23rd Thaw Month, 788 Cloud Era
RIDERS FILLED THE northern horizon. At first nothing more than tiny specks, they soon grew and grew and grew. Stretched out in a long line, they drifted closer like an inescapable net.
Standing in the mouth of the cave, he watched them come, one hand buried deep within Nisha’s feathers. She trembled alongside him; she knew what was coming.
“Time to hide, my darlings.” A gentle hand brushed through his curls, stroking his cheek before picking him up. Nisha was scooped up too, the pair of them squished in his mama’s arms, cradled against her chest. “Remember what we told you. Remember what we said.” She carried them to the very back of the cave, where the shadows were thickest and slender cracks could be easily overlooked.
With his feet back on the ground, he scrambled through a tiny gap between two rocks, reaching back to help Nisha climb in behind him. They burrowed as far back as possible, squeezed together, cold and trembling. It wasn’t the first time they’d done this. They knew what to do. They were good at it.
“Good boy, my clever boy.” His mama couldn’t follow him in here, but her hand still stroked his cheek. He crawled back to the opening but couldn’t see her face in the darkness. He could feel her, though, and that was enough.
“Now remember,” she said, crouching down in front of him and taking his hands in hers. “Remember what you promised Dada and me. Soft as shadows, silent as stone.” She squeezed his hands tightly. “And don’t come out, not for any reason, until Dada returns. Do you promise?”
He promised, nodding his head firmly and pressing her hand over his heart. He hadn’t unlocked his words yet, but he understood everything and could make himself understood.
“Good boy,” she whispered, hugging him tightly. She must have been cold too, because she was shaking. They both were. He felt all squirmy and trembling inside and he didn’t want to let her go, but he had to, he knew he did. He’d promised and there wasn’t enough room for her to hide with him.
“Good boy,” she said again, pressing a hard kiss to the top of his head before reluctantly letting go. “Back you go now, back with Nisha. Soft and silent, remember. Stay safe.”
He held onto her hand for as long as possible, but she had to leave and his arms were short. His fingers lost their grip and she turned away, walking swiftly to the front of the cave, hands swiping briskly across her face.
For a moment he saw her clearly, lit up by the cave mouth, slender and small, but strong, so strong. Then she pulled herself into her miryhl’s saddle and looked back towards him.
“Soft as shadows, silent as stone,” she told him with a smile. “Be good now and wait for your father. I love you, sweetheart.” She blew a kiss towards the shadows, then urged her miryhl out into the morning, ready to draw the Riders away. Sunlight washed over chestnut feathers, shining on the black cap of his mother’s hair.
Then they were gone.
And he never saw her again.
WAKING IN THE darkness, Yullik pressed a hand to his lips and flattened his palm over his aching heart. “I love you too, Mama.”