MOUSE SAT BESIDE the fire, blinking at the man sitting opposite him. “What are you doing here?” he asked, not certain why, but knowing that it was wrong. This lake wasn’t somewhere Healer Nehtl should be.
Perhaps because he should be in the infirmary? That didn’t feel like the right answer either, but when Mouse frowned, his head ached so he stopped and the thoughts dribbled away like water.
“Aquila is my home.” The healer shrugged. “Where else would I be?”
Mouse had an answer for that. Somewhere… Thinking hurt, though, so he didn’t think. He smiled instead. “It’s good to see you.” He hadn’t seen Nehtl in a while. But why…?
“It’s good to see you too.” The older man smiled.
He spun towards the lake, certain he’d heard something. “Did you -?”
The fire spat and Nehtl leant forward to tend to it. “Did I what?”
Mouse was distracted by the flames and shook his head. “No idea.”
The healer sat back, resting his hands on his knees. “Never mind then. I’m glad you’re here, Mouse. There’s so much to tell you, so much to teach. At least here we won’t be interrupted.”
Was that why they were down by the lake? Mouse frowned and glanced over his shoulder again.
The heavy water lapped at the shore like a groping hand trying to climb higher, only to be frustrated by its lack of reach. Mouse. Mouse. Mouse. Come. Come back. Come.
“Can you -?” He turned to ask Nehtl something, but forgot what the moment he looked away from the water.
The older man raised his eyebrows in question. Mouse shook his head and rubbed his forehead. It ached, as if something was pressing against the inside. Something big. Something persistent.
“Headache?” Nehtl asked, stirring a pot over the fire. “Need something for it?”
Mouse winced as his headache stabbed. “Please.”
“Here, then.” The healer held out a mug of something steaming and fragrant. “Not the best I might have come up with, but my stores are limited here.”
Mouse didn’t care. He cradled the warmth between his hands and took a sip. It washed through him, cleansing his mind and leaving him refreshed and smiling. “This is very good.”
Nehtl smiled. “I do my best.”
The ground trembled beneath them, making the fire snap and dance. Nehtl frowned at the ceiling and Mouse looked around. Small pebbles shivered on the ground, bouncing their way down the slope to where the water swallowed them.
Was it his imagination or had the water risen?
He stared at the lake.
Another shiver and he stared at Nehtl. “Does that happen a lot?”
The healer tilted his head from side to side. “Occasionally. Sometimes worse than others. I think it’s something to do with the lake.”
The lake. Mouse looked back at it, frowning as he sipped his drink. The pounding in his head was still there, but muffled and faint, as if blocked out by the herbs he was taking. Nehtl had always been good with herbs.
He twitched his head, feeling a tickling in his ear as if someone was whispering to him. He shook it off and turned his back on the lake.
Healer Nehtl smiled. “Ready to learn your lessons, Mouse?”
He nodded, putting his drink aside and sitting forward in eagerness. “Ready.”
“Then let’s begin.”
* * * * *
IF SILVEO WAS under any impression that he was in charge of his little expedition, he was swiftly disabused of the notion when they located a suitable looking cave and landed.
“No,” Thunder stated firmly. “Absolutely not. You left us miryhls behind before and look what happened.” She didn’t glance at Haelle’s missing leg or in any way state that it wouldn’t have been lost if she’d been around, but the way she glared at Silveo implied as much. Especially as the woman in question was currently leaning against her miryhl’s side, swapping out her riding prosthetic for a walking one. The Ihrans had been busy.
“We’re going underground,” Silveo said, not knowing why he was bothering to argue. The miryhls were bigger and stronger than him and perfectly capable of making their own decisions. They had never been docile beasts of burden, but at times like these Silveo almost wished they were. At least with a horsat he could find a suitable pasture, take off its tack and let it roam free.
But no, that sort of thing wouldn’t do for a miryhl. Especially not these miryhls.
“It will be dark and cramped and damp and utterly unsuitable for you,” he continued.
Thunder sniffed, showing her disdain for his argument, while Vehro ruffled his feathers nervously. “It doesn’t sound suitable for anyone. Perhaps we should all stay here. We could live very well right here.”
Silveo wasn’t the only one to look out from the cave mouth and down over the small but pretty valley they had landed in. Dark forest covered most of the shallow wedge, but a bright stream ran down the centre and a carpet of wildflowers was starting to fill the small meadow. It was a lovely place, and perhaps in times past Silveo would have been happy to have set up camp to wait out whatever was to come. Not anymore. Mouse needed him.
“I’m going in,” Haelle declared, testing her false leg gingerly before reaching to remove her pack from Thunder’s saddle. “I’m not stopping until I find Greig.”
Silveo nodded and shouldered his own pack. “Agreed.”
“Then we’re coming too,” Thunder insisted, standing to her full height. “No arguments.”
There were many that Silveo could give, but the glint in Thunder’s eye told him she wouldn’t listen. Now that she’d found Haelle again, she wasn’t letting her out of her sight. Even if it meant going underground.
Silveo sighed and eyed Vehro. His miryhl seemed a lot less confident about this idea than Thunder, but he too straightened under his Rider’s eye.
“We’re coming too,” he said firmly.
“Fine.” Silveo gave in, because he couldn’t stop them and he didn’t want to waste anymore time. “But if you need to turn back, no one will think the worse of you.”
“We won’t turn back,” Thunder said, strutting proudly into the cave. “Unless you do.”
Haelle winked at him as she followed her miryhl into the gloom. Heartened by this small show of his friend’s returning humour, Silveo patted Vehro on the wing and followed.
The way was dark and soon began to narrow. The walls closed in on either side and the roof dropped down low, but there was still space enough for them all to pass without much discomfort. As things became even more cramped, though, Thunder finally allowed Silveo to go on ahead, preferring to walk behind Haelle where she could keep an eye on her. Vehro remained at the rear and Silveo kept hoping his miryhl would turn back. But he followed on, as they all did, even though it was now too dark for Silveo to see his own hand waving before his face.
A chill wind blew through the passage and the floor was uneven underfoot as it began to descend. Curses and squawks erupted from the group at regular intervals as they tripped and stumbled and staggered onwards into the unknown. Pressing his hand against the wall as both support and guide, Silveo paused when his skin grew damp.
Haelle cursed as she bumped into him. “What? What is it? Why have we stopped?”
Silveo rubbed his fingers together thoughtfully. “The walls are wet.”
“I know,” Thunder grumbled, feathers scraping over stone. “What of it?”
Silveo pressed his hand back against the damp wall and shouted, “Nightriver! It’s us. Guide us down!”
The echoes of his shout bounced away along the tunnel, coming back faint and weak before fading away.
“That was helpful,” Thunder drawled sarcastically.
A hand bumped his back and Haelle felt her way up to his shoulder to give it a squeeze. “It was a good idea,” she said supportively.
Silveo didn’t answer; he was waiting.
“Keep moving,” Thunder said irritably. “It’s too cold to stand around sulking because your silly idea didn’t work.” Talons scraped over stone as the miryhl stepped forward, bumping Haelle against Silveo’s back.
“Wait!” he snapped.
“No,” the big miryhl growled. “If you won’t move, stand aside. Let Haelle lead us. You’re being foolish.”
A powerful gust rushed up through the tunnel, blowing both Silveo and Haelle back into Thunder’s feathery chest. The ground trembled beneath their feet.
“What was that?” Haelle whispered, clutching Silveo’s arm. As well she might, since it had been a tremor just like that which had resulted in her losing her leg.
“Maybe we should leave,” Vehro said, sounding as if he’d already backed up a good way. “It’s not safe.”
“Nowhere on this mountain is safe,” Thunder growled, her voice humming against Silveo’s back. “Not while the kaz-naghkt hold the citadel and pirates squat in the town.”
“Then let’s find a way to fix it,” Silveo declared, stepping away from her solid support and stalking down the tunnel. As he moved, light began to grow around him, a faint green glow that sparkled wherever water flowed.
“Nightriver,” he murmured, touching the nearest line of light. He glanced back over his shoulder towards his friends and smiled. “Shall we continue?”
Thunder glowered, but Haelle chuckled, catching him up and taking his hand. “Let’s go find out friends.” Hand in hand, they followed the bright water deep into the mountain.
~ Next Chapter ~