Exiting the room he’d awakened in, Duo stopped short at the sight before him. He’d expected the home of the northern riders to be similar to the Halls of Dornan, but he was wrong. Before him was a large room, similar in size to the dining hall he was used to with an enormous stone fireplace with a fire burning brightly within at one end of the otherwise dark room. Something was hanging from a spit over the fire, and from the smell of it Duo decided it must be some kind of game. Silhouetted by the fire’s glow were four figures sitting in bulky, roughly-crafted wooden chairs set in front of the giant stone hearth. Behind them in the barely visible firelight were six long, unoccupied tables.
Letting out a shaky breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, Duo saw a puff of white accompanying it, proof that the room was as frigidly cold as the unheated bedroom, despite the burning fire. Alec took a hold of his arm and pulled him after Dorothy, who was leading them towards the warmer end of the long building. Casting a quick glance at his surroundings, looking for a way out, the kidnaped boy failed to see any windows or doors. He did feel a slight draft coming from behind him and could only assume that there must be a door at the back of the room.
As he neared the four figures sitting in front of the fire, Duo felt a shiver of trepidation ripple down his spine and his footsteps faltered. The boy next to him must have sensed his hesitation, for Alec looked at him with a hint of sympathy in his eyes. "You must be cold. It takes some time, but you’ll eventually get used to it. The hearth is the warmest place on the mountain during the winter months, so we often gather here to chase the chill out of our bones."
Hearing Alec’s voice, the four cloaked occupants turned to observe the three youths as they came into view. Duo could now see their faces, though they had hoods covering their heads. They were all men, and he guessed by the wrinkles on their faces that they were also old, at least as old as Jan. Uneasy under the scrutinizing stares, Duo fought the urge to run and hide. He didn’t want to show these people how frightened he was. Thinking of Heero and how he might handle the situation, he straightened his back, held his head high and with as much dignity as he could muster he met their gazes.
The youngest in appearance of the four rose from his chair with a forced-looking smile twitching at the corner of his lips, as if the act of smiling was an unusual occurrence. "Step closer to the light and lift the hair from off your forehead," the man ordered in a stern voice.
Receiving a nudge from Alec he did as he was told, confused by the request. Lifting his hair, he looked up at the man who had issued the order.
"Are they the right color?" one of the cloaked men asked, leaning forward in his seat.
Moving closer to stand in front of him, the taller man studied the boy’s eyes intently. "Yes, they are," he answered, and Duo wondered at the sound of relief in his voice.
"Welcome to Cordith, young rider," the man then said with some enthusiasm. Now that he was closer, Duo could see that the speaker had white hair that fell in messy clumps around his face as well as penetrating, pale blue eyes that studied him with an intensity that was most disconcerting. "My name is Quinze. I will be your mentor until you and your dragon have reached the age of adulthood. What’s your name?"
Stubbornly sticking his chin up and his lips tightly sealed, Duo made it known without speaking a word that he wasn’t going to cooperate.
The man’s attempt at being pleasant faded at the continued silence. "I understand that you’re upset with the sudden change of circumstances. You will, however, come to accept your place here. You simply have no other choice."
The man waited for a response from the boy, but after several long moments, he sighed and continued. "Now that you’re awake, I can only assume that your dragon is on his way here. If he makes it without his wings freezing, he will be greeted by several of our dragons and escorted to Muir, the sister mountain to Cordith, which houses our dragons. Once there, a caretaker will see to his comfort."
"I want to see him when he arrives," Duo demanded, and mentally winced at the tone of desperation in his voice. "To make sure he’s all right."
Quinze’s expression was anything but pleasant as he replied. "You may see him, but only after he’s been secured. You might as well know that you’ll not be allowed to ride him until the both of you are mated in the spring."
"You can’t think to keep us apart!" Duo blurted out, further alarmed by what was happening. He couldn’t think of anything more intolerable than being kept away from Wu Fei.
"Once he’s been shackled to his lair you’ll be able to visit him."
"Shackled!" Could a nightmare be any worse than this? "You’ll keep him on the ground? He’ll waste away with longing for the sky."
Quinze sighed as if suddenly weary of the conversation. "We’ll keep him shackled only for your visit. He’ll need to fly in order to bond with our dragons and hunt for his food. When he is unfettered, you’ll be secured within these walls so that no attempt to escape can be made."
Duo had indeed imagined Wu Fei sweeping him up in his talons and racing back to Amulah. It seemed the northern riders had anticipated that particular manner of escape and had prepared for it. His heart sank at his realizing that an escape might prove more difficult than he anticipated.
"Dorothy!" One of the three men sitting in the chairs abruptly barked out the girl’s name. Duo’s eyes shifted to the girl standing to his right and saw her face blanch even as she took a step forward.
"Get the boy some hot food. Show him that you’re good for something other than warming a bed."
Duo watched as the girl ducked her head and quickly moved to do as the older man had ordered. He couldn’t decide whether to enjoy her discomfort at having been ordered to serve him or to feel pity for her because of the man’s unkind words.
"The other riders are elsewhere at the moment, but let me acquaint you with your new elders," Quinze continued as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. With a sweep of his hand he motioned to the man sitting closest to him. "Our senior rider is Dermail, rider of the green dragon, Colgan. The man being introduced slid the hood from off his head to reveal a weathered face, somewhat sharp in features, topped with greying brown hair. He had bushy eyebrows and a thick scraggly beard that matched. Though not a bad looking man, Duo thought there was something dark and disturbing in his eyes.
"Seated next to him is Septum, rider to Kash, also a green dragon," Quinze continued, but all Duo could see of the second man was a pocked and bulbous nose sticking out of the shadows of his hood.
"Then there’s Tsuberov, rider of Breman, the brown." Duo caught a brief glimpse of the man under the hood and shuddered. He had to be the ugliest person he’d ever seen. He wondered if the harshness of living in the north had caused the man to be so... homely. He knew a moment of fear when the thought came to him that he might look like that one day if he didn’t succeed in escaping this cold, unfriendly place. He wisely kept his comments to himself.
"The other senior rider is Deikum. He’s currently en route with two younger riders, Trant and Briggs, to intercept your dragon so he’ll not lose his way in the dark."
Duo didn’t know whether or not the elder dragon riders noticed his intended slight or not. With each introduction he’d purposely declined bowing his head in respect, as he’d been taught to do in the Halls. He had little doubt that these elder riders were responsible for him being taken from his bed and home. He was angry, afraid and determined not to show respect for those responsible for bringing him to this miserable place.
Dorothy appeared again at his side and placed a bowl in his hand. Looking down on the contents, Duo could see a mixture of vegetable and meat in a gelatinous brown sauce. A stew, he thought. The meat had probably come from the nearly decimated carcass still hanging over the fire.
"Sit at a table or by the fire," Dorothy ordered sourly.
Duo glanced at his options and chose a table well out of eyesight of the four elders sitting in front of the hearth. He made his way towards a table, one that sat in the faint glow of the fireplace. Unfortunately, Alec and Dorothy followed. He sat down and focused on the bowl. Since there was no knife to pick the food out from the bowl, he was forced to use his fingers; something that had been frowned upon in the dining hall back in Amulah.
"It’s too bad that you were brought here at the onset of winter," Alec said in a low voice as Duo plucked out a piece of meat and cautiously tasted it. After a moment he decided it was edible, despite the fact that it was stringy and a bit tough. The blond continued as he chewed at the piece of meat in his mouth. "It will soon become too cold to spend much time out of doors, and other than chopping wood or visiting our dragons, we stay indoors. The killing breath of the winter dragon keeps us and our dragons indoors for weeks at a time. Tsuberov says it’s on our doorstep now. He can feel it in his bones and he’s never wrong. I’m sorry to say that there’s not much to do here in the winter months."
Duo had heard the term "breath of the winter dragon" before. It referred to the icy cold wind that blew down from the far north every year. Tales were told of how unsuspecting travelers or hunters, caught in the sudden freezing wind, had been frozen mid-step on the Grannal Plains.
The faint voice of his dragon drew his attention from whatever else Alec was saying. //Darkness surrounds me. I am alone.//
Duo had been told that Dragons didn’t seem to fear the things that people do, but they do experience great anxiety, caused largely by being separated from their rider or mate. Being left alone, separated from him and his fellow dragons, was certainly enough to cause Wu Fei to be anxious.
//Please, Wu Fei, I want you to turn back to Amulah and the other dragons. But if you must come to me, continue northward. Three other dragons from Cordith are on their way to meet you. They’ll lead you to a resting place close by.// Then with a note of earnest pleading the young rider entreated his dragon further. //If you can, I want you to return to your lair in the Halls of Dornan. They intend to keep us apart until spring, when they can mate you with one of their females. If that happens we’ll be forced to stay here by your need to remain by your mate’s side. I won’t be able to ride you until that time, Wu Fei. Please, go back. I promise that I’ll find some way to escape. I’ll walk the Plains of Grannal on my hands and knees if I have to.//
//I am coming. I cannot stay away.//
Then we are doomed, Duo thought, feeling defeated as he stared down at the lumpy bowl of stew in front of him. The desperate riders of the north had been right; in taking him in the manner they had, his dragon had no choice but to follow. He was the lure for the ultimate trap in catching a dragon, his dragon.
Duo jumped slightly, startled when a hand came to rest on his own. It was quickly removed when he looked up to see Alec staring at him with an expression of sympathy on his face. "It won’t be so bad, living here, not if you obey the elder riders and don’t try to escape."
"I think he should try," Dorothy interjected with a leering grin on her thin and pale face. "It’s been a while since we had some entertainment."
Duo glared at the girl. His dislike for her grew tenfold.
"Ignore her," Alec advised with a roll of his eyes at the girl’s behavior. "She’s as sour as the ale we get from the grovelers who live in the valley below the mountain."
No sooner had the last word of advice escaped the blond boy’s lips when the loud sound of flesh meeting flesh was heard, and Alec was knocked off balance. Duo glanced at the startled boy to see his cheek bore the red imprint of Dorothy’s hand.
"Watch your mouth, Alec, or I’ll cut your tongue out while you sleep," the girl snarled, her eyes gleaming with cold anger.
Slowly, the boy she was angry with straightened, his hand going to his abused face. Duo watched warily as the two blonds glared at each other. Then Alec bravely leaned over the table to whisper to the girl in a voice he was sure only the two other youths could hear. "I think you’re much too fond of my tongue to do it any harm."
"Don’t be so sure of yourself," the girl sniffed, but there was a definite change in her demeanor; her anger had suddenly been replaced by something entirely different.
Not certain as to what was going on between the other two, Duo turned his attention back to his meal and proceeded to eat every last morsel, his nose wrinkling with distaste after discovering the vegetable in the stew was an overly cooked turnip. Even as he licked the last of the stew from his fingertips, his stomach growled with the craving more. Dorothy rose from her seat and moved to a tall wooden cupboard set to the far left of the hearth. She unlatched and opened the door and after a moment, closed it again. She returned to the table with a small wedge of cheese and the end cut of a piece of bread and set them both before Duo.
"I saved these for you, thinking you might need a bit more to eat," she stated before turning to resume her seat on the other side of the table.
Duo didn’t know what to make of her unexpected offering, but he accepted the extra bit of food because he was hungry. Glancing up, he saw the girl’s attention was once again fixed on him. She appeared to be waiting for some kind of response. Without thinking, he gave her a nod of gratitude. After witnessing one corner of her mouth lift into a crooked smile, Duo ducked his head back down, scolding himself for not remaining as difficult and uncooperative as he’d intended to be towards his captors. He choked down the dry bread and cheese in silence while the two blonds seemed content with simply watching him.
As he swallowed the last of the stale bread, Alec got up from his place and disappeared into the shadows. He returned several moments later carrying a wooden cup. "This will help wash down your meal," he said, holding the drink out to the braided boy. Duo took the cup and cautiously brought the half-filled cup to his nose, sniffing the contents to try and figure out what drink was being offered. It certainly didn’t have an appealing smell, but he couldn’t see that he had much choice but to taste it. He thought that this might be the sour drink Alec had spoken of when he’d insulted Dorothy.
Bringing the rim of the cup to his lips, he took a small, cautious sip. The chilled brew was pungent, both in smell and taste and not appealing in any way other than it was wet and burned as it moved down his throat. He took a few more swallows then handed the cup back. "That’s vile," he said with a slight cough, wiping his lips with his sleeve to remove the lingering taste as quickly as possible. His stomach began to churn, definitely not happy with the new addition.
"That’s because it’s piss from the chamber pot," Alec said with a wide grin.
Duo’s eyes widened and then his cheeks bulged as his stomach revolted at the suggestion of what he’d ingested. Knowing well what was about to happen, he quickly grabbed for the bowl that had held the stew and returned his meal to it in a most undignified manner.
"That isn’t funny, Alec," Dorothy yelled as his stomach finished emptying itself.
While coughing and trying to catch his breath, Duo heard a gruff voice barking out from the direction of the hearth. "You two better not make that boy sick." The man Dorothy had called grandfather earlier turned in his seat to look at the three, his eyes settling on Duo. "Care for him well or suffer the consequences."
"Yes, grandfather," both blonds intoned in unison.
The old man huffed, then turned back to the warmth.
Dorothy was glaring daggers at Alec when Duo’s attention turned back to them. He pushed the foul smelling bowl away from in front of him, embarrassed and angry at Alec for making him ill. He dismally wondered if he was destined to always embarrass himself in this way when placed in new situations.
"You empty it," the angry girl ordered the other boy, with a glance indicating the offensive bowl.
"Why me?" Alec protested.
"You caused this, you dispose of it." A long moment passed before she added, "Do it now, Alec. That was his portion of food for the night. Now he’ll have to wait until morning to eat again. You’re the sole cause of his hunger tonight, Alec, and I’ll make sure he remembers that, come the spring."
"He might as well get used to being hungry," Alec grumbled as he grudgingly stood up and carefully picked up the full bowl and held it out at arm’s length. He carried the offensive smelling vomit to the far end of the building, disappearing into the darkness.
"It wasn’t piss," Dorothy informed him with a look of disgust on her face. "Alec was jesting."
Duo listened carefully and heard the sound of a door being opened. A rush of frigid air swept in, causing the four by the fire to grumble in complaint. After a moment the door opened again, and eventually Alec came into view, but he wasn’t alone. Other loud and raucous voices filled the room as the blond boy hurried to return to his seat, his nose and cheeks bright pink from the cold.
A group of burly-looking men and women, dressed from head to toe in animal skins, came into view and approached the tables. They stopped and focused their gaze on the new arrival. Duo tried not to show how uncomfortable he felt under their intense scrutiny.
"So this is the bastard whelp that’s going to save us, huh?" a gruff male voice asked.
A female voice then remarked, "He’s small. Think he’ll survive the winter?"
"All he has to do is survive the winter," a different, humorless male voice replied. "Come spring, he and his dragon need only seed the females, then he can blow away for all I care."
"Leave off taunting the boy," Quinze snapped at the newcomers as he stood from his chair and turned to face the group. With a flick of his hand, he motioned for the object of their conversation to come to him. Duo hesitated only a moment before obeying, sensing the white-haired man could offer him some protection from the other riders.
Coming to stand by the white-haired man’s side, a supportive hand was placed on his shoulder. "The boy may be small in stature, but he’s young and his blood is rich with the lineage of fortitude and leadership. Leave him be, for he may one day be the one you will all have to answer to."
A round of grumbling and murmurs were heard, but the unhappy group soon disbursed, some sitting at the tables while others wandered off to their rooms. Duo noted that they seemed to go in pairs.
Looking at the older man who had spoken on his behalf, he asked, "What were they talking about?"
Dorothy sidled up to him saying, "Tell us your name and we will answer your question." She gave him a sly look, obviously believing she had gained the upper hand.
Duo’s eyes narrowed with anger as he faced the girl. "You took me from my home like a thief in the night. You don’t deserve to know anything about me. My name is my own, and I give it as I choose, to my friends, not my enemies."
"Ah, but we do know something about you," the girl said smugly.
From the corner of his eye, Duo saw Quinze wave to the girl, signaling for her to take him away. The older rider appeared to be done with him for the day. Instead of being led back to the table, he was directed by a tug of his cape to the warmth of the hearth, not far from where the elders sat. Once there, he grudgingly sat down on the stone when Dorothy put pressure on his shoulders.
"Your name is not important to us. What makes you our prize is the royal blood flowing in your veins and that you are the rider of a black dragon who came from a far off land."
Duo snorted. "You know nothing," he scoffed. "Royal blood? I’m an orphan from a small village, a dark cloud to those who raised me. Do you know what that means? It means that I’m the lowest of the low of the dragon riders of Amulah. You abducted the least of them."
Dorothy studied his angry face for a moment. "An orphan you say? Do you not know who your parents were?"
Duo was getting tired of repeating the answer to that question. Exasperated, he replied, "Not that it’s anything to you, but I knew my mother and her name."
"But not your father?"
Duo hesitated for a moment before shaking his head.
"Your mother was born in the village you came from?" Dorothy persisted.
Not wanting to say anything further about his mother, he decided to adopt the same haughty manner he’d often seen Zechs take. Straightening his spine to sit as tall and stiff as possible, he lifted his chin in a haughty manner and answered in a cool tone of voice, "That is none of your concern."
A slow smile came to the girl’s lips in response. "Oh, this is fun." She clapped her hands together with delight. "Grandfather!" she called over her shoulder to the group of men sitting in the chair. Dermail turned his head in their direction, but didn’t look happy at the interruption. "Our newest rider has no knowledge of his parentage and no idea, other than our need for his dragon, why he is so important to us."
The older man’s eyes shifted to the boy being spoken of, and the only change in his expression was the raising of one shaggy eyebrow.
Quinze, apparently the spokesman for the other three, responded to Dorothy’s observation. "It doesn’t matter if he knows who he is or who his parents were. His eyes are proof enough of his heritage and it will be enough to validate our claim when we move to take the throne of Amulah."
Duo frowned with confusion. "Take the throne of Amulah? You have to be out of your minds to think you can do such a thing," he said to the blond man. "And what’s this about my eyes being proof of my heritage?"
Quinze shifted his gaze from the boy to Dorothy. Again, with a nod of his head, he gave permission for her to take the fledgling in hand.
The girl was studying him carefully with curiosity in her eyes as she answered. "Perhaps your lineage was known to only a few yet for some reason remained a well-kept secret. Tell me, is it a common occurrence for your dragons to choose from the lowliest of people, as you believe yourself to be? Or were you impressed upon the hatchling, similar to how Alec and I were after being brought here?"
Duo frantically tried to understand what Dorothy was saying. Impressed? What did that mean? He returned to the first question she asked, but hesitated in saying what he had observed on his own, that the dragons of Amulah seem to choose riders from those who were offspring of prominent, powerful people, leaders of others in one way or another. "Howard told me that my dragon chose me for my heart," he answered.
Quinze spoke up from his chair. "That may be, but dragons, when given a choice, are wise beyond our understanding. They always choose the best, those with the natural ability to lead."
Duo remained silent, his thoughts tumbling around in his head as he listened to the white-haired rider.
"Tell me," Quinze continued while looking thoughtful. "While you were growing up in the humble circumstances you’ve told us of, was there someone watching out for you. Someone who took an interest in your well being?"
Howard. He was the answer to the man’s question. His mentor from Ha’ber had been a part of his life since he could remember, the one person he could go to when he was cold, hungry, lonely or just fearful of the village bullies. His expression must have given something of his thoughts away, for Quinze rose once more from his seat and moved to stand before him with a knowing look in his eyes.
"I see that there was. Was it this Howard you mentioned earlier?"
Duo nodded, desperately wishing his friend and mentor was there to tell him what to do. A wave of longing bought an aching for the older man and for his own cot in the humble abode he had shared with him. Tears collected in his eyes at the realization that he would probably see neither Howard, his former village nor the Halls of Dornan ever again. He quickly vanquished the tears and his longing for the familiar. He wouldn’t show these people, his enemies, the grief he felt for all that they had taken from him.
Quinze studied him for a moment then continued in a thoughtful tone. "There’s only one Howard that was notable enough for word of him to spread to Cordith. Was he the rider of the green dragon, Aravell? The one who died of a weak heart?"
Again Duo nodded, confused and shaken that these people knew of a person who was so dear to him.
"Of course we were there and witnessed the dragon’s fall from the sky. We later learned that the dragon’s death was attributed to a weak heart. In some small way, we sympathized with the rider named Howard. The loss of any dragon is a reason to grieve." Duo looked up at Quinze, surprised by the man’s expression of sympathy at Aravell’s death. "You see," the older rider continued, "the death of that particular dragon eventually brought about Amulah’s search for new dragon blood. Our own dragons have suffered from such weaknesses for a much longer period of time. The fragility of the eggs and in the dragonlings themselves stem from inbreeding. The number of successful hatchlings has greatly diminished over the years, and those dragonlings that did survive often had severe problems: deformed mouths, feet or wings that cut their lives short. This is why you have been brought here, fledgling. Our numbers now are few and we intend to preserve the lives of our dragons through your dragon, as well as your own posterity by the seed you will plant in Dorothy. The Haldash blood lays claim to the throne, and with two such offspring, yourself and your heir, we will eliminate the king and his family in order to overtake the throne, setting you in his place to rule and reclaiming the land and our rightful place in Amulah."
Duo stood from his seat and stared at the other man, his mouth ajar with astonishment at the man’s plans for the future. He was out of his mind, perhaps they all were, to think they could carry out such an audacious plan.
"You doubt my word?" Quinze asked, wearing a slight grin of amusement.
"You’re mad," Duo whispered.
The man’s face sobered as he replied, "No, we’re desperate. And desperation leads to daring action. If we were mad, as you suggest, would we have been able to take you from under the very noses of the people who kept your identity a secret?"
Duo was unable to verbalize a reply, having been shaken to the core. The riders of Cordith had succeeded in getting him away from the Halls, apparently without a fight. Could the riders of the north also succeed in their unbelievable plans to conquer Amulah? It would mean killing the king, his queen and their offspring. With no other heirs, he could be considered a legitimate heir, if their claims that he was of royal blood were true.
Chancing a glance toward Dorothy, he found her cold, calculating eyes focused on him, her mouth pressed tightly into a straight line. He didn’t like her, but if she’d been brought here against her will as he had, then he could muster a small feeling of sympathy for her. The idea of being mated to her, however, was repulsive.
He looked away from her and thought of Heero, his heart heavy and aching. He missed his friend and wondered if the riders at the Halls would attempt to rescue him or if they would leave him to his fate. "They’ll come for me," he whispered, not sure if it was the truth or if he was just trying to convince himself that the people who seemed to care for him would at least make an attempt to rescue him from out of this nightmare.
One of the men sitting in front of the fire pulled his cloak closer around his body as he stated unemotionally, "No, they won’t. The breath of the winter dragon will hinder any attempt to retake you. Come the spring it will be too late."
"They’ll come," Duo said adamantly, though his conviction wavered.
"Then the cold will be their death," another elder retorted.
"Dragons don’t mind the cold," he insisted, having learned that from his own dragon. The harsh winters in Ha’ber never seemed to bother Wu Fei, although he did seem to have a preference for basking on a rock in the warmth of the sun.
One of the other seated men spoke up. "Dragons tolerate the cold well enough, but the winds coming from the far north can freeze the more vulnerable membranes of their wings. Once frozen, the thin skin begins to rot and there is nothing to be done to heal the damage. The injured dragon becomes earthbound, never to fly again."
Alec jumped into the conversation at this point. "If the dragon’s wings don’t freeze, their riders will. Men have frozen in place when the killing winds find them out in the open. I don’t think an army of foot soldiers would attempt such a long dangerous trek across the Plains of Grannal, knowing the breath of the winter dragon is at hand."
Duo’s heart ached as his hope of being rescued faded and the realization that he would remain a captive of the northern riders for as long as the winter winds persisted... and then it would be spring and the female dragons would come into season. If Wu Fei mated with one, they would both be bound to this place for the rest of their lives.
"We couldn’t have timed this more perfectly," Dorothy gloated from behind him, her voice filled with pride. And Duo knew that it was true. Somehow the northern riders had successfully plucked him out of his bed and brought him to this desolate place to use as their tool, and it seemed that nature itself was going to keep him here.
He looked to his left, searching for the room from which he’d awakened. "I wish to retire," he said, choking back the anger and grief that was rising to the surface.
Quinze nodded, then looked to Alec. "Take him to your room and see that he has what is needed for the night."
Numb and despondent, Duo blindly followed the taller blond boy as he was led back to the room he’d left earlier. Having entered the small space, he absently watched Alec cross the room and set about to replace the low-burning candle resting in its holder on the bedside table. The blond then went to a crudely fashioned chest, located at the end of the bed, and opened the lid. Rooting around inside the box for a few moments, he paused, apparently finding what he was looking for. Straightening, he held up two long, thick-woven night shirts and tossed one to Duo.
"I know it’s cold, but you’ll be uncomfortable sleeping in your clothing beneath all the blankets."
With the sleeping garment in hand, Duo watched in a numb daze as Alec rapidly began to undress. His red and chapped hands unfastened the fur coat he wore and then removed his simple clothing beneath and letting them fall to the floor as he rushed to cover himself with the bed garment. As soon as the cloth had fallen into place, Alec leapt onto the bed and scurried under the blankets.
"Where am I to sleep?" Duo managed to ask.
"We share beds in order to stay warm, especially in winter," Alec answered, his teeth chattering slightly from the cold.
With a defeated sigh, Duo followed the other boy’s actions and quickly removed his boots and then his clothing. Aware that Alec was watching his every move, he managed to do most of his undressing under his cloak. Putting the sleeping garment over his head, he unfastened his cloak and quickly slid the long, rough material over his body. Trembling with cold, Duo followed the other boy’s example and leapt into the bed and quickly covered himself. Finding no comfort under the covers, he curled his limbs into his chest in an effort to warm up.
Suddenly, a warm body pressed up tightly against his back. "Just keeping warm," Alec murmured into his ear as he wrapped an arm around his waist. The noticeable bulge pressing against his backside told Duo that the other boy most likely had something else on his mind. He promptly elbowed Alec in the stomach, causing ths older boy to gasp and back away.
Despite what had just happened, Duo found himself missing the warmth of the other body. "Turn around and I’ll moved closer to you," he told his unhappy bed companion. With a frown, the blond turned and presented his back to Duo. Scooting closer, Duo set his own body against Alec’s back and immediately appreciated the warmth. Still, he felt the need to warn the other boy from attempting any other advances. "You try anything during the night and I’ll rip your balls off and throw them out the window," he growled, borrowing a threat he’d heard Dirk give to another man from Skeer, who’d unwisely commented on Jazel’s womanly figure.
With a defeated sigh Alec responded quietly, "Go to sleep. Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to the joys of living in Cordith." From the sarcastic tone of his voice, Duo knew that any ‘joys’ found on this frozen mountain top were going to be few and far between.
Eventually Alec’s breathing evened out, telling the fledgling that he’d fallen asleep. Yet sleep eluded Duo as he lay pressed up against the other boy’s back, his mind going over all that had happened in the short time since he’d awakened in this very room. All that rider Quinze had said came back to him now. It seemed impossible that he could be related to the king of Amulah. His life had been one of depravation and dependency. Why would he be allowed to live like that if he had royal blood in his veins? If the elder rider spoke the truth, then his mother must have had her reasons for leaving Rydell and keeping secret her origins and the name of his father. If his eyes were so telling of his parentage, was he a royal by-blow? Who was his father? The king or his deceased brother?
How did Howard figure into all of this? His mentor had hidden the fact that he had been a dragon rider and that his dragon had died tragically. Had he, an emeritus rider without a dragon, been sent to watch over him in Ha’ber? The idea that Howard, and possibly even Garron, knew of a possible connection between himself and the royal family hurt more than he wanted to admit.
The questions that came as a result of his conversation with Quinze were troubling, and the more he thought about the possibility of being related to the royal family of Amulah, the behavior of the other two riders, his mentors, began to make sense. Howard’s sudden decision to cut the front of his hair so that it draped over his eyes could now be viewed as an attempt to cover up his resemblance to the house of Haldash. Garron’s request that he not go to the celebration, which might have led to someone recognizing that resemblance, also fit into place as an attempt to hide his presence.
Had anyone else seen royalty in his eyes? He recalled Quatre staring at him every once in a while. When he asked his friend about his apparent fascination, the blond had merely replied that his eyes were unusually striking.
He then recalled the day he and Quatre had snuck into the lower palace halls. The man and woman who questioned him, had made him lift his hair as Quinze had done, had studied his face with an expression of recognition. The memory of their reaction put together with the only explanation for it hit him like a blow to the belly. Those two had to be the ones who had betrayed him to the north. Bending his forehead to rest against the shoulders of the boy in front of him, a slight moan escaped him as he realized that being here was his fault. His foolish venture into the lower palace with Quatre had ultimately brought him to this forsaken place, to be used as a pawn by the uncouth men and women who lived here.
Sleep eluded him for much of the night as he lay against Alec, sharing the other boy’s warmth while his emotions swung like a reed in the wind between sorrow and anger for the swift change of fate as well as the secrets that had been kept from him. Those very secrets had brought him to this end: to be nothing more than a puppet in the hands of both friend and foe.
Eventually the warmth of the bed and his own weariness drew him to the edge of sleep, and with thoughts of Wu Fei, Heero, Quatre and the Halls of Dornan following him into slumber, his dreams promised to be more pleasant than his new life in Cordith.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sleeping, but Duo was abruptly awakened by the sound of his dragon’s voice, loud and clear in his head. With the room plunged into total darkness and the warmth of a body pressed against his chest, it took him a moment to remember where he was.
//I am here.// Wu Fei stated calmly. //The dragons that are my guides say I’m to rest on one mountain and that you will remain on the other. Why is this?//
//They’re not set up with a lair like the one we had at the Halls of Dornan, Wu Fei. Unfortunately, we’re at their mercy and have to do as they say. Unless you change your mind and go back to the Halls without me, I don’t see that we have a choice but to do as we’re told.//
//I will not leave you.//
Duo could feel the tears welling his eyes. The devotion of his dragon touched him deeply. Yet at the same time, Wu Fei’s stubbornness was probably going to be their undoing. //I wish you would go back,// he said sadly, knowing that his dragon never changed his mind once he’d made a decision about something. //I would be happy to know you are safe.//
//I would fade from this existence without you.//
With a sigh, Duo replied, //As would I. Go then with the other dragons. I’ll see you as soon as I am able. Be well, my faithful dragon.//
He didn’t know if it was typical for all dragons, but Wu Fei never said goodbye, and he didn’t this time either. Still pressed against Alec’s back for warmth, Duo closed his eyes once more and tried to go back to sleep, but this time, worry for Wu Fei and for their future kept sleep at bay until just before sunrise.