Dark Cloud Rising
Despite the shorter days, the time between waking and sleeping seemed unbearably long to Duo as a daily routine set in. Each morning he was awakened by a knock on the door or a shake of his shoulder. He learned to dress himself under the warm blankets, avoiding the cold that penetrated the walls and filled every inch of the log dwelling while his bed companions jumped out from under the blankets and dressed just as quickly and silently.
Clothed in the same garments that they wore day after day, washing them only when the smell became too much to bear, the three youths exited the room well before the older riders awakened. Dorothy made the same breakfast of porridge every morning and prepared the flat bread that cooked in a separate kettle. Together they ate their simple meal in the stillness of the early morning before Duo and Alec put on hats, coats and mitts of fur and wrapped the protective scarves around their faces, prepared once again to face the cold and constant wind from the North while chopping enough wood for the day’s fire.
With each passing day Duo worked a little longer and until his arms felt like they were about to fall off his shoulders. When his muscles burned and he could no longer raise his ax, he would tell Alec he had done all he could. He then stepped back to wait until the older boy finished, vowing to himself to become stronger in order to help lessen Alec’s work load. Even though the cold was bitter and penetrated his clothing when he wasn’t chopping wood, Duo endured it, refusing to enter the wood building alone. And when he was inside, eating or sitting by the hearth, he did so with Dorothy or Alec next to him.
Every other day Deikum or Quinze carried him on the back of their dragon’s to Muir and Wu Fei. He couldn’t help the stab of jealously in knowing that Dorothy and Alec met daily with their dragons and took to the sky for short periods of time. They always returned with blue lips, chattering teeth and a smile of contentment on their faces. He sorely missed riding on Wu Fei’s back, soaring freely amongst the clouds and over the hills with his dragon.
As the monotonous days of winter passed one by one, Duo grew more used to the slack manners of the northern riders, to their limited variety of food, and the two blond youths who vied for his attention during the day but spent their nights as lovers. In the dark of night their rapid breathing and bodies writhing under the layers of blankets was evidence of what went on while Duo lay on the bed of straw and blankets until they were finished. Even then, he refused to climb into the warm bed and share their warmth until they were both properly dressed for sleeping.
Night after night he lay on the bed of old straw, huddled into his blankets and misery while listening to the sounds of their pleasure and imagining what it would be like to make love to someone. Despite the sounds coming from the bed, he never once envisioned Alec or Dorothy as his lover. It was always Heero who was conjured up in his mind as the moans and soft exhalations were uttered by the other two riders. The deeper tones and grunts he imagined as Heero’s voice, whispering his name as he covered his body with his hands and kisses. His own body responded to the images in his mind of Heero beneath or above him as they joined intimately together. He always caught himself before his hand slid down his body to ease the ache between his legs, telling himself that his dreams were impossible, that he was only torturing himself by imagining what could never be. Heero was to be mated that Spring along with his dragon. His heart’s desire was a year and a great distance away from the reality of his life now, and he refused to give in completely to his fantasy that he and Heero had a future together; it would only hurt more in the long run to do so, he told himself. Yet try as he might he couldn’t give up thinking about Heero altogether. Thoughts of the dark-haired rider of Relena were sometimes the only pleasure he had in his present circumstance.
While his mind was preoccupied with his thoughts of Heero, the moans and gasps coming from the bed had come to an end. In the middle of a long, drawn-out yawn, Alec announced that he and Dorothy were dressed and that he should come back to the warm bed. Scurrying over the short distance to the promised warmth, Duo raised the blankets and climbed under them, unable to fully ignore the smell of sex and sweat that lingered. He brought his colder body up against Alec’s side and allowed the other boy to put his arm over his shoulder and draw him in close. He ignored the odors the unfavorable odors that assaulted his nose and concentrated instead on the welcomed warmth of the boy next to him.
As his bed companions’ hearts and breathing began to slow, and sighs of contentment eased them into sleep, Duo closed his eyes and imagined the warmth seeping into his body came not from Alec, but from the sun on a bright and beautiful day. With his eyes closed he could imagine himself flying in a blue, cloudless sky on Wu Fei’s back and looking down on green hills and valleys that were dotted with full green trees, wild flowers and wolderbeasts for Wu Fei to chase. Everything he envisioned was so different from the desolate white and gray that had become his life in this northern place that he now lived in. His heart longed for Spring almost as much as he dreaded its arrival.
The rider of the black dragon lost all sense of time as the dreary, cold and wintry days stretched out endlessly. His daily routine was broken only by harsh winter storms that shed copious amounts of snow from dark and angry-looking clouds which prevented him from seeing Wu Fei until the weather cleared sufficiently to fly to Muir. He asked Alec why the riders didn’t live inside Muir with the dragons, seeing that it was much warmer than the wood structure on Cordith. The blond rider explained, "The first dragons that flew north from Amulah declared Muir their lair. Their riders, glad for a warm place to live, tried sharing the caves with them only to become sick from the air. The dragon heart within Muri obviously welcomed only the dragons and not their riders. So the riders had no choice but to find a home of their own." The explanation made sense since the odor within Muir was most disagreeable. It also explained why he was only allowed to visit Wu Fei for short periods of time. It wouldn’t to for the northern riders’ hope for the future to become ill and die from noxious air.
The grayness of winter seemed to stretch out unendingly and the tedium of his daily routine caused Duo to miss Amulah even more. He longed for not only Heero and his friends but also his lessons with Jan, the sparring with the other riders, the ease of conversation and comfort he’d enjoyed from those living in the Halls of Dornan and the freedom he enjoyed to ride his dragon and visit his friends in Skeer.
Physically numb and sore from hours spent out in the bone-aching cold each morning as he chopped wood with Alec, Duo retreated into himself. He said little, ate when food was set before him, followed the two blonds around like a second shadow to avoid trouble and stubbornly kept his name to himself while living only for those moments he was allowed to spend with Wu Fei.
His dragon seemed to be adjusting to their new environment better than his rider. Under careful watch of the older dragons, Wu Fei hunted every other day and was allowed to frolic in the sky with Romma and Shadow as the future mate for one of them. The black dragon’s comments in regards the two female dragons weren’t negative as Duo had hoped. And much to his dismay, Wu Fei seemed to tolerate them much too well. Yet Duo felt a twinge of satisfaction after his dragon state that even though he didn’t find the company of the two females distasteful, he preferred the company of Sandrock and Relena.
Despite his dislike of chopping wood everyday in the horrid cold, Duo found that he hated the dreaded evening meals even more. He and the two blond youths were required to eat in the main hall with the older riders. During each day-end meal, he kept his eyes on his bowl, not wanting to make eye contact with any of the more volatile riders who might be looking for a way to vent their frustrations after being forced to stay indoors during the long, cold winter.
"Looks like one beating easily tamed the Haldash heir," a gruff female voice said, laughing at the braided boy sitting at the next table.
"They have the same weakness in the royal blood as their pampered dragons; their offspring are born weak and short lived." That voice came from the same direction, but Duo wasn’t about to look up to see who was speaking about him in such an insulting manner. They were obviously trying to goad a response from him.
"Maybe bedding Dorothy will make him more of a man," a different voice added.
"Hasn’t done much for Alec." Loud raucous laughter followed.
Duo glanced up to see the blond boy sitting across from him, red faced and clenching his cup tightly between his two hands as he suppressed his need to retaliate to such a comment. Dorothy appeared next to them, enduring her own set of jibes as she approached the table. Sitting next to Alec, she looked at the blonde and then Duo. "Don’t mind them," she said softly so that her voice wouldn’t carry. "They’re purposely trying to rile you for their own entertainment. Don’t give them the satisfaction of a reaction."
Duo nodded, then went back to eating his food, finding it as uninteresting as the people around him.
Dorothy, it seemed, was the only one assigned to do the cooking for the group of men and women, aided once in a while by one of the older female riders. From the day he’d arrived there, they’d eaten the same three meals everyday, the variety of food never varying. Porridge was the morning meal, with a slice of bread and warm ale. A watery soup with dried vegetables and a little meat from the bone of a woldebeast made up their lunch. The evening meal was a thick stew, ale and bread. When he asked Dorothy the reason for this, she shrugged and replied that the three meals were all she had been taught to prepare when she was given the daily chore. At least she seemed to get the stew right, Duo thought.
Casting his eyes around the room from under the fringe of hair hanging over his forehead, Duo counted twenty-two riders and then added Hoarst for twenty three in all. A number far below the amount of dragon riders of Amulah. Duo began to better understand their desperation and motivation for kidnaping him in order to get a hold of Wu Fei. Without fresh stock, the dragons and riders of the north were doomed to die out without warfare being a factor in their diminishing numbers. Yet even that bit of understanding didn’t help to ease his feelings of resentfulness or anger about being taken from Amulah.
The normally resilient boy became even more despondent as winter deepened. Each night he climbed into bed with the two blonde riders and fought not to fall asleep while trying to think of a way to escape his impending fate. Yet night after night he failed to come up with anything that wouldn’t risk himself or Wu Fei’s life. The ultimate escape, of course, would be to throw himself over the side of the mountain, killing himself rather than becoming a puppet to the riders of the north. But he couldn’t do that to his dragon.
One dreary night his longing for Amulah became too much to bear. Once again he remained awake long after his bed mates had fallen to sleep, waiting until the log structure fell silent and the fire in the hearth had surely gone cold from being unattended. When all was silent, the fledgling, desperate to escape, snuck out of the shared bed and in the darkness he found and donned his clothing and cloak and then slipped out of the room. He paused at the doorway and held his breath, cautiously listening for any sound within the dark of the large, familiar room as he pressed his back up against the cold wall. The main hall was as black as Wu Fei’s scales, and once he was sure no one was about, he used his hands to guide him along the wall as he made his way to the only door at the back of the structure. Once his fingers felt the turn of the wall and outline of the door, he quickly located the fur hats, coats and gloves by touch and put them on as quietly as possible. He then summoned his dragon.
//Wu Fei? Are you awake?//
//Yes,// his dragon replied at once.
//I’m alone and have managed to steal away from the other riders. Are you able to leave your lair? Are you being watched?//
//Most of the dragons are resting and I am not chained to the wall. I will attempt to leave the lair and come to you.//
Excitement filled the boy. At last he was going to escape his captors and the plans they had for him. //I’ll meet you on the northern side of the large stack of logs atop Cordith.//
Excitement, fear of being caught and the rapid beating of his heart urged Duo to move quickly. He felt his way to the door and eased the heavy wood panel open, admitting a blast of cold wind inside. He silently slipped out the door and closed it behind him, carefully putting the latch back in place. Still in the dark, he moved behind the animal-skin barrier until he found himself truly out of doors and in the frigid night air. He glance up to the dark heavens above to see the many stars blinking above him, a sight he hadn’t seen since his arrival. And for the first time in a long while he found himself smiling.
With the first taste of freedom spurring his actions, he set off at a run towards the familiar stack of tree trunks. In his haste, he stumbled several times on the uneven surface, barely catching himself before falling on his face. Once he’d safely reached his destination, he went around the end of the stack to the flat area the other riders used as a place to mount their dragons. It was colder now and he was trembling, but the trembling came more from his rapidly beating heart and his anxiousness to steal away from the North than the chill of the air. He carried nothing with him and didn’t have a harness to attach to Wu Fei, but he was determined to hang onto his dragon’s tail all the way back to Amulah if that’s what it would take for him to get away from there.
Quiet and darkness surrounded him, and the young rider had a moment to reflect that if felt rather strange to finally be alone. In all the time he’d been there, he could count only one moment when no one was watching him, and that had been when he’d first awakened from his drugged sleep. Now standing out in the open, waiting for Wu Fei, he suddenly had an over overwhelming feeling of being exposed and vulnerable.
//I’m out of the mountain,// Wu Fei reported.
//Then come quickly to me,// Duo urged, becoming more anxious with each passing moment. //The sooner we are away from here the better.// He peered out into the darkness in the direction of Muir, but it was too dark to see a black dragon flying in the night sky.
After several moments, Wu Fei’s voice came again, //I am being followed.// Those four words threatened Duo’s dreams for their escape. He thought quickly of only one other way for their escape to work. //Then you’ll not have time to stop to allow me to climb your back. You’ll have to scoop me up in your talons and carry me to the South as quickly as can fly.//
"What do you think you’re doing out here?" a deep voice boomed from behind him, and Duo jumped in response, his heart feeling like it was going to pound it way out of his chest.
He had been caught.
The darkness of night had softened enough that both boy and the rapidly approaching man were able to see each other. Duo could barely see that the person questioning him was Quinze.
"Tell Wu Fei to return to his lair or my dragon will be forced to damage his wings."
Duo’s heart ached and his shoulders slumped as all of his hopes for escape crumbled to ash. //We’re caught Wu Fei. Go back to your lair.// He was unable to keep the despair he felt from out of his voice.
//I am very close. We could still try to leave this place.//
//No. Quinze has found me and I suspect it is Libra who is following you. I don’t want you to be harmed, so go back and quickly.//
There was a long pause before Wu Fei answered, //Very well.//
Duo watched as the older rider approached and roughly grabbed him by the back of his neck. "Come," Quinze said, and the tone of his voice surprised the fledgling; he didn’t sound as angry as he supposed he would be. Instead, the older rider’s voice sounded weary and maybe even regretful. "You know what’s in store for you, don’t you?
An hour later Duo was lying on top of his bed and on his stomach, fighting back stinging tears as his back burned from lash marks he’d received by Quinze’s hand. His only consolation was that the older rider had not awakened the others to view his punishment, and that the man did not seem to take any joy in beating him like Finn had the time before. Still, ten quick lashes to his bare back had been excruciatingly painful.
Upon hearing Wu Fei’s worry for his rider’s welfare after Duo had cut him off after telling his dragon that he was about to be punished for trying to escape, Hoarst sent over another batch of his healing salve, for which the boy with the wounded back was grateful. Surprisingly, Dorothy said nothing as she applied the salve to the burning lash marks across his back while Alec paced alongside the bed and chastised him for his foolishness.
Duo remained in his bed for several days after that night, allowing his back to heal and using his pain as an excuse to linger in the safety of that room for as long as possible. Realizing now that any further attempts to escape would in all likelihood end the same as his first, his former state of despondency grew steadily into utter despair.
Garron pulled his cloak over his shoulders as he descended the stairs from the lower halls to the city below. He knew his wife and children were anxiously awaiting him, and in truth his heart needed to be lifted by their smiles and laughter. The Halls of Dornan seemed covered with a shroud of worry and sadness since the black dragon and his rider had been taken. Duo had made quite an impression on riders both young and old, and the boy’s presence was sorely missed by all. Sims reported that, despite the cold, the physical training of the younger riders had improved dramatically. Fear of being snatched away as Duo had and with the hope of being called to assist in a rescue caused a significant change in attitude amongst the trainees. As a group they paid more attention to Sims’ instructions, practiced more diligently and vigorously until each young rider felt they’d mastered each technique.
Stepping down to the top level of the city, built below the palace and Halls of Dornan, the older rider paused to look above him, seeing the outcropped, scalloped ridges of dragon lairs jutting out from the mountainside. As he gaze upward, a blue dragon leapt off the edge of its lair and into the cold winter sky it flew. Even from his vantage point Garron could tell it was Heero and Relena he was watching. The boy had become even more diligent in his training. Even in the cold and frigid winter air he took to his dragon’s back for short periods of time each day, honing both his and his dragon’s skills as they practiced fighting maneuvers alone in the winter sky. The boy was doggedly determined to save Duo from a fate they all deemed to be worse than death.
From reports received from their infiltrator years before, life in the north was harsh and the riders unnecessarily cruel at times. Garron could only hope Duo would avoid being harmed by reverting to his old self-defense behavior when he had been the dark cloud of Ha’ber. From what Howard had said of the boy’s childhood, Duo managed to stay out of trouble for the most part by making himself as unobtrusive as possible, staying in the background and keeping his head down.
Garron sighed, and a large puff of white escaped his lips only to dissipate in the winter air. He sorely missed that little boy, the one he’d first met in the little village in the west. Duo had been so innocent, without guile, trusting, and altogether pitiful. The older rider took a moment to reflect on the changes in the Duo from that first moment they met, when he held Wu Fei’s egg in his grubby hands and denied that the dragonling had made contact with him, had in fact chosen him, and all because he didn’t feel worthy. How wrong they had all been, thinking that the boy was not worthy of the dragonling. Duo had proven to be bright, quick to learn and a delight to those who knew him.
Thinking of the boy and the changes that had occurred in him since he’d become Wu Fei’s rider made the older rider’s heart ache. He didn’t know how he was going to tell Howard of his abduction when Spring came back to the land. His old friend would surely expect some word from him and, in all truth, it was his responsibility to tell the boy’s mentor what had befallen Duo. "I failed him. Failed both of them," he mumbled to himself as he walked the stone carved streets towards his family’s home. Yet there was light at the end of the winter; a spark of hope that they could retrieve Duo and bring him back. Their plan depended on many things happening, and it all came down to timing; theirs and the arrival of Spring.
He paused for a moment in front of his family’s home. There were times when he was required to stay in his room within the upper levels of the Halls, when it was his responsibility to see to the young riders’ care. He didn’t mind those nights, for it was then that he was close to his as well as his wife’s dragon. But when his duties allowed, he came to this dwelling that he and Raven had chosen after the birth of their first child. The rearing of babies was forbidden in the Halls of Dornan, and riders who begat children raised them in dwellings similar to the one he now stood in front of. A smile grew on his face as voices, laughing and happy, reached out from the interior of his home and urged him to quickly enter and join them. Yes, he would enjoy their company tonight knowing that they would lighten his own heart and mind and bolster his spirits for his return to the Halls in the morning.
Lifting the latch, he opened the thick wooden door and the light and warmth of the room drew him inside. Before the door had shut fully, he was set upon by his family with hugs and excited chattering filling his ears. Though welcome, they became secondary to the sight before him as his eyes focused on the familiar person sitting on the chair adjacent to the warm hearth. A bearded, weary-looking but happy face looked up at him a smile twitching at his lips. "Hello, Garron. I understand you have something important to tell me."
"Howard," Garron said with open disbelief. It appeared he didn’t have until Spring to break the dreaded news to his old friend after all.