The Narrow Valley
IT WAS THE worst night of Silveo’s life. Worse than all the fear of the siege and the horror of the escape. That had been a whirl of terror and blood and panic, following where others led because there was no time to think and he could do nothing else. But here, now, Silveo couldn’t panic. He had to take charge. He was in charge and Greig needed him.
While others built up the fire and moved Greig closer to it, Silveo shucked his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Scrubbing his arms with hot water, he set about washing Greig’s back. Someone found a bottle of Buteo whisky, left behind during the evacuation, and more importantly a small bottle of poppy syrup was located at the bottom of the medicine bag. Along with a needle and plenty of thread.
Making sure his friend was well dosed with the best medicines they had to hand, Silveo used much of the remaining whisky to wash the wound. Someone had given Greig a leather strap to bite on and he made good use of it, the muscles of his back rock hard against the sting. But he didn’t move, even with Imaino pressing down on his arms and Eddyn sitting on his legs, Greig managed to hold himself still.
Because even in the midst of all his pain, he was trying to help. Silveo needed all that he could get. Gods, he wished he didn’t have to do this, but he was the healer.
“You don’t have to do this, lad,” Eddyn murmured, seeing the shake in Silveo’s hands. “I’ll do it, if you’d rather.”
Silveo shook his head. He might not be much of a fighter and barely trained as a healer, while his needlework had never been something he’d bothered to practice, but he could be a good friend. Greig trusted him. He would do this.
Still, it was even worse than he’d feared, stabbing a needle into flesh for the first time. His friend tried so hard not to flinch, but he couldn’t hold back the grunt of pain. Muttering apologies, Silveo soon discovered that being careful and meticulous only made everything worse. Fast and firm was the best way, and with each tied-off stitch he became better at it. Blood slicked his hands to the wrists, coating the needle and thread and making everything slippery, but he grew adept at dunking his tools between stitches and tying the thread tightly. After ten stitches neither he nor Greig flinched anymore when the needle went in – mostly because his friend had succumbed to pain and the poppies – and Silveo had become quite proficient. By the twentieth stitch he was even rather neat.
And when he tied off the thirty fourth and final stitch, he’d almost allowed himself to forget what he was stabbing his needle into each time.
But once it was done and Greig had been washed down and covered up, the medicines and tools packed away, the reaction set in and Silveo found himself shaking so hard he couldn’t even wash his own hands.
“Here.” Imaino knelt down opposite and took Silveo’s left hand between his, lathering it with soap and dunking it in the bucket. “You did well. Exceedingly well. I’m proud of you.” Hanging his head, Silveo allowed his lieutenant to wash his hands as if he was an invalid, all the while trying to still the trembling inside that threatened to bring him to tears.
Maegla’s mercy, he’d just repeatedly stabbed his friend with a needle as if he was a blasted cushion. Him, a student who’d only ever shot one kaz-naghkt – and had fainted immediately afterwards. What in the Overworld was he doing in the Riders?
“There.” Imaino rinsed the last of the blood and soap from his hands. “Is there anything else I can get for you?”
Mouse, he thought while shaking his head. He needed Mouse here. Because even though the goriest part was over and Greig was sleeping peacefully for the time being, in all likeliness his battle had only just begun. Who knew what else Mercata had been doing with those talons? It wouldn’t be long before infection set in, and Silveo didn’t have a clue what he would do about it.
“Then rest,” the lieutenant urged. “We’ll figure out what to do with him next in the morning.”
Because it was a long trek back to Buteo and not at all suited for carrying a stretcher. Gods, why had they left Mouse and Nightriver behind?
As Imaino sighed and left him to his thoughts, probably to see to setting up the watch, Silveo wiped his hands on his breeches and crawled back to where Greig lay beside the fire. A familiar black and white nakhound had settled down alongside him and Silveo ruffled Bumble’s ears in welcome. Stroking the dog with one hand and hugging his knees against his chest with the other, he wrapped his cloak around his shivering shoulders and watched his friend breathe deeply in the darkness, waiting for the first sign of infection to show.
HE WOKE TO screams, sharp and high, directly overhead. Heart pounding, Silveo rolled to his side and pushed up onto his knees, wiping the sleep from his eyes as he stared at the dawn-streaked sky.
Miryhls. Miryhls soared above them.
They’d come back.
“Into the trees!” Imaino shouted, as the camp stirred from slumber into instant wakefulness. “Everyone, get under cover!”
Seeing the largest, darkest silhouette wheel around and stoop, Silveo stumbled to his feet and tripped towards the nearest shelter. Halfway there he remembered Greig and turned.
Flat on his front, Greig lay sprawled beside the dying ashes of the fire, right out in the open where even a miryhl of Mercata’s size could pluck him straight off the ground. Bumble stood snarling and defensive over him, but she was just one nakhound and not up to tackling a miryhl.
Ignoring his lieutenant’s shout, Silveo sprinted back across the open ground, shouted at Bumble to move and threw himself over Greig’s body. Tensing, preparing any moment to suffer the same injury as his friend – or worse – he braced for impact.
It came with a scream and a wash of air, heavy bodies crashing together in a thump of feathers and muscle.
It was so loud and ferocious that it took a moment for Silveo to realise he hadn’t been hit.
He looked up in shock and saw Mercata tumbling over in the grass, wrestling with another miryhl, one even darker and larger. Breaking apart, the two eagles raised their wings in aggressive mantles and slashed out with their feet, hopping back and forth across the slope.
Another scream overhead drew Silveo’s eyes up in time to see two more miryhls collide as a fresh flock streamed in from the north. Fierce and ferocious, the opposing sides crashed together in a mess of screams, talons and broken feathers.
“Time to move.” Imaino grabbed Silveo’s arm and hauled him backwards, while Rechar and Rossen grabbed Greig’s makeshift stretcher of cloaks and poles and carried him into the woods. Bumble went with them, barking at the birds overhead, wings out as she half-ran, half-glided alongside them to safety.
Not a moment too soon as a miryhl smacked into the spot where Greig had been lying not so long ago. The bird squalled, thrashing around until it could get its feet underneath it again. Eyes flashing, it hopped awkwardly away on bleeding feet before flapping laboriously back into the sky.
But not before Silveo recognised the sleek lines and pale silvery collar that had immediately drawn his eye at the Choice. “Vehro,” he whispered, watching his miryhl rejoin the battle in the sky with a viciousness that shocked him. “Dear Gods, what’s happened to you?”
“A winter in the wilderness,” Rider Rechar said, standing by his shoulder and keeping a tight hold on Bumble’s collar to stop her from joining the fight. “I’d say that’d be enough to bring out the beast in even the mildest miryhl.”
Unable to argue with that, Silveo watched in silence as Mercata shook off her attacker and sprang back into the air, bloodied and battered and shrieking the retreat to her flock. His relief that Vehro wasn’t amongst them was short lived as the newer flock of miryhls began to land in the field before the woods. At the head of them all was the huge, black female that had defeated Mercata.
Pale-eyed and menacing, she stalked towards the trees, feathers fluffed up, bloodied beak glinting in the morning light.
Silveo knew her too: Thunder. Once she had been Haelle’s miryhl, but she had never been considered tame by anyone except her Rider. Even Mhysra had admitted to feeling nervous around this big, silent miryhl.
“Maegla help us,” someone whispered amongst the trees.
Each Rider and miryhl pair was a match forged by a goddess, but it had been a long time since Maegla’s blessing had been felt on this mountain.
“Let’s hope so.” Taking a deep breath, with one hand resting on his sword hilt, Imaino straightened his shoulders and strode out to meet Thunder.
~ Next Chapter ~