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~ Previous Chapter ~
Stirla’s day is showing no signs of improvement, but at least Mouse has a voice in his head to talk to.
MOUSE WAS WORRIED. Well, no, he’d been worried every day since the pirates first arrived in the cove before Aquila. He was used to being worried and had learned how best to live with it. This was more than that. He was terrified.
Sitting in the gloom of the tunnels, listening to his comrades sleeping around him, Mouse hunched beside Haelle and knew he was losing her.
In the low light from the glowing walls, he could see the glistening beads of sweat that covered her face, darkening her fair hair and leaving marks on her clothes. The fever had her firmly in its grip now and he doubted it would ever let go.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, rocking as he sat beside her, racking his exhausted brain for something he hadn’t yet tried. But there was nothing. Everything he could have done he had, testing each of the pastes and potions Nehtl had left in his medicine kit. He’d even run through the dried herbs, knowing they would be useless, old and decayed as they were, but desperate enough not to care.
He was losing her. The ruin of her leg was dragging the rest of her body down and she was too weak for him to dare amputate now. He should have done it days ago, but he’d been so uncertain, so afraid, and now he was losing her anyway.
“I’m sorry, so sorry.”
Voices murmured from the other side of the sleeping bodies of their group as the sentries changed, but Mouse didn’t listen. He didn’t care. They didn’t need him. Haelle did, desperately, but he couldn’t help her. He’d failed again.
What are you squeaking about, little Mouse? rumbled a familiar voice inside his head, stopping by for its daily check in. What is there to be so sad about in the darkness?
“I’m a failure,” Mouse mumbled, lifting Haelle’s damp hand and feeling for her rapid pulse. “I’m losing her. Just like I lost the others. I’m not strong enough to hold them.”
You should bring her to the lake. Bring her to me.
Mouse shuddered. “I will not provide meals for you from among my friends.”
A deep chuckle rippled through his mind, apparently taking no offence. Why would I eat the friends of my Mouse? They are too small to satisfy me.
Mouse was neither amused nor reassured by that. He just shook his head, unable to think past his grief.
Bring her, Morri. Bring her to the lake. Bring her to me.
All the waters of Aquila belong to me. Liquid flows at my command. I can sift the fever from her blood. Bring her to me.
“No,” Mouse said again, unable to believe such a thing was possible. Especially from a monster. “You’re only after a meal.”
I have fed plenty, his unseen companion replied, a little shortly. I have no need of diseased flesh. Though I will take off that leg while I am there. It does her no good to keep it.
“I won’t let you eat her.”
Then bring her here and stop me. Lest I should find my way to you. Roaming about makes me hungry, Morri, and diseased flesh is not all that walks with you.
“You go too far,” Mouse hissed, shaking with fear and rage, unable to believe he was being threatened by the same creature that was promising to heal his friend. “How can I trust you?”
Because you can no longer trust yourself, came the soft reply. And there are no more choices left.
“I cannot move her so far,” Mouse insisted stubbornly, not wanting to admit the truth of what the voice was saying. “She’ll die long before I reach you.”
You’ll find me closer than you think.
Before Mouse could ask what it meant by that a deep groan shuddered through the tunnel, carrying with it the distant sound of falling rocks. The lights on the wall flickered and faded, then glowed again, brighter than before.
Further rumbles sounded in the deep, but Haelle grew fretful and Mouse had no time to wonder as he tried to force some of their precious water past her lips. A tough task and largely futile, but he hoped that at least some of it had made it past the rigid line of her teeth.
“How goes it?”
Mouse looked up as Imaino crouched beside him, the lieutenant woken by the activity under the mountain. “Not good,” he admitted, dipping a rag in the remaining water and using it to wipe Haelle’s face and neck. “I’m losing her.”
Imaino gripped his shoulder in support. “We can do nothing for her here. Pack up, Mouse. With all this shuddering and shaking I think it’s best to move as swiftly as possible. The sooner we reach Buteo, the better.”
He went to wake up the others, while Mouse hurriedly gathered his things and did what little he could to make Haelle comfortable for the journey ahead. As he worked he couldn’t help thinking, over and over, What are you up to? But for once the voice in his head remained silent. The only way to find out was to step into the dark, and trust that nothing bad awaited.
* * *
“EH, FRA CANLEN, as I live and breathe. Never expected to see you here again, boy.”
Stirla exchanged a glance with Neryth as a podgy, middle-aged Westerner toddled out from behind the service desk. Planting his meaty fists on his hips, he looked Derrain up, up, up and down and shook his grey-grizzled head.
“I heard you copped a fly and got yourself some fancy high friends.” He eyed Derrain’s companions and grinned. “Don’t the air get a bit chilly up there? Hope you ain’t let it get to your head. Never was much there to miss, but it’d be a shame to freeze it out altogether.”
Derrain rolled his eyes and laughed. “Charming as always, fra Koyl. Nice to see that some things in the West neither weather nor change.” Stepping closer to the older man, he tilted his head and lowered his voice. “Felt the fresh breeze this morning? Read the tidings on the winds?”
“Aye, aye, and the sun’ll come out of the north in the morning.” Without warning the two men embraced, the grizzled shopkeeper almost lost beyond the broad shoulders of the younger man, though his rotund sides were still quite visible.
“Bones of the beast, boy, where you bin?” he demanded, letting Derrain go and slapping his shoulders. “I’ve heard all kinds of fanciful nonsense these last few moons. I was starting to think you’d corked it, or maybe just gone walking on the Cloud Sea. So many rumours and ill tides. Business is bad, boy. Bad, bad, bad. What have you and your fancy friends been up to? Should have known the world would end once they let you in. Don’t any of them know better than to let a sky-rat like you into the rigging?”
As Derrain laughed again and the two old friends began trading gossip, Stirla turned to see if Neryth was keeping up.
The princess was watching the conversation with fascination. Noticing she had Stirla’s attention, she murmured, “Is it me or are the talking a completely different language?”
“Skysailors,” Stirla chuckled, which was explanation enough, and looked around the shop. He’d never been to this part of Kirihte before. Since he’d always flown in on miryhl back, heading straight for the eyries on the cliffs above the town, he’d never had cause to come down to the docks. Certainly not to shop and never to poke through the warehouses.
The place Derrain had brought them to looked like a warehouse from the outside, but inside was a different story. In fact on first glance Stirla might almost have mistaken it for a library, except that instead of books the shelves were rammed with clothes. Starting with boots and footwear on the lowest levels, rising through breeches and trousers, then shirts, jerkins and tunics, coats and jackets, all the way up to scarves and hats. And that was just the bits Stirla could see as he entered.
From what he could tell the tall stacks extended in long rows both left and right, while behind the service counter were rails and rails of yet more clothes. No doubt there were a few other items to be found amongst all this too, if one was intrepid enough to go exploring.
Personally, Stirla would have been happy enough to give the proprietor a list and let him get on with it, but from the look of wide-eyed wonder on Neryth’s face as she stared around at the potential treasures lurking on the shelves, he realised his chances of a quick escape were growing slimmer by the moment.
He sighed. This afternoon just kept getting longer.
~ Next Chapter ~
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