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~ Previous Chapter ~
The shout, unexpected and panicked, stopped Stirla in his tracks. “Derry?”
The affable student darted towards him, eyes wide with distress. “Lieutenant, you’re finally back.” The lad seized his arm and tugged him into the eyries. “Gods, I didn’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.”
Looking around for help, Stirla noticed some of the more familiar miryhls were missing. “Where’s Hurricane? Cumulo? Did Lyrai take Mhysra and the others out flying?”
Derrain shook his head. “Tell him, Zeph.”
Having spent a lot of time with Cumulo, Zephyr hesitated only a moment before saying, “They’re gone.” Her voice was surprisingly soft for a miryhl, without the gravelly texture he was so used to in Atyrn.
“Who? Gone where?”
“Lyrai, Mhysra, Dhori, Jaymes and Corin,” Atyrn said behind him. “They left before dawn.”
“What?” Stirla stared at his miryhl, then Zephyr and Derrain. “Where?”
“I knew something strange was happening,” Derrain said to his miryhl, fists bunched with frustration. “Didn’t I tell you something was going on?”
Zephyr nudged him gently. “Jaymes and Corin went first,” she told Stirla. “Dhori followed, but was too late to stop them. Then Lyrai and Mhysra arrived and they all went after them.”
“Where?” Stirla repeated, catching Derrain’s panic. “Where did they go?”
“I didn’t believe what Dhori said,” Atyrn murmured. “I couldn’t.”
“Where did they go?” he growled between gritted teeth.
“The Stormwash,” the miryhls said together.
Stirla blinked, wondering if he might have had more to drink last night than he thought. “Am I dreaming?” he muttered. “Or still drunk?”
“Neither.” Derrain shook his head. “They’ve gone. All of them. They left me behind.”
“But the Stormwash?” Stirla repeated, his laughter holding a hysterical edge. “Madness! Why would anyone go there? What’s the point?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Derrain told him firmly, tightening the breast band of Zephyr’s saddle. Which was when Stirla realised the miryhl already wore her bridle. “I won’t be left behind.”
Knowing he was dealing with a youngster who was in no way rational, Stirla rubbed his forehead and sighed. “You can’t go alone, Derry. It would be suicide.”
“I’m not alone,” Derrain insisted stubbornly, tying his bags to his saddle. “Zephyr’s with me.”
“Don’t be foolish, you know what I mean,” Stirla growled, pulling the bags off.
Derrain grabbed hold and started an undignified tug-of-war. “If you came,” – yank – “too,” – heave – “we wouldn’t,” – pull – “be alone.”
Gritting his teeth, Stirla wrenched the bags from Derrain’s hands and threw them towards Atyrn, who planted a large, taloned foot on them. “You know I can’t.”
“Please,” Derrain whispered, staring at his boots. “They left me behind.”
“I know.” Stirla put a hand on the lad’s shoulder. “But I can’t go with you, and I can’t let you go alone.”
Jerking away, Derrain turned back to Zephyr, who nuzzled him comfortingly. He put his arms around his miryhl’s neck and rested his cheek against hers.
Not trusting them, Stirla indicated for Atyrn to block the miryhl’s way. “I’m sorry, Derry.”
“How can you be?” he demanded, glaring with angry eyes. “How can you possibly be sorry? All my friends are out there. All. Either at Aquila, food for the kaz-naghkt, or flying towards the Stormwash, likely never to be seen again. I’m the only one left, and you say you’re sorry?”
“More sorry than you could ever know,” Stirla said, his own frustration starting to rise. “You think you’re the only one to lose friends? The only one left behind? I am a lieutenant, Derrain, it is my job to gather support to take back to Aquila. Where more people will die. They all have friends too, families, loved ones, children even. Do you think they like being left behind? Do you think anyone does? With Lyrai gone, I have to stay here. The students and Riders here are not Seiryn’s responsibility, they are mine. Would you have me abandon all sense of duty and honour to flee madly after the others, purely because they are friends I don’t want to lose?”
Derrain clenched his jaw. “Let me go.”
“No.” Stirla shook his head firmly. “You have great potential, Derry. You’re strong, steadfast and loyal. I won’t let you fly to your death in a madcap attempt to follow them. I won’t be responsible for you throwing your life away. Nor Zephyr’s. As your lieutenant it would be unconscionable.” He gripped Derrain’s shoulder again, holding tight when the lad tried to throw him off. “And as your friend it would be unthinkable. Not all your friends are gone, Derry. You’re not alone.”
Derrain stilled and looked away. “I don’t want to be the only one left.”
“Nor do I. But there’s nothing you can do for them. You don’t even know for certain where they’ve gone.” He let his hand slip from the student’s shoulder and stepped back, indicating for Atyrn to do the same. The boy was so stubborn, it had to be his own choice. “You’re badly needed here, Derry. I need you. With Lyrai gone, and Dhori, Mhysra, Corin and Jaymes with him, I need a student on my side. More than that, I need someone I’ve fought with, in darkness and in blood. But I won’t force you.” Turning, Stirla headed for the ladder to the Rider quarters above. “Go, if you have to. I can’t stop you. I was wrong to try.”
Shoulders slumped, heavy with worry for those already missing, Stirla was halfway up the ladder when the lad called, “Wait.”
Stirla froze. The clink of buckles and sigh of leather on feathers made him turn as Derrain pulled Zephyr’s harness off. “Thank Maegla,” he whispered in fervent prayer.
“You’re right,” Derrain said, collecting his bags. “I’m not the last and, even if I were, I signed up for the Riders so with the Riders I’ll stay. Until orders say otherwise.”
Stirla jumped down and took hold of his shoulders. “Be sure, Derry, because we’ll be leaving today or tomorrow. You won’t get another chance. From here on you’re with me. Regardless of what else happens.”
Derrain’s eyes widened, realising there was more to Stirla’s words than the simple orders of lieutenant to student. “Aye, captain,” he whispered.
“Not yet,” Stirla chuckled, ruffling Derrain’s hair. “Maybe not ever at the rate I’m going. But come on, we’ve got work to do.”
* * *
THEY HAD BEEN out on the mountain for four days, creeping over snow and slush, snapping through brittle undergrowth and following tracks. Those tracks were the sole reason for this journey, why they were still out here, in the cold and the open. Huddled in a hollow, Mouse hugged his pack to his chest for warmth, watching as Greig and Rider Rechar conversed in low voices. They were in dangerous territory up above the eastern citadel, close to the Heights, but if these tracks led them to their quarry it would be worth it.
Goats. Three of them, from what Mouse could read of the tracks, though Rechar had hopes of a fourth. They must have been released by the town folk once they realised Aquila was lost. Better for the beasts to run wild than let their enemies have them. Rumours and half-glanced sightings had been coming in ever since they escaped the tunnels, but this was the first time Rechar had got involved.
A gifted tracker out of Captain Myran’s flight, the Rider often assisted in Lieutenant Stirla’s survival lessons. Born and raised in the isolated wilds of the Heighlen Range, there was no man more suited to scratching out a life against the odds. Even in the harshest of seasons.
Winters at Aquila were often bitter, and this year was proving no different. A quarter-moon into Blizzard and the river was already frozen. Snow had been falling for almost a month and was showing no sign of easing. With food scarce and their supplies growing thin, they had to take whatever chances were offered. Hence the four days in the cold. Shivering, Mouse tugged his cloak tighter about his neck and pulled his scarf higher up his nose. Just because it wasn’t snowing right at that moment, didn’t mean it wouldn’t again soon, and the wind was ice cold.
“They must have split up,” Rechar muttered, crouching to study the prints. “The nanny and kid went to lower ground, but the others went back.” Shaking his hair from his eyes, the Rider glared at the forest.
Beside him, Greig crawled along the forest trail. “They went up the ridge.”
Leaning forward, Mouse followed the line of his friend’s arm and shuddered. The ridge was high, narrow and exposed. Only an idiot would go up there in winter. Then again, they were tracking goats and there was never any knowing what went on in their devious minds.
Rechar pulled his scarf down and scratched his beard. “We’ve lost them then. If they weren’t picked up by something -” and there were plenty of other predators on the mountain, besides pirates and kaz-naghkt, “- or haven’t died of exposure, they’ll be too far off now. Besides the nanny and kid are worth more.”
Milk, Mouse thought wistfully. As a farm boy he’d hated the sight, taste and smell of the stuff, especially from goats. But now a mug of warm, fresh milk sounded blissful.
“That’s if the citadel hasn’t picked them up,” Greig grumbled, covering his face and head with his hood and returning to Mouse’s hollow to pick up his pack. “We’re getting too close.”
“From all we’ve seen,” Rechar said, retrieving his things, “the pirates keep mostly to the centre of the citadel. They like to be near the town. And the kaz-naghkt are sleeping.”
Or so it would seem. It was a common assumption that kaz-naghkt didn’t like the cold, since they never attacked in the winter. Yet no one knew for certain whether it was true. Just because they hadn’t seen the kaz-naghkt since the snows began, didn’t mean they weren’t still moving. Something kept eating pirates at night.
When neither student said anything, Rechar wrapped his scarf around his face and pulled up his hood with a shrug. “We have to try,” he murmured, creeping back into the cold.
That was the trouble with living under the shadow of the enemy – they always had to try. No matter what the opportunity, if it might aid their survival, they had to take it. Even if it was a vague sighting of goats, leading to the enemy’s doorstep. Fresh milk, and fresh meat, was too valuable to pass up. So as the false dark of more snow stole what little light was left in the day, Mouse and his friends crept through the sparse cover surrounding the Heights.
* * *
IT WAS A league from Misthome to the Stormwash, a straight flight over the lowered Cloud Sea. Below all was white, above was blue with hints of snow clouds in the distance. Ahead lay the storm. Pewter, black, silver and purple, the clouds were a vibrant bruise on the sky, rising ever higher the closer they flew. And it growled, rumbled, hissed and spat. Thunder, lightning, rain and the constant force of the wind.
A little over halfway Mhysra began to feel it; the pull of the Wash, sucking in everything to feed its hunger. The miryhls shrieked as they were dragged into the tide, feathers and wings buffeted in opposing directions. They flapped and struggled against it, but there was nothing they could do. The only way now was forward.
The distance shortened rapidly as the winds gathered power and their momentum increased. Fearing the worst, Mhysra looked over at what could be the last human face she might ever see.
“See you on the other side,” Lyrai called, and with a whoop was gone.
The Stormwash fill her vision. With one last breath, she gripped Cumulo as tight as possible, shut her eyes and prayed, hoping that here of all places Maegla would hear her voice. Then she surrendered to the inevitable.
And the fury swallowed them whole.
~ Next Chapter ~
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