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~ Previous Chapter ~
Finally, the voice has a name.
IT HAD TAKEN two days, and Mouse still wasn’t entirely happy with everything. Yes, the extra time had given his wounded more time to heal and speed up their walking, but it had also given him more time to fret. He’d strapped Haelle’s bad ankle up as best he’d could, but there was nothing he could do for her shattered leg. Part of him wondered if she wouldn’t be better off without it, but he didn’t have the confidence to amputate. All he could do was splint it firmly and keep a close eye in case of infection. He knew it wouldn’t be long before gangrene set in, but until it did, he didn’t want to cause his friend more pain than he had to.
Which was why he hated all of this. The stretcher Greig and Silveo had devised was little more than a bedroll attached to two poles, with Haelle slotted in between two blankets. She’d laughed and joked with the others as she’d wriggled and slithered herself into place, but Mouse heard the gasps she couldn’t hide. He saw the strain on her face and recognised the despairing glint in her eyes. He’d been through it all himself – the only difference being he could still walk.
“Everyone ready?” Imaino asked, doing a last check, ensuring all those with limps either had someone to lean on, or a stout stick, while ensuring the weaker ones were kept where others could see them, should they keel over without a sound. “Mouse?”
Meeting his lieutenant’s eye, knowing that as their chief healer it was his duty to sign the others off as fit to be moved, Mouse bit his lip. He really didn’t want Haelle to be carried like this. Nor was he particularly happy with the way Bhern was healing from his bump on the head. The constant dizzy spells were a worry, but there was nothing he could do about it. Silveo and Greig had fixed up a couple of spare stretchers in case they were needed, though Gods only knew who would carry them.
Despite all of that they couldn’t stay here either. Things were stirring on the mountainside and there were kaz-naghkt in the air. They had to move, and Buteo was as good a place as any. So he nodded slowly, wearily, full of the knowledge that he made a lousy healer.
“Then let’s move out.” Imaino squeezed Mouse’s shoulder in passing, before he and Rider Rechar lifted Haelle’s stretcher and took the lead. That way their pace would be dictated by the weakest of them all, not that Mouse could count on Haelle speaking up when the pain grew really bad. She was entirely too good at suffering in silence.
Which is why he urged Greig into the spot directly behind the Riders. Not that Greig needed any persuading to keep Haelle in sight.
Slowly but surely, the rest of their ragged band fell into step behind them, with Silveo at the rear to deal with any stragglers. They were a melancholy bunch, making no more noise than the shuffles of their feet and the occasional pained gasp. Mouse couldn’t blame them. There was something disheartening about the fact that they were leaving Aquila behind. It was almost like admitting their surrender, even without the enemy being present.
So many had passed under the mountain before them, so many had left. Even more had been left behind. No, Mouse didn’t blame anyone for their silence, as he hitched his precious bag of supplies higher on his shoulder and leant more firmly on his walking stick. Whether it was a surrender or not, his role didn’t change. He had thirteen people to take care of, thirteen lives resting in his hands, with possibly more awaiting him at the other end of the tunnel. That was enough for anyone to be getting on with.
No surrender, Morri.
He shuddered at the touch of that dark voice, which seemed no fainter for all the distance he’d put between himself and that lake far beneath the mountain.
In the dark the brave need not walk alone.
He frowned at the whisper, but still said nothing. After their last encounter there was little he wished to say.
The dark voice chuckled. Walk on, brave Morri. I will guard your back. I will guard all your backs. This lake is mine. This river is mine. These falls are mine. All the waters of Aquila belong to me.
“Who are you?” Mouse thought the question for the first time, even as the connection between them grew stronger, leaving dreaming behind and venturing into the light of day.
I am Nightriver. Guardian of Aquila.
Mouse frowned, thinking Nightriver was a spectacular failure.
And you are my dragongifted.
Which made them quite the pair. Whatever dragongifted meant.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Not yet, Nightriver agreed in its smoky dark voice. But you will, now that I have woken. See you in the water, Morri.
“My name is Mouse,” he muttered automatically, as sensations of cold and wet trickled through his mind.
“Are you all right?” Greig asked, as Mouse shuddered all over.
“Fine,” he mumbled, gripping his staff, suddenly aware of how damp the walls were in the pallid light of their last glow globe. “Just wishing we had more light, that’s all.”
“Hey!” Imaino turned the corner up ahead and laughed. “Mouse, Greig, come and get a look at this.”
Reluctantly, Mouse followed Greig in sidling past Haelle’s stretcher, who gave them a weak smile in passing, and almost ploughed into Greig’s back as he came to a sharp, sudden halt.
“Maegla,” his friend breathed, staring wide-eyed at the pale green glow coming from the tunnel walls.
Somehow Mouse didn’t think the Storm Goddess had much to do with it, as he limped to the nearest trickle of light and dipped his finger in the dampness.
Looking up, the glow stretched as far down the tunnel as he could see. It wasn’t bright, but it was enough to guide them through the darkness. He stared at his glowing fingertips and swallowed hard, wondering what he’d got caught up in this time.
In the back of his mind a deep chuckle rolled. You’re welcome… Mouse.
~ Next Chapter ~
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