Garron used the two days he lingered in Ha’ber preparing Duo for his departure from the village. He also demonstrated how the newest rider should fasten his a proper seat over Wu Fei’s shoulders, securing the thick leather straps under his belly and tightening them correctly in order to eliminate any chance of slipping. The smaller straps, that would go around his legs, would secure him to the dragon, keeping him from falling even if he were injured or unconscious.
The night before their departure, both Garron and Howard helped Duo gather and pack his belongings in the leather bags Garron had brought with him. Then, as instructed by Garron, the lad went to each of the villagers’ dwellings to thank them for caring for both he and Wu Fei over the last two years. In turn, each family presented him with words of farewell and wished the boy and dragon a good life. Duo knew that he would miss a few of the villagers who had shown him kindness, but he also knew that some of them he would purposely never think of again.
He was a quiet presence the night before their leaving, his silence was noticed by both men. Just before it was time to turn in for the night, Garron excused himself, saying he wanted to check on Rayer, leaving the boy and his mentor alone for a private moment before their parting.
“It’s going to be all right, Duo,” Howard said, coming to sit by the boy on the bench before the hearth. “It’s normal to be fearful of things that are new and different.”
The boy shrugged and clung to his braid of hair that fell over his right shoulder. Howard moved to sit close enough to put his arm around the smaller shoulders. He wasn’t too surprised by the boy’s returning embrace, for Duo was an affectionate lad by nature. He was surprised, however, to feel the slight trembling of the boy’s body pressed against his side, an action that told him that Duo was very upset. Hugging the smaller body close, the older man whispered to the lad with a tone of gentle reassurance, “Hush now. There’s no reason to be upset. You have a great adventure ahead of you.”
“I don’t want to leave you, Howard,” the boy said, his voice muffled against the man’s shoulder. “How can I leave you and be happy?”
The older man’s eyes blurred as he held the boy close. “It’s the way of life, Duo. Just as dragonlings leave their mothers’ nests to seek their riders, and birds leave their nests to fly free, so do young people go to meet their destinies. I’m happy to have played a small role in your life, Duo. It’s been an honor. But tomorrow you will leave this village to seek your own way, to see and learn new things that will separate you from the plain but good people of Ha’ber. Take the good you’ve observed in them with you and leave behind the bad. Not many receive the honor that’s been bestowed upon you, so take it, grasp it tightly and enjoy all that it brings.”
“I’ll miss you, Howard,” Duo sniffed loudly in the man’s ear. “Will I ever see you again?”
Howard chuckled. “Of course you will. Garron and I have been friends since we were boys. After a time, you and Wu Fei will be given leave to fly back and visit, if you have a mind to.”
“I will, Howard. I give you my word.”
The two seemed reluctant to release their embrace on the other, each imagining the future in front of them and feeling equally apprehensive about what awaited them once Duo left the village on the back of his black dragon.
After seeing Duo to bed that night, Howard took the second candle-lit lantern and left the dwelling to visit with Wu Fei for the last time. Next to the black dragon’s hut, he could see Rayer, laying down on the grassy ground, his silver scales shining with reflected moonlight. He assumed Garron was still with his dragon when he didn’t meet him as he approached Wu Fei.
As was his way, the black dragon opened one eye, and it glistened as it reflected the candlelight. Howard set the lantern on the ground and moved to lean against the dragon’s shoulder and near its resting head.
“Well, this is it, Wu Fei,” he said, speaking softly as he addressed the dragon, his mood matching the dimness of the grey light in the hut that came from his lantern. “Duo is like a son to me,” he continued in a thoughtful manner. “And I fear for him, for the uncertain path that lies ahead.”
The man closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. He knew all his worry for the boy was a waste of time and effort. What came tomorrow, a week or even a year was beyond his ability to control. He’d more or less done his job by watching over the boy for most of his childhood, though most of his “watching” had been done at a distance. The last two years he’d spent as the Duo’s appointed guardian had been rewarding. He’d experienced many forms of love in his lifetime, but the depth of love he felt for the orphaned boy had come as a surprise. Though he’d never been privileged to have a lifemate nor children of his own, he was sure he couldn’t care or love a child of his more than he did Duo. And tomorrow everything would change for the both of them once again.
“It’s going to be up to you now to guide him,” Howard continued addressing the silent dragon. “Bolster up his courage when times become difficult; comfort him in times of need. But most of all, protect him and yourself as well. There is nothing more pitiful than a rider without his dragon.”
Howard opened his eyes when he felt his leg being nudged. It was no surprise to see Wu Fei’s snout pressed up against his leg. “I’ll be fine, Wu Fei,” he answered what he assumed the dragon was saying. “But life in Ha’ber will never be the same without you and Duo here. Who knows, maybe I’ll get the itch to travel once again.” He moved from his position and scratched the leathered skin above the dragon’s eyes, knowing it was one of the spots the black dragon enjoyed having rubbed.
“Seems the boy isn’t the only one who’s dreading tomorrow.” Garron’s voice spoke softly from the hut’s entrance.
“I wouldn’t say dreading so much as not excited about what the dawn will take away from here.”
“You needn’t fear, Howard. I’ll watch over him.” The rider moved into the dragon’s nesting area and approached his friend.
“I’d appreciate that.”
Garron sat in front of his friend, also reaching out to pet the dragon’s snout. “Won’t you change your mind and come with us?”
Howard shook his head, looking resigned to his decision. “No. Duo needs to find his way first, independent of me, and establish friends. If I go now he’ll try to spend all his free time with me. I’m someone safe and familiar and he trusts me. Those are the same feelings he needs to experience with the other riders.”
Garron nodded and the air between them grew comfortably quiet. “We’ve never spoken of it before, Howard, but I want to explain to you about Raven, why I had Rayer accept Lilith’s offer to become her lifemate.”
“No,” Howard said firmly, putting his hand up to stop his friend from speaking further. “The past is behind us. We took a chance, had our time together and we each made the choices we felt were for the best, even though at times we proved our youthful foolishness. All in all, I have only one regret... and it has nothing to do with you.”
Garron’s face was a picture of sadness as he gazed at his friend. “You couldn’t have done anything more to save him,” he told his friend.
“I know,” Howard replied with a sigh and ran his fingers through his graying, shoulder-length hair. “It still doesn’t make my life any less empty.”
“But the boy has helped, hasn’t he?”
A slow smile grew on the weathered face. “Yes, he’s helped to fill the gaping hole in my weary heart.”
“Then come back with us. Observe him as his destiny unfolds. If nothing else, it should be interesting to watch.”
Howard nodded, then looked his friend in the eyes. “Interesting and possibly dangerous for Duo. We don’t really know who his enemies will be, Garron. It would be in his best interest to hide who he is for as long as possible. The older he gets the better able he’ll be to handle his situation. Hopefully, he’ll make strong alliances with other riders, maybe even attach himself to a mate who will help protect him.”
“The hair over his eyes is very effective in hiding them,” Garron noted. “I assume that was your idea when you cut it.”
Howard nodded. “Shael Gladstone came to the village, curious about the black dragon and peasant rider. I had to do something to allay any suspicions he might have gotten.”
“Shael? What was he doing this far from Rydell?”
“Searching for new merchandise to sell in the capital.”
“And he didn’t recognize the boy’s heritage?”
“Not to my knowledge. But he was rather pre -occupied with catching up with his lusty and forward daughter who threw herself at Duo. Gave the boy his first kiss and feel of her breasts.”
Garron chuckled. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before. The lad is inordinately attractive.”
“Yes,” Howard agreed. “It’s my good fortune he has been slow to mature and that he’s given all his attention, love and affection to his dragon. His attractiveness hasn’t been a problem before, for in this village he still carries the stigma of being a dark cloud. These people have cared for and even honored him because of his position as a rider, but those who hadn’t warmed to him before have maintained their distance, especially the children.”
“That’s a pity.” Garron rubbed the underside of Wu Fei’s jaw, eliciting a purr from the dragon.
“Maybe and maybe not. It will be easier for him to leave here with so few attachments.”
“Ah... but he’s certainly attached himself to you, hasn’t he?” the rider said knowingly.
“And I to him. I admit that his leaving won’t only be difficult for Duo tomorrow.”
Garron reached over and clapped a supportive hand on his old friend’s shoulder, a look of understanding and sympathy on his face.
The three males rose from their beds with the sun the next morning, each awaking with a different emotion about the approaching time for departure. Being his normally gruff self in the morning, Howard busied himself with fixing porridge while Duo slowly, with seeming reluctance, got out of his bed and began to straighten the bedding... for the last time.
Garron pulled a knapsack out from under the cot he’d been using as a bed, and from out of the leather sack came an armful of clothing. “Duo,” he called out to the boy who turned from his task and promptly came to him. Holding out the bundle, the rider explained, “These clothes are for you. The air is cooler at the heights we’ll be flying today. This clothing will help protect you. If you’ll remove your sleep shirt, I’ll help you dress.”
With eyes that seemed impossibly large, Duo did as he was told and removed his sleeping garment. The rider first presented soft undergarments that were bleached white and long in the arms and legs. Garron explained that the cloth would fit close against his skin, presenting a soft layer between his body and the leather. He instructed Duo to put them on while he held up the next article of clothing, a pair of soft leather pants. They were black, an unusual color for clothing in the Gerza Valley.
“I had these made specifically for you, Duo, to match the color of your dragon.”
The boy gave a nod of his head yet remained unusually quiet and pensive, the mood he’d woken up with that morning. Despite his feelings, he gave the older rider a slight smile that bespoke his gratitude before slipping the pants on over his underclothing. Once the front of his pants were laced up, Garron brought out a shirt which he pulled over the boy’s head. Duo noticed its softness compared to his own clothing, and the cloth was as white as the clouds in a summer sky. The lower half of the shirt was tucked into his pants, something he’d never done before, and the sleeves were fit a bit closer than he was used to, yet not to so much that it restricted his movements.
After tying the woven strings that held the gathered neck of his shirt together, Garron reached for the last garment, a matching short, black leather coat. Duo observed a red quilted lining inside the coat, one more layer that would keep him warm once he and Wu Fei climbed high into the early Spring sky. Garron held the jacket up while Duo gripped the ends of his shirt sleeves in his fingers and eased his arms into the jacket. He shrugged it onto his shoulders, then shifted his shoulder to make it fit more comfortably. Duo noticed Garron was assessing him in his new clothing with a slight frown on his face. “It appears to be a bit large for you,” the older rider said.
“I haven’t grown too much lately,” Duo muttered, well aware of his lack of stature in comparison to the taller people in the Gerza Valley.
“You know that height doesn’t make a man noteworthy, don’t you?” Garron asked. “It’s his deeds and character that makes a person stand out amongst his peers.”
The boy looked up at the rider and considered his words. A small smile indicated he’d liked the man’s reasoning.
Garron clapped his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I have no doubt, my boy, that you will stand tall indeed amongst the riders, no matter how large your stature. You already have an impressive start because Howard is certainly proud of you, and so am I. Guide your actions towards keeping the high regard he has for you and you will never go wrong.”
“Thanks, Garron,” Duo whispered, his emotions beginning to show in his eyes as the time for their departure drew closer.
“Now,” Garron rubbed his hands in anticipation and looked over his shoulder to his old friend, “let’s eat. Are you about ready there, Howard?”
“Yes, it’s ready,” the other man replied as he began to put the wheat porridge into the bowls.
“Do they eat porridge in Rydell for breakfast?” Duo asked the rider.
“Yes, from time to time. It’s good for a growing boy.”
“Oh,” was all the boy said, but his frown told Garron of his dislike for that particular food as he moved to set the table. The two older men shared an amused look as the boy’s nose wrinkled with distaste as the hot clump of cooked grain was set in a bowl before him. He quickly reached for a piece of bread and took a large bite, effectively ending his part in the conversation. There was little more said between the three as they ate their meal for they’d said their goodbyes the night before.
As the dishes were gathered from off the table, a knock sounded on the door and Duo went to open it. He stood in the doorway, unmoving as he gazed out to see the entire village gathered outside their dwelling. The Speaker stepped forward, a large bundle in his arms.
“A gift for you to remember us by,” Charn said, holding out the bundle towards the boy. Duo knew by the shape of the wrapped object that it was one of the tapestries the village was well-known for. Only a few of the more well-to-do villagers owned one as they were costly and usually sold to merchants or the wealthy in far away cities.
“Thank you,” Duo said sincerely, unable to believe he’d been given a gift of such importance and value. He put his arms out to receive it, then staggered under its unexpected weight as it was rolled into his arms. Howard came up from behind and took it from him as the village speaker continued.
“This is your home, Duo,” he began, in a voice loud enough for the entire village behind him to hear. “You might not have always been treated as well as you should have, but as you think on us in the future, I would hope you will find that we did our best for you. This dwelling will remain yours for when you wish to return. Howard may stay or go as he pleases, but it was built for your welfare and so it will remain yours.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Duo said, wide-eyed and overwhelmed by the generosity being shown him.
“Say thank you,” Howard advised, whispering into his ear from behind.
The braided boy turned his head to see his mentor and father figure standing behind him, supporting him and teaching him once again. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Duo willed the moisture from his eyes as he turned back to his audience. “Thanks to all of you for your kindness to myself, Wu Fei and Howard.” He opened his mouth to continue, but found he had nothing more to say.
Seeing the boy was finished, Speaker Charn cleared his throat. “A few of the others have parting gifts for you also if you’ll accept them.” Duo nodded and one by one some of the villagers who’d been kind to him stepped forward, giving him finely woven blankets, clothing, boots and other personal items. Duo accepted them graciously, silently wondering how he was going to carry the extra items on Wu Fei’s back all the way to the distant city of Rydell.
After all the gifts had been given and accepted, Garron stepped forward and addressed the crowd on an official manner. “People of Ha’ber. You have done well in your caring for the black dragon and his rider.” He lifted his hand to show the people of the village the pouch nestled in his palm. “The guild of dragon riders thanks you and now pays its final debt to you. You are now discharged of your duty.”
Garron made a show of placing the pouch into Charn’s extended hands, then bowed and immediately turned his attention to the boy. “Gather your things together, Duo. It’s time we took to the sky.”
The boy with the long braid of hair cast one final look at the people he’d known all his life. Despite his less than pleasant childhood, he knew he would miss them. He bent to gather the things he’d been given and with the help of the other two men, they made their way to the waiting dragons.
They found both dragons waiting for them in the green grass behind Wu Fei’s hut, Next to his black dragon lay a pile of leather that Duo realized was the pad and straps that were designed for a dragon rider. He’d recognized what they represented because he’d seen and admired the one on Rayer’s back each time he and Garron visited.
“Let’s see if you remember how to put the straps on,” Garron said as he leaned against the back wall of the hut and directed a confident smile at the boy.
Duo nodded, accepting the challenge and immediately set to work, his face was etched with determination as he focused on remembering how Garron had showed him how to place the seat and tie the straps. He first got the seat on the cooperating dragon, then had Wu Fei stand again so that he could bring the straps together under his belly and tie them with the knot that Howard had him practice every evening as they sat before the fire before retiring for the night.
Garron watched the boy carefully, and from time to time made a suggestion for how things might be done more easily and praised Duo for each step that was performed correctly.
As Duo finished up, Howard attached the unexpected gifts onto Rayer’s back. Neither he nor Garron wanted to take a chance of the young dragon becoming overly tired on the long journey from the extra weight the gifted items presented, especially when the older dragon was more than capable of carrying them without difficulty. Duo stepped away from Wu Fei to admire his work just as Howard jumped down from the silver dragon, everything secured and ready for flight.
The boy’s smile slowly faded as he watched Howard approach, realizing that the time had come to say their final goodbye. Howard paused to rub Wu Fei’s muzzle and spoke soft words of farewell to him. Duo stepped forward to stand at his mentor’s side and waited only a moment before Howard turned, took him into his arms and held him tightly.
“Be good, hold your head high and know that I’m proud of you,” Howard said with a voice filled with emotion.
“Love you, Howard,” Duo saidwith a hiccup as he fought to hold back a sob wanting to escape his throat.
After a moment Howard put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and pushed him back. Looking into his blue/violet eyes he said firmly and with a shaky smile, “Now be strong for me and do your best, all right?” Unable to speak, Duo nodded his reply.
Garron came forward and briefly embraced his old friend, then turned to Duo with a grin. “Let’s go.”
Within minutes Wu Fei was taking his running leaps over the green grass of the Gerza Valley and launched himself into the sky behind Rayer. Duo tightly grasped onto the new leather strap, his hands protected from the cold and blisters with the gloves Garron had given him after he’d taken his seat on his dragon’s back. He now appreciated the gift, for the gloves helped him hold onto the strap tightly, much better than the rope he’d used before.
As they climbed into the sky, he directed Wu Fei to take a turn over the village, and with tear-filled eyes Duo looked down, taking a last look on the only home he’d ever known. Some of the village children in the fields waved a final farewell to him as they flew over, casting a shadow dragon over the fields being plowed for the spring planting.
Rayer says not to look back but forward to the east where our future lies.
The past is behind us and the future is forward, Duo said, rephrasing his dragon’s words, then added. And between the past and future, Wu Fei, is only you, me and the sky.
As it will always be. Wu Fei’s voice in his head was warm and affectionate, and it comforted the boy’s aching heart.
The silver dragon flew alongside them, guiding the way to the city that had only become real from the tales Howard and Garron had told him. Duo turned his face to the rising sun and even as the chill of the spring morning air bit at his nose, he basked in its promise of a new day.
The dragons and their riders made two stops on their day-long journey to the capital city of Amulah. The rest was a welcome relief to both Wu Fei and Duo. The boy found his backside sore from sitting so long astride his dragon, and Wu Fei welcomed the reprieve to his wings, not used to such a prolonged flight. At each resting point the people from the nearby villages came running out to greet them, bearing food and wine for their refreshment as they gazed with wonder at the black dragon and his handsome rider with the long brown braid. Garron and Duo graciously accepted the food while Rayer led Wu Fei to a nearby body of water for a drink.
Duo was surprised by the friendliness of the villagers towards them. Both boys and girls of all ages enthusiastically greeted him and, because it was so unusual from how he’d been treated in Ha’ber, he found their attention disconcerting. They seemed overly friendly, their smiles too bright as they took turns touching him with their hands and bodies. It was more physical contact than he was used to. Ill at ease by the unwanted actions, his eyes sought out Garron, who in turn must have seen his anxiousness for he excused himself from his conversation with several older villagers and came to his side.
“What are they doing, touching me like they do?” Duo whispered aside to the older rider after Garron asked him what was wrong.
“They’re fawning, flirting and generally showing interest in you.” It was obvious by the boy’s puzzled expression that those words were foreign to the boy. “You’ll find that people treat dragon riders differently than how you were treated in your village. There’s no real explanation, but your position as a rider elevates you in their eyes. They crave to be a part of who and what you are. You must never believe that you’re better than they are, giving into their words of flattery and touches. Some may try to appeal to your vanity in order to get what they crave from you.”
Duo nodded as he eyed with suspicion the giggling teenagers nearby who’d been giving him so much attention. “Howard spoke to me of this. They like me because of what and not who I am.”
Garron gave him a pleased smile. “That’s right. Remember all that Howard told you for he is indeed a wise man.”
Duo agreed, and the both of them turned as they felt and heard the approach of the two dragons, their black and silver scales on their faces and long necks were dripping wet and gleaming in the bright afternoon sun. It looked as if they had enjoyed the water without getting their leather seats and straps wet. The riders finished their meal and gave their thanks to the village, leaving shortly after that and continued their flight to Rydell.
The sun was beginning to edge towards the western horizon when the two dragons neared the city of Rydell. Duo knew from Garron’s and Howard’s descriptions that much of the city had been carved out of a mountainside, but even their descriptive words fell short of the sight before him. The city was certainly carved out of the lower, southern half of the tall mountain. The white stone walls seemed to glisten under the fading afternoon sunshine. From his aerial advantage point on Wu Fei’s back, Duo could see a well used path winding like a snake from the bottom edge of the city, weaving a trail back and forth as it climbed upward to the upper levels, like the trails wolderbeasts and other wild animals made on the Mountains that surrounded the Gerza Valley. The inside of that stone paved path was lined with buildings, each with colorful doors and little to no space between neighboring walls. Beautiful pieces of cloth were tied to poles, staked and displayed outside many of those doorways, adding a vibrant contrast to the stark white of the stone city.
Three quarters of the way up the mountain, several layers of out-cropping ledges were visible. They too were carved out of the mountainside, and Rayer told Wu Fei that the many red flags set out and fluttering in the breeze outside those walls marked the dragons’ lairs. As they drew nearer, Duo could see dragons of various colors sitting or lying down on the other side of the carved walls with a few perched on the ledge, looking large and majestic as they viewed the valley and also their approach.
Rayer says that behind the tiered lairs are where the Halls of Dornan lie. Above that is the home of the King who reigns over this land, Wu Fei reported
Nearly there, Duo was able to see that red flags were emblazoned with gold dragons, the emblem of the guild of dragon riders.
Rayer tells me my nest is on the bottom tier, third from the far right. It’s a place where all fledglings reside when they first arrive. Duo looked to where his dragon indicated as Wu Fei continued towards it. Garron says we are to land and wait for him to join us.
Duo turned in his seat to wave at the older rider, showing him he got the message. He then watched as Rayer flew upwards to the highest tier of balconies, and thought with wonder that one day he and Wu Fei, once they were fully trained, would have a place up there as well.
Wu Fei brought his hind legs forward and beat his wings faster in order to clasp the rounded edge of the balcony with his talons. Gaining his balance, he gingerly stepped down onto the stone-carved floor.
I want a bed of straw, was the dragon’s first comment on his new home, and his rider thought it sounded more like a petulant demand than a request. He figured his dragon was tired from the long journey.
I’ll see what I can do after Garron gets here. But for now, hold still . Duo then pulled off his black leather gloves and began to untie the straps that held his legs in place. Once he was free, he eased his sore posterior off the seat and climbed stiffly off his dragon. He winced when his half numb feet hit the unyielding stone floor.
I need to feed soon. The journey was long and taxing.
As soon as Garron arrives. Duo tried to sound patient, but in all truth, he was feeling as anxious and tired from the journey as his dragon was.
Wu Fei’s head turned sharply to the left. Duo followed his line of sight to see the head of a white dragon pop up over the shared edge. Wu Fei shifted in order to position himself to touch the dragon’s nose, then rubbed his neck against the other dragon’s, greeting the other just as he’d been taught by Rayer.
I take it you’ve made a friend already, Duo said, hoping it was true. He knew dragons had differing temperaments, just like humans. Some were good natured and others could be cranky or surly, but that, Howard had told him, was usually how they became when they waxed old.
His name is Sandrock, Wu Fei reported.And he’s the only white dragon in the Halls of Dornan.
Is his rider there?
No, he isat the evening meal.
Send my greetings to Sandrock and to his rider. I look forward to meeting her.
Him. Duo didn’t know why he assumed the white dragon had a female rider. It must have been because Sandrock appeared to be friendly and gentle.
His name is Quatre.
Duo said the odd name out loud a few times to get a feel for it and wondered what a rider with such a name would look like.
Sandrock and his rider come from a land that lies beyond the White Sands of Goleta. His father is the leader of a large nomadic tribe.
Duo nodded, and yawned as his dragon spoke, his weariness from the day-long ride was quickly catching up to him. Wu Fei settled down on the cold rock but stretched his head up to converse with the white dragon, leaving a nice warm place in the fold of his front legs and belly for the boy to rest in. Duo settled down into that place and shut out the sound of his dragon’s voice in his head. His own stomach growled and tightened a bit, but he didn’t really feel hungry. He was feeling nervous about this strange world he’d come to and the new life that loomed before him.
He meant to only shut his eyes for a few moments, but when he was awakened by a hand placed on his shoulder, the dim light that surrounded Garron told him he’d been asleep for quite a while.
The older man took hold of the upper arm of the disoriented-looking boy and pulled him to his feet. “I’ve got food and a bed waiting inside for you,” he told the boy as he led him towards a thick wooden door that was set in the back wall of Wu Fei’s lair. “When I said wait for me, I didn’t mean outside. You could have explored your quarters. I just didn’t want you wandering the halls and getting lost.”
Garron guided him into a large stone-walled room, as big in size as his dwelling in Ha’ber that he’d shared with Howard. Candles had been lit and set in several areas, allowing Duo enough light to have a good look at the interior of his new home. To his left was a large bed, and Duo marveled at the size of it. It was wide enough to hold three grown men, he thought. There were several plain, wooden chests set about the room, providing a flat place for the candle holders to sit. A small fireplace and hearth were set on the outside wall, and Duo didn’t doubt that he’d be using that often as there was a pervasive chill inside the stone walls that defied the warm Spring day that had just passed. There was a table with a stool set beneath it, and on top of it was a pitcher set in a bowl and a tray with a plate piled high with food to sate his appetite and a metal cup filled with liquid for his thirst.
“This room is yours. Its main function is for sleeping and dressing. Most activities will occur in the larger public rooms used for instruction, eating, bathing and recreational activities. Come and eat.” He led Duo to the desk, pulled out the stool and sat the boy down.
As the first spoonful of food went into his mouth, Garron spoke again. “Wash yourself and clean your teeth after you’ve finished,” he pointed to the pitcher and basin. “Then go to bed. I’ll ask the boy in the lair next to yours to come and take you to the dining hall in the morning. He’ll show you around and will remain your guide until you are familiar with the your new home.”
“Quatre?” Duo guessed
“You’ve met him?” Garron looked surprised.
“No,” Duo answered with a mouthful of food. “Wu Fei and Sandrock have met.”
A smile grew on the man’s face. “You’ll find Quatre to be equally as friendly and approachable as his dragon. He’s a good boy, like you, Duo. He’ll be a good friend.”
“Is he my age?” Duo was warming to the conversation.
“He’s almost fifteen summers and is small in stature, as you are.”
“Then we’ll have something in common.” Duo smiled, then said thoughtfully, “I’d like to have a friend. I’ve never really had one my age before.”
He looked up at the rider with a curious gleam in his eyes. “You and Howard have been friends for a long time, how does a person go about finding a friend and then keeping him?”
A small sad smile graced the older man’s face as he was reminded once again of Duo’s less than happy life. The boy before him had been given so little during his time in Ha’ber. Not only had he been deprived a home and a family by unfortunate circumstances, but also the wonderful gift of friendship because of the stigma of being a dark cloud. Again, Garron cursed the superstitions of an ignorant village. He decided that he would do all in his power to make sure the boy would never go without the necessities and comforts of life ever again.
“You have nothing to worry about, Duo. Your openness and friendly nature will bring you friends. Just be true to yourself and then true to your new friends and let friendship find its own course.”
There was a knock on the door opposite the side of the room from which he’d entered by way of Wu Fei’s lair. Garron went to the wooden door and opened it, allowing three men dressed in simple brown clothing to enter, each carried a large armful of fresh golden straw. They went directly to the door leading to Wu Fe’s lair and accompanied by Garron who would introduce them to the black dragon, telling him they meant no harm.
It took many trips back and forth through his room until the men finished unloading the large amount of straw from the handcarts in the hallway and then spread it out on the floor of Wu Fei’s lair. In the end, his dragon had a thick bed of fresh straw, and Duo could feel his dragon’s contentment as he rested his belly down on his sweet smelling bed and settled himself down for the night.
Duo stood as the three crossed through his room for the last time. “Thank you,” he called out his sincere gratitude. “Wu Fei is very pleased.”
The three men gave him a slight nod in return for his gratitude and then quickly left the room. “Who are they?” Duo turned to ask the older rider.
“They are from the serving guild. You’ll see many of them as they carry out their duties. Those men see to the comforts of our dragons while others cook, serve meals, clean our clothing and rooms and generally keep the Halls of Dornan clean.
“Are they slaves?” Duo frowned at the idea. Howard had spoken of slavery and his distaste for it. It was not a practice followed in Amulah, but there were within the kingdom a good number of indentured servants. Howard frowned on that practice as well, saying it took away a person’s right to live his or her own life, not so different from slavery.
“No, this is how they make a living. They work and get a weekly wage. You would do well to continue to treat them with respect and good manners.”
Duo nodded, never having thought he’d treat them any differently. He knew only too well what it was like to be treated poorly and had vowed to himself to never treat anyone like he’d been treated in Ha’ber.
“Come, I’ll help you unstrap Wu Fei and unpack your things, then I’ll see you into your bed.”
Working together the two finished the tasks quickly, then Garron directed the boy to undress for bed and then tucked him snugly into his new bed with several blankets the villagers had given to him placed over the slender, curled up body.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Garron looked down at the boy and smiled. “Tomorrow is a big day for you,” he said. He then began to outline how his day would unfold after having his breakfast in the great hall with the other riders. His first lesson would be in weaponry, followed by bathing in the communal baths. After re-dressing there would be further instruction about the history of Amulah. The young riders would meet for the mid-day meal after which Duo would be allowed return to Wu Fei until the time that each boy attended to his assigned duty. There was free time each afternoon for the riders to fly with their dragons, and the older riders would often take several of them at a time to teach them techniques of fighting while on the back of their dragons.
Duo felt certain that he was going to forget all that Garron was telling him. His worry must have shown on his face because the older rider smiled and consolingly patted his head. “Quatre will lead you around the first couple of days. He’ll make sure you’re where you need to be.”
Garron stood and stretched, stifling a yawn. “Good night, Duo. And welcome to the Halls of Dornan.”
“Night, Garron. Thank you for everything,” the boy answered sleepily.
The older man smiled down on the boy with great fondness. Picking up the candle on the chest next to the bed, he went around the room and slowly snuffed out the flickering flames until the light in his hand was the only one left. He left the room and it was plunged into darkness.
Duo closed his eyes, left now with only his thoughts and Wu Fei’s comforting presence in his mind. What do you think of this place? he asked his dragon.
It’s different from what we’ve known, but the white dragon is ... friendly./
His rider is going to show me around the halls tomorrow.
Then all will be well. Sandrock tells me his rider is the best of all humans he’s met.
Duo snorted. Of course he’d say that. He chose him for his rider.
He’s wrong. Wufei's tone was serious.
How so? Duo asked amused.
I chose the best.
A smile came to the boy’s lips. I’m the best for you and Sandrock chose the best for him.
Feeling himself giving into the need for sleep, Duo rolled onto his other side and huddled into the soft pillow that lay beneath his head. Good night, Wu Fei. You’re the best, most beautiful dragon in the world.
A purr rumbled in Duo’s fading mind in response to his praise. Sleep well, child of wonder.
Note : I somehow managed to survive yet another family vacation. sighs with
relief Hope this long chapter makes up for the length of time it's taken me
to get it posted. Thanks to all for yourcomments and emails.