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~ Previous Chapter ~
Meanwhile, in Kaskad…
Plans and Partnerships
“THIS IS BIRCH.” Stirla disguised his misgivings by reaching out and stroking the ruffled feathers of the sturdy male miryhl. “He was bonded to my late sergeant, Rees.”
At the mention of that name, Birch lowered his head and pressed his beak against Stirla’s chest. He rubbed the poor bird’s cheek, giving what comfort he could.
For once Neryth’s emotions were written plain on her face, her uncertainty forming a frown. “Are you certain he did not escape Aquila?” she asked, turning to include Derrain in the question.
Derrain shook his head, while Stirla sighed. “I suppose it is possible that he went east with Captain Myran and a few others, but with Birch here, it’s unlikely.” Even though Rees had been a frequent thorn in his side, Stirla missed the surly old bugger. As much as he’d resented Rees’ miserable presence during his time as lieutenant, he’d never wished him ill, let alone dead. “And if he’d come west with the rest of us, he should have been here by now.”
Birch keened softly at this reminder of what he had lost.
“Could he not have survived at the citadel?” Neryth wondered.
Stirla shook his head. “I wouldn’t rate his chances. For all his faults, of which he had many, Rees was an honourable man. Grumpy, short-tempered, intolerant at times, always narrow-minded, proud, miserable and humourless, yes, but at heart he always did what he believed was right. What he thought was best for the Riders. A man such as that would not last long under enemy occupation. Especially since he was also impatient. If he was caught, he would have likely proved too troublesome to keep.”
Birch moaned and rubbed against Stirla, wings drooping, a picture of utter misery.
“Sorry,” he whispered to the grieving miryhl. “But you know it would be better for him that way.” Better for any who fell into pirate hands. The chances of the kaz-naghkt keeping prisoners was too slight to even consider.
Neryth was silent for a long moment. She looked at Derrain for guidance and received a slow nod in return. Taking a deep breath, Neryth stepped closer to Birch and rested a hand against his wing. “I am sorry for your loss.”
Birch turned from Stirla and lowered his head in acknowledgement.
Biting her lip, Neryth glanced back at where her own miryhl pair was watching the whole encounter with jealous interest. Pretty though Mimi and Mirro were, they were too delicate for the kind of flying their princess was about to undertake. If it hadn’t been for the flock of horsats conveying the pampered HSF from Havia, constantly slowing the Riders down, they’d never have been able to keep up with the other miryhls on the recent journey. As it was they’d struggled with the distance, even with Neryth swapping frequently between them.
Since time was now too precious to waste, Stirla had convinced Neryth to leave them in Kaskad. At least here they would be well looked after, ready to return with their princess to Havia when her stint with the Riders was finished.
Though all three had agreed with the sense of the plan, none looked happy about it. Nor was Birch helping by drooping sadly all over the princess’ boots.
“Are you certain…?” Neryth asked now, looking from her miryhls to Stirla, to Derrain, to Birch, aiming the question at all of them.
Mimi and Mirro hunched into their feathers and said nothing, while Derrain shrugged.
Stirla sighed. This had been his plan, and it was therefore down to him to see it through. “I haven’t been certain about anything for a long time, Highness. But the one thing I do know is that you’ll never make it across the Heighlens with your two. They’re simply not bred for this level of work.”
“And Birch volunteered,” Atyrn put in, bringing her impressive size and noble bearing into the argument, leaning around her Rider to nudge the dispirited miryhl. “He knows there’s a small chance Rees might have been left somewhere along the evacuation route from Aquila. He may even have gone east with Myran. If he agrees to carry you, Princess, it means he can come with us and look. It’s a small chance, but it’s better than sitting here, getting fat and gathering dust.”
Even though Stirla had been growing used to his miryhl’s frequent outspoken moments, he’d never heard her make quite such a long speech to anyone else before. It left him feeling a little stunned. Judging by the expression on Neryth’s face, she felt the same. Even Birch had raised his head, eyes wide with something other than grief for the first time in months.
“You mustn’t,” the pale brown miryhl murmured. “It’s not right.”
Atyrn shuffled her feathers in a brusque shrug, possibly a little embarrassed herself by her outburst. “Times are changing, Birch. We miryhls must adapt.” That sounded like something Hurricane would come up with. “It’s a silly rule anyway.” Pure Cumulo. Stirla smiled at this evidence of the root of his bonded’s corruption.
Birch blinked. The poor old thing had been partnered with Rees for almost thirty years. Though a quieter, more thoughtful creature than his bonded, something of the sergeant had to have rubbed off on his miryhl over the years. Not least a shared love of rules and traditions.
Looking thoughtful, Neryth touched the pale miryhl again and waited until the bird was looking at her with his deep brown eyes. “Is this arrangement acceptable to you? You do not have to speak to me unless you wish to. I will ask nothing more than enough friendship for us to get through this journey together. I will not make any claim on you beyond that. Whatever you decide must be your own decision. You have served the Riders faithfully and well, and have earned the right to rest, if you wish to do so.”
Stirla stepped back to let the princess and the miryhl take each other’s measure, and could see Atyrn nodding out of the corner of his eye. His big bonded had always approved of Neryth, and a speech like that could only weigh more heavily in her favour.
Still, even though Birch had offered his services in principle, facing the reality of carrying a new charge after so long had to be daunting. He wouldn’t think less of the miryhl if he baulked now. A Rift Rider bond was a precious thing, which only grew stronger over the years. It was good that Neryth had acknowledged that.
For a long moment Birch simply looked the princess over, then he lifted his head to study the two unhappy miryhls huddled nearby. He looked at Stirla a little warily, before finally turning to Atyrn. “For the good of the Riders?” he asked, his voice a soft croak.
The big female inclined her head, her stiff poise implying she would never do anything else, or expect him to either.
Birch sighed with his whole body, then turned to Mimi and Mirro again. “She will be safe on my wings. I will bring her back to you.”
As the two little miryhls gave miserable nods, Stirla relaxed, the knot of tension unravelling in his gut. “Thank Maegla,” he whispered, and Atyrn murmured in agreement. That was one less thing he had to worry about.
Allowing the new pair a moment to get acquainted, Stirla jerked his head at Derrain and led him a few steps away. “Are you packed and ready?”
Derrain nodded. “Everything’s done, save tacking up Zephyr.”
Stirla eyed his own miryhl. “Best get to it then. When you’re done, help Neryth, and if I’m still not back do Atyrn as well. I have an appointment with the general.” He allowed his grimace to say everything else that he didn’t dare voice aloud.
With a sympathetic pat on the back, Derrain gave him a shove towards the eyrie doors. “It won’t get any easier the longer you leave it.”
“That,” Stirla drawled in disgust, “was perilously close to wisdom, student. Don’t make me dump you in a snowdrift. I can only handle one Dhori in this world at once.” And leaving his young friend chuckling, he seized his courage and went in search of General Dreffen.
~ Next Chapter ~
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