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~ Previous Chapter ~
Words and Deeds
“SOMETHING STRANGE IS going on,” Derrain confided to Zephyr, as he groomed her in the last of the winter light. After snowing most of the day, leaving gloom and slush behind, the clouds had drawn off just in time to produce a glorious sunset. However, since Derrain and his miryhl had agreed it was too cold outside to enjoy it, they’d retreated to the eyries with the rest of the bitterly complaining eagles. Still, with so many inside, it was reasonably warm there.
It wasn’t only the miryhls’ grumbles filling the stuffy barn. Nor was he the only one choosing to spend his unexpected free time with his miryhl. With Stirla busy on Captain Hylan’s business, and too many Riders with nothing to do inside Kaskad’s flimsy walls, the eyries were a popular destination. Especially as it was the one place, following Lorfyn’s humiliation at Stirla’s hands, that the HSF were not permitted to go.
It was amongst these understandable mutterings and complaints, that Derrain had noticed the odd behaviour.
“Like what?” Zephyr asked lazily, lifting her head so Derrain could preen the feathers on her chest, just as Mhysra had taught him.
“Have you seen anyone interesting today?”
Zephyr lowered her beak to blow against his hair. “Stirla was by first thing, but got called in to see Hylan before he so much as touched Atyrn. The princess has been in and out, tending her little miryhls. Stirla came by around noon and carried her off somewhere, the pair of them with their heads down, neither looking happy. Usual behaviour for them.” Her voice was gruff with pleasure as he ran his fingers through her feathers, lightly brushing her skin.
Her head fell against his shoulder and her wings drooped as he ran his hands along her sides.
Smiling, Derrain twitched his shoulder. “Zeph? Have you seen anyone else?”
“Hmm?” she murmured, head sliding off his shoulder with a jerk. She straightened and ruffled her feathers. “A bunch of newcomers came in late last night, and their Riders have been back and forth all day to settle them in. They’ve kept mostly to themselves, but rumour is that General Dreffen has finally arrived. Stop laughing at me.” She nudged his chest, forcing him back a step.
“Because you never laugh at me,” he chuckled, tweaking her wingtip. “I knew something odd was going on. What’s finally brought the general back? And is that why Stirla’s riled up?”
She slapped him with her tail, clamped his arm in her beak and pulled him forward. “Preen,” she ordered, and only when he obeyed did she consider what he’d said. “Surely it should seem stranger that he wasn’t here? After so much has happened, why wouldn’t the general be in Kaskad, where most of his Riders are? As for Stirla, he’s in a permanent rile these days.”
“True,” he agreed, smiling as she purred under his hands. “And I don’t know why it’s odder to have the general here than not. Maybe because Captain Hylan’s been giving the orders since before Aquila fell, so it just feels right with him in charge. And I don’t think Stirla’s been happy or comfortable since Lyrai left.”
“Maybe he misses him.” Zephyr’s voice was growing lazy again, golden eyes half-closed.
Derrain sighed sadly. Stirla wasn’t the only one; he missed his friends too.
“I’m sure they’re all fine,” Zephyr murmured, but there was no conviction in her tone, just languid enjoyment. “Cumulo would never allow Mhysra to be harmed. And Dhori’s with them. He’s a survivor.”
Her speech was slowing and slurring, so Derrain stroked across the arch of her wing, grunting as she collapsed against him. If he hadn’t been so solid, she’d have knocked him over.
“Sitting down now,” she murmured, sinking to the floor, so he could keep stroking her back.
“Hedonist,” he accused.
She rested her beak on the floor and sighed. “Shut up and preen.”
IT HAD BEEN a long and tiring day for Stirla, starting with that uncomfortable meeting with the general and followed by an equally miserable talk with Neryth. Then he’d worn himself ragged chasing after supplies, packing and trying to find a more suitable mount for the princess. Now, finally, everything was ready for an exceedingly early start on the morrow. Apart from one last detail.
Stirla wasn’t even sure it was one he wanted to go through with yet, but a half-made promise kept haunting his memory, and he knew he had to at least say something. Which was why he was returning to the eyries one last time that day, on the trail of the last of his proper students. Following a tip-off from Brath, Stirla picked his way between low perching miryhls and ducked under roosting birds, until he reached the farthest corner.
There, huddled beneath the feathery heap more commonly known as Zephyr, was Derrain.
Derrain looked up with a distant smile, more relaxed than Stirla had seen him in months. In fact it wasn’t until this moment that he’d realised how tense and miserable Derrain had grown since Misthome. Some lieutenant he was not to notice the misery of his most easy-going student. Lyrai was so much better at this. He was the one who looked after their students’ emotional well-being; Stirla just made sure they were enjoying themselves.
Not that there’d been much to enjoy of late.
Oblivious to his officer’s inner turmoil, Derrain yawned and nodded, still running his hands through his snoozing miryhl’s feathers. “I think I’ve found the only warm place in Kaskad.”
Since the entire base was a wind trap, too close to the Cloud Sea, and in the grips of the coldest winter Stirla could remember, he wasn’t about to disagree. Especially as all that could be seen of Derrain was his face and the tips of his moving fingers.
If the lad hadn’t been so big, he might have worried for him. Not that Zephyr would intentionally harm her Rider, but she was snoring, so he doubted she’d noticed if she accidentally smothered her boy.
When Stirla said nothing, Derrain shook his head and yawned again, attempting to wake up. “Did you want me for something?”
Still uncertain, Stirla hedged, “Do you remember when we talked back in Misthome?”
Derrain looked at him a little oddly, but he didn’t ask the obvious question. They’d talked often in Misthome, including one highly memorable conversation in which Stirla had landed poor Derrain with the role of looking at the fledgling HSF. All of that, however, paled beside the most important talk the two of them had ever had.
Stirla nodded. “General Dreffen is sending me to Nimbys. With a message for Captain Myran, amongst others.”
Derrain blinked, his relaxation fading. “Alone?”
Maegla, he didn’t want to do this. He reluctantly shook his head.
For a moment the student perked up, then his shoulders slumped. “Neryth.”
Derrain sighed. “But of course. Do you ever get the feeling you’re being punished? Or that the Gods are laughing at you?”
“Every damn day.”
The lad’s lips twitched and his miryhl began to stir, alert to the change in her Rider’s mood. “I best getting packing then, hadn’t I?”
Stirla closed his eyes, sighing deeply.
“I won’t be left behind,” Derrain told him, his determination finally waking Zephyr up. “Not this time. You said I was with you, sir. You promised.”
Stirla looked the younger man in the face and nodded. He had promised. And, if he was completely honest, he needed Derrain. Needed someone he could trust absolutely to stick with him over the mountains, and not just to help baby-sit Neryth either. No, he didn’t want to put the last of his students in so much danger, but by Maegla, this lad had earned the right to choose.
So he dredged up a smile and clasped Derrain’s shoulder. “Be glad to have you, Rider.”
Derrain grinned, his tension vanishing as he wriggled out from beneath his miryhl. “Go back to sleep, Zeph,” he ordered softly. “We’ve another early start tomorrow.” Then he turned to Stirla, eyes bright. “So, what should I pack?”
~ Next Chapter ~
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