Mhysra looked up from where she’d been checking Cumulo’s tack for the fifteenth time, surprised to find that Breeze, Captain Myran’s miryhl, was talking to her. Mhysra glanced around, a little uncertainly – Corin had gone off somewhere, muttering about finding food for Skybreeze, leaving Mhysra as the only student in a sea of adult Riders. In his usual arrogant way, Cumulo had opted to land beside Hurricane, regardless of protocol or their status as lowly students, which had left them close to Atyrn and the other officers’ birds, including Breeze, while Captain Myran led his lieutenants away.
Still, for Breeze to actually talk to her…
“No,” Cumulo answered for her, ruffling his feathers as he shuffled around to face the captain miryhl. “We’ve faced worse.”
Mortified at his rudeness, Mhysra tried to stammer out an apology, but Breeze chuckled. “I would guess that you have. The fall of Aquila, the time in the tunnels, your trip through the Dragonlands. I confess I do not know all the details, but I’ve heard plenty. It must feel strange to be back here again after all that has happened.”
Mhysra looked at the miryhl, who seemed so plain and unassuming on the surface – dark brown and glossy like all the other eagles, except for Hurricane – yet was older, wiser and with more experience than Mhysra could imagine. Captain Myran was something of a legend in his own lifetime, and this miryhl had been with him every wing beat of the way, keeping him airborne and alive. She was as much a legend amongst miryhls as he was amongst humans. Yet she chose to break the sacred, traditional silence and speak to her.
“I…” Mhysra began, struggling to find the words.
“We were never here,” Cumulo came to her rescue with a flat reply. “Our place was in the citadel with the rest of the students.”
Breeze turned to look at him, head tilted down in a miryhl frown. “I wasn’t being quite that literal, Cumulo.” The arch tone of her voice made Mhysra smile. She sounded just like Milluqua when she was in a snippy older-sister mood. Clearly her Wingborn had been spending a lot of time with his captain.
“It is strange to be back here,” Mhysra admitted, saving her miryhl from himself as he opened his beak to unwisely reply. “I am a little nervous.” How could she not be when they had no idea what they were about to face – or if they were about to face anything at all?
“Perfectly natural,” Breeze assured her, shuffling her wings. “Even after all my years in the Riders, it feels strange returning to Aquila without knowing what we’ll face. Chin up, Wingborn, and don’t give into doubt. We belong here. Far more so than this annoying Yullik creature and his monsters. Aquila is our home.”
“Hear, hear,” Cumulo agreed, rubbing his beak against Mhysra’s hair, and she blinked twice against a sudden sting of tears. How did Breeze know? How could she possibly know about Mhysra’s worries and doubts about her strength and suitability? Or was it obvious, because she wasn’t the first or only one to feel such things? Breeze had been a captain miryhl for a long time, and a lieutenant before that. She’d been dealing with students and young Riders for more years than Mhysra had been alive. No wonder she knew just what to say.
“Are we all still here?” Corin complained, interrupting the moment as she hefted a snoozing Skybreeze back through the sun-dappled trees. Which was probably for the best, since Mhysra didn’t know quite what to say and would likely have embarrassed herself. Instead she smiled gratefully at Breeze, and received a surprising wink in return.
“Not that I’m looking forward to whatever comes next,” Corin continued, oblivious to everything else, “but blessed Maegla, can’t we just get it over with already?”
“It seems the goddess is in your favour today, Student Corin,” Captain Myran said, as he and the lieutenants returned from the top of the ridge. “May Her blessing last long and extend to all of you.” He stopped beside Breeze, resting a hand on her neck, and raised his voice to be heard across the clearing. “Riders, mount up. Lyrai, Honra, luck go with you.”
The lieutenants saluted, touched their hands to their hearts and bowed their heads. “Always with you, sir.”
Then Lyrai looked straight at Mhysra. “Riders, to wing.”
This was it. Finally. The moment had come. Mhysra’s mouth was dry as she turned to pull herself into Cumulo’s saddle. For once even her cocky Wingborn had nothing smart to say. She could feel him trembling beneath her, likely a mix of nerves and eagerness, just as she was feeling.
“Corin, Skybreeze, you’re with me,” Stirla called out, snapping Mhysra from her daze as she spun to look at her friends. Because if Stirla and Corin were staying here that meant Derrain was too.
“No!” Corin stamped her foot. “More waiting? How is that in my favour?”
A small part of Mhysra wouldn’t have minded staying behind and out of danger for just a little bit longer, but mostly she was sick at the thought of not having two of her most trusted friends at her back in the worst possible moment. They’d already been forced to leave Jaymes behind, now she was losing Corin and Derrain too. She looked around and found Dhori right beside her. At least she wasn’t entirely alone just yet. Between them they could keep Lyrai safe – or at least try to.
“Your bloodthirsty eagerness for a fight does you credit, Corin, but you’ll get your chance,” Stirla assured her.
“Burn the fight,” Corin grumbled. “I just want to get out of these trees. Skybreeze has developed a taste for squirrel and he’s getting too big to hold back.” She scowled at the dragon draped around her shoulders and shook the hand around which she’d firmly wrapped the end of his tail.
“Ah, to be young and hungry again,” Goryal chuckled.
“If he amuses you so greatly, elder, please, feel free to take charge of him for a year or ten,” Corin offered a little desperately.
Elder Goryal gave their chiming laugh. “A delightful invitation, and one I would be all too happy to accept, but alas, the reason I must decline is the same as why you must remain here a little longer. The good captain has wisely decided that our defences would be best served by keeping our draconic forces divided, in order to defend the largest number of Riders possible. So I cannot take him with me, I am afraid.”
Corin sighed, resigned to her fate. “Can you stay and I go then?” she asked, without much obvious hope.
Goryal laughed again.
“Riders ready?” Honra called out.
“Aye, sir!” Both his and Lyrai’s flurries – Mhysra included – answered.
“Then to wing!” Lyrai called, Hurricane bounding out into the centre of the clearing and flapping up into the morning sunlight. As miryhls and Riders shifted all around her, Mhysra glanced back over her shoulder. Derrain threw an arm around Corin’s slumped shoulders and raised his other hand in silent farewell. Mhysra saluted in return as Cumulo took his chance and leapt out of the shadows, into sunlight and sky and the heart of their flurry.
Dhori and Latinym soared up to join them as her Wingborn fell in directly behind Hurricane. It didn’t matter that this wasn’t their official position, after travelling so far and long together, this was where they belonged and the rest of the flurry shifted to accommodate them. In a shower of rainbow sparkles, Elder Goryal emerged in their dragon form alongside Hurricane. Delicate and dainty, and almost transparent in the bright spring morning, they hardly looked like the most powerful dragon this side of the Storm Wash, but Mhysra had long known that looks rarely told the entire story.
“At your command, lieutenants,” Elder Goryal’s voice chimed clearly inside Mhysra’s head.
Fifty Riders soared above the dark forest and over the top of the ridge. Honra glanced at Lyrai and tipped his head – ever the trusty sergeant. Mhysra saw Lyrai gather up Hurricane’s reins and straighten his shoulders. The great marble miryhl dropped his left wing and dived into the steep, thick shadows of the cleave where the silent Heights waited.
Mhysra licked her dry lips and leant against Cumulo as her Wingborn followed them into the cool darkness, Dhori by her side. After the bright sunlight it took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but when they did the breath caught in her throat. She’d never been to the Heights before, but the first sight of it was like a kick to the chest.
She knew those stones; she knew that style. Aquila. The citadel. They were home.
Now all they had to do was take it back.
~ Next Chapter ~