The Narrow Valley
THEY STRUCK WITHOUT warning, waiting for that one brief moment when Thunder’s miryhls turned west and were momentarily blinded by the lowering sun. Arriving in a rush of wings and talons, the first Mouse knew of it was when Onyx was buffeted aside and tumbled over twice before regaining control.
Screams, shrieks, battle cries. All was chaos and rage, and Mouse shook his head, clearing away the dizziness in an attempt to work out what was happening.
Three miryhls were on Thunder, one on her back, the other two harrying her from each side, forcing her down into the narrow pass below. Silveo and Vehro had gone high, with two enemy miryhls in pursuit, and the rest of their flock was likewise scattered. Mouse twisted around, desperate to locate Jupi, but Onyx swung upright beneath him, talons out, beak gaping to meet their own attackers head on.
Unbalanced, Mouse flailed for a moment, grabbing the saddle and pulling himself straight. A wide open beak jabbed towards his face.
Crying out, he instinctively raised his arm and dived aside. Onyx squawked as he was pulled off-balance by Mouse’s move, the pair of them lurching sideways. Fortuitously, as it proved, since the striking miryhl missed and Onyx managed to rake its wing in passing.
The enemy miryhl keened and landed on the craggy mountainside, but there were still two more miryhls to face. Panting out apologies, Mouse hunkered down on Onyx’s back and tried not to interfere as his little miryhl pushed off from the mountainside and soared back towards the thick of the battle. Their two attackers wheeled in pursuit, but while Onyx was small, he was also nimble and darted over, in and between the other battles, leaving their pursuers snarled up in different fights.
While Onyx danced to keep them out of trouble, Mouse scanned the sky, tracking the others, looking for his friends. Silveo and Vehro were out of sight, but Thunder had rid herself of the miryhl on her back and wounded another of her enemies. The last one fled in the face of her wrath as the huge black female returned to the fight, screaming as she barrelled through the middle of the flock.
Onyx lifted easily clear, wheeling around to rejoin the fray. And Mouse spotted Mercata.
“Onyx!” He grabbed at the reins to draw his miryhl’s attention. “Dive!”
Following the line of Mouse’s arm as he leant forward to point, his miryhl tucked his head and wings and plunged downwards, into the narrow, sheer-sided pass. The wind roared in their ears, screaming in their faces and drawing tears from Mouse’s eyes. Tucking himself tighter on Onyx’s back, he grit his teeth and held on.
Because Mercata had Jupi pinned to the ground, Greig trapped beneath them, as she tore at the smaller miryhl’s feathers and tack with her cruel beak. Jupi tried to fight her off, but she was on her back, wounded and obviously trying not to crush her Rider. Mercata mantled her wings, raised her feet and lifted up for the death blow.
“No!” Onyx raised his own talons and, screaming, miryhl and Rider crashed into her.
Straight into the rock wall beyond.
* * *
On board the Illuminai
FEELING FLUSHED AND exhilarated after his mock-battles with Stirla, Lyrai was still smiling when he hung Hurricane’s tack in the storeroom and left the eyries. His new sergeant was waiting for him. A naturally dour man, Bheneo might prove to be only a temporary appointment. Or so Lyrai hoped. Not that he had anything against the man, but being a little stiff and stern himself, Lyrai needed a sergeant who could bridge the troubles between him and his men, not make the gulf wider. As Honra had done; as Dhori might, if only Lyrai had a chance to suggest him to Captain Myran.
He was sure Bheneo was a good Rider and would make a capable sergeant, but simply being in the man’s presence made Lyrai feel depressed. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, since the looming thought of Aquila and what they would find there rarely left Lyrai’s mind, but for once he had been feeling almost happy and would have liked to have savoured the rare sensations a little longer. Too late now.
“Looking for me, sergeant?”
“Aye, sir.” The stocky Kevian dipped his head in his personal version of a salute. “Hope you enjoyed yourself out there. Captain’s asking for you.”
Hearing Stirla exit the eyries after him, Lyrai turned and raised his eyebrows at his fellow lieutenant.
Stirla slapped him on the shoulder. “Best we not keep him waiting then,” he said cheerfully.
“Least not no more than you already have,” was Bheneo’s gloomy reply. “He’s with the general in Lady Kilpapan’s cabin.”
Wonderful. The last of Lyrai’s happiness curdled in his gut. “Have they been waiting long?”
His sergeant shrugged. “Long enough to watch you sky dance.”
Even better. Lyrai sighed and not even Stirla could summon up a cheerful response to that.
“We’d best get to it then,” his friend suggested, sounding even less keen than Lyrai to make their way to the stateroom.
“Aye, sirs,” Bheneo said. “General Keipen don’t like to be kept waiting. Last I saw the dragons were in with him and you know that makes him extra testy.”
“Yes, thank you, sergeant,” Lyrai cut Bheneo off sharply. “We’re going now.” Because suddenly facing a furious general and impatient pair of captains seemed a lot better than hanging around here with his miserable sergeant. Maegla, much more time in his company and Lyrai would be walking on the Cloud Sea before supper time.
“Gods, and I thought Rees was difficult,” Stirla muttered, as they made their way up the narrow stairs to the storage deck above.
Lyrai snorted. Rees had been a difficult sergeant, but one assigned to balance out Stirla’s overly friendly demeanour with his men. Rees had been grumpy and rather mean-spirited at times, but he’d added a sternness to Stirla’s flurry that might otherwise have been missing. Lyrai feared that his own personality combined with Bheneo’s might leave his own Riders too dispirited and miserable to fight. He’d originally planned to wait until after Aquila had been recovered and the confusion and dust had all settled to raise the issue with Captain Myran, but perhaps he needed to do it sooner.
“How’s your new sergeant doing?” Lyrai asked, as they strode down the corridor past storerooms turned into bedrooms, where the majority of the Riders bedded down each night, and climbed the next set of stairs towards the passenger deck.
“Lheto?” Stirla held out his hand, tilting it from side to side. “Early days, but he seems solid. A bit staid, but I suppose that’s not always a bad thing.” He nudged Lyrai with his shoulder.
As one of the staid set, Lyrai smiled. “Not a bad thing at all when it comes to keeping you in line.”
Stirla smirked. “Are you saying I need a keeper?”
“We all know you need that,” Fleik said, from where he and three other lieutenants were gathered in the hallway outside the stateroom. “You’re best handled with a whip and a chair. Back, back, unrepentant beast.” Their old friend danced around in front of them, cracking an invisible whip and holding them off with a mimed chair.
“Takes one to know one,” Stirla laughed, ducking the imaginary obstacles and trying to swipe Fleik’s legs out from beneath him.
Lyrai rolled his eyes and leant against the wall beside Honra, his former and much missed sergeant, who nevertheless had thoroughly deserved his promotion. “Have we missed anything?”
Honra shook his head – although that might have been because Stirla had managed to trip Fleik up and the pair of them were now wrestling against the wall. “We were all inside waiting for you two to come back when one of the sentries returned and the general sent us out.”
“Who’s in there then?” Lyrai asked, nodding across the corridor to the double doors of Lady Kilpapan’s stateroom. While the bedroom beyond was still maintained for the Countess’ use, the stateroom had been given to the Riders for a command centre.
“The general and both captains,” Honra said, using his foot to push the wrestlers aside when they rolled too close. The other two lieutenants, belonging to Captain Huro, were cheering the pair of them on, reminding Lyrai that the sensible pair were currently flying patrol around the skyship. “Your dragon friends are in there too, as is the Countess, while Commanders Greene and Virokoi arrived a short while ago from their respective ships.”
Lyrai’s eyebrows rose. “Quite the conclave.”
Honra smiled. “Which would be why we’re out here.” He nodded pointedly at the four lieutenants now tangled in a heap on the floor like a litter of puppies.
“Should we try and separate them?” Lyrai asked doubtfully.
“I’d stay where you are, if I were you,” his former sergeant advised. “You’re in enough trouble with the general as it is, thanks to your little sky tricks.”
Which would leave Stirla in more trouble than himself. Tempting…
Honra laughed as Lyrai sighed, stepped forward and grabbed a flailing limb in passing, hoping it belonged to his friend. “That’s enough now, you lot. We’re supposed to be officers.”
“Indeed,” a wintry voice said from the doorway, halting the wrestlers far more efficiently than Lyrai’s half-hearted attempt had.
Wishing he didn’t have to, but determined not to be a coward, Lyrai turned his head to where General Keipen loomed in the open doors of the stateroom. Beyond him, the faces of two captains, two commanders, two dragons and the Countess Kilpapan, gazed out with an array of expressions ranging from disgust and amusement to the far more painful disappointment.
Lyrai closed his eyes, cursing himself for being too loyal for his own good. Then he looked down and hauled Stirla to his feet, lips twitching at the dishevelled state of his friend’s uniform.
“Sorry,” his fellow lieutenant mouthed apologetically.
Lyrai gave a small, fatalistic shrug. The general already thought him an ill-disciplined troublemaker so this wouldn’t change anything.
“If you’ve quite finished your playtime, children, there’s work to be done.” So saying, the Keipen turned on his heel and stormed back into the stateroom, leaving the doors wide open behind him.
Shaking his head at the lot of them, Honra followed with his head high, while the five others slunk in after him.
“Good of you to join us,” the general growled, once they’d found places close to their captains around the broad table strewn with maps. The uppermost of which showed the area around Aquila in exquisite detail, from cloud currents to every tiny outcrop and jagged islet of rock. A tiny wooden skyship lingered on the very edge of the paper, fifty leagues from the mountain.
“Our destination is close,” Keipen said, nudging the skyship slightly further onto the map. “Our sentries are beginning to return. The mountain is quiet, they say, with the pirates holed up in the cove. But Aquila was never just a cove or a citadel.” He stroked his hand across the map to the complicated feature in the centre. “It is a mountain, and that mountain is ours.”
Lifting his head, General Keipen slowly looked every Rider in the eye. “Gentlemen, the time has come to plan our invasion.”
* * *
The Narrow Valley
THEY LANDED WITH a crunch that snapped Mouse’s teeth together, made his bones ache and his head ring. Though Onyx had struck Mercata first, it hadn’t been a clean hit, twisting the female miryhl beneath them. Nor was the rock wall straight, meaning that Mercata didn’t absorb the whole blow. Instead the larger miryhl had been slammed sideways and Onyx had hit the wall at an angle, crunching Mouse’s knee in the process and smacking his head into an outcrop. They all collapsed in a heap.
For a long moment Mouse lay on Onyx’s back, head reeling, vision grey, struggling to breathe as he tried to work out what had happened and what to do now.
Onyx lurched beneath him, wheezing painfully, his right wing flapping weakly around like a groping hand. As he flopped away from the wall, rolling onto his side, Mouse realised how much his left knee hurt just in time to cry out as his right was pinned beneath his miryhl.
Onyx’s sides heaved, but he didn’t move any further, not even when Mercata stirred. Left wing hanging at a truly awful angle, the dark miryhl screeched. At least, she tried, but her beak was askew and her head tilted to one side. One of her eyes was squeezed shut against the blood pumping out from beneath her feathers and her whole left side listed all wrong.
There was nothing wrong with her right foot, though, or the talons she flexed and scraped along the rocky ground as she lurched and dragged herself forward, right eye fixed on Onyx.
No, not Onyx, Mouse realised as Mercata toppled over and struggled to lift herself back up, growling and snarling and bubbling with rage. No, it wasn’t the miryhl she was after – it was him.
Pinned beneath Onyx, with his free leg not feeling right at all, Mouse fumbled for the straps holding him to the saddle. They slipped beneath his fingers, coated in blood from himself, Onyx and probably Mercata too. Panting, he managed to unbuckle himself, but only to crash onto the ground, his left leg screaming in agony, his right pinned beneath Onyx’s unmoving side.
Mercata bubbled – a breath, a laugh, a curse – and used her misshapen beak to pull herself up, leaning her ruined side against the passage wall as she hauled herself on.
“You,” she croaked, the word mangled by pain, blood and a broken beak, yet still full of malice. “You.”
Mouse pulled himself upright, scrabbling behind himself for a handhold, leverage, anything to help haul himself away from Onyx and the monstrosity approaching. Both of his legs burned, his vision was filled with spots and his head pounded. He felt sick.
“Mine,” Mercata gargled triumphantly, digging her foot into Onyx’s limp wing and dragging herself over the unmoving eagle.
Mercata loomed over him, a shadow blocking out the sky, blood dripping from her face to his. Her good eye glinted. “Mine.”
Mouse scrabbling hand froze, fingers clenching around a rock.
Mercata lunged. Mouse rolled aside, swinging his arm.
A sharp pain slashed across his cheek and into his shoulder. Then a loud crack.
A heavy, screaming, wailing weight collapsed onto his chest and Mouse screamed with a mouth full of feathers as Mercata’s foot closed on his side.
A roar filled his head, shaking the stones of the pass, threatening to bring down the mountain.
Cold air kissed his face, a hint of rain against his cheeks, and Mouse fled from the pain into darkness.
~ Next Chapter ~