STRETCHING UP TO nuzzle her Dragongifted on the cheek, Emberbright uncoiled and slithered to the floor then up onto Derrain’s bed, curling around him instead. Resting her head over his forearm, she waited for him to open the book before she began riffling through the pages with her tail. When she found her favourite, she stopped and looked up at him with imploring golden eyes.
“Don’t give into her, Derry, you’ll only make her worse,” Jaymes said, turning up the lantern so they could both see a lot better.
Tickling Emberbright’s nose with his fingertips, Derrain waited for her to pull back in playful protest before he flicked her tail off the page and turned towards the back. “No fear, my friend. Your dragon might still love hearing all about Maegla’s long-lost son and his foolish tantrum, but I’d rather hear all about it from the source.”
“The source isn’t talking,” Jaymes pointed out, with a pointed look at the empty bunk above him.
“The source never does,” Derrain agreed, with a mock-sad sigh. As annoying as Dhori’s secrets could feel at times, it was up to him how much he shared. But Derrain wasn’t the only one who wished their mysterious friend would stop dropping hints if he wasn’t willing to also cough up answers. Not that the truth really mattered, when all was said and done. Dhori’s past and parentage were his business. The important truth was that he was their friend and he’d proven it through extremely difficult times.
Planting his hand firmly on a page, so Emberbright couldn’t turn it with her tail, Derrain looked down at an intricate illustration of a dark cloaked man half-hidden in the shadows of a wild wood.
“Jarquais,” he read aloud. “He Who Shakes the Ground. God of the high and wild places. Hm.”
“Hm?” Jaymes echoed. “I thought he was one of the vengeful western gods of all kinds of nasty things.”
“So did I,” Derrain agreed, brushing his hand over the page and pushing Emberbright’s tail aside. Again. “I was always taught not to have much to do with him, because drawing his attention would never lead to anything good.” The opposite page showed a woman surrounded by golden light, standing in the centre of a ripe cornfield, which itself was surrounded by burgeoning orchards. Narlais, She Who Makes Things Grow. Goddess of the pasture, lowlands and farming. Derrain had never heard of her.
“Does Narlais mean anything to you?” he asked Jaymes, since his friend was from farming stock, albeit on the opposite side of the Overworld to Derrain.
His friend shook his head. “Nope.”
“Apparently she’s Jarquais’ sister, a goddess of growing things.”
Jaymes shook his head again. “We tend to revere the seasonal gods in North Point, particularly Utharna and Ysena, because while spring and autumn are both pretty short, they’re very important when it comes to farming.”
“Hmm…” Derrain was only half listening as he continued turning pages, finding more lushly illustrated images of gods he’d never heard of before. “I wonder what happened to the gods of the sea when the Curse fell.”
Giving up on his darning, Jaymes shifted to sit beside Derrain so that he could study the pictures for himself. Even Emberbright had stopped trying to turn the pages, watching the humans with peeps of curiosity.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” Jaymes said, turning another page to reveal a moon goddess in silver shining glory. He stroked a reverent hand across the image. “We still count out our months and years by the phases of the moon, but I never knew she had a name.”
“Meeraith,” Derrain murmured, without recognition. “It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, how much else we lost when the Curse came.”
Jaymes ran his fingertips over the upturned face in one corner of Meeraith’s picture, where a woman stared up at the shining moon with obvious adoration. “They say it was the gods who set the Curse.”
“I wonder if they had any idea what they were doing.” Derrain turned back to look at the sea gods, and back again the earth gods that almost everyone had forgotten. Was that what they intended when they cursed the world? Or did they sacrifice themselves to power it all?
“Do any of us really know what we’re doing?”
Derrain turned sharply towards the door, hissing as it made his back twinge unpleasantly. Jaymes was too busy jumping to his feet to notice, but Dhori, who had been lounging in the doorway, shot him an apologetic grimace.
“I didn’t mean to make you jump.”
Sitting on his own bunk, so that their friend had room to enter the cabin, Jaymes snorted with amusement. “Of course you did. You always do. It’s part of your mysterious Dhoriaen charm. You just forgot that Goryal’s forbidden Derry from jumping until further notice.”
“They really would if they thought they could,” Dhori chuckled, shutting the door and sitting on the end of Derrain’s bed. “It’s nice to see you awake. I was starting to worry that Goryal had moved from drugging to poisoning to keep you sleeping so much.”
“It’s not drugs, it’s boredom,” Derrain said, shutting the book with a wry smile as Emberbright scrambled across his legs to rejoin Jaymes. “There’s not much else I can do, stuck in here all day.”
His two friends looked around the tiny cabin as if seeing it for the first time. Derrain didn’t need to look – he’d spent enough time doing so that he could see it with his eyes closed. Three bunks on one side, neat and narrow, the top occupied by Dhori, the bottom by Jaymes, the middle used to store weapons and clothes and whatever else they happened to be carrying when they came in each night. The foot of the bunks butted up against the outer wall of the ship, where a tiny round porthole let in a smeared circle of light. Then it was Derrain’s own bunk, with bare, sanded wooden boards making the wall up to the wooden ceiling above. It was plain and unadorned and utterly lacking in anything interesting to stare at or do.
“We should do something about that,” Jaymes said, sounding determined.
But it was Dhori that Derrain watched as those secretive silver eyes peered into every nook and corner, piercing the shadows. After a long while, he smiled. “Yes,” he agreed. “We should.”
“Goryal said I should rest,” Derrain pointed out, unable to keep from smiling himself.
“You’ve done that,” Dhori said. “We’ve been in the air for eleven days. Time to get back on your feet.”
“Gods,” Derrain let his head fall back, thunking against the wall, finally able to admit – even if only to himself – how very, very bored he’d been. “Yes, please.”
“Get the door, Jaymes,” Dhori laughed. “We’re going for a walk.”
* * *
LYRAI PAUSED BEFORE opening the door of the cabin he shared with Stirla, listening to his laughing students pass by outside. It sounded like they’d finally got Derrain back on his feet again. About time too.
“They’re healing,” Stirla murmured, from where he’d paused in sharpening his sword, head tilted to listen to the three lads pass by, Jaymes saying something encouraging, while Derrain breathlessly teased Dhori over something or other.
“Yes.” Lyrai rested his palm against the closed door, unable to remember where he’d been going. It didn’t seem important now. “They are.” Letting his hand slide from the door, he stepped back and sat on his bed opposite his friend.
Stirla watched him with a wry smile. “It was the right decision to come, Lyrai. It was right to bring them.”
Lyrai didn’t bother denying that he’d been worrying about such things. Just as he didn’t bother asking how his friend had known. Stirla knew him. They’d been friends for too long. Which meant he knew Stirla equally as well. “We could head north, if you wanted. It wouldn’t be out of our way.”
His friend ran his whetstone across his blade and eyed Lyrai over the gleaming edge.
It was his turn to smile wryly, because he wasn’t the only one who had a complicated relationship with his family. “South it is then.”
Stirla snorted. “Changed your mind about fetching us drinks?” he asked, leaving all the touchy subjects well alone.
“No.” Lyrai jumped back to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”
His friend chuckled as Lyrai pulled open the door – and found Elder Goryal and a rain-sodden Reglian standing right outside. Cradled in the Thunderwing’s arms was a limp and bedraggled young eagle with extraordinary feathers of purple, blue and pink.
Lyrai stared at the bird in astonishment. It twitched as if feeling his attention, opening its silver eyes wide, and dropped from Reglian’s arms to hit the floor with a thump. Whining, it shook its deep purple ruff, now in the form of a thickly-feathered lynx.
Stepping back, Lyrai caught Goryal’s rainbow gaze and raised his eyebrows in silent question.
The lynx croaked mournfully and turned into a bright pink chicken.
“Is … is that Rhiddyl?” Stirla asked, leaning forward to see what the fuss was about.
The dragons looked down at the chicken, which was looking at itself in obvious embarrassment, and sighed.
“Yes,” Reglian rumbled. “It is.” Then swore, as he snatched up the rapidly expanding chicken and sprinted down the corridor as the chicken became an eagle again, and the eagle became much, much bigger.
Lyrai and Stirla looked at Goryal.
“We,” the elder grimaced, “have a problem.”
~ Next Chapter ~