The Gifts of Maegla
LADY MHYSRA KILPAPAN stood in the midst of the Rift Rider students and willed herself not to fidget. Not that she would be the only one. All along the line of Riders figures were twitching here and there, pulling at collars and rolling their shoulders, uncomfortable and awkward in their dress uniforms, some of which were itchy with newness and hastily made.
Because when Aquila fell to the kaz-naghkt and the young trainees of the Overworld fled, along with their instructors, officers and fellow Riders, a smart change of clothes had been the last thing on their minds. The scrambling months that followed, in which the dispossessed survivors were scattered across the Overworld – crossing mountain ranges and wide expanses of the Cloud Sea in the middle of winter – hadn’t been entirely kind on their existing uniforms either. Something about which no one had cared. Especially when the kaz-naghkt sprung a surprise attack on Nimbys and nearly triumphed in the previously safe west.
Only afterwards, when the city was secure, the wounded were well tended and the population was jubilant, did such thoughts enter the Riders’ minds. Because the ruler of all Imercian, and most prominent monarch of the Overworld, Stratys Henryk III, had decreed that a day of celebration and commemoration was to be held at the Cathedral of Maegla. It would be presided over by his own majesty and His Holiness, the High Tempest, and held on the first day of Nesting month, a mere eight days after the announcement.
At which point many of the gathered Rift Riders – survivors of Aquila and others who had come to prepare for war – had looked at each other and realised they had nothing to wear.
Normally that wouldn’t bother the vast majority of them, even if rumour hinted that the Stratys might actually wish to meet some of them, because Riders were practical and not much interested in fashion. But it wasn’t just Rift Riders who had filled up Aquila of late, officers had also come, including two generals and the most important Rider of them all: Wing Marshal Phirro Pheneso. The great man, and ultimate commander of all the Rift Riders across the Overworld, had bestirred himself from the Flight Command fortress in Southern Imercian to oversee preparations for the upcoming war. A rare appearance and all the more meaningful for it.
Under those stern and uncompromising eyes, the Riders had scurried to make sure they were as well turned out as possible despite the short notice.
Which was why Mhysra was trying desperately not to fidget, even though her collar was too tight and the inseam stitching on her new breeches was uncomfortably itchy. Milluqua, her sister and expert in such things, had also done something strange to her hair, which had involved a lot of pins, pulling and oil, and had left her with an aching head and smelling a trifle odd.
Although that might have also been due to the fact that she’d been standing outside in the cathedral square all morning, with the fiercely bright spring sun glaring into her eyes. Even now, as it rose above the great building itself, it still found gaps between the ornate decorations around the main spire to jab spears of light into her face.
The Sun God, Heirayk, apparently enjoyed tormenting her today. Possibly because He was jealous that all the thanks and praise for their recent victory was going to His sister, Storm Goddess Maegla, patroness of the Rift Riders, instead of His fiery exalted self.
Whatever the reason, Mhysra wished she could either go inside the cathedral or that the sun would hurry up and go behind the spire. Yes, it would be cold standing in the shadow, since spring was only just beginning to hint at the summer to come, but her head couldn’t take much more of this.
Sadly, the former was impossible, since the recent influx of Riders had swelled their numbers from the one hundred or so that usually guarded the city, to almost two thousand. Then there were the city residents who had also shown up, wanting to show their support and join in with the celebration. Since even the great cathedral could not hold such high numbers, they’d been packed into the square instead, with the Riders lined up right in the middle, directly under the shiny sun. Which wasn’t far off going behind the spire now, so Mhysra might just get her wish after all.
“And in recognition of the gifts Her greatness has bestowed upon us, let us pray!” The High Tempest, head priest of Maegla across the Overworld, may have been an elderly man, but Mhysra couldn’t help but admire his stamina as she bowed her head with the congregation for yet another prayer to Maegla’s goodness and glory.
Not that she didn’t agree – Maegla had always been her personal goddess of choice, even before she knew or understood what the Rift Riders even were – but they’d been out here since dawn and it was almost midday, and still the High Tempest was managing to talk. His only breaks had come every bell or so, when the choir would stand up to sing. Then the old man had been given a chance to refresh himself and even sit down. Mhysra wouldn’t mind either of those things herself, letting the priest’s words drift over her as she wondered for the umpteenth time how much longer all of this would go on for.
Surely there wasn’t much else to be said. The tale of the Cloud Curse had been retold, about when the gods cursed the world to be covered in clouds, leaving only mountaintop islands peopled by desperate survivors who struggled to stay alive. Then came the tale of the miryhls, when Maegla assisted clever dragons in creating a new breed of giant eagles, strong enough to carry people on their backs. The emergence of the other flying beasts was glossed over, since the goddess had played no part in that. Instead, after a song about miryhls, the High Tempest had turned his attention to what Maegla did next: taking the miryhls and forming the Rift Riders.
There had been more songs then before the mood turned sombre. The fall of Aquila had been discussed, a lament for the lost had moved many of the crowd to tears – Riders and city residents alike – then there came some rousing speeches about the battles yet to come and those already fought. The recent skirmish over Nimbys had been recapped in great and loving detail, with the names of every one of the fallen read out, the wounded also recognised and the victorious officers praised.
Which led them to the most recent prayer. Mhysra stifled a yawn as the sun finally drifted behind the spire, leaving her part of the square in blissful – if bitter – shadow.
“Do you think he’s ever going to get around to mentioning the dragons?” her friend Corin murmured beside her. “I know they can be bloody annoying, but you can’t deny that they’re the only reason we won.”
Mhysra’s lips twisted in wry acknowledgement.
Dragons were annoying, especially two of the three she and her friends had brought back from the Cleansed Lands, having accidentally entered the hidden dragon territories the previous year. It hadn’t been planned and she wasn’t yet certain how it would all turn out in the end, but in the case of the battle of Nimbys, it was indeed undeniable that without their assistance, the Riders – and the city – would have lost. Since then, more and more Riders had poured into Nimbys, meaning they could easily hold it now, but less than a month ago they had been outnumbered and taken completely by surprise.
That wouldn’t happen again. The Riders were alert and prepared and had more confidence in their ability to beat their enemy than they’d had in years. Especially with the support of dragons behind them. The powerful roar of Reglian kin Thunderwing Clan Skystorm and the ferocious lightning of Rhiddyl kin Tempestfury Clan Skystorm were weapons no army could resist. Coupled with the control and strength of Elder Goryal Clan Starshine, and even just three dragons could make all the difference in the upcoming war to regain Aquila from pirate and kaz-naghkt hands.
Confidence was so high that many Riders were agitating to leave at once, today, tomorrow, yesterday if it had been possible. But while Riders and miryhls were pouring into Nimbys in ever greater numbers each day, the logistics of getting them all from western Imercian to Aquila, an island alone in the middle of the Overworld, surrounded by days and days of empty Cloud Sea, was proving slightly trickier to organise.
“Of course he’s not going to mention the dragons,” Derrain, Mhysra’s best friend, chuckled softly. “Maegla can’t be blamed, er, I mean praised for them.”
Mhysra and Corin stifled their giggles as another friend, Dhori, shook his head. “Not this time, anyway.”
Catching Corin’s eye, Mhysra rolled her own and they both snickered again, making fun of Dhori’s perpetual need to make cryptic comments, especially regarding the goddess. Of late Mhysra had begun having some unusual suspicions about the tall student who knew so much and gave away so little. Especially regarding his parentage. The sort of thoughts that she once might have considered ludicrous or awe-inspiring. However, after several years of Dhori’s company, she was no longer surprised by anything and it didn’t matter where he came from, how old he truly was or if his parents were extraordinary – he was Dhori, her friend and a man she would trust at her back through any danger.
And that, in her opinion, was the real reason for her to stand here, shivering in the shadows, praising Maegla’s name. Not for the victory that truly belonged to dragons, nor for the miryhls, although Mhysra was exceedingly grateful that they existed, but for the Rift Riders themselves. Because without them she would never have met Dhori or Corin, nor her injured friend Jaymes, nor Lieutenants Lyrai, Stirla or Honra, nor Captain Myran or any of the many others she had known.
Yes, some had been lost at Aquila, and she mourned them deeply, but she was so very grateful for all the other Riders spread out across the Overworld, the ones she knew and the ones she might never meet, but who were all right now gathering together, making plans and preparations, and mustering their courage. Aquila was their home and they would win it back. More than anything Mhysra thanked Maegla for the friendship and family the Riders represented.
That was a gift beyond any price.
Filled with a sudden rush of affection, Mhysra tipped her head back to look up the shadowy spire and smiled. Which widened into a grin when she realised the silhouette had grown into the shape of a young storm dragon and a handful of miryhls. No doubt two more dragons were up there too, disguised in their human forms, listening intently to the proceedings below and wondering why they were all wasting so much time standing around in the cold. Elsewhere in the city, two young dragonets would be coiled up together, close to where the injured Jaymes slept. None of them had been mentioned by the High Tempest on this day of thanks, but all of whom Mhysra was grateful for nonetheless.
Nudging Corin and Derrain with her elbows, she nodded towards the cathedral roof and chuckled with her friends. All thoughts of uncomfortable uniforms and fidgeting were forgotten as the High Tempest stepped down once more and the voices of the choir rose in another beautiful song.
~ Next Chapter ~