FEELING AS THOUGH he was intruding on a private moment, Mouse turned to help Silveo sort through the tangled pile of leather.
“What is all this?” his friend complained, holding up what might once have been a set of reins until it had been sliced in half. Mouse found most of a bridle, except it too had been cut and snapped just below the buckles. There was no sign of a saddle.
“Don’t you remember?” Vehro asked, nuzzling up to Silveo and lowering his head, inviting his Rider to put the ruined tack on him. “In the final days of the siege all us miryhls were left tacked up, ready for a full evacuation to be called at any moment.”
Silveo shook his head. “I didn’t know that.”
“We were in the infirmary,” Mouse said, hands clenching on the leather. “Working non-stop, tending the wounded, preparing to leave. We hadn’t seen the others for days.”
“No one knew what was going on,” Onyx took up the tale. “Everyone was on edge, waiting, waiting, waiting for what we all knew would come. Then they smashed the catapults, destroying the outer defences, and we knew we had to go. We were told to go.”
“They said the humans would take the tunnels and we had to reach Buteo however we could,” Vehro continued. “So we did. All the miryhls in the eyries, taking to the sky together. The pyreflies didn’t dare come near us.”
“We waited and waited for the kaz-naghkt to attack,” Onyx still sounded confused, “but there was no sign of them. They didn’t come. We reached Buteo without a fight and could do nothing but wait.”
“And wait and wait.” Vehro shook his head. “Even when the regulars and Riders started appearing, filling up the Harrier, getting ready to leave, we still waited.”
“But you didn’t come,” Onyx whispered, lowering his head in remembered grief.
“They tried to make us leave. All of us, all together.” Vehro growled and scraped his talons in the dirt. “We refused. We wouldn’t leave our Riders behind. We couldn’t. So we stayed behind and we waited. And we were right to.”
“Thank you for waiting,” Mouse whispered, wrapping his arms around Onyx’s lowered head, while Silveo rested his hand against his miryhl’s chest. “I’m sorry it took us so long to find you.”
His miryhl trilled softly. “You are here now. All is well.”
“Not yet,” Nightriver rumbled. “But at least now there is hope that one day it will be. Come, dress your miryhls, this rain will only get worse.”
Sniffing back the sudden sting in his eyes, Mouse pulled free and picked up the tack again. “Let’s see what we can make of this then, shall we? I don’t much fancy slipping off from a great height, but something tells me walking isn’t going to be an option.”
“Only if you have wings on your feet,” Thunder rumbled, sounding almost as if she was chuckling.
While Mouse eyed the large female suspiciously, Nightriver filled his head with chuckles of his own. I like her.
You would, Mouse thought back, shook his head and bent back to the task of making tack out of scraps. They needed somewhere safe and dry to tend to Greig, and if miryhl-back was the only way to reach it, then he’d find a way to make it work and hope he didn’t kill himself in the process.
“MIGHTY MAEGLA, MOTHER of mercy, I am never flying without a saddle again.” Silveo slid from Vehro’s back straight onto his knees. Partly so he could kiss the ground in thanks for finding him again, but mostly because he simply hadn’t the strength to stand up.
Landing beside him, Mouse slithered onto the rocky ledge in much the same manner, except he rolled onto his back and panted as he stared at the sky, seemingly unbothered that he was getting soaked by the rain.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Thunder told them, ruffling her feathers with a sniff.
Silveo ignored her and continued kissing the ground. After all, the black miryhl had neither carried a passenger nor been one. She knew nothing of rain-slick feathers, temporary leather reins that unknotted themselves mid-flight or the horrible, stomach-churning sensation of surprise gusts of winds followed by the unmistakable and horrifying sensation of slipping.
While the large miryhl eyed the two humans with disfavour, neither Vehro nor Onyx made light of their Riders’ reactions. In fact both miryhls were very quiet, huddling in close against their humans. Silveo could feel Vehro trembling, and while it was nice that his miryhl hadn’t enjoyed the short, awful flight either, his obvious relief at reaching the mountain ledge with all of them still intact wasn’t particularly reassuring either.
The crash of tumbling rocks nearby made Silveo sit up. Mouse had his head tilted ever so slightly, which usually meant Nightriver was talking to him. Silveo couldn’t help wondering what it was like to have a dragon speaking inside his head. He didn’t envy his friend all the trouble and pain he’d gone through that led to his bonding with the unusual and ancient guardian of Aquila, but he was curious about what it felt like.
“They’re coming,” Mouse announced, crawling to the edge of the ledge.
Thunder hurried after him, no longer looking quite as smug or confident now as she was forced to watch her own precious Rider be carried by something else. Something that no matter how large and powerful it was, still didn’t have wings.
Silveo swung himself around to sit beside Mouse, watching Nightriver crawl up the almost vertical climb that kept the ledge safe from below. With Greig clamped in his jaws and Haelle tied to his back, the dragon showed no sign of discomfort as he clawed his way up to meet them. Rocks tore loose and rattled away into the ravine below, but Nightriver didn’t seem to notice. His green eyes were fixed on Mouse and nothing would keep him from reaching his goal.
“Come on, come on,” Mouse urged quietly, the trembling Thunder looming at his back. Then Nightriver’s nose and chin crested the ledge and they all had to scramble aside so that the dragon could join them.
Glancing around, he greeted Mouse with a nuzzle in the belly before ambling straight into the cave they’d climbed so high to reach.
“Careful, careful,” Thunder called, hopping and flapping after him, clearly eager to release Haelle from the dragon’s back. “Mind the others.”
“Others?” Silveo glanced at Mouse. “What others?”
Mouse tilted his head and smiled. “Why don’t we go see for ourselves?”
AN EYRIE. THUNDER and her miryhls had created an eyrie for themselves, finding a suitable, south-facing, sheltered cave and even creating perches out of fallen trees and huge branches. It wasn’t a patch on what they’d once had at Aquila, but it was surprisingly cosy and it was clear the miryhls had gone to great efforts to keep it clean.
Mouse was impressed. He’d always known that miryhls had been created by dragons and a goddess, could speak human languages and were intelligent, but this was the first time he truly understood that they didn’t need the Riders quite as much as the Riders liked to think. They had made a home for themselves, were amply capable of catching food and easily provided their own defence. So what did any miryhl need a human for?
“Careful, careful.” Thunder fussed around Nightriver as the dragon searched for somewhere flat and clean to lay his burden. Curious miryhls shuffled on their perches overhead, muttering to each other at the presence of so many strangers in their cavern.
Quite a large cavern too, Mouse saw as Nightriver moved further into the gloom and began to glow in order to light their way.
“Careful!” Thunder cried, and Mouse realised it wasn’t just Haelle the black miryhl was worried about. Perhaps there was still something humans could do for miryhls after all.
As Nightriver cautiously picked a route through the ground nests where five injured eagles had been laid out by their fellows, Thunder turned to Mouse, tall and bristling. In any other bird, he might take such a posture as aggression, but he was starting to understand that Thunder wasn’t quite like other miryhls.
Yes, she was big and imposing and not overly fond of any human who wasn’t Haelle, but she was also fiercely protective. And not very good at asking for help.
“Well?” she demanded.
Mouse’s lips twitched, but he ruthlessly suppressed a smile. It wasn’t difficult when he got his first decent look at the nearest nesting bird. Glazed-over eyes were what he saw first, followed by a limp wing. Only when he stepped closer did he spy the scabbed edge of a wide wound hidden beneath those dragging feathers.
I said you were needed, Nightriver rumbled inside his head.
Mouse nodded. He had and he was right. Mouse glanced at the other sick birds, seeing bald patches, scabs, scars, puss and blood. And the smell. Gods, the smell only got worse as he moved closer.
“Well?” Thunder asked again, growling as she moved between Mouse and the nearest of her wounded flock.
Sweet Maegla, he didn’t know if he could do this. He didn’t know if he could save any of these birds, let alone all. He had no training in tending anything but humans.
The principles are the same, Nightriver assured him. And I am with you. We will help them, my Mouse. We will help them all.
He said nothing about saving them, but Mouse decided now was not the time to quibble. Instead he raised his eyes to meet Thunder’s curiously light gaze and nodded.
“We will do what we can.”
The miryhl inclined her head but didn’t move.
And we will teach them how to help so that she need never feel so helpless again.
“And we will teach you how to help them, so that this need never happen again,” Mouse repeated, changing the last part to save himself from Thunder’s indignant wrath.
The black miryhl crackled her beak thoughtfully, then finally stepped aside. “Very well,” she agreed, as if she was doing him a great favour. “Now untie my Haelle. She cannot be at all comfortable roped on like that.”
When Thunder stalked away to ensure Nightriver wasn’t putting Greig in the wrong place, Mouse let out a slow sigh of relief. For a moment there, he’d almost expected her to eat him.
“You’re a braver man than me, my friend,” Silveo chuckled, slapping him on the shoulder with a look of admiration mixed with amusement. “Come on, let’s untie Haelle before Thunder treats the last of our good rope to the same treatment as the old tack.”
~ Next Chapter ~