MHYSRA WOKE CRYING. Her body lay on one side, curled protectively inwards, her arms crossed over her chest. Her heart was broken, like her body, like her hopes. All she could see was Cumulo fighting, Cumulo struggling against a flock of miryhls. Then hit, then falling and finally captured in a net to be carried far away from her.
Cumulo. Her Wingborn. Taken.
Tears streamed down her face, soaking into the pillow beneath her cheek. Silently. Her chest was too tight for sobbing, her body too rigid, locked up tight.
A prickle of sharpness climbed up her arm. A weight pressed her shoulder down into the bed. A cold hand pressed against her cheek, claws lightly scratching her skin, smearing through her tears.
A low whistle drew her attention and she opened her eyes.
Four young kaz-naghkt peered at her over the edge of the bed, their chins resting on their clawed hands. The fifth, Tenacity, leaned over her shoulder, claws pressed to Mhysra’s cheek.
She wasn’t in the earth. There had been no canyon. No chase, no fall or fight. Cumulo hadn’t been swept up in a net and carried away. She wasn’t bleeding and dying in a shallow grave of her own making.
She was the one who had been taken. She had fallen. She had broken. And now she lay somewhere unknown, raising kaz-naghkt, with no idea where her Wingborn was or whether he lived or died. And her body… her body…
Mhysra gasped as pain struck, locking her muscles tight and cramping her into an even smaller ball. Gods, oh gods, oh gods, she’d forgotten what it felt like to lie on her side, had dreamed of being able to do so again, but in that moment, she’d give anything to move onto her back once more. Her pelvis burned, her back was agony, her legs were on fire with pins and needles deep enough to scour her bones.
She couldn’t move. She couldn’t help herself. She could only lie there and hurt. Fresh tears fell down her face, her chest just as tight as before, unable to breathe, unable to sob, unable to even beg the uncaring gods for help.
“Here now, what’s going on?” A voice broke through her misery, followed by gentle hands that plucked her kaz-naghkt babies away. A face appeared, concern etched upon a furrowed brow. Dark eyes assessed her, then strong hands moved her.
Onto her back, sitting her up against the pillows. Her arms were pulled from her chest, her legs stretched and straightened, pulled down and out. It hurt. Great gods and lightning bolts, Mhysra couldn’t believe how much it hurt, but she had no strength to resist, nothing left to fight with. She could only lie there, eyes closed, teeth clenched, dragging in desperate breaths until, finally, it stopped.
“Better?” Riame asked, once Mhysra could open her eyes again.
She breathed in deeply and nodded. “Much. Thank you.”
Her friend – jailor? Carer? Enemy? – smiled her cheerful smile and bent to shoo the kaz-naghkt away from the meal tray. “You’re welcome,” she said, popping back up and placing a bowl of broth on Mhysra’s lap. Crusty bread sat beside it, fresh from the oven and lightly steaming. The scent of it curled up invitingly and it was all Mhysra could do not to throw up. The memory of her pain was too fresh and recent to even think about food.
Riame didn’t notice – or at least pretended not to – busying herself with feeding the babies. They’d grown again, each one now as tall as the woman’s waist, wings held tight to their skinny, scaled backs. They leapt eagerly for the tray in her hands, able to get as high as Riame’s shoulders. They could have brought the woman down with ease, but this was a game they all enjoyed, jumping and jostling and waiting to be fed.
“Now, sit,” Riame ordered, waiting for the five babies to spread out around her, planting their bums on the ground, tails twitching, wings shivering, bodies tight with anticipation. “Wait… Wait for it…” She bent down, placing a bowl before each baby. “Wait…” She straightened up, smiling. “Good babies.”
They turned to Mhysra, red eyes glowing with hunger.
She had no strength to lift her arm, no breath to speak with, she could only nod. It was all they needed and fell on their food with snarls and gnashing teeth.
“Polite kaz-naghkt,” Riame chuckled, stepping cautiously around the feasting beasts to sit beside Mhysra. “Who knew?”
Unable to answer, Mhysra could only twitch her fingers in a pathetic shrug.
Smiling, Riame patted her hand, then looked down, eyebrows drawing into a pinch. “Bad dreams again?” she asked, trailing her nails across Mhysra’s open palm. The ticklish reflex had her fingers curling inwards, but the other woman had already moved on, testing the pulse at Mhysra’s wrist.
Licking her lips several times, Mhysra managed to croak, “Always.”
“Have you always been such a prolific dreamer?” the woman asked, moving her fingertips up the inside of Mhysra’s arm.
She managed a shrug. “Some.” It wasn’t anything she’d ever thought about. She dreamed most nights, but didn’t everyone? Most of them she didn’t really remember. Except for after escaping Aquila. She’d dreamt every night then, and remembered them all, she’d just been unable to tell anyone about them.
Yullik had been in every one. He wasn’t in her dreams here, and yet…
Yullik! She could still hear the desperate echoes of her Wingborn calling out as she fell.
Nisha, she’d called back. Not Mhysra. Not Cumulo. Yullik had told her before that he was Wingborn, but she hadn’t believed him. Because he had no miryhl and no Wingborn could survive alone. It wasn’t possible. Yullik had to be lying. It couldn’t be true. And yet…
“What’s this?” A dull ache broke through her thoughts along with Riame’s question and Mhysra looked at her own arm. Another flick of pain as Riame pressed on a dark new bruise. “Have those little horrors been poking you again?”
Mhysra shook her head. “I’d have felt it,” she murmured, knowing this wound hadn’t come from her babies. It couldn’t have. Not that they hadn’t hurt her here and there in their rough play, but never on purpose, and this wound, she realised as Riame lifted her hand, was too neat, deep and precise to have been done by accident.
“You must have bled,” Riame said, but there was no sign of blood on the blankets. “Although they would have happily lapped it all up.”
Mhysra shook her head again. Not over the kaz-naghkt clearing up the blood, because that would certainly have been true, but if her babies had caused a wound like this because of hunger, they would have ended up taking her whole arm. They might have learnt a few manners here and there, but that level of control would have been beyond them. Besides, a drop or two would have escaped, yet there was nothing staining her bed sheets except tears and sweat.
“Hm.” Riame sounded more disgruntled than puzzled, but Mhysra was too tired to ask what was on the other woman’s mind. Mostly she just wanted her to leave so that she could go back to sleep – preferably without dreams this time.
“You should eat,” Riame said, instead of going away. “The bread’s fresh. Eat it while it’s warm. It tastes better that way.”
Mhysra stared blindly at her broth. She couldn’t imagine putting any of it in her mouth, let alone swallowing. The task seemed too enormous and utterly beyond her.
“Here.” Riame broke the bread and pulled off a small chunk, dipping it into the bowl before pressing it to Mhysra’s lips. “Open.”
She obeyed, feeling like a miryhl chick as she allowed the woman to pop the food into her mouth. It was warm, fragrant and delicious, but it took a real effort to swallow through her tight throat. She felt the heat burn all the way down her aching chest to reach her churning stomach, where she feared it would be rejected.
“More,” Riame urged, not giving Mhysra time to protest. Her tummy clenched, but she was already swallowing a second mouthful, then a third and a fourth, until eventually she was too busy eating to worry about rejecting any of it.
“Better?” her friend asked, once the bowl was empty.
Mhysra stared at it in surprise, amazed that she’d managed to eat it all. And she did feel better – her body was relaxed, the last of the aches lingering like an afterthought, the bed comfortable beneath her. She smiled. “Much. Thank you.”
Stacking the kaz-naghkt bowls alongside Mhysra’s on the tray, Riame dipped her knees in a mock-curtsey and grinned. “You’re welcome. Now get some more sleep, and no dreams this time.” She wagged a stern finger and left.
Happy to comply, Mhysra rested her head back and shut her eyes with a sigh.
~ Next Chapter ~