Dark Cloud Rising
by Dyna Dee
"Let this serve as a warning to respect your elders, boy," Finn said, his voice sounding both amused and threatening as he placed Duo's braid over his shoulder to fully expose his back. The man stepped away and a moment later the strap hit the fledgling's bare and cold back.
An involuntary gasp escaped Duo's lips at the sudden and blazing pain. It hurt much more than he thought possible, probably due to his body being half frozen everywhere but where the strap had struck his back. He'd been beaten by bullies and Gerta Groote, but never on bare skin nor with a strap. A second and then a third blow came in regular though not rushed intervals, allowing him to feel the pain of each one. By the sixth strike of the lash his resolve to remain silent crumbled and he cried out in agony, causing the man behind him to chuckle. The next blow caused his trembling knees to buckle, unable to support his weight any longer. He hung helpless by his bound wrists against the cold, unforgiving wall.
The strap hit for the eighth time, not on his back this time, but on his buttocks, and the two following landed there also. With tears of pain and humiliation coursing down his cheeks, Duo didn't think he couldn't take much more. With a little bit of determination left, he bit his lip in an effort to keep from begging the man to stop. As he braced himself for the next blow, a strong voice bellowed out from somewhere behind him, "Enough!" In his mind, fogged with pain, Duo didn't immediately recognize the voice, but guessed it to be one of the older riders.
"What is the meaning of this? Take the boy down!"
"He's being punished for attacking me," Finn declared in a defensive tone.
"What did you do to provoke him?"
"I was just going to make sure our newest rider was a boy and not a girl."
"You fool," the boy's rescuer snapped. "This fledgling is our future. Now you've given him cause to fear and distrust us."
"The future is ours to make," Finn spat out even as Duo felt hands working at the leather straps that bound his bruised wrists together and held them to the wall. "It does not come to us in the form of a small and weak boy but from our own strength of determination."
The moment his hands were freed, Duo crumbled to the cold, uneven floor where he curled up into a shivering a ball, his back aflame. He kept his eyes closed as a warm cloak was wrapped around him and strong arms picked him up. Unable to resist, he curled into the warmth his rescuer's body provided and pressed his face into the smelly animal furs, hiding from the other riders in the room while trying to halt the flow of tears that stung his eyes.
"You're a fool, Finn. Dorothy, where's Alec?" the man carrying him demanded.
"Out cutting wood," she answered from close by.
"Then you will tend to the boy and see to his back and warmth. Finn." the man turned his attention back to the other rider.
"What?" Finn snapped sourly.
"Since you saw fit to cut off the boy's clothing, you will spend the day mending them." There was no reply that Duo could hear, but he became aware that he was being carried away from the main room by the man issuing orders. Despite his building hatred for these people, he felt an immense amount of gratitude for his rescuer.
Soon Duo found himself back in the room he shared with Alec carefully placed on his side on the lumpy mattress. The arms that had held him then ease out from beneath him and several blankets were quickly placed over his shivering and battered body.
"Let this be a lesson to not anger those who are your elders, fledgling," the man who had rescued him advised the boy with no trace of sympathy in his voice. "With little to do in the cold weather the more hot-headed riders tend to over-react and with unnecessary violence. Stay out of their way and you'll be safe enough. Whatever you do, don't provoke them."
Duo remained silent other than an occasional sniff as he fought back unbidden tears. In his mind, however, he raged against his punishment and imagined various acts of revenge on the man named Finn.
After hearing the door to his room close, he curled up as tightly as he could, despite his protesting back, and tried to stop shaking despite the fact that he was chilled to the bone.
"I have a salve that will ease the sting of the lash," Dorothy said, her voice sounding strangely gentle.
"Sorry, but I can't do that. You heard what Dermail said, I'm to tend to you. I'll need to remove the blankets and the cloak in order to apply the salve."
"If you touch me I'll b...break your hand," the shivering boy warned, then groaned as a violent shiver shook his body.
"Is it because I'm a girl?" Dorothy asked. "I've already seen you naked so there's no need for you to be embarrassed."
"No, I don't want you to touch me b..because I hate you," Duo replied with as much the venom he could muster.
"Fine, no salve." Dorothy snapped back, obviously offended.
Thinking the girl would go away and leave him alone, Duo was surprised to hear the sound of fabric rustling and clung to the cloak wrapped around him as the covers were lifted and Dorothy slipped beneath them and settled her body very close to his own.
"Since I can't curl up to your sore backside, you can press up against me to warm up." Turning over, Dorothy presented her back to him. It dawned on the boy that it was the first time he'd seen the girl without the cumbersome outerwear. It appeared that she wore the same clothing as Alec: a plain, peasant-style shirt and pants gathered at the waist. The garments weren't made of the fine woven cloth he'd enjoyed while living at the Halls, but more akin to the sturdy and coarse cloth his clothing had been made from in Ha'ber.
Duo didn't want to accept Dorothy's offer to share her warmth, but the aching cold that numbed his body was too much for him to resist her invitation, especially when he could feel heat radiating off her body.
It hurt, uncurling his body, but as soon as he did Dorothy shifted to place her back against his chest. Still trembling from the cold and shock from the beating, he brought his arms out of the cloak to encircle the girl's slender, cloth-covered waist. Dorothy grunted in complaint at his cold touch while Duo moaned with pleasure at the welcomed warmth.
The two teenagers lay quiet for a long while as Duo's body went through the various stages of warming up, with pain and pleasure intermixing as his body temperature rose. Then, just as he felt warm enough to fall asleep, Dorothy began to speak.
"I know exactly how you feel," she whispered softly, as if talking to herself. "Right now your back burns as if fire was set against it instead of a lash, and though your body is chilled to the bone you have a burning hate inside of you for us and this place. You're probably plotting either your escape or to kill Finn. If I thought you could possibly succeed at either, I'd help you."
Duo thought about Dorothy's words for a moment before asking, "They beat you too?"
The girl snorted in an indelicate manner. "Many times," she replied with a sound of hurt and anger in her voice. "I proved to be more obstinate than smart when I first realized I had been tricked into coming here. Like you, I was unhappy and bitter and just wanted my family and former life back. Everyone in my village, including my family, were deceived by Quinze because of their ignorance. He looked and acted the part of a rider from Amulah when he brought Romma's egg to our village. You can imagine how happy everyone was when I was told Romma chose me to be her rider." Dorothy paused a moment before adding, "She's the only thing about my life here that I can't regret or hate."
"Does Alec feel the same as you?"
"Yes. He's had his share of beatings also. You learn quickly which riders to avoid. The five elders are fairly tame and don't seek out ways to harm us. They know better than anyone what our value is."
Their value. Duo now knew exactly what that meant. He, Alec and Dorothy and their dragons were the breeding stock for the northern riders' future. Without them and their offspring the north would dwindle into nothingness. He decided to heed the warnings: to keep his distance from the other riders and not provoke them. Perhaps by staying close to Alec and Dorothy, regardless of his initial dislike of them, he could learn more quickly than they apparently had and avoid future beatings.
Dorothy didn't say anything more and, despite his burning back, Duo felt comforted by her warmth and was about to drift into sleep when once again it was delayed when Alec burst into the room, his fur-lined outer wear missing.
"Is he all right?" he asked anxiously, walking towards the bed and the two youths huddled together beneath the blankets.
"Did you hear what happened?" Dorothy asked.
The blond boy nodded, his eyes fixed on Duo. "Damn that Finn. He just couldn't leave him alone, could he? It's a good thing Dermail came in when he did."
"I ran to find him after the first lash hit his back," Dorothy said. "I could tell by the wild look in Finn's eyes that he really wanted to hurt our fledgling, and that probably wouldn't stop until a lot of damage had been done. We both know Dermail can't abide the thought of his precious future ruined."
"You brought help?" Duo asked, having listened to the two talking.
"Like I said, I know exactly how you felt being stripped naked and tied to the wall," the blond girl replied. "We both do."
"We'll do what we can to protect you," Alec offered as he sat on the edge of the mattress, his eyes still on the boy pressed against Dorothy's back. "But you can't antagonize the other riders or fight back. We've discovered that avoiding them and potentially dangerous situations works best."
"That," Dorothy cut in, "and doing what you're told."
Duo paused, struck by the thought that this morning he'd woken up in this room determined to hate everyone in this frozen wasteland. Though his antipathy for most of the riders on this mountain seemed justified, his heart was being softened by sympathy for the two other youths who had gone through exactly what he was now struggling to come to terms with. He felt a sudden surge of gratitude knowing that he had at least two allies in this cruel place. "Thank you for your help," he said quietly, his eyes turning to Alec. "Perhaps, if we work together, we can get out of here one day and return to our homes."
"Forget about that," Dorothy snapped at him irritably. "We've tried and failed. When we are with our dragons we're always flanked by two other dragons. They watch us at all times. And you, royal fledgling, won't be allowed to fly with your dragon until the both of you are mated."
"There has to be a way," Duo insisted, feeling desperate enough to try anything in order to get out of Cordith and back to Amulah.
In a sad voice, Dorothy replied, "The only way out of here is to walk off the edge of this mountain, plummeting to your death. If that becomes your choice of finding solace and escape from here, then you condemn your dragon to a slow, lengthy death as he starves himself in his sorrow for you. For that reason alone I stay as far away from the mountain's edge as I can."
//Wu Fei,// Duo opened the link, needing his dragon's comfort once again.
His dragon responded anxiously. //Are you well? Did they hurt you?//
//Yes. One rider hurt me, but another stopped the beating. The riders of Romma and Shadow have been kind to me. I'll be all right. Please don't worry about me.//
//I cannot help but worry. Your welfare is of great concern to me.//
//I feel the same about you, Wu Fei,// Duo replied. //I'm afraid we might be trapped here. Romma and Shadow's riders were taken from their homes in Amulah similar to how we were brought here, and they tell me there is no escape. I don't want to stay in this cold and unkind place, Wu Fei. I want to go back to Amulah.//
The black dragon didn't immediately reply to his rider's worries. When at last he did speak, his voice in the boy's head sounded calm and infinitely wise. //You have endured the cold and unkindness before, yes?//
//Are you weaker than the riders of Shadow and Romma?//
//I am not!//
//Then if I am here, even in this place that is unfamiliar and cold, can you not be content enough to bear it?//
//I... I don't know. They won't let me ride you until we are mated in the spring. That's such a long time to not take to the sky and fly amongst the clouds together. Can you bear that?// he countered.
//Spring is not so far.//
Duo ground his teeth together in frustration. Wu Fei's wants seemed so simple at times, his needs so few. It seemed all his dragon required was fresh straw for his bed, a good hunt, a pond of water and his rider. He didn't seem to care much for anything else. //Do you not miss your lair? What about Sandrock and Relena? Don't you miss their companionship?//
//They are still in my thoughts, so they are not gone. My only need is you, your safety and presence... and I would also like a wolderbeast for my belly rumbles with hunger.//
Duo almost laughed at his dragon's reply, confirming one of Wu Fei's important "needs", but he gasped instead, startled when the blanket behind him was suddenly lifted and the cold air that permeated every space within the large dwelling hit his cloak-covered back. "What are you doing?" he asked, looking over his shoulder at Alec.
"Didn't you just hear Dorothy ask me to apply the salve to your back?"
"Ah... no. I was speaking with my dragon."
Alec frowned. "I heard his cry from across the valley but I thought he was just missing you."
"I'm afraid I reached out to him in my panic, so he knew I was in trouble."
"Have you calmed him sufficiently?" Dorothy asked.
"Yes, he's more calm now, but hungry."
"Have him tell Shadow and he'll speak to Quinze's dragon," Alec suggested. "I'm sure they'll let him feed now that you're secured inside."
Duo nodded, then passed the instructions onto his dragon. While doing so, a movement behind him elicited a surprised squawk as his protective cloak was lifted and his backside was exposed. "Please don't!" he called out, reaching behind to re-cover himself.
"Trust me," Alec said, his blue eyes meeting Duo's. "The strap broke the skin on your back. The salve has healing properties and will dull the pain, but it can only help if it's applied while the wound is open."
Dorothy, still resting in the bed, her back pressed against Duo's chest, turned her head to look at the wounded boy. "It's better to put your trust in us rather than the other riders. If you become ill from infection because you refused treatment for your wounds, the elders will have you stripped and bound to the wall once again. Then while everyone is watching, your scabs will be reopened and the salve applied. Believe me when I tell you that accepting our help here and now is safer and less humiliating."
Duo swallowed the lump of fear that had formed in his throat at the mere mention of one of the other riders touching him again, much less his burning back. "All right," he reluctantly conceded to Dorothy's advice, but he couldn't help tensing when Alec again lifted the cloak up and away from his tortured back. He flinched when the cold, gelatinous substance was gently applied to his wounds. Surprisingly, Alec's touch was as light as a feather as he tended to his wounds, but couldn't keep the blush from rising on his face as those fingers moved lower to his buttocks. Yet after the salve was applied, Duo noticed an immediate difference in the level of pain. The burning eased and the sting dulled.
"What is that... salve and where did you get it?" he asked, curious.
"From Hoarst," the blond boy answered. "He's the one who takes care of our dragons and he makes healing salves from some of the plants he collects. He doesn't live on Cordith with us, though. He prefers dwelling with the dragons on Muir and tending to their needs and comfort. You'll meet him when you're allowed to visit your dragon. He's the one person here we've come to trust."
Dorothy turned her head to look at him, wearing a smug smile on her face. "Your dragon's name is Wu Fei," she announced. Duo could only assume that his black dragon was introducing himself to the other dragons.
//Don't tell them my name, Wu Fei,// he quickly told his dragon. // I don't wish for them to know my name.//
//You said they were helping you.//
//They are. Look, I can't explain exactly why this is important to me, but having been brought here against my will makes me want to keep some part of who I am from them. They might have control over what I do, but I don't have to tell them my name.//
There was a brief pause before Wu Fei replied. //You are being passively obstinate. I understand.//
Alec meanwhile had finished with his task and pulled the cape over the red, abused backside. The mattress shifted and the blond boy lowered himself down to the bed behind Duo. "What are you doing?" the fledgling asked, alarmed.
"At the moment, things are too volatile in the great room, so it's better that we all stay in here for a while. Besides that, it's too cold in here not to share each other's warmth."
Duo could feel that Alec was being careful not to press against his injured back, yet after a few moments he could feel the heat coming off the other boy's body and he was still cold enough to be grateful for his nearness.
He was dozing off when Wu Fei's voice informed him that he was going hunting with several other dragons. //Good hunting,// Duo said before finally drifting off to sleep, feeling oddly sheltered and protected by the two other young riders lying next to him.