A CRASHING IN the canopy above startled the fox, but it didn’t leave until a large man dropped onto the padded floor and shooed it away with a hiss.
Closing her eyes, Rhiddyl sighed and loosened her puny claws, barely even bothering to flap her wings as she plummeted towards the ground.
Strong hands caught her in a firm grip and hugged her to a broad chest. The voice that spoke rumbled against her ear, but not with the thunder she’d been expecting.
“Rough day?” Lieutenant Stirla asked, stroking a calloused hand through her feathers.
It felt nice, so she opened her eyes and rasped at him.
“I think you make a lovely chicken.”
If she hadn’t already been pink, Rhiddyl would have blushed.
“Any luck?” a shout came from above. It seemed that Lieutenant Lyrai had also come to find her.
“Found her,” Stirla shouted back. “And I shooed off a fox before it could eat her.” When Rhiddyl scolded him softly for sharing her secrets, he chuckled and stuffed her inside his jacket. “We’re coming up now.”
“Need a hand?” Dhori asked. Wonderful. Just how many humans had come to her rescue? Not that she wasn’t grateful – she much preferred them over Reglian and another lecture – but it was rather embarrassing. She was a dragon. She shouldn’t need to be rescued by humans, even if she was currently a chicken.
“Nah, we can make it,” Stirla called back, approaching the tree Rhiddyl had plummeted through and hefting himself up on the lowest branch. From there it was easy for the tall, strong human to scramble from branch to branch, following the holes Rhiddyl had made in the twigs and foliage. “See.” He popped his head above the canopy where five miryhls and four Riders were perched and waiting. “All good.” He unbuttoned his jacket enough to show them a tuft of pink feathers before sealing her securely back inside.
“You might not want to keep her confined so close,” Dhori warned as Stirla picked his way over to Atyrn and climbed carefully back in the saddle.
“She’s not going anywhere,” Stirla said confidently, patting Rhiddyl through his jacket. “She wouldn’t hurt me or Atyrn like that.”
Rhiddyl cracked her beak worriedly as the rumbling voice of Reglian arrived to add his own doubts. “Not by choice, no,” the Thunderwing said. “But her control isn’t strong enough for such things. Hand her to me and we can be certain no harm will be done.”
Rhiddyl stiffened, clenching her weak claws in Stirla’s shirt, waiting for him to open his jacket and hand her over like the annoying burden she was.
His big hand patted her gently again. “We’ll see,” Stirla said, and Atyrn took off.
“Lieutenant, don’t be foolish!” Reglian shouted after them, making Stirla chuckle.
“He really doesn’t know you at all,” came the amused voice of Lieutenant Lyrai, who must have been close by with Hurricane.
“Not at all,” Stirla agreed cheerfully. “And he likely doesn’t know our Rhiddyl too well either. It’s all very well telling her to get control of herself, but how’s she supposed to do that without instruction or encouragement.”
Rhiddyl clenched her claws in the Rider’s shirt again, warmed by the confidence he seemed to have in her, but equally as chilled by the prospect that Reglian was right. She would never willingly hurt any of her human or miryhl friends, but her control was terrible. There was no knowing when she might shift, and if she did it while inside Stirla’s jacket she could kill him.
Suddenly terrified that she might do that very thing, she began struggling to free herself. A difficult task considering how broad his chest was, how well made his jacket and buttons were and the weakness of her chicken-self.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Stirla murmured, pulling open the top button and looking down at her. “No need to fret. It’ll be fine.”
Wriggling and clawing, Rhiddyl managed to pop her head out of the opening and pecked at the next button.
“I think she wants to come out,” Derrain said, stating the obvious.
“Maybe you’re squashing her,” Lyrai suggested.
Stirla hummed and undid the button.
Hefting a wing out of the gap, Rhiddyl heaved and squeezed herself free – and almost toppled straight off Atyrn.
“Whoa there.” Stirla’s firm hands closed around her, fingers secure against the frantic patter of her heart. “Steady on.”
Eyeing the drop to the forest below, Rhiddyl shuffled back until she was tucked against Stirla’s body and clucked worriedly.
“I guess she’s worried about changing and accidentally killing you too,” Dhori said, flying directly above them.
“I’m not worried about that,” Stirla said with the same blithe confidence, holding her firm with one hand and patting her wings with the other. “All she needs is a reason to keep control.”
Rhiddyl wasn’t certain about that, but she wanted to try. Snuggling down, she roosted on the front of Atyrn’s saddle and relished the wind in her feathers. With her eyes half-closed, she sank into her chicken form and didn’t let thoughts of anything else intrude.
Whether it worked, her control had improved or it was simply luck, she couldn’t be certain, but when the Riders returned to the lower deck of the Illuminai, flying in through the hatch to the eyries, Rhiddyl was still a chicken. And a chicken she remained, nestled close to the open doors, until the need to fly again had her tumbling out – and back into her dragon form to soar above the sharp ravine that led to a ramshackle collection of buildings. One of which was a bustling eyrie full of miryhls.
“Kaskad!” a voice whooped as miryhls tumbled after her from the Illuminai. “We’ve reached Kaskad again.”
Even though the name meant nothing to her, Rhiddyl fluted triumphantly, spiralling upwards as her miryhl friends surrounded her. Figures in Rider uniforms dashed out from the buildings below and more miryhls soared to join them, full of curiosity and questions.
Laughing, Rhiddyl dived and sky-danced with them all confident that everything was finally going right. She’d made her first controlled change, she’d held her shape until she opted to shift and they’d reached the first of their planned destinations. It was a good day to be a dragon.
This time when the prickles started in her wings, she welcomed the pain and popped into her black and purple miryhl form, the better to dance with her new friends.
“Good,” the approving chime of Goryal’s voice flowed into her mind. “Very good.”
Yes, Rhiddyl agreed silently. She was. And she would only get better from here. Laughing with the other miryhls, she swooped around the Illuminai and dived down to wait for the rest of her friends in Kaskad.
~ Next Chapter ~