Aquila's War: Chapter 9, Part 1
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Nine
A Sense of Purpose

 

8th Nesting

THE NEXT FEW days were strange for Silveo, full of moments of intense concentration, bursts of frantic activity and untold amounts of waiting. Mouse and Nightriver had plenty to do caring for the sick miryhls, as well as helping Haelle care for Greig. Silveo played his own role in both, but his knowledge was patchy and neither Mouse nor Nightriver had much time to fill in the gaps for him. Mostly he helped to bathe and bandage in between short trips with Vehro and Onyx in search of special leaves and early spring flowers that could be boiled and crushed and turned into healing pastes.

In the times between being needed by his friends, Silveo slowly learnt more about the flock of strange miryhls that had gathered under Thunder’s command. The lead miryhl herself had taken a squad out on the first day to escort Imaino and the rest of the humans and nakhounds home to Buteo, with talk of opening up the old eyries and bringing back other important supplies. While she was gone, care of the flock fell to a slender, older male miryhl with splashes of cream along his wings. His name was Zun and he’d lost his Rider almost a decade ago. Instead of retiring to Sanctuary with the Cyclone, he had chosen to roam feral and free around the slopes of Aquila. He wasn’t alone, but it wasn’t until the fall of Aquila and the influx of new miryhls that he’d chosen to live in a flock again.

“Grief is hard, young Silveo,” Zun told him, his voice hoarse from years of disuse. “Once my whole existence was bound up with my Rider.” A man whose name it was still too painful for the old miryhl to share. “We were together for almost thirty years. I was his family, his closest friend. Then he was gone. His loss is an ache that will never fully fade, but the wound is not as raw as it once was. The coming of Thunder and the others has shown me that I am not alone, nor do I need to be. There is still life in the world, still purpose. I will never regain what I lost, but my life need not end because he is no longer with me.”

It was a sentiment Silveo heard time and time again amongst the older ferals he had never known existed, as well as the younger miryhls who had either recently lost their Rider or been left behind in the evacuation and still didn’t know their partner’s fate.

Despite their grief and occasional unfriendliness towards him – as a human who had survived to be reunited with his miryhl – Silveo found them a remarkably companionable bunch. They showed no hesitation in talking with him, despite the many centuries of tradition that dictated a miryhl only spoke to their personal Rider.

When he asked Zun about this, the old miryhl had shrugged. “Times change, young Rider, and not all traditions are good or have worth. There is no reason, across the Overworld or in Maegla’s teachings, why we cannot speak to whosoever we might wish. Only tradition. The Goddess granted us the gift of speech and it is long past time we miryhls learnt to use it.”

Vehro had a simpler and less wordy explanation. “Cumulo started it.” Which made perfect sense, since Mhysra’s Wingborn had always been one to push as many boundaries as possible – and it had always been a stupid rule anyway.

Three days after their arrival, while Mouse and Nightriver were battling hard to save the sickest of the miryhls, Thunder returned, dark and wet and furious.

“Mercata is making mischief,” she snarled, shaking off the rain and calling orders to her flock. The sleepy, fluffy miryhls that had delighted in sharing stories of their lost Riders with Silveo over recent days, instantly transformed back into a pack of feral hunting eagles. “Let’s fly!”

As the majority of the cavern emptied – with Vehro pausing only to nuzzle Silveo affectionately before he left – Silveo found himself with just Zun and a handful of the oldest ferals for company. Left behind and at a loose end again, Silveo sighed, wishing he had even half the purpose that everyone else around him seemed to have.

“Come.” Zun nudged him on the shoulder. “We have something to show you.”

With the aid of one of Nightriver’s light globes, Silveo followed the shuffling footsteps of the old miryhl deep into the furthest reaches of the cavern, where several side chambers spread out.

Fornat, the oldest female in the flock, paused beside the second chamber and eyed him up and down. “Make good use of this, young Rider.”

Intrigued, Silveo raised his globe and stepped between the old birds through the opening in the rock. Leather. Piles and piles of leather were heaped up inside, a dark confusing mass that his mind took a while to tease apart and piece back together.

Tack. Every bit of it was a discarded piece of miryhl tack, ripped off and dumped in here when the survivors of Aquila had decided to make these caves their home. Such simple, everyday objects, yet each told their own story of loss and loneliness and grief. So many miryhls who’d been prepared for the evacuation, readied for the long flight to freedom that never came.

Silveo knelt down and began sorting through the mess, seeing neat cuts that spoke of hope that bridles could be worn again, and savage slices that might have been down to anger, grief or despair. How long had they waited, trembling and ready for their Riders to return? How long had it been before the first miryhl cast off the leather trappings that had once tamed them? Who had been the first? Who had been the last? And where were they all now?

Picking out the pieces and lining them up, Silveo uncovered the saddles buried at the bottom of the pile. Spotted with mildew and dust, some already rotting away, they each maintained their all important nameplate on the back. Miryhl and Rider, etched in brass, proudly announcing each pair that had once been united by a simple piece of padded leather.

He found his – Vehro, Silveo – and his friends’ – Thunder, Haelle; Onyx, Mouse; Jupi, Greig. Then came the lost – Yarrow, Alyne; Morrat, Fahen; Whisper, Mallow. So many names, so many memories, awful and painful and sad. There were more saddles here than miryhls in the cavern and Silveo wondered where the missing eagles were. Had they left to join Mercata – he found no evidence of her tack here – or were they dead? Wounded, sick, diseased and unable to be saved in the long dark of winter. There were no answers here, and when he turned to ask the miryhls, he found himself alone.

He wasn’t surprised. This room was full of lost hope and companions, a sad echo of a vanished life. The brief spark that had been lit when Silveo and his friends had reunited with their miryhls was already flickering out again. Out of thirty or so eagles that had stayed with Thunder, only seven had found their Riders again. He still didn’t know where Imaino’s miryhl was and two surviving students had yet to find their eagles.

He was lucky, Silveo knew that, so very lucky. Yet as he sat in the cave of rotting leather he only felt sad.

“Silveo?” Mouse crouched beside him. “Are you all right?”

Silveo looked at the saddle in his hands, thumb rubbing over Pellyn’s name, a fellow student that had been recovering in Aquila’s infirmary, only to bleed out during the evacuation, and shook his head.

“How can we go back, Mouse? Even if we somehow manage to regain Aquila, how can it ever possibly return to what it was?”

His friend squeezed his shoulder with a comforting hand. “It will never be what it was, because we can never forget what happened. Nor should we. These are our friends, our fellows, our family. We must honour them, and how better than to regain the place that they died for? We need to take them home.”

“Home.” Silveo’s lips twitched, but he wasn’t amused. “I used to think that was North Point. I thought that was where I belonged. I didn’t think I would ever leave.”

Shifting to sit beside him, Mouse began picking his own way through the saddles, clearing the dust off each name and smoothing them with his thumb. “Why did you?”

This time Silveo’s smile was real, igniting a little spark of warmth inside his heart. “Love. I followed my beloved into battle, just like all the ballads of bold, brave maidens, but with less strategic strapping and padding.”

Mouse snorted a laugh. “A bit of extra padding probably wouldn’t go amiss.”

“Ha!” Silveo gave him a shove. “You’re a fine one to talk, little Mouse.”

They fell silent, each staring down at a different saddle. Silveo didn’t recognise either name on his – Shapa, Geth – but he whispered a prayer to Maegla for their safety nonetheless. Mouse’s head was bowed over his nameplate, fingers stroking the brass.

Vervain, Nehtl.

Oh. Silveo hadn’t even realised the head healer had been a Rider. He couldn’t imagine it now – Nehtl wielding a sword, flying a miryhl, heading into battle. It didn’t fit. Then again, he was hardly a model soldier himself. Nor was Mouse. If Silveo had learnt anything over the harsh winter on the mountain it was that there was a lot more to the Rift Riders than flying miryhls and killing kaz-naghkt.

“We need to keep these,” Mouse said, breaking the silence as he carefully put Nehtl’s saddle to one side. “Gather them all up, take them back to Buteo, keep them safe. We’ll need the names, all the names, when we get Aquila back. Then we can honour them.”

“Yes,” Silveo agreed, looking at the abandoned saddles that numbered almost a hundred. “I can do that.”

Pushing to his feet, Mouse squeezed his shoulder again. “His saddle isn’t here, Silveo,” he murmured softly. “He made it out. He still lives. Just like the others. And we’ll see them all again one day, you’ll see.”

As his friend limped quietly from the side cavern, Silveo stared at the pile of saddles through watery eyes. He hadn’t even realised he’d been looking. Except he was always looking, always hoping, always praying to Maegla that Jaymes was safe, that he still lived, that he was well and thriving somewhere else on the Overworld.

Just as it wasn’t Jaymes’ fault that Silveo had followed him into the Riders, it wasn’t his fault that Silveo had been left behind. His heart might ache at the longest separation the pair of them had experienced since they were young boys, but he knew he still lived.

“He has to.”

And just as Mouse was right about seeing Jaymes and the others again one day, he was also right about these names. They needed to be preserved, collected and protected. Honour would come. They would earn it back and take them all home.

Rubbing his thumb over the names of Larket and Orin, Silveo studied the simple brass screws that held it in place. He didn’t have anything on him that could work on that, but he knew someone who would.

Retrieving his own saddle from where he’d put it to one side, he hefted it over his arm, grabbed a tangle of leather for a bridle and went in search of rope and his miryhl.

Time to stop moping about, waiting for someone else to tell him what to do. He had a purpose now; he would attend to it.


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