To the Rescue
MOUSE, WAKE UP. Wake up, Mouse.
The words drifted through the peaceful nothingness of sleep, stirring Mouse’s senses. He tried to fight it, but the voice was inside his head and Nightriver was never easy to deter.
He groaned and rolled over, refusing to open his eyes, but it was too late. Now that he was aware of his surroundings, he couldn’t ignore the deep rattling snores coming from the small alcove on the other side of the forge where the Ihrans lay, nor the gentle snuffles of Haelle sleeping nearby.
Mouse. Wake up.
He opened his eyes. It was dark inside the smithy, with only the glow of the banked furnace coals to piece the gloom. No hint or chink of light shone through the shutters either, telling him it was as dark outside as it was in.
“What?” he muttered softly, knowing Nightriver would hear him perfectly.
Come outside. You are needed.
Frowning, he pushed back his blankets and immediately wished he hadn’t. Wrapping them back around his shoulders, he huddled in the middle of the pallet the Ihrans had found for him when they’d invited him to stay the night. Since Haelle was also staying and there was no one else in town for company, Mouse had agreed. Nightriver had been delighted and taken the opportunity to sleep in the stream. For once everyone was happy.
Come outside, Nightriver insisted again with a mental prod.
Mouse shook his head. “No. Cold.”
You are needed, the dragon repeated. Your friends need you.
Wrinkling his nose in doubt, Mouse made no attempt to move. “Which friends, where?”
Greig. Silveo. Hurt.
“What?” That got him moving, throwing aside his blankets and scrabbling about for his clothes. “Why didn’t you say?”
I did, Nightriver retorted. Come. Quick.
Growling under his breath, Mouse located his boots by tripping over them and found his coat stuffed down the side of his pallet.
“Wassit?” Haelle mumbled sleepily, the hush of her blankets hinting at movement. “Trouble?”
“Nothing to worry about,” he soothed. “Nightriver wants to talk.”
“Mm.” She fell still again.
Mouse breathed out a sigh of relief and, holding his boots in his hand, crept cautiously across the dark room. Easier said than done, he realised, cursing as he stubbed a toe and wincing when he collided with a pile of metal that fell over with a crash.
The coals flared to life in the grate and two dark shadows leapt out of the darkness, roaring words Mouse didn’t understand. The unsheathed sword and gleaming axe spoke loudly enough, though, and he stumbled hastily backwards, hands raised in surrender.
More collisions, more crashing and, at some point during the cacophony, Haelle managed to light the lamp moments before Nightriver burst through the door, damp scales aglow.
Lying on his back amidst the mess, Mouse kept his hands high and his smile apologetic. “Sorry, everyone. Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Gedanon sheathed his sword with a grunt and much muttering in his native tongue, while Derneon lowered his axe with a chuckle. “Good practice.” He slapped his cousin on the shoulder. “No harm in being always ready.”
Mouse could see the sense in that, but it still didn’t make being charged by two armed, irate Ihrans in the middle of the night any less terrifying.
“Why were you up anyway?” Haelle asked, rubbing her head with a yawn. “Still dark.”
“I called him,” Nightriver replied, his glow slowly fading now that the danger and excitement was over. “He is needed.”
That woke everyone up.
“Needed?” Haelle echoed, shifting under the blankets towards the edge of the bed Derneon had made for her. “Needed where? By who?”
Mouse shook his head sharply, but Nightriver ignored him – as he always did.
“In the narrow valley. By Greig and Silveo.”
“Are they hurt?” Haelle demanded, pushing aside her blankets and pulling on her breeches, making quick work of pinning up the empty side. “Why do they need Mouse?”
“Silveo does not have enough training,” Nightriver said, ambling across the smithy floor to pick up her boots for her. “Greig will need us soon.”
“Soon?” Derneon asked, from where he was rummaging through some cupboards. “How soon is soon?”
“Tonight would be best,” the dragon said, helping Haelle to balance as she stood up and reached for her crutches. “Tomorrow must do.”
“I’m coming,” Haelle announced firmly, jaw jutting out in a stubborn line.
“No.” To everyone’s surprise it was Gedanon who spoke first. “You cannot.”
“I can. I will.” Haelle wrapped an arm around the dragon’s neck. “If Nightriver lets me ride.”
Mouse locked eyes with his dragon, silently at war with himself. On the one hand he wanted Haelle to stay where she would be safe and comfortable and the Ihrans would look after her. On the other, who was he to deny her anything? If not for him and Nightriver she would be up in the narrow valley with the others, already looking after Greig. She was, after all, the best healer Buteo had after Mouse.
“I will let you,” Nightriver replied with a gentle nuzzle. “You are always welcome to ride with me.” And she too is needed, he continued to Mouse alone. Greig will heal better with her close by.
“Mouse?” Even though she already had Nightriver’s permission and had stubbornly insisted she was going anyway, no matter the objections, there was still a hint of doubt on her face when she looked at him.
She is needed, Nightriver repeated, as if Mouse could deny his friend anything.
He smiled faintly. “All right, but you’ll have to sit behind me. You’re so tall, you’ll block my view.”
Her smile was bright with relief, even if Mouse’s insides knotted more tightly than ever.
Nightriver filled his mind with a rumble of approval and headed across the room. “I must grow,” he explained. “Follow as quick as you can.” A flick of the tail closed the door behind him.
An uncomfortable silence fell and Mouse shifted uncomfortably, aware that both Ihrans were regarding him with disapproval.
Haelle, however, seemed determined to ignore her hosts as she tidied her bedding and searched for her outdoor clothes. “Has anyone seen my coat?”
Muttering darkly in his own language, Gedanon stormed back into the sleeping alcove he shared with his cousin. Shaking his head, Derneon continued to dig through the cupboards only to re-emerge with a battered shoulder bag and a couple of water skins.
“Here, take these. You will need them, no doubt.”
Beaming with delight, Haelle called her thanks as she sat down to wrestle herself into her coat, leaving Mouse to approach the blacksmith and accept the gift.
Derneon kept a firm hold even after Mouse reached him. The short, stocky man fixed him with a stern glare. “You will take care of her,” he said in a low growl. “She is everything good.”
Swallowing hard, Mouse had to lick his dry lips before he could reply. “I know,” he croaked. “Nightriver will keep her safe.”
The Ihran snorted a little doubtfully and let go. “As safe as she’ll let you. Sweetness and light, that one, and stubborn as a mule.”
“I love you too, Derney,” Haelle chuckled, having swung herself across the room to kiss the blacksmith’s cheek.
“Here. Take it.” Gedanon returned from the shadows, holding out a long bundle secured with a strap. “It is not finished, but better than nothing.”
Haelle gripped the bundle to her chest and bent to kiss the swordmaster too. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I’ll be back soon. We can finish it then.”
“Bah!” He flicked a hand at her and stomped back into his shadows.
“My cousin, so eloquent,” Derneon chuckled, ushering them both towards the door. “Go, go, before he comes back and keeps you talking all night.”
Hitching the bag strap across his body, Mouse bowed to his host. “Thank you, sir, for everything.”
It was Derneon’s turn to flick a hand, but he made no such evasion when Haelle bent to hug him. “We’ll be back soon,” she promised.
Derneon lifted his chin in an Inhran nod. “When you do, bring your friend here. The forge is always warm and the water is clean and fresh.”
Haelle didn’t bother thanking him this time, just hugged him even tighter until the great shape of Nightriver at his largest loomed out of the darkness.
“Come,” the dragon urged, crooking an elbow for Mouse to use as a step.
With Nightriver’s assistance, he managed to scramble onto his dragon’s back, surprised but relieved to find a loop of rope around his neck. Feeling more secure than he’d anticipated, Mouse reached down for Haelle.
“Leave your crutches. I will carry them,” Nightriver said, dealing with the first problem she faced. Nodding, Haelle slipped the supports from beneath her arms and rested her palms on the dragon’s scales.
“Take my hand,” Mouse offered, leaning a little further.
Breathing out a soft, determined breath, she grasped Mouse’s hand firmly and hopped a few times in preparation. “All right,” she said. “Ready?”
Nightriver crooked his elbow again and Derneon bent down to offer her a boost. Mouse squeezed her hand supportively.
“On three,” she decided. “One… two… three.” She jumped, Derneon lifted, Nightriver pushed and Mouse pulled. Rising with more speed and grace than Mouse had, Haelle hooked her torso over Nightriver’s back. From there she used Mouse’s body to push herself upright and swung her leg over to the dragon’s other side. A little adjustment for balance and to position the bundle across her back, then she wrapped her arms around Mouse’s waist and laughed in triumph.
“Onwards, Nightriver!” she called. “Our friends need us.”
“Hold on, young Riders,” the dragon rumbled, the sound humming through Mouse’s muscles and making him tighten him grip on the neck rope. Nodding farewell to Derneon, Nightriver pushed to his feet and began to walk.
The rock of his gait was enough to make both passengers squeak as they readjusted their seats and held on tighter. When they were secure, Nightriver picked up the pace and before long the three of them were running into the cloud-shrouded darkness.
~ Next Chapter ~