AFTER THAT SILVEO found it hard to adjust to life with the others. Haelle and Thunder moved into the smithy with the Ihrans and he didn’t see her, unless he made a special journey. He rarely had the time, because with Mouse gone, he was the most qualified healer left.
His respect for Mouse grew over the following days as he struggled to cope under the pressure of a task his knowledge was nowhere near fit for. He learnt swiftly, relying on Healer Nehtl’s notebooks and trusting to his instincts. He was exhausted and wished some of his patients might show a little gratitude. Most of them preferred to grumble because he wasn’t Mouse.
And yet, outside of the healing spaces, no one seemed to miss Mouse all that much. Except for Silveo. People missed Greig and talked about him often, wishing he was there to make them laugh, hoping he was well. But Mouse, hardworking, tireless Mouse, who had done so much for each and every one of them, was practically forgotten the moment they didn’t need him for some healing or another. Some were even glad he was gone.
“At least we don’t have to put up with that dragon now,” Silveo overheard someone mutter, while he was in the healing storeroom, counting bandages and wondering if he should send the miryhls out to gather more elder bark.
“Aye, it gave me the right creeps that one did. Kept thinking I’d wake up one morning to find half my leg missing.”
“Shame about the boy, but maybe it’s for the best.”
Maybe it was for the best that Mouse was gone? Maybe it was for the best that their strongest line of defence had left them? Maybe it was for the best that their only competent healer was missing, possibly even dead?
Silveo stared around the tiny storeroom, looking at the herbs he’d worked so tirelessly to gather and the bandages he’d rolled so carefully – and snapped.
Throwing the box of bandages on the floor, he stormed into the main room, much to the surprise of the two men sitting there. One was a regular townsman who hadn’t known Mouse well, so even if Silveo couldn’t forgive the sentiment, he swiftly dismissed him. The other man was Rider Rechar, who had been with Mouse all through the siege and the winter that followed and should have known better.
“You make me ashamed to be a Rider,” Silveo told him, slamming his way out of the healer’s hut and heading for the tiny corner in the bunkhouse that he’d once shared with Mouse and Greig. His friends were gone now, all of them. What was he still doing here?
Imaino caught up with him in the pantry where he was angrily stuffing food into his pack. “What happened?” the lieutenant demanded, eyeing him with alarm.
“Have you heard what they’re saying? Did you know?” Silveo snarled, throwing aside his pack and rounding on the officer he had once considered a friend, after all their struggles through the cold and the dark. Until they came to Buteo and greater responsibility had drawn Imaino away, turning him back into a lofty stranger. “Do you know what they’re saying about Mouse?”
Imaino’s alarmed confusion turned to understanding – then guilt. “Ah, Silveo…”
“Don’t you dare!” Silveo shouted, stepping right up to Imaino, putting them nose to nose. He was taller than the lieutenant a small part of his mind realised, wondering when that had happened. “Don’t you bloody dare agree with them. You were there, Imaino. You were there when we rescued him. You were there in the dark beside the lake. You saw what happened, what he’d been through. You were there when he came back. You know.”
The lieutenant, his lieutenant, rubbed a hand across the scar on the side of his neck and sighed. “I know, Silveo,” he said, voice weary and sad. “I remember. But… the others weren’t there. They don’t understand. They’re scared. They -”
Silveo turned his back, picked up his pack, grabbed a last loaf of bread and shoved past Imaino into the dining hall. “Save it. I don’t care what they are. They’re all fools and cowards and I won’t waste another day on any one of them.”
“What?” Imaino was truly alarmed now as he scrambled after him. “Wait! Silveo, you can’t leave. You’re our healer!”
“That was Mouse!” Silveo shouted, spinning on the grass before the dinning hall, aware of others stopping to see what the commotion was about.
Good. Let them stop, let them stare, let them overhear. They should hear everything he had to say. They should be ashamed.
“Mouse was our healer, our last healer, our only healer, and you treated him like he was nothing. Even now, even with him gone, you don’t miss him. You don’t care how he is or where he is, or if he’s even alive. All you care about is that someone is still here to patch up your scrapes and coddle your colds. Well, you had Mouse, who cared and wanted to make things better, and you threw him away. I don’t care about your scrapes and bruises and coughs and colds. I don’t care if you break your arm or catch a fever. I couldn’t help you anyway and now I refuse to even try.
“You didn’t deserve him, and you won’t have me. Read Nehtl’s journals yourself, Imaino, and you can be the next healer. You’ll do just as poor a job as I did, and maybe one day, when you really need a healer and you all look around and realise you haven’t got one, maybe then you’ll care about Mouse. Maybe then you’ll wish he was still here. Maybe then you’ll think about Nightriver and realise what a gift he was or could have been.
“But I won’t be here to see it. I’m done. With all of you.”
Vehro landed next to him in a flurry of feathers and worry, nuzzling against him. “Silveo, what’s happening? Why are you so angry?”
“We’re leaving,” he told his miryhl. “Fetch your tack.”
As Vehro fluttered off, raising a ruckus as he burst into the tackroom and grabbed his own bits and pieces, regardless of niceties, Imaino approached Silveo one last time.
Braced for pleas, recriminations or arguments, he was surprised when the lieutenant simply held out a hand. After staring at it suspiciously for a long moment, Silveo finally took it.
“I’m sorry,” Imaino said, squeezing tightly and pulling him in for a hug. Once they were close, the lieutenant whispered in his ear, “Find them. Help them. And please, gods, if we ever really need you, don’t turn your back on us. I’m sorry, Silveo, I truly am. I’m just trying to do the best with what little I’m given.”
Having spent most of his anger in the tirade, Silveo nodded a tired head against his lieutenant’s shoulder and eased away. “I know,” he murmured, too exhausted to even care any longer. “I’ll find them. Good luck to you, sir.”
“Good luck, Silveo.” Imaino clasped his hand with both of his own, giving a single, firm shake in the Lansbrig style. “May Maegla watch over you.”
“And you.” Silveo touched his forehead in a salute. “And when you do truly need us, just remember Nightriver and what he means to Aquila.” Because he was the guardian, called forth when the citadel and Riders were in greatest need. Nightriver might not have been there when the citadel first fell, but he was awake now and would not fail again.
Vehro returned and Imaino slid the bridle over the miryhl’s head with a crooked smile. “I’ll remember,” he promised, as Silveo tightened the girth straps and swung into position. “Be safe, Silveo.”
Silveo raised his eyebrows at this final piece of nonsense and urged Vehro into the air.
Imaino saluted as they left him and the gaping townsfolk of Buteo behind, but Silveo only really cared about leaving the lieutenant down there. They’d been through so much together, suffered so much, but in the end Imaino had his duty – and Silveo had his own. Friends came first.
Which was why he turned Vehro away from the mountain and across the broad valley of Buteo to where the small smithy sat proud on its raised piece of land. Thunder stood outside on the grass, watching indulgently as Haelle, Gedanon and Derneon tested her latest prosthetic.
When Vehro swooped into land, Haelle looked up. There was no smile on her face now, no happy acceptance of her lot. Her cheer had crumbled as surely as the mountain wall between the pass and the narrow valley. Now her face was pinched and determined.
She eyed the pack on Silveo’s back and nodded. “Thunder, get our things. It’s time to go.”
Even though that wasn’t what he’d planned when he came up here, Silveo raised no objection. Because if he was going to walk into the dark in search of the possible dead and dangers unknown, he’d rather do it with a friend by his side.
In barely any time at all, Thunder was tacked up and ready and Haelle was climbing into the saddle, a new riding prosthetic fitted to the stirrup to help her fly. Then, with a final nod of thanks to the Ihrans, Silveo urged Vehro back into the air once more. With Thunder alongside, they drifted high up the mountainside in search of caves or passages or landslips or anything that would give them access to the darkness beneath the mountain and hopefully lead them to the lake far below.
“We’re coming, Mouse,” he whispered into the wind. “We’re coming.”
~ Next Chapter ~