that stung his face and from the sight his eyes gazed upon. //I’m on a high mountain in a log building,// he told his dragon. //There are dragons in the sky that I’ve never seen before and a long valley below covered in snow.//
Several panicked breaths later he sensed his dragon faint reply. //Northward. Cordith.//
The face of a mature green dragon suddenly popped up from outside the window. The unfamiliar dragon’s immense wings beat laboriously to keep its massive body in place as one emerald, jeweled eye gazed at the startled boy.
Duo jumped back at the dragon’s unexpected appearance. When the dragon remained in place, apparently not meaning any harm, the boy cautiously stepped towards the window again. With the dragon content with staring at him, he placed a hand on the wooden edge of the opening and leaned to see how far up he was from the ground. He was not prepared for the sharp vertical drop to the valley far below. The height was so great that it set his heart racing and his stomach clenched with fear after seeing the valley hundreds of feet below him. It was as if he were looking down from the back of his dragon while flying together.
The green dragon hovered for only a moment longer before it appeared to have had its curiosity sated, for it turned away to fly upwards above the building Duo found himself in. Still trying to understand what was happening, the fledgling shut the shutters and closed the latch to shelter himself from the cold wind, trying all the while to calm his panicked mind. How did he come to be in this place? he wondered, feeling disoriented. He remembered falling asleep after eating the meal the server had brought to him from the celebration. How had he come to be in the lands of Amulah’s enemies?
A shiver shook his lean body as the horror stories, told by other children in his village, now came back to him. His mind churned over any possible reason for his being taken and brought to this ######### land, but nothing came to him other than the tales of children being abducted as food for the dragons of the north. Howard had told him those widely-spread tales were false, that they were used to frighten errant children into behaving. He said there had been a few cases in the past few years where children had gone missing, but it was assumed they had been taken by the northern riders to act as servants .
Was he brought here to be a servant? What about Wu Fei? Surely they weren’t going to try and force them to fight against the riders and dragons of Amulah. He was only a fledgling rider, with years of training yet ahead of him. Perhaps they thought he was young enough to be malleable, that they could persuade him to change allegiances. He snorted at that thought. If that was their thinking, then he’d show them that he was a person of unyielding loyalties. He’d bide his time here, if he had to, but when the first possible opportunity presented itself, he’d escape this cold, formidable place and return to the Halls of Dornan and his friends.
The door to his room opened, the wood scraping loudly against the floorboards. Duo turned towards the door to see a girl with long, white hair falling over one shoulder, poke her head around the edge. Her eyes widened when she saw him standing by the bed. "Oh good, you’re awake," she said brightly, stepping into the room with a candlestick held high in her hand. Leaving the door open, she continued. "My name is Dorothy, rider of the green dragon, Ramma. Welcome to Cordith, your new home."
"Why have I been brought here?" Duo demanded, not about to be intimidated by the girl. Even in the dim light of the room he could tell she was a bit taller than he, that her face was rather pointy and her skin nearly as pale as her hair. The rest of her was hidden beneath an encompassing cloak made of unattractive brown fur.
She gave him a smile that was more knowing than friendly as she replied, "Why, you’re our hope, our means of survival."
"Me?" Duo asked, surprised and confused by the girl’s answer.
"Oh yes," she replied with a casual shrug. "You and your dragon will bring new life to Cordith."
"How are we supposed to do that?"
The girl frowned with exasperation that the boy didn’t understand his importance. "You’re not very bright, are you?"
Up to that point Duo really didn’t have anything against the girl, other than the fact that she was his enemy, but no one called him stupid without some sort of retaliation on his part. "Listen," he began through gritted teeth. "All I know is that I went to sleep in my own bed with my dragon in his lair just outside the door, and then I woke up here, in a place that I’ve never been before and my dragon seems to be far away. Pardon me for being confused."
The girl gave him a slight, sympathetic look. With a sigh she said, "Very well. I suppose I’ll have to explain things to you." She moved with deliberate slowness to sit on the edge of the unmade bed, then looked at the boy and continued.
"We have an informant placed carefully within Amulah’s royal circles. Purely by chance he caught a glimpse of you and realized your importance. Having learned of your foreign dragon and knowing we must have him, we would have taken you regardless of who you are. But our man was reportedly almost beside himself when, after a discrete inquiry or two, he learned that no one in the palace knew of your true identity. He contacted us as to what he should do and we carefully began planned on stealing you away during the royal celebration." Her smile widened and Duo thought there was a certain amount of smugness to it that he didn’t care for at all. "How fortunate it was for us that you became ill and were left alone in your room. Our contact found it quite easy to have your meal drugged so that you couldn’t alert your dragon when you were taken from your bed and carried to the northern side of the Dragon’s Spine where Quinze was waiting. The ease of your removal indicates that your destiny lies with us."
Duo was decidedly confused by most of what the girl had said. What did she mean his true identity? Did she know about his mother or father? It seemed too implausible that someone so far removed from Amulah could know of these things. In order to save face, he lifted his chain and stated, "I belong in Amulah, in the Halls of Dornan, my home."
The girl shook her head, looking at the boy as if he were speaking foolishness. "You belong here now, and come next spring, when your dragon is mated to either my Ramma or Alec’s Shadow, it will be more true than ever. I’m hoping that my green becomes fond of your dragon, that they will be mated. I’m told he’s black as a moonless winter night and has wings the color of fire."
"Wu Fei and I are too young for mating this spring," Duo protested, inwardly horrified by what the girl was implying and the light of excitement dancing in her eyes. "He is not yet four years and I’m two years short of the minimum age of sixteen."
The girl gave a delicate snort of derision. "We don’t have the luxury of having civilized rules to follow," she replied in a snide tone. "Our dragon population has dwindled dangerously low. We need the offspring your dragon can give our female dragons. Quinze is tempted to have him mate with both Ramma and Shadow, but I don’t believe the dragons will go for that. They are monogamous by nature."
"Have we no say in this?" Duo couldn’t help sounding as appalled as he felt. The idea that he had been brought here for the purpose of having Wu Fei bred to a northern female dragon was repugnant.
"No, I’m afraid not," the girl answered in a feigned tone of sympathy that irked the boy.
Defiantly he stated, "I will tell Wu Fei to stay away, to not come near this place."
The girl had the audacity to laugh at his plan. "Go ahead and try."
//Wu Fei. Stay there. Stay at the Halls. Do not attempt to find me.//
//I am coming.//
//No!// Duo frowned as he concentrated on hearing the faint voice of his dragon. //I’m telling you to stay there or they will use me against you.//
//I cannot stay. I must come.//
Duo groaned, exasperated by the stubbornness of his dragon.
"You see? He can’t help it," Dorothy said with a sickeningly sweet smile that looked a bit forced. "You are imprinted into his heart and mind. He has no choice but to follow you wherever you are. Your presence here ensures his cooperation with our plans for the both of you."
"This isn’t right!" Duo shouted, angry and frightened. "You have no right to do this to us."
"Survival gives us the right to take drastic measures," she said coolly. With sneer of contempt on her face as she added, "You are yet a child, but that will quickly change. Life here in Cordith is difficult at best, and will undoubtedly be in sharp contrast to the pampered life you lived before. Yes," she nodded with a sage grin, "living here will make a man out of you by the time we are mated."
"I’ll refuse," he said, adamant and furious.
"It would be wise not to anger or threaten me," she said, becoming irritable as well.
"I could say the same," he replied, staring her straight in the eyes.
The sound of the door opening a bit more behind them, temporarily ended the standoff, and a young man with golden blond hair and dressed in a similar fur cloak as Dorothy entered the room. He was tall, and Duo thought the boy to be older than himself or the unpleasant girl. He was handsome with chiseled facial features and skin that was pale and unblemished. His eyes were blue and filled with curiosity as they met Duo’s gaze. "Dorothy." Those eyes quickly turned accusingly to the girl. "You’re cheating again."
The girl turned aside to greet the newcomer. "No, I’m not. I’m just being friendly."
Duo snorted and the blue eyes returned to him. "My name is Alec and my gray is called Shadow," he said in a friendly manner. "Come spring, we may be mated."
"Over my dead body," Duo growled out in an unfriendly manner. Despite the older boy’s more friendly greeting, he was still angry over the entire situation.
Alec turned to level a hateful glare at the girl, silently blaming her for the newcomer’s attitude.
"Don’t look at me like that," Dorothy said defensively. "He treats me the same way."
The taller boy looked back at the kidnaped boy and placed his closed fists on his hips. "I would advise you to lose the petulant attitude when you’re brought before the older riders. Some of them look for any excuse to vent their own frustrations. Beating rebelliousness out of the younger riders is something they look forward to." The blue eyes looked from Duo’s head all the way to his feet and back, and regardless that he was covered head to toe, Duo felt as if he’d been undressed. "I wouldn’t want you to be marred unnecessarily."
Duo fought back the impulse to jump the older boy and do some beating of his own, but he thought better of it. If the boy could be believed, that they beat the younger riders for misbehavior, what would they do if he inflicted harm to one of their own? All the horror stories he’d heard as a child came back to him once again, with dark tales of the brutal northern riders torturing and maiming other riders or dragons for mere pleasure. He was no spoilt child, not having been pampered during his youth by doting parents or the comforts of a real home. He could take a beating if he had to, but he couldn’t allow them to hurt Wu Fei. He would probably do anything to prevent his dragon from being hurt. Unfortunately, that loyalty and bond went both ways, and he finally and fully understood why the Plains of Grannal was ######### territory. A captured rider or dragon were vulnerable to the whims and will of their captors because neither of them could allow the other to be hurt.
"Ah. He’s brighter than I first believed." Dorothy’s comment cut though his thoughts and he listened more carefully to what she was saying. "I can see in his eyes that he’s already coming to terms with his life here, aren’t you, boy?"
Duo glared even more fiercely at the girl. He hadn’t been called ‘boy’ since he’d arrived at the Halls of Dornan and he decided he didn’t like it, especially from an impertinent girl not much older than he. Dorothy smirked at his obvious anger, knowing she’d hit a sore spot.
"What’s your name?" the older boy asked.
Duo put his chin in the air. Even though Alec seemed much nicer than Dorothy, he decided he didn’t want to share his name. He might have been brought here against his will, and Wu Fei may be on his way here because he had no choice, but he still owned his name and wasn’t in the mood to lose anything else. These people may have some control over his life, but by taking him away without his consent, they didn’t deserve to know his name.
"Come now. That’s not very polite," Dorothy said, still wearing the snide grin. "We’ve given you not only our names, but also the names of our dragons."
The blond rider looked unhappy at his refusal to answer, but the girl appeared to be unaffected. "No matter," she shrugged. "We’ll find out sooner or later. Until then, we’ll just call you boy."
Duo decided that he needed to be careful of the girl. She was cunning as well as spiteful. He didn’t doubt that she was the kind of person who liked to pull the wings off of helpless butterflies.
"Come," Alec gestured for Duo to follow him. "We were instructed to bring you to the main hall for a meal. You’ve been asleep all day; you must be hungry."
Duo was starving, despite his changed and disturbing circumstances. He nodded his head in answer but refused to be any friendlier to these people.
Dorothy rolled her eyes at his stubbornness before she turned to exit the open door. Duo moved to follow her, yet as he passed the blond boy, Alec turned to walk by his side. Taking a deep breath, he attempted to calm his racing heart and to prepare himself to face the very riders who had been the source of fear and nightmares for the citizens of Amulah.