(This continues straight on from the last update. It's a big scene in a massive chapter, so I had to split it somewhere.)
AS HAELLE SWUNG herself over to the door, Mouse hopped off the table and hurried after her, basket over one arm. He nodded farewell to the Ihrans and joined Haelle on the small lawn beside the stream. A bench had been placed there by Derneon, providing a perfect view west over the waterfall and the barn below, all the way out to the Cloud Sea beyond Buteo’s cove. Once skyships had floated there, in a permanent state of readiness to service the Rift Riders needs, but now all was empty.
Mouse didn’t like looking out over the Cloud Sea anymore, fearing the appearance of a pirate ship at any moment. He stared down at the grass beneath his feet instead, and the sunshine faces of the dandelions, daisies and buttercups strewn over the lawn. They bobbed in the light breeze, full of the promise of summer soon to come.
“Morning, Nightriver,” Haelle greeted cheerfully, as she lowered herself onto the bench and propped her crutches to one side. “I don’t suppose you were the stealthy, sneaky thief who stole Gedanon’s venison, were you?”
Having had the exact same thoughts himself, Mouse joined Haelle on the bench and waited for the dragon to lift his head from the stream.
Nightriver blew a stream of bubbles, his green eyes glinting above the surface like an ancient crocodile. He surfaced in a gleam of teeth. “Of course not. I was sleeping. But I am not the only secret this mountain keeps.” Chuckling, he lowered his jaw back beneath the surface, bubbles emerging between his teeth.
Mouse rolled his eyes, but Haelle took the bait. Wriggling forward on the bench, she leant eagerly towards the water. “What kind of secrets?”
Nightriver exhaled an amused spray as he rested his chin on the stream bank. “They wouldn’t be secrets if I shared them, would they?”
“Oh, go on, please,” Haelle begged. “Only a little one. Just tell me what stole the deer. Was it wolves?”
“No.” Nightriver shook his head, flashing his teeth in a grin as Haelle’s shoulders sagged. “Not wolves.”
“Oh!” She sat up again, obviously delighted that the dragon had decided to play. “Bears?”
“No. They were also sleeping. This was in the dead of winter, little Haelle. Snow was thick on the ground, yet they left no tracks. No trace.”
“Hm.” She propped her head on her fist and frowned in thought. “Then what?”
Intrigued by the mystery himself, Mouse tried to think of other predators on the mountain who might be capable of carrying off a full-sized deer. There weren’t many, and even fewer who would leave no trace.
“Eagles!” Haelle snapped her fingers and pointed at Nightriver in triumph. “Silveo said Eddyn mentioned eagles.” Her grin turned back into a frown again. “But surely a deer would be to big for one alone.”
Nightriver’s teeth glinted as he smiled widely and Mouse blinked.
His dragon chuckled. “Yes, my Mouse.”
“What?” Haelle glanced from one to the other, obviously perplexed. “What is it? Do you know something about the wild eagles that I don’t? Are the local goldens bigger than normal? Maybe strong enough to take a - Oh!” Her eyes widened with sudden understanding and Nightriver laughed, deep and rolling.
“Miryhls,” Mouse and Haelle breathed together.
“Surprise,” Nightriver chuckled, and wriggled backwards to submerge beneath the water again.
* * *
SILVEO WAS TIRED and fed up. After an entire day of hiking, they’d only just reached the mouth of the narrow valley. Evening was drawing in fast and shadows filled all the land below, but everyone around him was excited. For his part, Silveo just wanted to lay his bedroll down somewhere, crawl inside and sleep. Except he couldn’t, because even though he wasn’t a hunter or a tracker or any good at setting up camp or cooking, Imaino had dragged him along for a reason.
“I wish Mouse was here,” he grumbled, shrugging his pack from his shoulders and bending down to dig amongst his supplies.
“Only because then there’d be no need for you,” Greig chuckled beside him, taking a long draught from his water flask. “But our lieutenant was too eager to wait.”
Silveo grunted in agreement, searching through the meagre supply of herbs he’d managed to gather from the medicine chest before Imaino hurried them all into the woods and up to the higher reaches of the mountains. Some might think it was because he didn’t want to miss a chance at the deer, but Silveo and Greig both knew better.
The reason they’d left so swiftly, leaving their best healer behind and making use of a substandard beginner like Silveo instead, was because of Nightriver. It was always about Nightriver these days, and Silveo found it infuriating. Mouse was one of them. He’d struggled through the winter alongside them all, hunted and taken watch with them, tended to their hurts and even saved lives. He’d been taken prisoner, tortured, for Maegla’s sake, and hadn’t cracked. Silveo didn’t know what horrors his friend had faced during his captivity, but everyone knew Nehtl hadn’t made it and knew what that must have done to Mouse. They also knew that not a single other Rider had been taken captive, despite Mouse and Nehtl knowing the location of all the secret hideouts.
Yet at the first opportunity, they all ran away and left Mouse without even a note to say where they’d gone. All because of Nightriver, a dragon who, yes, was pretty terrifying on first appearances, but on longer acquaintance wasn’t so bad. In fact he had the potential to do a large amount of good with his own healing skills, water magic and knowledge of the entire mountain and all that moved both upon and below it. Nightriver was a gift - but few had the wits to recognise it.
Silveo had hoped Imaino was one of them, but when it came to boosting the morale of the many, it seemed the lieutenant was willing to ignore the advantages of the few.
“This is stupid,” Silveo growled, struggling to undo a particularly stubborn knot that was keeping him from his dwindling supply of dried apple crisps. “Blast and burn it!” Frustration boiling over, he threw the pouch at the nearest tree and slumped to his knees in defeat.
Greig crept quietly away and Silveo didn’t blame him. He’d allowed his temper to get the better of him all day, angry at Imaino, disgusted with the others, annoyed at having to march into the wilderness on what he suspected was a fool’s errand. Gedanon and Derneon had both warned him and Greig against hunting in the narrow valley when they’d dropped Haelle off with the Ihrans. But if there was one thing Silveo had learnt since coming to Buteo, and the relative safety of the west side of the mountain, it was that few were willing to listen to reason.
“Here.” Greig crouched beside him, holding out the pouch of apple crisps, now gaping open.
Sighing, Silveo fished one out and crunched into it. Well, he tried. In truth the crisps were long past their best and sadly soggy. Still, it was better than nothing and he appreciated his friend’s gesture.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. “And sorry.” He’d been terrible company all day, but Greig hadn’t abandoned him, not even when he could have walked with pretty much anyone else, since like his uncle Lieutenant Stirla, Greig was gifted at making friends wherever he went.
“S’all right.” His friend shrugged. “We all have good days and bad, and this time you’re right to be angry. Mouse should be here.”
And not just because he was the best healer they had.
“Nightriver would soon find these deer for us,” Silveo agreed, nibbling on a second crisp and offering the pouch to Greig.
His friend screwed up his face in refusal. “I don’t know how you can bear to eat those things. They don’t taste of anything, and now that their crunch is gone, they take ages to chew.”
“Better than going hungry,” Silveo replied calmly, feeling his more usual even temper returning. “Go on, you know you want to.” He waved the pouch in Greig’s face.
“Get off.” Greig batted him away with a laugh. “Or I’ll be the one throwing them into the dark, and I’ll make sure the thing’s open this time.”
Silveo clutched the precious pouch to his chest. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Wave them in my face again and watch me.”
“Hard-hearted westerner,” Silveo accused.
“Better than a northerner with no taste.” His friend grinned.
Silveo smiled back. Even without Mouse or Haelle along, at least he still had one good friend. “Thanks, Greig.”
The stocky lad bumped shoulders with him and chuckled. “Anytime.”
~ Next Chapter ~