NIMBYS WAS ALL abuzz. Standing in almost any street, anyone who looked south towards the Cloud Sea would see ships, ships, ships. Not that skyships were an unusual sight in a trading city such as this, but these ships were different. Instead of the usual rainbow of colours and crests and different shaped vessels, all of these were the same. Green and black and big.
The Kilpapan fleet had arrived.
In contrast to the city, the hive of activity at the Flying Headquarters and around the eyries had suddenly ceased. Everything was ready, had been ready for days, and was sitting stacked along the docklands waiting to be loaded by the skysailors. Now all the Riders could do was wait. The time of departure was coming, but they’d not reached it yet.
Unable to bear the eerie silence and heavy air of anticipation, Stirla finished his patrol with the patched-up band of Riders that now formed his flurry and headed back out with Atyrn. His official new sergeant, Lheto, didn’t notice, but his unofficial one, Derrain, definitely did. The youngster flicked him a cheeky salute to assure him all would be well in his absence, and Stirla took his opportunity to escape.
Not that he went far. Not even the patrols did that these days. Everyone was too on edge, not wanting to miss the moment of departure.
So he let Atyrn pick the spot and she carried them high into the crags above the western edge of the city. There they settled down out of the wind and studied the fleet below.
“Impressive,” his miryhl murmured, fluffing up her feathers. “Mhysra’s become quite an asset to the Riders, and not just because she’s Wingborn.”
Counting the fifteen vast world-crossing traders and a further twenty-three smaller island-hopping craft, Stirla couldn’t argue. “Who would have guessed opening up the Riders to women again would reap such incredible rewards?”
His female miryhl huffed and tapped him with her beak. “I would have.”
“That’s because you’re smart, love.”
She purred contentedly as he scratched the little feathers around her beak, leaning her heavy head over his shoulder so that he could reach other special spots, such as her forehead and beneath her chin.
The familiarity of it made Stirla smile even as he stared at the ships, tension knotting in his gut. They would be leaving soon, and while he wasn’t overly fond of Nimbys, the idea of returning to Aquila filled him with both anticipation and dread. No one knew what they’d find when they reached it, or had any idea just how they would get the citadel back. Kaz-naghkt and pirates had stolen their home; who knew what they’d done to the place since the Riders had been gone. The same isolation that had once been so valuable in keeping the Riders neutral and protected from politics now acted against them. It was hard to send sentries so far away and hope that they might be able to return and report. Their journey would be almost over before they could do that – even with the help of dragons.
Until then they were all in the dark over what to do, what to expect and how everything would go. All anyone knew was that there would be a fight. Stirla was ready for it, but at the same time he was worried. Worried for the survivors, for his remaining students, for the miryhls and all the enthusiastic Riders who hadn’t a clue what they were about to face. Death was coming, Stirla could feel it as surely as if Typhaestus stood in his shadow. Some three thousand Riders were about to depart from Nimbys, but there was no knowing how many of them would return.
“You’re brooding,” Atyrn said, tapping him with her beak again. “Stop it. Preen me instead.”
Chuckling, he tore his eyes away from the ships and everything they foreshadowed and turned to face his miryhl instead. “Have I told you lately how beautiful you are?” Because she was. Big and bulky like him, with a rich brown shine across her feathers that glimmered with a hint of gold in the sunlight. Her eyes were warm, her beak was powerful and her talons sharp. She was everything a miryhl should be, and she was his.
Fluffing up at his words, she tilted her head and puffed out her chest with pleasure. “That’s more like it,” she approved, flexing a wing. “Now get to work.”
“Sir, yes, sir!” He snapped a salute, ducked a reproving beak-tap and crouched under her wing to do as he was told, feeling lighter already about what was to come. As long as he had Atyrn, everything would be all right.
Working methodically, the rustle and sigh of her feathers passing between his fingers was peaceful and soothing, allowing his mind to drift. His thoughts didn’t dwell on anything more serious than the glint of sunshine on feathers, and he had no idea how much time had passed when he finished Atyrn’s right wing and shifted around to tackle her left.
His miryhl was dozing, beak down, head listing sideways towards the ground. If miryhls could drool, there would have been a great big puddle beneath her as she wheezed and snored with contentment.
Grinning, Stirla brushed his hand over the top of her left wing, chuckling when it sagged open expectantly. “This is all Cumulo’s fault,” he mock-grumbled. “You were never this demanding before that Wingborn arrived.”
“Hush up and preen,” she ordered, voice slurred and sleepy.
He tugged her wing out wider and started with the long, elegant primaries. Admiring their shine in the sunshine and marvelling over how something so soft and seemingly fragile could combine with the rest to hold them both in the air, Stirla shivered as a shadow passed overhead.
Atyrn snapped her wing shut and looked up, showing more awareness than her previous torpor suggested. “Company.”
Shading his eyes against the bright sunshine, Stirla watched the other miryhl circle around their perch before gliding in to join them. He knew that miryhl – and the woman slipping easily from the saddle, despite her not particularly suitable outfit of lace, velvet and jewels.
“Good morning, Highness,” he greeted with a polite bow.
~ Next Chapter ~