Dark Cloud Rising
by Dyna Dee
The following morning, Duo made a point of picking at his food and performing poorly during the training exercises. Sims approached him with a look of concern and asked if he was ill. Not knowing if the older rider knew of Garron's request, the fledgling replied that indeed he wasn't feeling well. Frowning, the older rider studied his face, then put his hand on his forehead. "It's my stomach," he told the doubtful looking man. "I think I'm going to lose my breakfast."
Remembering quite well Duo's disastrous first day in training, the weapons trainer dismissed him early to either go to the bathing room or to retire to his bed. Duo opted to go straight to his room where he would use the water in his basin to freshen up after his unimpressive sparring match.
He spent the rest of the morning with Wu Fei, complaining about having to miss the evening's festivities for a reason that hadn't been explained to his satisfaction. Garron's request just didn't make sense. The older rider had stated that his missing the much anticipated event was to keep him safe; but why would someone want to harm him?
Wu Fei patiently listened to his complaints, but truly couldn't understand his rider's disappointment in light of the opportunity to spend more time with him. When it came down to it, even though Duo didn't understand having to miss the biggest celebration of the year, he had implicit trust in Garron, as did Wu Fei, and so he was willing to obey.
Hearing the distant bell announcing the mid-day meal, Duo hurriedly removed his cape, tunic and then the rest of his clothing before slipping on his nightshirt and climbing into his bed, just in case someone came to check up on him. He decided that if he had to miss all the fun that evening, he was going to make sure that he used the same excuse of being sick for missing his afternoon studies with Jan.
He was just about to doze off when a knock sounded on his door. After calling out to enter, the door opened. Heero entered the room with Ze'an on his heels, the latter carrying a platter of food while Heero held a cup of something that was steaming.
"Sims said that you're not feeling well," Heero said as he moved to the side of the bed and set the cup down, a look of concern on his face.
"It's not too bad," Duo hurriedly assured his friend.
"We brought some food in case you were hungry," Ze'an stated with a nod to the tray of food and a broad grin, his white teeth gleaming brightly in contrast to his dark skin.
"Just set it on the end of the bed." Duo pointed to the place where it should go. "I'll eat something later." Remembering that he was supposed to have a sour stomach he quickly added, "If I feel up to it."
Heero reached his hand towards Duo's forehead, but the braided boy intercepted it by grabbing hold of his wrist. He recalled how Howard and Garron used to feel his face when he was ill, touching his skin for any sign of fever. Knowing he didn't have one, he needed to keep Heero from finding that out. "Better not get too close, Heero. It might be catching." Thankfully, Heero stepped back.
Duo pulled his covers higher, up to his chin. "It's kind of cold in here. Could one of you add some wood to the fire or get one of the servers to help?"
"I'll do it," Heero offered, moving immediately to the small fireplace and carefully placed a fresh log and some kindling on the already burning embers. While he worked, Ze'an's gaze remained on Duo as he asked, "Does this mean you won't be attending the celebration tonight?"
"Not if I don't feel any better. I think the royal family would frown on shaking hands with someone who might lose their dinner at any moment and embarrassing them in front of all their guests."
The dark-skinned boy grinned as he said, "No, I suppose that would be considered rude." Duo could only imagine that Ze'an was remembering his stomach upsets in the past. The smile he wore was definitely one of amusement. Evidently not enough time had passed from those embarrassing moments, because he still summon up any humor when recalling those past mishaps.
"So what will you two be doing with your free time this afternoon?" Duo asked, trying his best to sound sickly.
"Getting ready for tonight, of course," Ze'an declared with a grin and a definite sparkle of anticipation in his dark eyes.
"Relena wants to fly this afternoon," Heero stated as he put the metal poker back in its place. He straightened and returned to Duo's side and again gazed with concern on the bed-bound boy.
"Would you mind taking Wu Fei with you?" Duo asked. "Otherwise he'll have to stay in his lair until I'm better, which doesn't seem fair."
Heero nodded. "If he would like to, I'm sure Relena will be pleased to have his company. Perhaps Sandrock would like to come also."
Duo paused a moment to speak with his dragon, resting on the other side of the closed and bolted door. After reassuring his dragon that he was fine but that he would be resting in his room that afternoon, he told him of Heero's plans to fly with Relena and that he'd been invited to join them. After receiving Wu Fei's response, Duo opened his eyes and smiled. "He looks forward to it," he said. The three friends spoke a few moments longer before the other two boys excused themselves and returned to their rooms.
While eating the food Ze'an had thoughtfully delivered, Duo remembered to ask Wu Fei not to speak to the other dragons of Garron's request that he stay away from the celebration. It wouldn't do for him to play sick only to have his dragon tell the other dragons otherwise. Wu Fei didn't see any need for deception, but in the end he agreed to keep that bit of information to himself.
With that taken care of, Duo buried himself deeper under the blankets and unhappily pondered the reason for his having to miss the celebration. Before long the warmth of his bedding and the room, the food and hot drink he'd rapidly consumed, all worked together in lulling the boy into gentle slumber. It wasn't until he heard Wu Fei's wings flapping in the air, signaling that he was off for some afternoon fun, that he fell into a deeper sleep.
Startled awake by a hand placed firmly over his mouth, Duo's eyes snapped open, his gaze focusing on a cloaked, hooded figure leaning over him. Aided by the dim light in his room, the person's face was completely obscured by the concealing fur-lined hood.
"Do not call out for man or dragon, I mean you no harm," a deep male voice firmly ordered. "There are questions I wish to ask you. If I remove my hand will you agree to not call out?"
Duo frowned, wondering if this could be the person Garron was trying to protect him from. Feeling vulnerable, laying in his bed in only his bedclothes, he conceded to the man's request by a nod of his head. He remembered that even if he wanted to call out to Wu Fei, it wouldn't do him any immediate good, for his dragon was off flying with Relena and Heero. He could only hope that the man was being truthful when he said that he wouldn't harm him.
The hand over his mouth was slowly removed, but the man continued to lean over him, purposely intimidating. "Tell me your name."
Duo swallowed nervously. "Duo. Who are you? What do you want?"
The man ignored his questions and asked, "Your sire's name?"
Intimidated by the stranger, the boy answered, "I don't know."
A disbelieving snort came from the hood. "You don't know who your parents are?"
"I didn't say that," Duo replied defensively. "I know who my mother was."
"And what was her name?"
"No last name?"
"I'm sure she had one, I just don't know it."
There was another long pause and then a slight chuckle came from the stranger. "Ah, yes. I do recall a girl by that name." The man seemed to be talking to himself more than to the boy in the bed. "She was one of Queen's younger ladies at court years ago. Now that I've had a good look at you, I can see a strong resemblance. Is she in Rydell?"
"You knew my mother?" This was an unexpected piece of information for the orphaned boy, and though he was excited that this stranger knew about his mother and possibly had answers to where she had come from, he was justifiably wary of the man and the reason for his improper visit.
"I only know of her. Again, is she living in Rydell?"
"No," the boy answered quietly. "She's dead."
"Who raised you?"
"The people of Ha'ber and Howard, my mentor. Why do you want to know about me?" Duo asked the hovering, cloaked man.
His uninvited visitor ignored his question yet again and more or less muttered to himself, "Of course, I should have guessed Howard would have had some hand in this." Then looking at Duo once more he asked, "Did no one speak to you regarding your father?"
Duo looked up into the dark space of the hood, just barely making out the shadowed features of the man's face. "Only that he wasn't from Ha'ber and that my mother came to the village with me in her belly and close to being delivered. Who are you and what do you want?" Duo demanded, feeling frustrated by this stranger questioning him about such private matters and giving him no answers in return.
"My reasons are my own," the man replied firmly. "But now that I have my questions answered I'll leave you to your rest." Straightening, the man in the dark cloak turned and moved towards the door. He paused with his hand on the latch and turned his head to look back at the boy in the bed. "I wouldn't tell anyone about our meeting today. If you do, I'll be forced to tell them of your wandering into the lower halls of the Palace without permission." With that thin threat hanging in the air, the cloaked man slipped out of the room.
Duo sat up the moment the door closed and stared at it with disbelief, wondering what had just happened. Why was that man, a virtual stranger to him, so interested in his parentage? He went over every word the stranger had said, how he knew who his mother was and believing that she'd been a part of the Queen's court. Who were his parents? And if they had lived in the royal palace, why had his mother fled the court and run off to Ha'ber? The stranger also implied that Howard knew more about him than what he'd let on. Was his parentage the reason why Howard and Garron had been so protective of him?
Perplexed and frustrated, he lowered himself back down to his bed, pulled the covers up and clutched them tightly to his chin. He carefully considered what he should do with the information garnered from the stranger's visit and the threat the man tossed over his shoulder on his way out. It didn't take more than a moment for Duo to decided that he had no choice but to tell Garron what had happened, even if it meant getting into trouble for sneaking into the palace above. Yes, he would tell Garron about his surprise visitor the next morning, after the night's celebration.
Unable to sleep any longer, Duo felt a bit more easy after hearing the recognizable flapping of Wu Fei's wings as he returned to his lair.
//Relena's rider is curious to know if you are feeling better,// his black dragon said as he settled onto his thick bed of straw.
//Tell Relena that I'm feeling just a little bit better,// Duo replied, keeping on the safe side of his ruse. He couldn't have Heero or Ze'an trying to persuade him to go to the celebration when he'd given Garron his word that he wouldn't.
//Her rider wants to know if you would like him to stay behind tonight, to give you companionship.//
Duo wondered if he'd heard right. //Heero would miss the celebration just to sit with me?// he asked with disbelief.
There was a pause before Wu Fei answered with a simple, //Yes.//
The braided boy forgot all about his mysterious visitor and anything else that had occupied his thoughts as he tried to define his feelings after hearing of Heero's selfless offer. From all the talk between the riders in the halls he knew that, other than the mating celebration in the spring, tonight was one of the most anticipated events of the year, and Heero had offered to miss it in order to sit by his side. No one, other than Howard, had ever willingly gone out of their way for him in such a manner. A warm, almost overwhelming feeling of... well, he didn't quite know what it was, only that he felt an incredible warmth towards the other boy. The sensation was stronger than the feelings of friendship he'd felt for Quatre and different from how he felt about Howard, Garron or even Wu Fei, who commanded the strongest feeling from him that he'd ever known.
As generous as Heero's offer had been, Duo knew he couldn't take this one special night of the year away from him. //Tell Heero he has my heartfelt gratitude, but I would like him to go to the celebration so he can tell me all about it in great detail tomorrow. If he wouldn't mind, he could come to my room and show me his new clothing before he goes.//
There was a lengthy pause before Wu Fei's voice returned. //Relena says that her rider is disappointed at your not going, but he will do as you request and come to your room before departing for the celebration.//
From that point, Wu Fei spoke to his rider of his outing that afternoon, of the cold wind coming from the north and of his enjoyment of Relena and Sandrock's company. He added that the blue dragon's rider seemed to be very kind.
As the long day drew nigh to evening, Duo lay in his bed even after hearing the excited voices of the other riders outside his bedroom door as they prepared for the evening, still feeling resentful at his forced absence from the event. A short while later the sound of dragon wings flapping in the cold evening air signaled that the others were leaving the halls for the royal palace above. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the fine clothing the celebrants would wear, what kind of food and entertainment they might enjoy. Being that he'd never been to a royal celebration before, his imagination could only conjure up images of the best food and entertainment presented at the celebrations of Ha'ber, which would no doubt pale greatly when compared to a royal party.
A bold knock sounded on his door.
Heero entered the room at Duo's call to enter. The older boy appeared almost shy as he closed the door behind him and stepped towards the bed. Duo's eyes widened at the sight of his friend, dressed in his new clothing and looking unbelievably handsome. Heero wore form-fitting black pants which were tucked neatly into snug, leather knee boots of the same color. The shirt he wore under his tunic was the blue material they'd picked out in the clothier's shop in Rydell. The color seemed to enhance the deep blue of his eyes, and Duo couldn't help but think that Heero was the most attractive person he'd ever met.
Now standing at his bedside, Heero extended his arms and held out a bundle of cloth and small sprig of green leaves to the bedridden boy. "What's this?" Duo asked, taking both items from his friend.
"This is my gift, the shirt you were to wear tonight. I'm sorry you're not well enough to attend the celebration, but perhaps you might find another occasion to wear it."
Duo felt the fine white material with his fingertips and wished all the more that he could have gone to the celebration with Heero. "And this?" He held up the sprig.
"Mint. It's supposed to settle an upset stomach. Though it's better brewed in hot water, you can take a small piece from a leaf and suck on it as well."
Tearing off a minute portion of one leaf, Duo did as Heero instructed while watching the other boy sit close to his side on the edge of his bed. His eyes widened a moment after the small bit of mint touched his tongue. The taste was unbelievably strong and instantly cleared his head. He quickly swallowed it down.
"Feeling any better?" Heero said with a hopeful look.
"Yeah... maybe a little bit," Duo answered, still feeling the effects of the plant in his mouth. The smile that rose on Heero's face seemed well worth trying something new.
"Are you sure you can't go to the celebration?"
Duo nodded. "I was told to stay in bed by Garron. I was hoping that maybe you could save me some sweets, if they have any extra."
Heero sighed, obviously disappointed. Sitting up, Duo smiled warmly at his friend, pleased with his concern for his well being. And then suddenly, he realized just how close their faces were, especially when Heero turned towards him. Duo watched as the deep blue eyes studied his face for a moment, then slowly the other boy's gaze lowered to focus on his lips. Duo licked them nervously.
"What was it like to kiss Quatre?" Heero asked in a soft voice, his eyes still fixed on Duo's mouth.
"Ah... why do you want to know?" Fully aware of Heero's close scrutiny, the braided boy nervously licked his lips once more.
Heero shrugged, his eyes rising slight to connect with Duo's. "I've never willingly kissed someone before," Heero began. "The only kisses I've had were forced on me by Zechs. I guess I'm just curious as to whether or not it can be pleasant."
Duo blushed as he recalled just how pleasurable kissing could be. "Yeah, it can be real nice."
"Could I... um, that is, would you mind if I kiss you?"
Nothing Heero could have said would have surprised the braided boy more. "I thought you wanted to wait until you were bonded with a mate."
Looking aside, as if he were embarrassed, Heero answered, "Trowa and I have discussed this, and we've decided that kissing might not be too intimate an activity to engage in. A few shared kisses shouldn't make one become overly attached, should it?"
Now Duo's eyes lowered to the other boy's mouth and he wondered what it would be like to kiss those soft pink lips, shaped so perfectly. He wisely kept to himself that while he was kissing Quatre he'd been imagining the lips and mouth he'd been exploring had been Heero's, that the body he'd held had been the dark-haired boy's, as was the stiff member that had ground against his own arousal, searching for release. "Okay," he heard himself answer.
Heero nodded, then chewed at his lower lip a moment before asking, "Can you show me how?"
He was suddenly very grateful that he and Quatre had practiced kissing each other. After all, this was the very reason why he'd agreed to the blond boy's suggestion, that if they ever got the chance to kiss the person they'd set their heart on, they would not be found lacking. No matter the barriers that separated them, Duo could not deny that he'd set his heart on Heero. Knowing that Heero would have someone else as his bonded mate, he decided to take this opportunity and savor every moment, making a memory that would have to last a lifetime. With a nod of his head, he agreed to Heero's request.
"Turn your body a bit more so that you're facing me," Duo instructed, and smiled with amusement as Heero quickly complied. Then noticing the rigidness of the other boy's shoulders, he put his hands on his upper arms and gently rubbed them in a soothing motion. "Relax, Heero, and close your eyes."
A tingle of anticipation grew Duo when Heero's eyes closed and the dark eyelashes rested gently on his upper cheeks. Leaning forward, Duo brought his face close enough to feel Heero's breath on his lips and took just a moment to appreciate the closer view of the other boy. Tilting his head, he gently pressed his lips against Heero's and closed his eyes to fully enjoy the sensation. Lightly moving his lips over the other boy's, he relished the feel and taste of Heero perfect lips. Pulling back after a few, too brief blissful moments, both boys opened their eyes. Heero smiled shyly. "So that's a kiss," he said in a hushed voice.
"That's just the beginning." Duo smiled back. "Did you like it?"
Heero nodded. "Can we try it again?"
The braided boy's heart began to beat more rapidly at the simple request. "All right, just follow my lead." This time Duo extended the kiss, deepening the pressure and exploring every aspect of those pleasure giving lips. He didn't go past Heero's lips, though he let his tongue tease the crease of the other boy's mouth. He pulled back again when he felt an awakening in his groin. The two boys locked eyes, and in that silent exchange they forgot everything else but the person before them.
"Thank you," Hero said, blushing shyly.
"My pleasure." Duo couldn't chuckling as happiness seemed to fill his being. Then without warning, Heero leaned forward for one last, brief kiss. When it ended, his face remained close to Duo's as he confessed, "I've wanted to do that for the longest time." He then pulled back and smiled at the look of surprise on the fledgling's face.
Stunned by the confession, Duo asked, "For how long?"
"Since that first day in the bathing pool, when Quatre washed your hair."
Duo pulled his long braid forward. "You like my hair?"
Heero nodded, his eyes fixed on the braid. Duo smiled, then said, "Maybe, when the pool is in use again in the spring, you can help me wash it."
The blue eyes rose to meet his own, bright at the suggestion. Then suddenly they dulled. "Relena will take a mate in the Spring. When that happens, I'll also be mated and will move to the next level in the Halls."
Duo's smile faded as well. "Oh, yeah. I'd forgotten." And it was true. From the moment Heero had confessed his desire to kiss him, he truly had forgotten that they could not be anything more than friends. He searched Heero's face and in his eyes he saw regret and sadness, a reflection of his own feelings.
Heero stood abruptly. "I better go or I'll miss the opening ceremony and food."
Duo remained in his bed, saddened that their moment had ended. Before Heero reached the door, he called out to him, trying his best to keep his voice light. "Have a good evening, Heero."
After opening the door, Heero paused, then turned his head to look back at the boy in the bed with an expression of regret on his face. Duo's breath caught in his throat as he gazed at the handsome boy, his heart aching with longing. "Good night, Duo. I'll see you tomorrow."
Duo managed his best, most cheerful grin and watched the other boy slip out of his room, the door shutting behind him. The forced smile wilted as soon as the latch fell in place, and he immediately began to berate himself for giving into Heero's request. What was he thinking? His growing feelings for the older boy could only end in further heartache. When the time came for Relena to choose a mate in the Spring, there was no chance that she would choose Wu Fei. He had learned from Ze'an that the younger dragons were sent away when the females displayed behavior that indicated they were going into season. Because of his age, he and Wu Fei would be far from the Halls when the mating occurred. And when he returned, Heero, Trowa and even Quatre would probably be mated and living on the upper floors of the Halls of Dornan. Sure, he'd still see them in their training sessions, but that thought left him comfortless. He didn't want Heero for just a training partner. He wanted the impossible.
After all sounds of life in the corridors ceased and the silence grew heavy, Duo put on his cloak and slipped his fur lined boots onto his feet before going to the door that led to his dragon. Despite the icy cold of the evening, he needed the comfort only his dragon's presence could bring.
Nestled on a thick bed of fresh straw, the black dragon opened his eyes as his rider stepped out onto the balcony. Duo walked to him and pressed his body up against the bridge of Wu Fei's nose, wrapping his arms around the black, scaly face. The rumbling that emanated from the dragon's belly relayed his pleasure at the contact. No words were shared between the boy and his dragon, just the welcomed contact of two souls who were bound to each other for as long as they lived.
When Duo's limbs became too cold to remain out of doors any longer, he released the hold on his dragon. "Good night, Wu Fei," he whispered before kissing the scaly face.
//Sleep well,// his dragon replied with a contented rumble.
Returning to his room, Duo put some more wood in the fireplace and with the poker stoked the burning embers to life, the hot flames quickly catching on the bark of the chopped wood.
A sudden, unexpected knock on his door startled him. He quietly set down the poker and jumped onto his bed, tossed off his boots and cloak, then scrambled under the blankets. "Enter," he called out as he flung himself into a reclining position and pulled the blankets up to his chin.
A large, unknown man came through the door. Duo was relieved to see that he wore the plain brown clothing of the servers, the drab color was broken by a scarlet sash worn about his waist, indicating that he was from the palace above. Once he'd fully entered the room, Duo could see that the man carried a cloth covered tray.
"I am Norel," the server announced in a monotone voice while executing a slight, respectful bow. After straightening, he continued, "I am a server from the palace above. When the assemblage learned of your illness, it was suggested a tray of food be brought down to you. Are you able to partake?"
"I can try," Duo answered. It was only after he spoke that the man approached the bed. The braided boy sat up and watched as the tray was set down on the blanket covered mattress. When the cloth over it was removed, it revealed a sumptuous feast on a metal platter along with a large elaborately-carved metal cup filled with a dark liquid.
"I hope you find the food and wine to your liking," the man said, straightening and taking a step back from the bed.
"Thank you," Duo said, almost speechless by the amount of food set before him.
"Do not feel you must eat the entire meal," the server said with a hint of a smile. "I'll return and remove the tray after you've had some time to eat." The tall man then bowed again at the waist and was out of the room before Duo could manage a response.
The fledgling's eyes remained on the large piece of meat that took up most of the space on the large platter. It was surrounded by bread, cheese and various types of vegetables. Picking up a warm piece of cooked carrot, he popped it into his mouth and relished the sweetness of it. He set a couple aside, intending to share them with Wu Fei, knowing carrots had been his dragon's favorite treat from the garden in Ha'ber.
Using the knife, set next to the plate, he cut a small piece off of the large portion of meat, speared it and then popped it into his mouth. He closed his eyes and chewed slowly, savoring the taste of the well-seasoned meat that seemed to melt in his mouth.
After several more bites, he picked up the metal cup and drank from it. Not used to drinking wine, for ale was served to the young riders in the halls at mealtime, he found the taste bitter on his tongue and the aftertaste altogether unpleasant. He ate a good amount of the tasty meal, thinking that he could only have enjoyed it more had his friends been there with him.
The platter and cup were nearly empty when he finally pushed the tray away. The warmth of the room as well as his full stomach was once more making him feel completely content and very sleepy. Making sure not to knock the tray off the bed, he lay back down and pulled the covers up to his neck and promptly slipped into an unnaturally deep sleep.
One candle mark later, the same server who had brought the tray of food earlier reentered the room after his knock on the door had gone unanswered. He moved silently within the dim light of the room and checked on the silent boy. The server concluded that he was sound asleep. Taking the tray, he blew out the lone, burning candle then turned and left the room as silently as he'd entered.
No sooner had the man begun to climb up the stairs to the palace above, when a dark-cloaked figure stole into the slumbering boy's room. Working by the dim light coming from the fireplace, the interloper pulled the covers away from the boy, then quickly bent to the task locating his clothing and dressing him, including his boots and fur-lined cape. The braided boy remained sound asleep while the stranger snugly wrapped several of his thick blankets around the unresponsive body, then carefully eased the bundle over his shoulder and left the room without having disturbed the unaware dragon sleeping in the lair just outside the young rider's room.
The celebration in the palace on the top of the mountain was well underway, with those celebrating unaware of nefarious deed being carried out under their very noses. The music and laughter filtered out into the night as the man made his way up the carved stairwells to the lower levels of the Palace. As he'd anticipated, he met no one in the corridors he had carefully selected for his passage.
Breathing more heavily than usual from carrying the bundled boy up the steep stairs, he pressed on, each step taken with caution against a misstep until he reached the terrace just outside the palace. He skirted the ornate garden, its manicured trees and shrubs giving him cover, until he came upon the path he sought. Turning his back to the sounds of the celebration coming from within the palace walls, he began the climb up the uneven, rock-strewn path until at last he reached the summit of the mountain and crossed over to the northern, uninhabited side. By moonlight and cautious steps, he began the descent down the other side, often losing his footing and sliding downward towards his final destination: a ledge that jutted out from the mountain's side, just enough to support a dragon.
Once his feet settled on the relatively flat, more stable surface, he eased the slumbering boy over his shoulder and placed the blanket-wrapped body on the cold ground while he caught his breath.
Looking out over the valley below, barely visible under the light of the quarter moon, he felt the sting of the cold air, hinting that the killing winds of the north were forthcoming. Wrapping his cloak more tightly around him, he watched and waited in the eerie, shadowed silence as the evening stretched on.
As the chill began to seep into his bones, the kidnapper began to worry for his well being as well as the boy's. Though there were worse fates than being frozen to death, he mused. If, by some bizarre chance he were discovered on this ledge with the missing rider, there was little doubt that his days would be numbered, and those few he might be allowed would not be spent pleasantly.
Listening to the few sounds that could be heard on a new winter's night: the screech of a night owl and nocturnal animals scurrying about on the mountain, he caught the faint, familiar sound of dragon in flight, which meant his business that evening was just about to come to an end. He bent to pick up the bundled boy, and with him secured in his arms he stepped back to make room for the approaching dragon.
In the faint light of the moon and stars, the dark, menacing shape of a dragon approach from above, angling to land not far from the edge. Once the flying beast's talons touched stone, the massive wings flapped once, sending a bone-freezing draft of air towards the waiting man and the bundle in his arms, then folded to the dragon's sides. From the moonlight coming from behind him, the outline of a heavily cloaked rider sitting atop the dragon could be seen, though not his or her face.
"You have the boy?" a gruff, male voice aaked him.
"Yes. Just as I promised."
"You're certain he's the one you told us about, the rider of the black dragon?"
"Yes, and I spoke with him earlier, confirming that he is indeed who I believed him to be, and he's come into our hands with no one the wiser."
"He is unharmed?"
"I merely drugged his supper."
"Excellent," the gravelly voice of the dragon rider replied, sounding pleased. "Hand him to me and I'll be on my way."
"My reward?" the mercenary inquired, and a moment later the sound of a purse, heavy with coin, dropped onto the frozen ground.
Moving forward, the kidnaper watched as the large dragon knelt down, allowing him to climb up onto the scaled leg in order to pass the boy to the rider, reaching down to accept him.
"You're certain he'll not awaken until morning?" the rider asked.
"Yes. The elixir is fast acting but slow to leave the body. He'll probably not awaken until late tomorrow."
The rider emitted a dark chuckle. "We are doubly fortunate to not only have this boy show up out of nowhere, but that he is the rider of the male, black dragon. The winds of change have blown our way at last, marking the end of our troubles and giving us hope for the future. We will once again rule Amulah."
The cloaked man eased himself off the dragon and watched the shadowed rider secure the wrapped boy in his arms. "I'll bid you goodbye and good journey as well," he said, backing away from the dragon and towards the mountain path he'd take back to the top. "I'll need to make an appearance before my absence is noted."
He bent and picked up the large coin purse that was his payment for abducting the boy. It was heavy in his hand, and a smile of greed spread on his face from the weight of it. His eyes rose after hearing the dragon shifting to face the valley floor below. The great wings extended out, and with a mighty leap the massive creature lifted from the mountain's edge and then dropped down and out of sight.
Hearing the beating of the dragon's wings, the cloaked man turned and scrambled up the shifting path, not bothering to watch the fading shadow of the dragon, now carrying two riders northward. His conscience was slightly tweaked as he thought of the boy that he'd snatched out of a warm bed and for what lay ahead of him in the far north. He knew full well that life in Cordith was anything but pleasant. The dragon riders from the forbidden place were rough and uncouth. But being a selfish man, or rather, an opportunist, the weight of the coin purse in his hand justified his actions, and he put the matter from his mind while he stepped over the top of the mountain and paused listened to the laughter and revelry of the celebrants in the palace below. With a smile on his face, he descended mountain top with the intent of joining the merrymaking.