(First time reading? Catch up Here!)
~ Previous Chapter ~
Warning! This one ends on a stinker of a cliffhanger. This is what happens when I serialise a book that wasn’t intended to be serialised.
Then again, the original was written as a serial and some of those cliffhangers were awful.
Anywho, read at your own risk. It’ll continue on Friday.
(And two weeks from today it’ll be over! Guess I better start thinking about what I’m going to serialise next… probably not book 2, though, sorry.)
“COME ON,” DERRAIN urged, jittering impatiently by the door. “Hurry up.”
“Sorry.” Mhysra tumbled out of her dormitory, tying her curls back. “I needed to change. It’s too muddy to fly in fawn breeches.” She eyed Derrain’s pointedly, but he shrugged.
“I’ll flirt with the laundry maids later and they’ll work their magic for me.”
Mhysra shook her head. “You’re incorrigible.” But she didn’t waste her breath; Derrain was charming and knew it. Unfortunately it was a skill that worked on both sexes, which was how he’d gained Lieutenant Stirla’s permission to fly outside of lessons – as long as an experienced flyer kept him company. So far Dhori and Mhysra had been the only first-years granted that privilege, but most didn’t gain permission until their third year. Trust Derrain to outdo them all.
“I’m also lovely, cuddly and perfect for taking home to mother,” he promised, holding the door for her, but only so he could urge her to hurry.
“Not my mother. She knows you.”
“Please don’t take me home to your mother. Or your aunt,” he added, shuddering. “One Wrentherin in my life is as much as I can handle at once.”
She patted his cheek. “So wise so young.”
The eyries were quiet when they entered. Most would still be making their way back from Maegla’s Hall after the Starday service, though Captain Fredkhen and Lieutenant Hlen were checking their students’ miryhls. Mhysra raised her eyebrows at Derrain, then hurried to fetch Cumulo’s tack and prise him away from his lounging.
“Too early,” Cumulo grumbled, when she pulled his head down and slid his bridle over his beak. “Come back when the sun’s gone.”
“It’s going to rain later,” she warned, amused by how quickly his moods changed. It had only been a half-moon since they’d flown for the first time in months. Mere days ago he had purred happily whenever she approached, no matter what the time of day. “Wouldn’t you rather fly when it’s warm?”
He opened an eye, sighed and pulled his wings in. “You win. Where are we going?”
“Derry’s got permission to fly with us, so we’re going to see the lake.”
“I’ve seen it,” he muttered, while she settled his saddle into place and tightened the girths. “It’s icy.”
“It might have melted by now,” she coaxed, smiling as Hurricane lifted a marbled wing so that she could walk around her miryhl. “Thank you.”
He winked, stretched out his neck and returned to lazing. Cumulo watched him with a beady-eye. “The things I do for you and your friends. You’d best be keeping notes.”
“Reams,” she promised. “Is all well?”
He shook himself and stretched his wings. “Good enough,” he grunted. “I suppose we have to go now?”
“Yes, please.” Smiling, she stepped onto his lowered wing, laughing as he twitched and boosted her into the saddle. “Derry will join us as soon as he can,” she said. “So let’s enjoy the warmth while it’s with us.”
Muttering, Cumulo shuffled between the basking Atyrn and Hurricane, stepped daintily over an out-flung wing and hopped onto the open hatch ledge. He paused, head high, while sunlight gilded his beak and shimmered over his feathers. Smiling, Mhysra raised her face too, soaking up the delicious heat. Sunlight was always more precious at the start of spring.
Cumulo tensed and she opened her eyes, shifting with him as he launched through the hatch. They exited on the falls side, swirling away from the roaring water to lift over the bridge and rise in broad circles around the towers of the citadel. They glided lazily, passing from light to shadow, over figures sprawled across the Lawn and in the courtyards below. All of Aquila had become sun-worshippers since the thaw had arrived.
Skimming along the river, Cumulo snatched playfully at the waters, then tucked in his wings.
“Cumulo,” she warned, but it was too late. “Cue!” Her shriek echoed off stone, half-drowned by the roaring water as her miryhl dived underneath the bridge and tipped them over the edge of the falls.
This time he dropped as far as the town before opening his wings and sweeping up again. Mhysra lay against him, heart pounding, skin chilled from the shadow of the bridge. She felt him laughing beneath her.
“You’ll be the death of me,” she grumbled.
He chuckled. “Not yet, chickling. Not quite yet.”
As they rose above the bridge again, shedding rainbow drops of spray, Derrain and Zephyr were waiting. “Ready?” her friend called.
In answer she flattened against Cumulo’s back, laughing as he broke their spiral and raced up the valley. A scream behind promised that Zephyr was following, and the two miryhls darted through the shadows of the citadel towards the heart of the mountain. When they reached the cascade, Cumulo thumped the air with his wings and catapulted them towards the broken spurs that separated the lake from the valley. A second hard flap, a third and they were over the rocks and through.
“Oh, Cue,” Mhysra whispered, as she pushed herself upright on his back for a better look.
A u-shaped bowl glistened before her, the semicircle broken by a sharp peak jutting from the cliffs at the far end. Around the edges snow-clumped fir trees lined the icy shores. As Cumulo soared over the valley, his shadow changed from black to blue below. The lake was thawing, dark with cold, but still had a long way to go. She was doubly grateful for the sun on her back as the chill reached them. The thaw had barely touched this place yet.
Derrain and Zephyr caught up, and the two miryhls darted to and fro. The further they explored the more complex the valley became, with hidden ridges and secret inlets. It would be perfect come the summer and Mhysra spotted some ideal picnic spots. She wondered if there were boats for warmer months and vowed to ask Kilai when next she saw him.
The far end of the valley ended in a sheer cliff, glossy black where all else was white. The water at the base had thawed entirely and was glassy, dark and still, reflecting them perfectly as they passed over. Cumulo glided along the stone, searching for a place to land, while Mhysra stared in wonder. She’d never seen such a perfect natural wall. There wasn’t even room for a raven to land, let alone a miryhl. It could have been chopped by a giant axe: not one crack marred the surface.
It became a game for the miryhls to find a fault, swooping back and forth, using the glistening sunlight to study the surface, until they were forced to concede.
“Glacier made, has to be,” Derrain said, after they landed on the crag in the middle of the wall that jutted over the lake, making the dip in the giant U. There was nothing perfect about this slice of rock and it provided ample roosting places for all manner of birds. “Nothing else could carve so smoothly.”
“Mm,” Mhysra agreed, drinking from her water bottle. “You should ask Captain Fredkhen.”
“Maybe,” Derrain agreed, taking the bottle but pausing mid-swing. “Hey, it looks like something found a fault. Maybe we didn’t go high enough.”
Mhysra shielded her eyes and looked up. Something was moving on the wall, close to the top. It didn’t look like a bird, or at least not any species that she could recognise at that distance. Perhaps a giant bat? It was crawling headfirst down the cliff face. A second joined it.
“Cumulo,” she murmured, a chill that had nothing to do with the lake creeping over her.
Her miryhl tilted his head at her words, one gold eye focusing. He tensed and turned to view the creature head on. “Mount up,” he rumbled.
Derrain jumped at hearing her miryhl’s voice, then looked again. Five creatures now crawled down the wall. “Oh.” He paled and fumbled to put the lid back on the water bottle. “I didn’t…” he began, but ran out of words.
Zephyr butted him in the back as Mhysra swung into Cumulo’s saddle. Derrain dropped the bottle and climbed onto his miryhl.
“Straps,” Mhysra said tersely, turning to buckle her own as Derrain fumbled with his.
“Carefully,” Cumulo murmured, edging around the spur with Zephyr until they were out of sight. “Go.”
They leapt into the air, not bothering to circle for height. It was hard work, but both miryhls were in good condition and crossed a quarter of the lake before their presence was noticed.
A harsh scream echoed over the valley, raising the hairs on the back of Mhysra’s neck. Other voices joined the chorus.
“Blast and burn it,” Derrain growled, glancing over both shoulders, until Zephyr snapped at him to stop. “What do we do?”
“Get to Aquila and raise the alarm,” Mhysra told him. “Rouse the eyries.”
A shadow dropped from the ridge in front of them, followed by a second and a third. Leathery wings spread wide, cupping the air as elongated limbs dangled beneath, thick tails swaying in the wind. Almost-human faces grinned at them, lips peeling back to reveal pointed teeth. They threw their heads back and screamed.
“Cue, go!” Mhysra shrieked, fumbling at her waist for the sword she didn’t have. They hadn’t even begun learning to fight on miryhl back yet, and now this.
Two shot upwards while the third coiled its body and launched straight at them. Curved claws opened and for a breathless moment Mhysra stared into red eyes, knowing not even Maegla could save her.
Screaming, Cumulo swung his body up and hit the kaz-naghkt in the chest with his talons. Digging through its belly with one foot, he shredded with the other, using his beak to distract the creature’s teeth. Before it had a chance to use its wing spurs or claws, Cumulo tore off its head and dropped it onto the icy lake below.
The fight lasted a handful of heartbeats, but they dropped perilously low in that time, while Derrain and Zephyr continued on without them. They were almost at the cascade, but two kaz-naghkt were gliding over them. Zephyr was a big miryhl, solid and strong, but she wasn’t fast.
“Keep watch,” Cumulo ordered his Rider, powering in pursuit and skimming the water to clean his talons.
Eager to help, and berating herself for not at least bringing her bow, Mhysra darted glances above, below and over both shoulders. What she saw filled her with horror. “We have company.”
“Where?” he growled, not taking the time to look.
“Everywhere,” she whispered.
“Hold on!” he called, rising to catch the sharp tail-wind that blew down the valley. With that beneath his wings, he glided over the kaz-naghkt pair stalking Derrain and dropped.
Seizing one in his beak and thumping the other with his wing, Cumulo plunged towards the lake, taking both creatures with him. He shook the one in his beak, throwing it into the cliff, before turning on the other.
Dazed but watchful, the kaz-naghkt spread its wings, using them like sails to drift back from the enraged miryhl. Cumulo was almost twice its size, but the kaz-naghkt was protected by hard scales down its back and sides, and armed with claws, teeth, wing spurs and a club tail. It would be a close match and the kaz-naghkt knew it. Lips peeled back over ferocious teeth, thin nostrils flared and it gurgled with laughter.
Watching their enemy warily, Cumulo circled, keeping the creature in sight. It didn’t seem to care that Derrain and Zephyr had escaped and even now would be rousing Aquila. All that mattered was the miryhl in front of it.
“Cue,” Mhysra whispered, not wanting to distract him, but he needed to know what was coming. There were at least fifty kaz-naghkt skimming over the lake or rising to strike from above, with more still arriving. She had never questioned her miryhl’s courage, but he was just one eagle and they were outnumbered. “We have no time.”
When the sun hit their back, he flapped his wings hard, shooting up as the kaz-naghkt lunged. Its scream was curtailed with a thud when it hit the jagged spurs above the cascade. Mhysra looked down at its impaled body as Cumulo rose over the rocks and twisted into the wind. Tucking his wings in tight he dove into the next valley, racing down the river towards the citadel.
The bells began to toll.
Figures scurried below, leaving the Lawn, evacuating the courtyards and readying the nakhounds. Miryhls dived out of the eyries, with and without Riders, and Cumulo fled towards them. Shadows rippled over the river and outbuildings, filling the valley with gleeful shrieks.
The kaz-naghkt had come to Aquila.
“Hold on!” Cumulo shouted, gliding swiftly towards the falls.
He jolted and Mhysra yelped as a kaz-naghkt grabbed her miryhl’s tail. She had nothing to throw; no weapons, no rocks, not even her water bottle. Cumulo strained against the restraint as the kaz-naghkt opened its wings, filling the great leathery sails.
The kaz-naghkt grinned, opened its claws and lunged –
~ Next Chapter ~
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Thanks for reading!