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~ Previous Chapter ~
Saddle up, Riders, it’s time to fly.
The Wilds, Scudia
IT WAS ONE of those special winter days, where the sun was high, the sky was clear and the air crisp. A rarity, especially in tempestuous Gale Month, but all the more precious for it. The sky was a vault of endless blue, while quilted clouds drifted on the horizon. Perfect weather for flying. Below them spread the wild forests of southern Scudia, undulating over the slopes of the low mountains, while the broad valley lakes overflowed after a heavy Storm Season.
Skimming the updrafts, Lyrai revelled in the simplicity of flight as cool winds mixed with weaker thermals, washing through Hurricane’s broad wings to caress his face. He smiled as one valley narrowed, its chain of lakes pouring over the cliffs to where the ground dropped hundreds of feet to the flat land below.
As Hurricane glided over the edge and into the open air, Cumulo screamed a challenge and dived. Never a pair to ignore a dare, Lyrai shifted his weight back and tightened his grip as Hurricane dropped in pursuit. Cold air roared in his face and dragged his hair back, while the falls coated him with moisture. Further shrieks warned of others following, but Lyrai only had eyes for the eagle and girl ahead.
Wings clenched tightly over his Rider’s legs, Hurricane fell beak first towards the tumbled rocks and cloud of spray at the foot of the falls. The four hundred foot drop whisked by in a handful of pounding heartbeats. Lyrai closed his eyes as the ground rushed to meet them, his body frozen and breathless.
Then his stomach hit his heart and he opened his eyes. Cold air seized his legs as Hurricane’s great wings spread wide, tilting to save them moments from death.
Lyrai whooped as they skimmed over the river, snatched an updraft and soared high again. Crowing with triumph, Cumulo swept around them, while Atyrn and the others shot up to join the fun. Gasping, excited and elated, the Riders and miryhls traded boasts and insults as they waited for the less adventurous members of their party to catch up.
“You’re crazy!” Corin shouted at Derrain and Mhysra, as she and Wisp raced towards them. “One rogue gust and we’d be fishing bits of you from the river!”
Derrain’s reply was lost to the winds, but his laughter was clear enough.
He wasn’t the only one laughing. Lyrai felt giddy and their sombre group turned playful as they flew on again. The river below broadened into a glistening lake, bordered by meadows still green from autumn. As the collective shadow of thirty miryhls dragged across the ground, a mixed herd of deer and wild doelyn scattered. Lyrai looked over as Stirla drew level and raised his eyebrows.
Stirla grinned. “Fresh meat for dinner?”
The last of their rations from Kaskad had long run out, but the food they’d purchased two days ago in Seroth would last a little longer yet. Lyrai looked down at the herd, which had settled again after deeming them no threat, and decided the miryhls deserved a treat.
He nodded at his friend and urged Hurricane to turn, while Stirla signalled the hunters out of the flock. Their lazy formation split into two, leaving twenty behind to keep watch. Over the long journey between Aquila and Etheria, Hurricane, Cumulo, Wisp and Dhori’s Latinym had become an efficient hunting team, and Jaymes’ Argon had fallen easily into line with them since Kaskad. The other five Rider pairs going forward were similarly skilled.
At Hurricane’s cry the smaller, faster birds – Wisp, Latinym, Argon and two others – moved to circle the oblivious herd: the chasers. The remaining five miryhls – big but nimble birds like Cumulo and Hurricane – levelled out their flight and glided low: the catchers.
Racing to the far side of the herd, the chaser miryhls turned and swooped, shrieking loudly to flush their prey. The startled herd stampeded back across the meadow, straight into the waiting talons of the catchers.
With efficient pounces, Hurricane seized a deer by the rump, then the throat, ending its life with a sharp twist of his beak. While his miryhl made sure of his kill, Lyrai looked around and counted seven downed beasts in the thundering throng.
Not enough. He urged his bonded up. “Again.”
Grunting with effort, Hurricane launched from the ground, took two flaps and brought down a doelyn. These wild herds had become lazy and complacent out in the peace of southern Scudia. Many were too fat to get off the ground, their feathery wings little more than pretty ornaments. It was no hardship for Hurricane to catch another.
By that time the rest of the herd had fled and Stirla’s group were coming into land. “Good job,” his fellow lieutenant called, sliding from Atyrn’s back and checking the ground with firm stomps of his boots. “A little damp, but I think it’ll hold us for a night. Shall we stop early?”
From his vantage point on Hurricane’s back, Lyrai could see a couple of miryhls already feasting on their kills. Moving on was a lost cause, much as he hated to lose such excellent flying conditions. Then again, they would reach the shores of the Cloud Sea in another day or so – might as well make the most of such camp grounds while they could get them before winter closed in. The ground was reasonably flat, the woods were close enough for firewood and they had the lake for water. It was perfect. Since the miryhls would need a rest after such a large meal, there was no reason why they shouldn’t do so in comfort.
“Good idea.” He nodded. “But you’d better get the firewood fast or we’ll be walking for it.”
Grimacing, Stirla selected a handful of students and led them off before their miryhls had a chance to join the feast.
“Don’t forget to save some for us,” Lyrai warned, dismounting and pulling Hurricane’s harness off.
His miryhl’s only reply was a growl when a pack miryhl ventured too close to his final kill.
“Play nice,” he murmured, and beat a hasty retreat to the riverbank where the Riders and students were setting up camp. Hungry miryhls were safer from a distance, especially when it had been two days since their last full meal. A successful hunt like this would keep them going for a further two days, so he couldn’t begrudge their gorging. To his relief Dhori, Mhysra and a couple of Riders carried a haunch of meat each – gifts from their miryhls. No one would go hungry tonight.
REPLETE AND CONTENT, Mhysra couldn’t help thinking that if all nights in the wild were like this, long distance travel wouldn’t be so bad. She knew better, however, but it didn’t stop her appreciating the moment. The venison had been succulent, deliciously seasoned and cooked to perfection by Corin, Stirla and Rider Theryn. The water from the river was sharp, cold and clean, and the sky was clear.
Now Mhysra lay wrapped in two blankets beside a crackling fire, staring at the brilliant stars scattered overhead, while the others traded stories. A few short strides away, Cumulo nested with the miryhls in a bloated, muttering heap.
It was the perfect night for forgetting her troubles. There was no Aquila here, no kaz-naghkt or pirates. This blood had been easily washed away and the happy, lazy voices held no echoes of the missing or dead. She almost felt like talking, except she was so drowsy. Finding words would be too much effort.
Smiling sleepily, she snuggled under her blankets and let her eyes drift shut as Dhori told a tale of far off lands and distant kings from a world before the Cloud Curse came.
SHE STOOD HIGH on a cliff edge, staring out over a broad, clear land. There was so much green; she’d never seen so rich a shade. Soft hills rolled and fell before her, topped with trees and divided by silver streams. The verdant landscape was dotted with patchwork shades of yellow, red, brown, lavender-blue and pale gold. Little fields rippled in the wind, under a sky that seemed to go on forever.
And then there was the greatest wonder of all waiting on the horizon – not clouds, but water.
It sparkled under the warm sun like a jewel. Drifting lazily, sails billowing like little clouds, ships floated on the shimmering surface, just as the dragon legends claimed. There wasn’t a skyship in sight, but strange birds flew around her – white, black and grey, with thin, sharp wings and harsh, shrieking voices.
“Beautiful, is it not?”
She turned towards the stranger, unsurprised to find she was not alone. This place was too glorious to keep to herself. Yet he wasn’t completely unknown. There was something familiar about his sharp features, warm skin and barley pale eyes, but she didn’t have enough thoughts to spare to recognise him just now.
He chuckled when she turned back to the view. “Such wide eyes, such wonder. It feels good to still be able to inspire such awe. Remember this view, Mhysra, remember this world. Understand what was lost, what was taken.”
“It was never yours to lose.”
On her other side was another man, even more familiar still, for all she couldn’t remember his name either. Her head felt fuzzy and there was a low buzzing in her ears. Rubbing her temple, she stared into his silvery eyes and wished she knew him.
He smiled, and her discomfort lessened.
“All this is mine. Before, now, after, regardless of how it lies hidden.” The other man sounded peevish. “You were not invited here.”
“And yet all this,” the silver-eyed man swept his arm out at the view, “you have never seen. You walk in my memory. Perhaps you should leave.”
Mhysra glanced between the two men, knowing she was missing something – a lot of things – but as her confusion grew, so did the buzz in her head. It was becoming painful.
“When I have what I came for,” the barley-eyed man murmured, chuckling as he touched Mhysra’s hand with two fingers. “Where are you now, my dear?”
The pale man’s words were lost under a crash of noise and all she saw were glowing golden eyes burning into her own. She couldn’t breathe and though she felt her lips moving, she couldn’t hear what she was saying.
“No!” the familiar man shouted, but the other just smiled and shoved her into the darkness with a softly blown kiss.
SHE WOKE ON a gasp to a darkness lit only by the sullen glow of the dying fire. The stars overhead were veiled by thick clouds and all around her the others were sleeping.
“Mhysra?” A figure moved out of the shadows from where he’d been keeping watch: Dhori. “It’s all right, it was just a dream. Try and get some more sleep, you’re going to need it.”
Taking his advice, she settled down with a sigh as Dhori turned to resume his watch, eyes flashing silver in the firelight. Before she could remember why that was important, sleep swept in and blew all her thoughts away.
~ Next Chapter ~
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