(First time reading? Catch up Here!)
~ Prologue ~
Welcome to Wrentheria, where miryhls are born, dreams are made and family isn’t always united by blood.
Wrentheria, the Lowlands
15th Gale, 785 CE
Not everyone could handle raw meat first thing in the morning. Then again, Lady Mhysra Kilpapan had never considered herself entirely normal. Not when she spent every possible moment in the eyries. Dawn was her favourite time of day, when the rising sun spread golden fingers through the hatches to make the feather dust dance. Even in winter, if the sun rose cleanly, the eyries became a slice of Heirayk’s own heaven. Except for the meat in her hands.
Sadly the sounds of the eyries rarely matched the perfection of its sights. Miryhls were far more raucous than their smaller, wild eagle cousins. They muttered constantly, like discontented dowagers at a ball. At all times the eyries bubbled with a low purring hum, occasionally shattered by a shriek, just because they could. Breeding miryhls were a fractious lot, but the chicks were the worst.
Which was why Mhysra was there before the sun, bird dust in her nose and chunks of raw venison in her hands. Five chicks jostled around in front of her, trampling each other in their eagerness to gain her attention. Barely a month old, the ugly chalky-white creatures were covered in clumps of ash-grey down, long scrawny necks wobbling beneath their oversized heads. They were already as large as a medium-sized dog and growing fast. Not too long ago their enormous beaks had seemed too heavy for them, meaning they spent more time on their faces than their feet. Yet with increased size came strength enough to lift their heads and gape plaintive demands for the bloody meat clenched in her fingers.
Behind them, two yearlings waited. The size of pit ponies and highly irritable, they looked like hedgehogs; glossy brown feathers pinpricked by the emerging quills of their first flight feathers. They tried so hard to act fully grown, but hunger defeated them and the squalling chicks were drowned out by a cracked scream, silenced only when Mhysra tossed a chunk their way.
“Dignified,” a hoarse voice muttered behind her, rough-edged with sleep.
She glanced over her shoulder, smiling. “As if you weren’t the same at their age.”
On first glance the young miryhl looked little different to the other adult eagles slowly waking in the glowing dawn. Their feathers shimmered through every shade of brown, from near-black down to honey-gold. The bird at her back was a conker-coloured giant, streaked with hints of gold. Cumulo, her Wingborn.
Snorting, he glowered at the chicks vying for her attention. “Remember it well, do you?”
Mhysra chose to ignore him, preferring to focus on feeding the babies instead. Of course she didn’t remember Cumulo as a chick; she’d been a helpless babe at the time. He had hatched at the exact moment she came into the world, creating that most coveted and rare of bonds – the Wingborn – tying them together for life. Rift Rider legends were full of daring Wingborn, describing them as one soul divided. One will, one reason, one heart.
She’d tried reading such stories to Cumulo once. He told her not to be so soppy and, that if she insisted on reading to him, could she please not make it such sentimental drivel. Whatever the Wingborn bond meant to historians and storytellers, to her it was family. No different than siblings or cousins. Quite disappointing, really.
Oblivious to her thoughts, Cumulo eyed her jealousy as she fussed over the baby miryhls. “No Rider in their right mind would choose to partner creatures like these,” he muttered disdainfully. Which was slightly unfair since the chicks weren’t exactly at their best – covered in strips of meat, their down clogged with blood. One tripped over its own feet and Mhysra bit back a smile.
“You’re such a snob, Cue,” she said. “And anyway, expecting a Rift Rider to have any mind, let alone a right one, is asking a bit much.”
“As if you wouldn’t sign up tomorrow if you were a boy.”
She answered his grumbling with a wistful sigh. It would be wonderful to join the Riders, the miryhl-riding protectors of the Overworld, the pride of the Flying Corps. Except the entire Corps, from Rift Riders to doelyn scouts, were men, and had been for the past hundred years. It was a waste of time to even dream of joining. So she didn’t. She was happy breeding miryhls on her aunt’s farm; Cumulo was the one who wished for more.
Throwing down the last chunks, Mhysra rinsed her bloody hands in a bucket and watched her sated chicks settle inside their nesting pen for a nap. Another two bells and they’d be shrieking again, but it was no longer her task. Her life was about to change – sadly not for the better.
Eager for a distraction, she unlatched the gate and entered the pen. “Don’t come in here,” she warned as Cumulo shuffled along his perch.
“Why would I want to?” he sniffed, preening his shining wings, a stark contrast to the scrawny babies.
Mhysra ignored him and started grooming the fledglings, running her fingers through their new feathers and rubbing away the quill-tips they couldn’t reach. It was a task she’d been doing for years and she loved it. These fledglings in particular were extra special – she’d selected and paired the miryhls parents, turned the eggs, watched them hatch and seen them through their first year. They were as much her babies as the miryhls who’d conceived them.
“You’re practically clucking.”
She scowled at Cumulo, though silently grateful for the distraction. The thought of leaving her fledglings almost brought her to tears. Cumulo would never let her live that down, so she sniffed and plucked a loose feather from the nearest wing.
“What’s wrong with that?”
Cumulo eyed her coolly. “Nothing. So long as you stick to feathered things.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m barely sixteen, Cue. I’m hardly breeding age.”
“Nor me,” he agreed. “Which is all I’d be fit for if you took up such a ridiculous notion.”
Mhysra chuckled. Male miryhls didn’t sexually mature until they were twenty years old, so even a precocious Wingborn would be lucky to father anything before eighteen.
He huffed reproachfully. “Don’t deny you’ve been broody this past year.”
“Over chicks, Cue! I don’t even like the boys around here.”
He snorted scornfully. “I don’t blame you. A more pitiful human flock is hard to imagine.”
She grinned, tugging on a wing stub and stroking the crinkled skin, making the chick chuckle in its sleep. “They’re not all bad.”
“You’ll have more to choose from when we reach Nimbys,” he said, reminding her of what she was desperately trying to forget. “Best set your priorities now.”
Turning her back on the thought, and on him, Mhysra worked on the chicks, running her fingers through their fluffy down. They soon woke, making her task significantly harder, thanks to their lively mood. Since playful miryhls – even chicks – resulted in copious amounts of blood loss, she left the eyries with a shallow scratch on her face, two deep ones on her arm and a crunched toe.
“Such rewarding work,” Cumulo teased, when she emerged into the slushy snow. Perched on the paddock fence, he looked like an overgrown rooster. An impressive one. Big for his age, shining, beautiful and hers, just as she was his. Neither had been given a choice, but on good days Mhysra acknowledged that the gods had smiled on her.
This was not a good day, so she flipped a rude gesture in his direction and limped on. He cackled and flapped to the next post. Mhysra eyed his landing, waiting for the tell-tale groan to assure her that he was still enjoying his growth spurt. Another half-moon and she’d have the delight of watching him break another rail made brittle by the winter frosts. She was looking forward to it, if only because Cumulo was a tad too fond of his dignity.
Or she would have been, had she been permitted to stay. Muttering the foulest words she knew earned her whistles of approval from the nearest stable lads, donning their armour before feeding the pyreflies. The screaming beasts kicked at their doors, flames spouting around the edges, and Cumulo soared on the rising heat.
“Hurry up and stop growing, Cue,” Mhysra murmured, watching him spiral higher, wings spread wide. Her chest tightened with longing. Soon, her aunt said. Soon, Cumulo promised. Soon, one way or another, she would fly again. If only on the deck of the Illuminai.
As she passed the horsat barn a silky ball of fluff scampered out of the shadows, yipping with excitement. Laughing, Mhysra knelt and caught the eager pup, smoothing ruffled fur and tugging loose down from its undeveloped wings.
“You found me.”
The black and white nakhound pup licked her chin. Mhysra grimaced and held it at arm’s length, rubbing her face on her shoulder. Bright eyes glittered, while a plumy white tail whirled.
“Cute,” she conceded, putting the dog down. It yapped and gambolled about her feet before lolloping up the slope.
Sighing, Mhysra turned to follow and looked up at Wrentheria Manor, her home for the past sixteen years and the place she loved most in all the world. Except her view was spoiled by the three-tiered skyship coming into land: the Illuminai.
The countess had arrived.
~ Next Chapter ~
All comments welcome – and if you spot a typo, please let me know.
Thanks for reading!