Garron spent two days with them, relaying all the news of Rydell and the Halls of Dornan. He reported that a couple of young riders were expected to join the halls before winter set in. Unfortunately, Wu Fei most likely wouldn’t be capable of carrying Duo in time to join them, even though his rider would probably still be as slight of form as he currently was. If that were the case, they would have to wait until the following spring to venture to the training halls above Rydell. The two men discussed at some length and with concern how Duo would be at a disadvantage coming into a group where friendships were already well established. It might be a rough beginning.
“There’s nothing to be done about it,” Howard replied after they’d talked about the subject at length. He and Garron were sitting comfortably by the warm fire in the hearth on the second evening of the rider’s stay while Duo slept soundly in his bed behind them. “Duo has been a loner for most of his life, fending for himself,” Howard continued thoughtfully. “I know that even though the boy wants and even craves to be accepted by others, he can stand alone if he must.”
“I hope that’s not the case,” Garron replied with sigh and a glance back to the sleeping boy. “He’s a good lad and deserves to be happy.” He then turned back with a thoughtful look aimed at his friend. “Are you sure his mother’s family wouldn’t want to acknowledge him?”
Howard paused before answering. “If your daughter had come to you, having conceived after being forcibly taken, would you accept the child into your family?”
Garron’s eyes appeared thoughtful as he gazed into the fire flickering amongst the logs in the hearth. “I think if that child was Duo that I could. He is charming and without guile. It’s no less than astonishing that he appears to carry no bitterness or anger at his orphaned state or by how he’s been treated.”
Howard nodded. “For every villager who treated him unkindly, including the other children, there were three more who honestly cared for him and his well being. After having so little in his life, his appreciation of all he has now is all that much greater.”
“You’ve done a fine job of being a mentor to him, Howard. He’s bright, intelligent and a joy to be around.”
The gray-haired man shook his head. “The boy has come to be like a son to me. I think Aravell would have liked him, just as your Rayer does.”
Garron gave his friend a sympathetic smile, knowing Howard’s loss was still deeply felt and probably always would be.
Garron and Rayer took to the sky on the morning of the third day from his arrival, leaving a promise to return before winter began. Life in Ha’ber continued as usual, that is as much as was possible with a dragon living in their midst.
Duo continued to grow, but more so in knowledge than in stature. The regular meals continued to give the boy a radiant look of good health and a healthy shine to his skin and hair. Howard continued to groom the boy for his life in the Halls, once in a while reflecting on the fact that the grimy, unkempt village outcast had turned into an extraordinarily handsome lad. He could see characteristics of both parents in the boy, having inherited the best of their features. His body, though small in stature, was perfectly balanced with a slender build, a straight back and good legs. His teeth were surprising white, his grin infectious. He had his mother’s magnificent hair and his father’s unforgettable eyes. Howard knew that Duo’s attractiveness would either help or hinder him in his life within the Halls of Dornan. However, his main concern for the boy was whether or not he would have the strength and maturity necessary to deal with the revelation of who his parents were when that day came. He had little doubt that once he was presented to the Hall, and later to the court, that anyone having known either parent would recognize that he was their offspring.
That spring Wu Fei proved useful in helping to plow the planting fields by pulling a weighted harness that was attached to a tree trunk, imbedded with metal pikes that when pulled across the ground’s surface, carved deep furrows into the soil. Children followed behind him, pushing seeds into the freshly tilled ground. The village’s gardens were given to the children of the village to tend while the adults focused on preparing wool for spinning, dyeing and weaving. The elderly, too old to work the looms or to bend and pull weeds, took care of the village’s infants and smaller children, and thus the community as a whole had a place and occupation, working for the good and survival of all.
On hot summer afternoons, when the gardening was done, the boy and his dragon - accompanied at times by Howard or other children - crossed the valley and walked up the canyon to the part of the stream Howard had damned off. There they splashed and played, cooling their bodies until the sun became more gentle on the land it shone down on. Happy and tired, the group returned back to the village. Life was good for the village’s dark cloud and his black dragon. Both were growing and looking forward to a future that would one day take them to far off places they could now only dream of.
As the days of summer began to cool, the time for harvesting the fields began. Villagers young and old worked together to gather and prepare the fruits of their labors for the coming winter months.
The boy with the long braid of hair turned from his task of pulling turnips out of the ground to seek out the exasperated voice calling his name. It wasn’t hard to locate the source, because all he had to do was look in the direction of his dragon to see Angus Harrow, the one adult who had been chosen to direct the work that day. The old man with the stooped back, his floppy hat protecting a bald head and shading most of his wrinkled, gray bushy beared face, stood with his fists clenched on his hips, sending him an angry glare.
“Your dragon is eating the carrots again,” the man complained.
Wu Fei! Duo mentally chastised his dragon who was happily munching on a large mouthful of carrots. The green leafy tops were sticking out of both corners of his mouth as proof of Angus’s complaint.
I like these roots.
Duo left his row and walked towards the dragon. This food is essential for the villagers during the winter, Wu Fei. You eat their game in the hills and now you want to eat their vegetables? If you take away the food from these people, they will be angry, and then who will care for us?
The dragon tilted his somewhat angular head as if contemplating what he was being told. Very well. I will cease eating. He then opened his mouth and let the remainder of his half-chewed snack drop to the ground.
Duo slapped his forehead. You could have finished your mouthful, he told his large friend. His dragon didn’t answer, but lowered his head towards his rider, seeking his affection.
The boy couldn’t resist his dragon’s request. Wearing an indulgent smile, he wrapped his arms around the muzzle of the dragon’s face, placing his upper body against the long snout. With his face resting on the bridge between his dragon’s eyes he whispered, “You’re my best friend, Wu Fei.” His heart swelled with love for his dragon.
And you are my rider. It was the highest compliment a dragon could give a human.
Why don’t you go up to the mountains and hunt? Duo suggested, releasing his dragon and stepping back to look at him.
I am not hungry enough to hunt.
Then why are you eating the carrots?
I like them.
One day I’ll plant a garden just for you and fill it with carrots. The rumbling purr signaled Wu Fei was pleased at the prospect of having a garden filled with the tasty plant, just for him.
Duo looked up at the position of the sun. “I have to get back to work,” he said out loud. “The traders from the village Dunmar will be here tonight, so we have to pick all the vegetables before they arrive.”
If dragons could sulk, Duo was pretty sure Wu Fei was doing just that. His dragon liked his attention, and he liked it all the time. With the work in the fields needing to be done, it wasn’t possible for Wu Fei to follow him because his bulky size would trample and ruin the ripe vegetables no matter how carefully he tried to navigate between the furrowed rows.
Duo turned with a wave of farewell to his dragon, wondering how Wu Fei’s possessiveness would be viewed by the other riders once they arrived at the well-known Halls of Dornan. Nearly every night his dragon called to him while he was sleeping, asking him to come out to his shed to sleep and to keep him company. If he could manage to sneak out without waking Howard, he was usually chastised by the older man the next morning for spoiling his dragon. Howard had commented that his black dragon seemed more clingy than most, and had tried to prepare both boy and dragon that there would be times when they just couldn’t be together, especially after they left Ha’ber. For at the Halls of Dornan, he’d explained, the young riders we separated daily from their dragons in order to receive instruction from the older riders. Wu Fei would fly with the other dragons, learning from their wisdom and experience. Duo would be taught the history of the riders and of Amulah. He would receive instruction on fighting and all other things essential for a dragon rider. Of course, Howard assured them, they would be together when they trained to defend Amulah from their enemies both in the air and land bound.
Initially, this information about being separated made Wu Fei anxious, causing Duo to fuss and worry over him. Howard consoled the boy by telling him that Wu Fei was still young, and once he was in the company of other dragons he wouldn’t depend on him quite as much as he’d been doing since his hatching. Duo really didn’t mind that his dragon wanted to be with him all the time. For so long he’d had no one to confide in, no one to give and receive affection from, and Wu Fei’s dependence on him made him feel both wanted and needed. Those feelings, he decided, were nice ones to have.
Turning his head, Duo glanced back to see his dragon was staring after him, and again he imagined that Wu Fei was sulking. His gaze, as always, softened with appreciation and affection. His dragon was beautiful and growing rapidly. He was as big as the hut they’d built him last spring, though not as large as his and Howard’s dwelling. Why don’t you take to the sky and fly for a while. That always makes you feel better, Duo suggested.
I don’t feel bad, the dragon insisted.
No, but this waiting is wearisome for you. Go have fun.
I found enjoyment eating carrots.
Wu Fei. Along with his thoughts, Duo let his exasperation flow to his dragon.
I long for the day when we can fly together. A strong sense of yearning came to Duo from his black-as-night dragon.
Wu Fei stared at him a moment before he suddenly turned, swiping an already harvested portion of the garden with his long tail. Taking three giant leaps he gracefully leapt into the air, his wings snapping out and beating up and down rapidly, working to carry him higher into the sky. A feeling of euphoria, of freedom that the dragon experienced when he was flying, was transmitted in full force to the boy, causing Duo to gaze one last time at the flying creature and sigh with longing.
He turned from watching the diminishing black spot in the sky to see that the villagers had also stopped their work to watch the magnificent dragon take flight. As soon as their eyes met the young rider’s gaze, they promptly turned their attention back to the earth and the task at hand.
As the sun lowered in the western sky, a line of carts led by tame wolderbeasts completed their journey to Ha’ber. The large, stocky animals with rangy fur of black and brown, often ran wild all over Amulah. They were also raised in captivity and trained to pull large carts, hauling food and wares from village to village or even to distant cities. The eyes of these poor beasts of burden were wide and wild as they got their first scent of a dragon nearby. Their handlers had to hang tightly onto their harnesses to keep them from bolting. Wu Fei didn’t help matters by approaching the domestic animals and spreading his wings in a threatening manner.
“Tell him to stop,” Howard said firmly as he came to stand by the boy who had been watching the traders approach from the edge of the village and wore a smile on his face from seeing the antics of his dragon.
Wu fei, you won’t be in good favor with anyone if you chase the traders away.
A rumbling gurgle came from the dragon’s throat, which Duo recognized as the Wu Fei’s form of laughter. His dragon was obviously enjoying the ruckus he’d created.
“Send him to his hut,” Howard ordered, seeing the irked expressions directed towards them by the village’s people because of the dragon’s disruption.
“But he really hasn’t done anything wrong. He’ll think we’re punishing him,” Duo argued unhappily at his mentor’s request.
“Then you should go with him so it won’t seem like a punishment.”
“It will be for me,” the boy pouted. Ha’ber didn’t often get visitors or traders for that matter, and when they did, it was an occasion to be celebrated. Duo knew there would be plenty of food, drink and tales told that evening. If he were to be banished to Wu Fei’s hut for the evening, he’d miss all the excitement.
As if reading the boy’s thoughts, Howard added in a more conciliatory tone, “I’m sure the traders will want to visit you and Wu Fei. I’ll save you food and even get a couple of carrots for Wu Fei... if he behaves.” He paused, distracted as Wu Fei once again begun to stalk one of the wolderbeasts. It was rather amusing to see the dragon, his wings tucked close to his scaled body and his feet being carefully placed on the ground - similar to tip-toeing - as he attempted to sneak up behind one of the bulky yet skittish animals. Surprisingly, the laboring beast didn’t sense the somewhat menacing, playful dragon’s approach. Howard grabbed the boy by his shoulder and turned Duo around to show him what his dragon was up to just as Wu Fei rose up on his hind legs.
The dragon paused, posed in the air at the sharp, reprimanding tone issued by his rider.
Come on. We’ve been banished to your hut.
I did not harm the animal.
I know. Guess no one’s in a playful mood tonight, Duo groused as he started back towards their dwelling on the other side of the village from where the traders were being greeted by the people of Ha’ber.
Wu Fei followed, wisely keeping silent, sensing Duo’s unhappiness. As they neared his shelter, he ventured to speak again. I hunted two wolderbeasts today, the dragon announced. They were fast and more clever than usual. But I dove down sharply and landed on them, grabbing both at the same time with my claws. The chase and their taste pleased me.
That’s nice, Duo replied without enthusiasm. After that, the dragon and his rider continued on in silence until they came to stand before the three-sided shelter that was still in the process of being completed in preparation for the winter. The boy waited until Wu Fei crouched down on all fours, his wings tightly tucked, and crawled into his shelter. While the dragon settled on the straw that was his bed, Duo disappeared into the nearby dwelling and came out a moment later with two lit candles, secured in their holders. He set them carefully on the small wooden table then climbed upon his dragon and settled on his black scaled back, his legs resting just above the black and red wings. Both boy and dragon sighed and relaxed.
Content with each other’s company, they spoke of everyday things. Both expressed their disliked for missing the activity going on in the village center and looked forward to Howard’s coming, with food and carrots in hand.
“Howard?” A deep, surprised sounding voice called out the gray haired man’s name and a shiver of warning crept up the former hermit’s spine. He turned towards the direction the voice had come from in order to identify the speaker.
A bearded, dark haired man dressed in clothing unlike anything the other traders wore approached him, a smile on his dark-skinned face. “It is you!” the man exclaimed excitedly.
Howard rushed forward to silence the man of slight acquaintance from his past. He didn’t want his true identity revealed to the villagers just yet. “Shael Gladstone.” He put on a smile and clasped the man’s arm in greeting. “What brings you to this part of the kingdom?”
“I could ask the same thing of you,” the man answered, his eyes glittering with curiosity. “Though I doubt you‘ll give me a straight answer,” he chuckled. “For myself, I’ve heard there are many fine goods to be found in the villages in the Gerza valley and surrounding mountains. When I heard that a black dragon had hatched in the valley and that he’d chosen a rider from a nearby village, I had to invite myself along to see this wondrous creature.”
Howard nodded. Over the two years since Wu Fei’s hatching, many curious people had come from surrounding villages to gawk at the dragon and his rider. He knew it was only a matter of time before the news spread to other places. Word of mouth sometimes traveled faster than a dragon.
The merchant/tradesman began speaking again. “Is it chance or perhaps not that you happen to be in the place where a new dragon was hatched?” The anxious look on Shael’s face showed Howard that the man was itching for gossip to take with him on his travels. Everyone knew that a good tale meant pulling in customers that might otherwise not have bothered to look at a peddler’s wares.
“I just happed to be here when Garron flew in with the egg. The dragonling chose the lowest of the villagers, an orphaned boy who lived at the mercy of the people of Ha’ber.”
“Ah, yes,” Shale said sagely, stroking his short beard thoughtfully. “I had heard the new rider is an uncommonly handsome lad, though he is rumored to be a dark cloud.”
Eyes narrowing with displeasure, Howard asked testily, “Would a dark cloud have the good fortune of becoming a dragon rider?”
If the man were put off by Howard’s manner, he didn’t show it. Instead, he scanned the village center, searching, no doubt, for the topic of their conversation. “Will I be allowed to meet the boy and his dragon?” he asked.
“Why don’t you conclude your business first and then I’ll show you the way to the dragon’s shelter.”
“Very well,” Shael agreed, pleased at the prospect of meeting the widely talked about boy and his black dragon. “I’ll look for you after I examine the quality of rugs that Ha’ber has to offer.”
“I can assure you they are of the highest quality. The village has made a name for itself over several generations, having perfected their carpet making. Even the high palace has several of their larger pieces. It’s an undertaking that involves the entire village,” Howard informed the man, knowing the trader would want to know all he could about the merchandise that would be available for purchase. “The children grow and harvest the fruits and vegetables that sustain the village. Their extra produce is traded for the wool with mountain villages to the east and west. The adults card, spin, dye and weave the wool in looms or by hand. It literally takes the entire village to produce the rugs they trade or sale.”
The trader nodded. “I’m looking forward to seeing a sample of their work. I’ll catch up with you later then.” But before he could walk away, his arm was firmly taken hold of by Howard.
“Listen, Shael. The people here don’t know of my past and I would prefer it if you didn’t mention to anyone that you know me. I don’t want to arouse their curiosity or have it affect my place here in their community.”
“And what exactly is that ‘place’?” the merchant asked, one bushy eyebrow raised in question.
“I’m the newest dragon rider’s guardian.”
“I see,” the man said thoughtfully. Then with a nod of his head he added, “Very well. Consider your secret to be safe with me.”
Howard was relieved by the man’s agreement. Shael Gladstone was an important tradesman in the city of Rydell. He was more affluent than most and dealt with royalty as well as the riders’ guild and the more wealthy citizens living in and around the capital city. As he watched the tradesman walk off, he determined to speak with him again later to ensure the man didn’t carry word of his whereabouts back to his city clientele. He turned away from the bustling activity of trade within the village circle and walked quickly to Wu Fei’s hut where he was fairly certain he’d find the boy and dragon.