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~ Previous Chapter ~
One more week to go! *dances*
Er… I mean, the battle continues!
“BOWS!” LIEUTENANT HLEN’S shout made Derrain and the watchers jump. “Fetch your bows. Be of use!”
“Aye, sir!” Greig darted down the stairs, plenty of others following. The rest of the crowd remained at the windows, watching with awe as Riders battled kaz-naghkt overhead. There were bodies in the river, on the Lawn, on top of the eyries and in the courtyards. Feathers drifted down like brown snow and black blood hissed wherever it landed.
The sky was clouding over, but there was already a storm in the valley – a seething mass of leathery bodies, feathers and action. Miryhls screamed, kaz-naghkt screeched, metal rang and voices shouted. No single sound was clear in the noisy whole and all of it was just background noise to the thundering pulse in Derrain’s ears. He’d been out there, had nearly been one of the victims lying broken and bloodied on the ground. The kaz-naghkt had almost caught them.
Now Zephyr fought on alone, having left while he was raising the alarm in the bell tower. Like most of the young miryhls whose students weren’t yet trained, Zephyr had joined a flock to hunt down kaz-naghkt. Teaming up with the nakhound packs, they wove in and out of the Rider pairs, helping wherever they could. It was breathtaking to watch the lethal birds in action, but heart-stopping too. Whenever Derrain lost sight of Zephyr he feared the worst.
What would he do if she was killed? They’d only been together for a few months, but she was already such an important part of his life.
“Here.” Something pressed against his hand and he stared mindlessly at the bow.
“Pick your shots and be careful,” Lieutenant Hlen ordered, pacing back and forth behind the row of students, full of unexpected authority. “Don’t loose if you fear to hit one of ours. We’re here to help. Spread out around the tower. When you’re ready!”
Derrain shook himself and strung the longbow he’d been given. It would have been useless on a miryhl, but for shooting through windows over distance it was perfect. He looked for arrows and found Corin beside him.
She had her own short bow, at which she’d grown even more skilled over the long winter. Smiling, she gestured to the quiver on her back and handed him an arrow. “Let’s take ‘em down.”
He smiled back and shoulder-to-shoulder they faced the window. A kaz-naghkt dropped on a Rider pair right in front of them, its hind claws lashing the miryhl’s back, while its hands and teeth gripped the human.
Derrain and Corin drew, loosed and grabbed fresh arrows in one smooth move.
Corin’s arrow punched through the kaz-naghkt’s temple, Derrain’s through its ribcage, forcing it sideways. The Rider it had been mauling had enough strength to stab it through the chest, before he collapsed across his saddle. His miryhl twisted frantically, keening in distress, trying to see what state its bonded was in. The Rider flopped weakly about, in danger of falling, one side of his saddle straps frayed almost to breaking.
“Down!” Lieutenant Hlen shouted. “Get to the healers!”
The miryhl straightened under the order and glided to the Lawn, where helpers were already dealing with the wounded. Derrain watched them land, then turned back to the fight.
Corin shot again, hitting a kaz-naghkt from behind, but the arrow shattered against the lumpy scales. “Won’t try that again,” she growled, loosing a second arrow into the kaz-naghkt’s wing.
A swarm of missiles from other windows repeated the trick, and the creature screamed as its wings were shredded. It dropped in search of safety, only to be caught by a roving pack of nakhounds. The cute dogs Derrain had played with when visiting Bumble were completely different now. Savage, swift and deadly, they swarmed the kaz-naghkt and stripped it to the bone.
Lieutenant Willym raced past their window, harrying a wounded kaz-naghkt. Stirla led a charge to defend two wounded Riders. Captain Myran circled overhead, calling out orders and holding his own. Captain Fredkhen dashed towards the tower, a wall of kaz-naghkt on his tail.
At the last moment his miryhl lifted, leaving the kaz-naghkt exposed to the archers. All but one fell, riddled with arrows, into the roaring river beneath.
The dark wings of the kaz-naghkt were everywhere, but so were the miryhls. Above Aquila, the Riders were winning. Black blood stained the citadel and the river was clogged with bodies but, despite their superior numbers and the advantage of surprise, the kaz-naghkt were losing.
More high points around the citadel were soon manned by students with bows. Loose miryhls banded with the nakhound packs to scrap with the enemy, and the Riders were left with little to do, except drive the kaz-naghkt towards the defenders.
Every time Derrain wondered if it was right to feel satisfied at the death of a kaz-naghkt, he remembered the stories he’d heard and the villages he’d seen, ravaged by attacks. He remembered the haunted eyes of the children left behind, the nightmares of survivors, the screams of the mutilated and scarred. He remembered Feather Frost and the many lives lost there. Then he pulled another arrow from Corin’s quiver and raised his bow.
“This is for you,” he whispered, piercing another creature through the neck.
* * * * *
MHYSRA CIRCLED THE battle watchfully. They were winning. She’d known that from the moment Hurricane swooped in to save them, but now she could finally see it. The kaz-naghkt swarm was broken. Miryhls outnumbered them two to one, then three, then four.
The remaining creatures fled and she was willing to let them go. So many were dead; what damage could these final few do? It was an empty question, since she had no arrows left and Cumulo was too tired to fight. They could only watch as the last kaz-naghkt were killed or escaped over the craggy mountainside.
Free miryhls swept along the valley and into the town, eager to ensure the enemy was gone. The mounted ones sagged with tiredness, turning to round up the nakhounds. To improve matters it began spitting with rain. Much as Mhysra needed a bath, she’d prefer it to be warm.
Leaning against Cumulo’s back, she sighed. “Let’s go, Cue.”
He didn’t answer, just circled and glided towards the bridge, aiming for a hatch this time.
Murmuring compliments, she removed his tack and rubbed him down, until he shoved her away. “I need a bath,” he rumbled. “And so do you. I’m going to sit in the rain.”
Understanding how he felt, she left him alone and dumped his harness in the tack room where the attendants promised to clean it. She was so tired.
As she half-tumbled down the stairs, she found Derrain waiting for her. “We’re real Riders now,” he greeted, catching her against him.
Resting her head on his chest, she shuddered. “If you’d been a breath later with the alarm -”
“Don’t,” he interrupted, stroking her damp hair. “It’s over. Don’t think about might have beens and could have happeneds. No ifs, no buts. It’s over.”
Sighing, she rubbed soothing circles on his chest. “You did well, Derry.”
His smile was a shadow of its usual self, but she appreciated the effort. “So did you.”
“And you smell.”
This time his grin was pure Derrain. “So do you.” Stepping back, he looked her over and wrapped an arm around her trembling shoulders. “Come on, little warrior, bath time. Then you can sleep for a moon. Did you do anything exciting while you were out there?”
“I almost shot Lyrai,” she said, reliving the heart-stopping horror of the moment when she’d thought he wouldn’t duck and that her arrow hadn’t gone wide enough.
“And I missed a chance at Willym.” He sighed. “Still, it was our first fight. We’ll practise.”
Hearing the hollow note in his voice, despite his efforts to joke, Mhysra patted his chest again. “Practise is what we’re here for,” she reminded him. “One day we won’t even care what we’re shooting.”
“I hope not,” he murmured. “I don’t ever want to get that comfortable with killing.”
Thinking that she didn’t either, she patted him again and leant against him all the way to the bath caverns. “What would I do without you, Derry?” she asked as they shed their coats and boots in the anteroom.
Not looking at her, he meticulously folded his outer clothes and stored them on the shelf. “Thanks to you and Cumulo, you didn’t have to find out today.” After putting his boots with his things, he turned. “I thank Maegla every day that I became your friend, Mhysra, and on days like today She rewards me for it.” Cupping her face between his hands, he kissed her forehead. “Thank you, little sister, for saving my life. And for preserving yours.”
She stared up at him, surprised to see a sheen of tears in his eyes and to find a shimmer in her own. “I’m not ready to die yet. Nor let you either.”
He dropped his hands and smiled. “Glad to hear it.” Grabbing a towel, he flicked her with it. “Now get washed. Just because you’re my friend, doesn’t mean I have to put up with you when you stink.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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