RAIN HAMMERED DOWN over the citadel of Aquila. Yullik stood atop the eastern tower and stared out over the mist-shrouded view. Between the grey curtains of cloud he could see ships gathered inside the cove, huddled together as if for warmth. Down below, the town was full of hammering and banging. He breathed deeply of the dank air and smelled fear.
The pirates were nervous.
After one puny winter in the town, they were starting to twitch at every distant shadow crossing the Cloud Sea. Despite all their swagger and threats and bravado, and the exaggerated tales of victory they shared amongst themselves, his uncouth allies were scared of the Rift Riders.
After so many centuries of being defeated time and again by the damned eagle fliers, perhaps it was understandable. Pirates were vermin and scum, after all, the dregs of the Overworld. There was no honour in any of them and even less glory. But they had served their purpose last summer. They had provided an excellent distraction, even conjuring up a few surprises to keep the Riders’ eyes fixed on the siege beyond their cove, pinning them all in place while Yullik’s kaz-naghkt did the real work.
But now the pirates were nervous, because they were used to losing. They rarely got to keep what they stole and they didn’t expect to keep their gains now. The town was not easy to defend, relying mostly on its location and the proximity of the citadel to keep it and its residents safe.
Except there weren’t any Riders in the citadel now. It was full of kaz-naghkt, the same kaz-naghkt that had awoken from their winter sleep and found that they were hungry. They always were – and any pirate who ventured inside the stone halls made an excellent meal.
Yullik did nothing to restrain them. He had always made it clear that the citadel was his. He would claim the town too, but he didn’t want his kaz-naghkt getting too well fed and fat. He wanted them hungry, preferred them that way.
Because the Riders were coming, and once again the pirates would provide him with a convenient distraction and possibly a few surprises, while his kaz-naghkt prepared to do the real work.
Yes, let the Riders come. He was ready for them.
* * *
THUNDER LOWERED HER head and growled as Imaino approached. Holding out his hands in a gesture of peace, the lieutenant stopped. There were still twenty or so paces between them, or less than two as the miryhl bounds. Silveo shifted nervously, and he wasn’t alone. All around him, the men of Buteo muttered and fidgeted, hands close to their weapons. The nakhound pack, picking up on their nerves, snapped and strained against their leashes.
It was so wrong, so unnatural, to feel uncertain in the presence of miryhls. That wasn’t what the Riders were about. But this mountain didn’t belong to the Riders anymore.
“Why are you in our valley, humans?” the dark female asked.
“We’re tracking a herd of deer and doelyns,” Imaino explained. “We didn’t know the valley was occupied.”
“As if that would stop them,” another miryhl called, from the rear of the flock. “Humans always take and take and take. They never give back. They never care for consequences. They use up everything that’s green and good and then they leave. They leave and they -”
Thunder raised her head and glared over her shoulder. The other miryhl fell silent.
She turned back to eye Imaino. “This valley is ours. You are not welcome. Humans have no place here.”
A shocked murmur rippled through the people behind Silveo. Most of the survivors at Buteo were regulars who had lived in Aquila town all their lives, seeing miryhls day after day working in partnership with humans. A handful were students like Silveo, and likely felt the same punch in the gut at the prospect of being denied by their own miryhl. Silveo could see Vehro amongst the flock and wondered if his miryhl would reject him to his face. He didn’t quite dare to step forward and find out. Only Imaino and Rechar remained of the adult Riders whose relationship with their miryhls had lasted years. He couldn’t imagine what they were feeling as Thunder stood before a flock of miryhls and told them to leave.
Silveo didn’t even know what either man’s miryhl looked like, but he hoped to Maegla they weren’t in that flock now, sending them away.
Hands still raised, Imaino stepped slowly backwards. “If that is what you wish.”
“It is.” Thunder gave a firm nod. “You have seen for yourself that the skies are not safe here. We will not come to your aid again.”
Imaino took another step back. “Very well, but know that a small number of us, students, Riders and townsfolk, survived the winter in the valleys above Aquila and have now moved to Buteo. Any and all of you are welcome to join us there.”
“So we can return to being your lackies?” the same rebellious miryhl shouted. “Hunting your food, carrying your weight, doing all the work. Ha!”
“Enough,” Thunder growled, and the angry miryhl was silenced by mutters from the rest of the flock. Silveo glanced from bird to bird, wondering how many were in agreement with the rebel and if any were wavering, tempted by Imaino’s offer to return to a little of the life they knew before. “And enough from you, human.” Clearly Thunder was wondering the same. “With Aquila gone, you have nothing with which to tempt us. No food, no warmth, no comfort, no shelter. We are all homeless ferals here, you even more so than us. Go and find somewhere else to hunt. This valley is ours.”
Any dissent that might have been forming ended with those words, and the flock nodded in one sharp movement. Thunder opened her vast wings with a crack and, starting from the back, the miryhls began returning to the sky.
Soon only the large female remained, wings wide, eyes fixed on Imaino. “You have been warned,” she said, thrusting her wings down hard and leaping into the sky.
The cry, which shouldn’t have been there, was followed by a great rending and crashing as something vast smashed through the trees. Silveo turned, swore and dived out of the way as a massive shadow went racing past him.
Having initially dropped back to earth at the shout, Thunder leapt upwards again with a shriek. The flock began to circle, crying to each other as the great dark lizard raced along the ground and down into the meadow at the top of the valley.
“Thunder!” Haelle cried again, making Silveo realise that Nightriver carried two passengers on his back.
“Thank Maegla,” he whispered, too relieved that Mouse was here and could take over Greig’s care to wonder why and how it had come about.
“That’s all we need,” Rechar growled. “As if the miryhls weren’t hostile enough. If my Berrel’s around there ain’t no way she’ll be coming back to me now.”
Not even wasting time to glare at the Rider, Silveo brushed aside Bumble’s concerned licks, picked himself up out of the leaf litter and joined Imaino on the slope above the meadow. Because contrary to what Rechar said, Thunder had come back. In fact the unfriendly dark miryhl had landed beside Nightriver and was anxiously nuzzling the girl on the dragon’s back.
Showing her usual lack of fear of her miryhl’s intimidating demeanour, Haelle threw herself towards Thunder, arms wrapped around the bird’s neck. Wings mantled protectively, Thunder sank into the grass, eyes closed as she and her Rider clung to each other.
“Nothing to tempt her with, eh?” Imaino chuckled, scratching at his beard before striding down the hill to join Mouse and Nightriver as they watched woman and miryhl reunite.
Smiling at the sight, Silveo got three steps into the open before being knocked flat by a feathered attack of his own. A flash of silver around the miryhl’s neck was all it took for him to laugh and relax.
“I missed you, I missed you,” Vehro cooed, running his beak through Silveo’s hair. And though he had never been quite as close to his miryhl as some, being a clumsy flier at best, Silveo couldn’t deny that he’d missed his feathered friend too.
“I looked but couldn’t find you, then the ships were gone and I thought you’d gone too, leaving me behind. I knew you weren’t dead. I knew you weren’t.”
Beginning to understand a little of Thunder’s hostility, having barely spared a thought for the miryhls who might have waited for Riders who hadn’t come rather than leaving with the rest, Silveo wrapped his arms around Vehro’s neck and held on tight. “I missed you too, my friend. I missed you too.”
“Mouse!” Another high-shriek announced another reunion.
More and more miryhls landed, greeting their students. Then more miryhls came, asking anxious questions about their own Riders, most of which couldn’t be answered, though a sad few received bad news.
“Greig?” he heard one miryhl ask, and wriggled away from Vehro’s warmth to face Jupi.
Stocky like her Rider, she was a solid miryhl with unusual hazel eyes. They looked calmly into his, braced for the worst.
“He’s hurt,” Silveo told her. “Last night. Mercata.”
“Where?” She half-pounced towards him. “Where is my Rider?”
Pressing a reassuring hand to Vehro’s beak, Silveo headed back up the hill, past the bemused regulars and found that Mouse and Nightriver had got there before him.
“Nice stitches, Silveo.” Mouse smiled and patted him on the shoulder, and Silveo felt all the stress and worry of the night before melt into the soggy ground beneath his feet. Greig would be all right now. Mouse and Nightriver would know how to save him.
“Let’s move him into the light,” Nightriver rumbled, nuzzling his head beneath Greig’s ribs under Jupi’s watchful eye. “Then we must gather herbs.” The dragon eyed the three miryhls – Jupi, Vehro and Mouse’s Onyx – clustered awkwardly beneath the trees. “New students. We’ll make healers of them all, my Mouse.”
“Healers?” Silveo and Mouse echoed in confusion.
“Your Mouse?” Onyx rasped jealously.
Jupi simply ruffled her feathers. “Tell me what to look for, lizard, and you can teach me whatever you like. But put my Rider down now, he’s slipping and his stitches might rip.”
Nightriver lowered Greig gently to the ground close to the dying fire and flashed his teeth in a smile. “New students,” he rumbled happily. “Gather them all up, my Mouse. It’s time to get to work.”
~ Next Chapter ~