SHARP TEETH NIBBLED Mhysra’s fingertips and she opened her eyes. A red gaze fixed on hers, seeming too large for the gaunt grey face. Below a nose that was barely more than a bump with slits for nostrils, a wide mouth grinned to show sharp, sharp teeth.
Another nip at her fingers and she looked down. A second set of red eyes peered up at her, teeth sharp and glinting.
She sighed. “Is it really that time again already?”
The kaz-naghkt on her chest made an eager squeaking sound and bounced up and down, claws pricking at her through the blankets. It made Mhysra’s breath catch, mostly because the movement jolted her lower back and set off the usual chain of agony through her pelvis and down her legs. She didn’t know quite what she’d done to herself during the collapse of Aquila, but it hadn’t been good. Even after all this time she still wasn’t healing.
“All right, all right,” she wheezed, digging her hands into the blanket and wishing she had the strength to push the baby kaz-naghkt off. It wouldn’t hurt it. They were surprisingly resilient little things. She could probably throw them across the room into the wall and they’d just bounce and come running back, eager for more. Lively little horrors.
The kaz-naghkt by her side snapped at its sibling and a third swiftly joined in, tackling the one on her chest and diving onto the floor. Soon a ball of five baby kaz-naghkt writhed and squabbled its way across the room, rolling this way and that, screaming and growling.
She’d been alarmed the first time she’d seen them fight, but no matter how horrible it sounded or how much blood seemed to fly, the babies never ended up too hurt. Even if they did, the magic in their blood swiftly healed them. The snarls and snapping of teeth still made her wince, especially when it turned to piercing keens of pain, but raising kaz-naghkt was not for the faint-hearted. Or the squeamish.
As quickly as the fight started, it stopped. The five babies separated as if by some silent command, limping and dragging themselves apart to licked their wounds in peace.
“Noisy, aren’t they?”
Mhysra looked up from checking each of her strange charges and smiled at the woman in the doorway. She’d been hesitant at first of trusting anyone or anything in Yullik’s home, but Riame made it hard to dislike her. Besides, after however many days alone and aching in the darkness, Mhysra had been lonely enough to accept any kind of company.
“I prefer to think of them as boisterous.”
Snorting, Riame pushed the door fully open with her foot and stepped inside. The kaz-naghkt stopped tending their wounds and fixed glowing eyes on the tray in the woman’s hands. Even though Mhysra braced for it, the high trill they emitted from their hungry throats sent a shiver up her spine.
“I hate it when they do that,” Riame shivered herself, placing the tray on the bed. “Here, grab yours quick before they strike.”
It hurt, but most things did these days, so Mhysra ignored the pain and picked up the smaller bowl, cradling it against her chest as Riame raised the cover off the larger bowl, set the tray on the floor and stepped well back.
Trembling with eagerness, the kaz-naghkt turned their glowing eyes in Mhysra’s direction. When she was satisfied she had the attention of them all, she nodded. “Eat.”
They did, pouncing on the tray with snarls and shrieks that made their previous fight sound like jolly play. Which it had been. Wrestling was one thing, eating was another.
“Urgh, they’re so messy,” Riame complained, sitting down beside Mhysra on the bed.
Too busy tucking into her own broth to speak, Mhysra hummed in agreement. Kaz-naghkt were messy, but there was no point trying to teach them manners. Their teeth and claws weren’t made for delicacy and kaz-naghkt were always hungry. It was enough that they looked to her for permission before feeding – Mhysra was constantly surprised when they did.
Despite her stated disgust, Riame watched in seeming fascination while the kaz-naghkt fed. Mhysra concentrated on her broth instead. It wasn’t that she was squeamish – she’d reared miryhls – but there was something unnerving about the way kaz-naghkt tore into their meat and how swiftly they could strip a carcass to the bone. Today’s meal was a collection of ravens and crows. The snap of their feathers made her flinch as she tried not to think of miryhls and especially Cumulo, all so very far away.
“How are you feeling today?” Riame asked, once Mhysra lowered her bowl with a sigh of repletion.
She held out her hand and waggled it. “I’ve been worse.”
The other woman’s mouth pulled into a flat line. “Would you like a hand up?”
It was embarrassing, but Mhysra couldn’t say no. Her body simply wasn’t strong enough for her to do more than shuffle to the edge a few times a day. Sometimes she couldn’t even do that, and that was a level of humiliation that was almost unbearable. Compared to that, accepting Riame’s assistance onto the chamber pot and back into bed again was barely enough to make her blush these days.
“I don’t understand Yullik,” Riame growled, once the embarrassment was over and Mhysra was back in bed, a row of kaz-naghkt babies sprawled across her legs, tummies bulging tight.
Looking away from the snoozing babies, Mhysra was surprised to see anger in the woman’s bright green eyes. “Are we supposed to understand him?” she asked mildly, though in truth there was much about this place that Mhysra didn’t understand. Starting with the woman sitting facing her on the bed, the fingers of one hand tracing the smooth skin of an out-flung kaz-naghkt wing. Mhysra didn’t understand Riame’s role here. She brought up meals – for Mhysra as well as the babies – helped Mhysra to the chamber pot, took away the dirty ones, changed her bed linens and even helped her bathe with sponges and warm water every few days. But the way she spoke of Yullik held none of the deference of a servant to a master. So who was she really? What was she doing here? Why? Mhysra had so many questions, too many to ever trust the woman too far. And yet, she didn’t dare ask any of them, almost certain she wouldn’t like the answers. Then she would have to send Riame away, and what would she do without her?
Tending the baby kaz-naghkt gave Mhysra something to do each day, and she surprised herself by how fond she was growing of the little monsters, but she was lonely too. She missed her friends. She missed Lyrai. She missed Cumulo.
“He could heal you. Why doesn’t he heal you?” Riame growled. “I’ve seen him do it before. He has the power. Why does he leave you here in so much pain?”
It wasn’t the first time Riame had asked such a thing, nor the first time Mhysra had wondered about it herself. Yet the answer, at least to her, was pretty simple. “He doesn’t need to guard me if I can’t even crawl away.”
The other woman snorted. “We’re at World’s End. You aren’t escaping unless you can fly.”
The words sent a pang – part longing, mostly pain – through her. Cumulo. If Cumulo was here she could escape, whether she could crawl or not. It wouldn’t matter where they were. If they were together they could get away.
But they weren’t together and Mhysra couldn’t even reach her own door, let alone escape whatever place Yullik had brought her to. She didn’t know what kind of a place it was, how big or how well guarded. All she knew was this room, this woman, her kaz-naghkt babies and Yullik.
She lowered her head, sighing out her anger because it was useless. It wouldn’t help her heal, it wouldn’t set her free, all anger did here was eat up energy she couldn’t afford to spare. She looked at her kaz-naghkt instead, keen to change the subject.
“They’re growing well, don’t you think?”
Riame tilted her head to study the handful of grey babies sprawled across the bed. Mhysra looked at them too. It hadn’t even been a half-moon since they’d hatched and they’d doubled in size. Where once they were barely the size of Mhysra’s fist, now they were as long as her forearm and growing stronger all the time. She didn’t know much about kaz-naghkt growth and development – or anything else to do with them really – but it was obvious they didn’t match either their human or dragon halves. Humans took decades, dragons took centuries – it would surprise her very much if kaz-naghkt took more than two years to finish growing. Perhaps not even that, she amended, considering how rapidly her charges were changing. Their wings, in particular, were developing swiftly. She estimated they’d be learning to fly within another eight-night.
“Now that would be the turn up to end everything,” Riame murmured.
Mhysra raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”
The other woman smiled, but unlike her genial smiles, this one was sharp edged and cunning. It wasn’t an expression Mhysra had ever seen on her new friend, but it suited her. Rather too well.
The smile melted into the one Mhysra was more used to and Riame patted her knee. “Ignore me,” she chuckled, once more the friendly woman Mhysra found it impossible not to like. Perhaps she’d been mistaken before. Perhaps this was all Riame was. Because the woman who gathered up the empty dishes and full chamber pot was too open and generous for craftiness. Wasn’t she?
“Mm,” Mhysra murmured, too lost in thought for words.
“Take care of yourself now, Mhysra, and don’t let these pests bother you for too many stories. I’ll see you at lunch.”
“Mm,” Mhysra hummed again, returning Riame’s smile with an automatic one of her own.
She knew better than to trust anyone around here. They were not her friends. She was in enemy hands. No one here had her best interests at heart – as the fact that Yullik hadn’t healed her showed. Someone had surrounded her with kaz-naghkt eggs, for gods’ sake, knowing full well that the little creatures would hatch hungry.
And yet… and yet… Riame had never asked her for anything. She didn’t drop leading questions about Riders and military movements. She didn’t ask about Cumulo. She didn’t even ask about Mhysra’s childhood. They rarely spoke of anything beyond the kaz-naghkt and the fresh challenges Mhysra faced every day in trying to raise them. The woman didn’t ask for anything, she only gave – food, assistance, friendship. Mhysra was tired and hurting and lonely enough to accept all three, hopefully in the spirit they were intended.
Tilting her head back into her pillows, she groaned with frustration. “This is not helping,” she told herself. As if she didn’t already have enough to worry about, now she was picking apart the only good thing that had come her way since first waking up here. In World’s End.
A low enquiring chirrup set all five kaz-naghkt babies stirring – which served her right.
“It’s nothing, go back to sleep,” she said, even though she knew it was useless. Sure enough, when she lowered her head she found five eager faces peering up at her.
No kaz-naghkt would ever win a beauty prize, but there was something about these five. Perhaps it was because she’d known them since hatching, perhaps it was because they were hers. Perhaps she was going crazy, shut in this stone room, isolated and shattered, so far from home. Whatever it was, she smiled on her little kaz-naghkt flock and cooed at how cute they were.
“Story time?” she asked, setting them bouncing on the blankets with delight.
Laughing, she settled herself more firmly against her pillows and held open her arms, inviting her strangely loveable monsters to snuggle in close. They did, scrambling up her body to tuck against her side, butting scaly heads beneath her palms for strokes of affection. Kissing the bump of a nose as it nuzzled her face, she took a deep breath and launched into an old favourite: Cumulo and the Bullwing Bull.
Shutting her eyes, she let herself sink into memory, back to a time when she ran half-wild and completely free beneath a blue summer sky, the shadow of her Wingborn passing overhead before the beautiful fool let his arrogance overwhelm him – neither for the first nor the last time. Her thumbs caressed a wing, and if it happened to be leathery rather than feathery, she tried not to let that bother her. Instead she focused on the remembered sounds of a Wingborn’s challenge, a bullwing’s outrage and the laughter of her cousins.
If a few tears escaped, her kaz-naghkt babies were quick enough to clean them all away.
~ Next Chapter ~