“WHERE IS EVERYONE?” Mouse asked, as he and Nightriver returned from their morning walk to find the town deserted. Not that it was unusual for most of the survivors to stay out of Nightriver’s way. Despite the dragon having shown absolutely no signs of eating anyone since reaching Buteo, people were still wary. Which was one of the reasons why Mouse and his dragon left early each morning, to check the mountains and ensure all the tunnels, bar the main one, remained blocked, leaving no room for surprise attacks.
The practice might have arisen out of a need to escape the suspicion and whispers, but Mouse had come to enjoy their rambles. Especially when Nightriver had begun showing him secret nooks and crannies where medicinal plants were beginning to sprout in the short spring. The frequent exercise was also having a wonderful effect on his bad leg. At first he’d been left aching and was often reduced to hitching a ride on Nightriver’s back before the end. But gradually, day after day, he’d walked a little more, until he no longer needed a lift and he no longer ached. In fact, he barely even limped now. He was stronger - in body, mind and heart. Despite the suspicion shown to him and his dragon, Buteo was healing him.
Still, it was unusual to return and find the whole town deserted. Normally Silveo or Greig loitered about with a meal at the ready for him. Not today. All was quiet. The livestock had been penned and the nakhounds were gone.
Mouse frowned as he and Nightriver walked along the main track that led to the barn, which had once stored the harvest but now housed survivors.
“There is life in the smithy,” Nightriver rumbled, water pouring from his paws with each step as he shrank to his more human-friendly size. When out on the mountainside, Nightriver was free to be whatever size he chose - Mouse wasn’t intimidated anymore - but in town something close to human-size caused the least panic. However, not even a snubbed snout could disguise his teeth or scales. Nightriver wasn’t and never would be human, and Mouse wished the others would stop being foolish about the whole thing. Nightriver was an asset to their survival, if only people would give him a chance.
Sighing, Mouse walked past the empty barn, pausing to let the chickens out of their coup and unlatch the goats’ gate before taking the steep, narrow path towards the smithy. A stream bubbled and chuckled off to one side, dancing down from the green mountain, its mossy banks bedecked with tiny white starflowers and sunshine-bright primroses. A little brown bird with a white bib flitted onto a half-submerged stone and bobbed up and down, up and down, before diving into the frothing waters. It re-emerged with a tweet and a beak full of bugs. Mouse watched it fly off before focusing on the steep, rocky path. Nightriver was a steady presence behind him, always there to catch him if he slipped or to give him a nudge over the difficult sections. In the beginning Mouse had needed a lot of help, often cursing and swearing his way up the climb, but he was getting more agile as the days wore on. He still needed a bit of help here and there to scramble about, but his strength was definitely growing.
Reaching the top of the trickiest section, he paused to regain his breath and waited for Nightriver to join him. The stream gushed in a white spume at this point, loud and fierce, but even over the roar of the waterfall, the sounds of the smithy could finally be heard. The ring of metal on metal, the roar of the bellows, the ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump of the waterwheel.
“There is another way up here, you know,” Nightriver grumbled, as he hauled himself over the last rock.
“It’s the long way round,” Mouse said, as he did every time. “And I like a challenge.”
The dragon grumbled and rumbled something beneath his breath, making Mouse smile. Nightriver wasn’t really annoyed - he liked a challenge too - and while the stream path might be difficult and steep, it was far quicker and much more interesting than the winding road that swung around the village, up past the terraces and beneath the shadow of the mountain. No, as long as Mouse could walk or Nightriver could carry him, he would always pick this path over the easier alternative.
Breathing deep of the fresh spring air, faintly tinged with smoke, Mouse rested a hand on his dragon’s shoulder and the pair of them ambled up the small incline to the smithy. It didn’t look like much from the outside, being little more than an old shepherd’s shack that had been hastily expanded and reinforced, with a waterwheel attached to the outside, but it was Mouse’s favourite place in Buteo. The roof was uneven, the walls seemed to sag and it was a curious mixture of old and new, but it was the one place in town that was always warm - and welcoming.
“Ah, there you are, Mouse. I was wondering when you would come.” Derneon Weaponsmith looked up from his anvil and smiled as Mouse stepped through the door.
After poking in his head to nod polite greetings to the three humans inside the forge, Nightriver pulled back and went to lie in the stream. Not that he wasn’t welcome here - Derneon and his fellow Ihran, Gedanon, were two of the few Buteo residence who weren’t bothered by the dragon - but there was barely enough room inside for Mouse, let alone Nightriver.
“Mouse!” Haelle beamed at him from where she was sitting on a work bench. “I have your breakfast. Greig and Silveo brought it up this morning.”
Fiercely hungry after all his exercise, Mouse crossed the crowded room and hopped up next to her. “How goes it today?” he asked, accepting the basket with a murmur of thanks and digging eagerly in.
Working in the space beside them, Gedanon Swordmaster stood up and flexed his back with a scowl. “As well as it ever does,” the grumpy Ihran replied.
“Sometimes better, sometimes worse,” the far more cheerful Derneon added, plunging his metalwork into the quenching bucket. “But we are improving.”
“Slowly,” Gedanon grumbled.
“Surely,” Haelle chuckled, stealing an apple from Mouse’s basket. “What do you think of the latest?” She nodded at her lap.
Mouse looked down, feeling the expected pang of guilt and sadness he felt every time he acknowledged what his friend had lost. While her left leg had healed well from its bad break four months before, her right ended abruptly mid-thigh, where the bones had been crushed too severely to be saved. Both injuries had been caused by a rock fall of Nightriver’s making. True, it had also saved them all from a kaz-naghkt attack, but it had been equally as much about proving to Mouse that the dragon existed. That Haelle knew all of this and blamed neither of them for her loss, nor seemed to grieve overmuch about it herself, only made things worse for Mouse. Especially when he remembered the bitter way he’d acted after his far lesser injury that left him with a limp. One that he was finally starting to recover from.
There would be no recovery for Haelle, but she didn’t seem to mind. She was so cheerful about it, so forgiving, so positive. How could Mouse not feel guilty?
Not that hope was entirely lost - that was why she was here now and spent most of her time inside the smithy these days, working with Gedanon and Derneon. Because the talented Ihrans were attempting to build her a new leg. Not just a wooden stump of the sort often given to wounded Riders, but a contraption of metal and joints with an ankle that flexed and a knee that bent. Whether they would ever actually achieve anything like they hoped, Mouse didn’t know, but the exercise was enough to keep all three entertained. In the meantime Haelle had a temporary wooden version to play with.
“Looks good, don’t you think?” she chuckled, tapping the wooden appendage that lay across her lap with a damp paintbrush.
Though most of the smithy was dark and smoky, Haelle’s seat was near a window where spring sunshine poured through the open shutters. All the better to paint with. Mouse stared at the leg in wonder, studying the intricate scene of mountains, sky and clouds, and the fierce miryhl perched in the foreground. Dark and regal, with unusually light eyes, it was a perfect rendition of Thunder, Haelle’s miryhl. Behind her, the sky was full of flying miryhls and Mouse’s heart ached. It had been months since he’d last seen one of the great eagles, months since he’d last flown with his own little Onyx. He wondered where he was now, where Thunder and all the other survivors’ miryhls were. Had they evacuated with the rest of Aquila? Or were they roosting somewhere hidden, waiting for the day the Riders returned to reclaim their home? Mouse hoped that wherever they were they were well. Any other outcome was too dark to contemplate - and he’d had enough darkness to last a lifetime.
“It’s beautiful, Haelle,” he whispered. “Thunder would be impressed.”
His friend beamed with delight at the praise. “I’d like to think so. I hope I get to show her one day, though she’d likely think it a waste of time and effort. She was ever a practical partner.” Shaking her head fondly at some memory, she put the leg aside and began tidying her paints away.
Heartsore from missing his own miryhl and saddened by the thought that even if Thunder did return Haelle would likely never fly again, Mouse put aside the remains of his breakfast and changed the subject. “I don’t suppose you know where the others have gone, do you?”
“Hunting.” She waved a dismissive hand as if she hadn’t once been amongst Aquila’s finest hunters. “Eddyn said he’d seen a herd of deer and doelyns grazing in the narrow valley. He also saw wolves and eagles, so the lieutenant rounded everyone up to go take a look.”
The pickings thus far this spring had been rather sparse, so Mouse wasn’t surprised at the news, nor the need to protect against other predators. Still, it might have been nice to have been asked.
Nightriver sighed inside his mind in heartfelt agreement. His dragongift had been exceedingly well behaved since arriving in Buteo, but Mouse knew he hungered for a chance to hunt again. Especially after sleeping for so long in the waters beneath Aquila.
“Soon,” Mouse thought to his dragon, and felt a dark chuckle in response.
Sooner than soon, no doubt, my Mouse. Your friends are about to stumble across a surprise.
“I do not deny that fresh meat will be welcome,” Derneon said, wiping his hands and lifting the ladle from a small bucket for a drink. “I am not fond of salt.”
Gedanon huffed. “They won’t keep anything they catch. Not in the narrow valley.”
Derneon tipped his head from side to side. “Perhaps, perhaps not. There are more of them than when we were there. They have nakhounds. They may yet bring something home.”
Intrigued, Mouse leant forward, resting his elbows against his knees. “What’s wrong with the narrow valley.”
Gedanon flicked his hands in an Ihran gesture meant to ward off evil, while Derneon’s mouth pulled into a rare grimace. “Too many predators.”
“You said it yourself, they have the nakhounds.” Haelle hopped down from the table and retrieved her crutches, swinging across the room with far more elegance than Mouse had ever managed on his bad leg. “And the numbers. No wolves will dare attack them. They’ll be fine.”
Gedanon shook his head and Derneon shrugged. “Not wolves, no. But then, I don’t think it was wolves that kept stealing our kills when we tracked through the valley.”
Haelle wrinkled her nose in confusion and Mouse frowned. “If not wolves, then what?”
Derneon shrugged again and Gedanon flicked his hands once more. “We do not know. They came at night, left no tracks, made no noise. There is no knowing. Aquila is old. Many things live on the mountain. Or beneath it.” He looked pointedly at Mouse, who couldn’t deny that at least one strange thing had lurked in the shadows beneath the citadel for time out of mind.
Deep inside his mind, Nightriver chuckled again. Surprise.
Haelle tapped her crutch against the floor and tossed her bright blonde head. “Well, whatever it was, I still think there will be too many of us out there for anything to risk stealing the kills. No matter how silent and stealthy they might be. Now enough gloomy talk, Mouse, come outside and let’s enjoy the sunshine.”
~ Next Chapter ~