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~ Previous Chapter ~
Romance and reality.
“ARE WE LOST?”
Mouse met Silveo’s eyes over Haelle’s limp body, raising his eyebrows as Lieutenant Imaino drew Rider Rechar to one side during their rest stop. Close by Greig was lying against the tunnel wall, cradling his broken arm, head tipped back, eyes closed. His face was a frown of silent suffering, but it wasn’t his wounds that was hurting him. Mouse looked down at Haelle’s emaciated features and tried not to think.
“I can’t understand how,” Rechar growled. Since he was one of the best trackers in the Riders, not just out of those left at Aquila following the fall, he had every reason to feel disgruntled. “We’ve been following the lights. Not that there’s been any other option. Every other turning we might have taken is blocked.”
Mouse shivered, remembering the falling rocks and the determined voice in his head. They hadn’t spoken since, but Mouse knew it was watching. Leading. Luring them along with those cursed dripping lights.
“We should have reached Buteo by now,” Imaino muttered.
Mouse caught Silveo’s eye again, but his friend just shrugged. It was hard to keep track of the days and nights underground. Here there were no bells to ring out the watches, no sky to provide sunrises, sunsets or stars to follow. No moon to mark the passing months. They were alone in the dark, with only their instincts to guide them.
“It’s a longer road from the lake to the farms,” said Jym, one of the kennel workers, their remaining nakhounds gathered about his feet. “And with the rock falls who knows how long we might be scrabbling about down here.”
Imaino and Rechar exchanged a weary look. They needed encouragement that this plan was going to work, not pessimism.
“Derneon made it through all right,” said Gethyr, another of the regulars. “It just might take us a little extra. We’re not exactly fit, are we?” He self-consciously touched the bandage covering one eye, while others checked their own wounds.
Imaino sighed, perhaps annoyed that his private chat with the Rider had suddenly become public, or maybe he was just tired. They all were. “Then I suppose we’re not lost.”
“I know where we are,” piped up Naelya, hopping across to the main discussion, leaning on Student Rossen’s shoulder.
Everyone looked at her, eyebrows raised in expectation.
She smiled. “Under the mountain, somewhere between Aquila and Buteo.”
Which earned a lot of good-natured groans. Mouse could only shake his head, pleased that the general humour of the group was good enough to put up with such silliness. Then again, maybe a little silliness was what they needed after so many months of grim toil and survival.
Beneath his hands Haelle took a shuddering breath, then another, her body trembling from the force of them. Mouse pressed down on her shoulder and thigh, while Silveo did the same on her other side, forcing her to lie still. The routine was regrettably familiar now, so they worked in silence, not drawing the attention of the others.
Greig lifted his head, saw what they were doing and closed his eyes again. There was a new tightness about his mouth, but keeping Haelle alive was more important for the moment.
“What will we do?” Silveo asked softly, once Haelle had calmed again.
Bring her to me.
Mouse looked at his friend and recognised the hopelessness in his eyes. It was the same he felt inside and glimpsed whenever Greig made eye contact. They’d lost her. They all knew it. There was nothing they could do for her now, just watch and wait and hold her hand.
Time grows short, little Mouse. But the glass is not yet empty. Bring her to me.
Whether the voice wanted to eat her or not was irrelevant now – Haelle was as good as dead.
Hanging his head, he admitted defeat. “All right.”
The glowing on the wall flickered and dimmed as a shudder rippled through the mountain once more. Somewhere deep in the tunnels more rocks groaned and fell.
When the lights returned everyone was braced for disaster. No one dared move or speak.
“We should head on,” Imaino said at last, after no more tremors came.
Come now. Bring her to me.
“Yes.” Mouse stood and handed the stretcher straps to his lieutenant. “We should.”
Decision made, the others swiftly sorted themselves out, gathered their meagre belongings and set out again.
If the lights shone brighter and the way seemed clearer than it had for days, no one seemed to notice. Except Mouse, but then he could hardly fail to miss it when a satisfied purr was thrumming through his mind.
We will meet at last, my little Mouse. Flesh to flesh. Dragongift to Dragongifted. And your friend will live.
“Promises, promises,” he muttered, trudging wearily along in Imaino’s wake, the silent Greig by his side.
Hurry, little Mouse. I grow tired of waiting.
* * *
LATE WINTER IN the Storm Peaks was not a fun time to travel. Standing at the mouth of the high mountain cave they’d been forced to shelter in, Lyrai ruffled excess water from his hair and stared out at the drowning landscape beyond. Grey rain dragged across his vision in misty curtains, a ghostly gloom beneath the black clouds scowling above. Thunder growled around the jagged peaks, like a wolf pack circling trapped prey.
Lightning fizzed across the valley and Lyrai shivered, barely able to believe he’d been flying through that just moments before.
“On a day like today it’s hard to imagine why they call this place the Storm Peaks.”
Lyrai turned and smiled as Mhysra sidled up to him, her damp curls flattened against her head. They’d only been in the air for a few miles before they hit this storm, but it had been enough for them all to get thoroughly soaked.
He lifted an arm in invitation and cuddled her close. For warmth, of course. They both glanced over their shoulders to check that everyone else was busy before Lyrai drew her into a shallow pocket of the cave wall just inside the entrance.
“Good morning, Mhysra,” he murmured, easing her back against the rocks and pressing a butterfly kiss to her nose.
“Good morning, Lyrai,” she replied, tipping her face up for a proper kiss.
Despite everyone being aware of the change in their relationship, and the fact that he took every opportunity to sit beside her, touch her or take her in his arms, he could still count the number of kisses they’d shared on one hand. With a couple of fingers to spare. Mhysra was shy and he’d never been an exhibitionist, so finding time away from the others was proving difficult. Which was why he had to make the best of what he could get.
It started sweetly, as all their kisses did. A brief brush of lips, a sharing of breath. Then he had to taste her smile. Before long his hands were buried in her sodden curls, while her own were warming themselves on his back, splayed hungrily across the muscles beneath his shirt.
“Where, oh, where could she possibly be?” Corin’s sing-song voice interrupted their reverie from not quite far enough away.
“When you find her,” Honra called from deeper in the caves, “ask if she’s seen Lyrai. He seems to be missing too.”
“Fancy that, Skybreeze. What in the Overworld could they possibly be up to? All this time alone. Together. I do hope we don’t interrupt anything.”
Reluctantly, Lyrai eased his grip on her hair and freed his lips from hers, though he wasn’t quite ready to pull away yet. Pressing kisses along her jaw, he murmured in her ear, “Chance would be a fine thing.”
Mhysra snickered, sliding her hands out from beneath his shirt with a teasing caress. “She’s just disappointed we haven’t given her an eyeful yet.” Her hand slid downwards and squeezed. “You do have a very fine a – ah!” She arched in to him with a gasp as he bit her ear in retaliation.
“Behave,” he warned, pulling her hand away and stepping out of reach.
“Spoilsport,” she grumbled.
Unable to resist her pout, he swooped in for one last quick kiss before spinning her around and shoving her out into the main cavern. “Until next time, milady.”
She stumbled into Corin. While they were distracted trying to keep their balance without dropping Skybreeze, Lyrai slipped past them and returned to the cave.
Honra awaited him, wearing a knowing smile. “Keeping an eye on the storm, were you?”
“And getting a good feel for it too.” Lyrai couldn’t help but grin. Impossible to imagine that less than a moon ago he would have never considered kissing his student in a thousand years. But things were different now. Mhysra was different; he was different. Life didn’t seem so grim anymore. Even if they were taking things slowly. “You wanted me for something?”
Chuckling, his fellow lieutenant shook his head. “I did. I promise I wasn’t just trying to spoil your fun.”
“We have Corin for that,” Lyrai grumbled, glancing at two girls wandering past. Corin shot him a lewd wink, while Mhysra hunched over in embarrassment. Where once he might have taken offence at the teasing, now he smiled. All this travelling was good for him. His old friends would hardly recognise him.
Honra watched the by-play with a smile. “She’s good for you.”
“I know.” It was a truth he had no intention of denying.
“And she’s of your class. Your mother would approve.”
Lyrai raised an eyebrow. “Putting the boat before the bullwing, aren’t you?”
“We are heading back to Nimbys,” Honra reminded him. “In a round about way. You remember what happened the last time we were there. You know how these things get. Rumour is powerful, as is ambition. Don’t forget that she’s a lady, Lyrai, for all that she’s also a Rider.”
Lyrai grimaced at the reminder. “She’s too young for marriage.”
“She’s eighteen, Lyrai. Plenty of nobles marry their daughters off younger than that. And, for all that you’re a Rider yourself, you’d make a fine catch.”
He felt sick at the prospect. Not of marrying Mhysra, though he found the idea of marrying anyone just yet faintly ludicrous. No, what made him nauseas was the prospect of returning to Nimbys and being paraded on the marriage mart. He’d avoided it last time, mostly thanks to his brother’s betrothal, but if word got out about his relationship with Mhysra he knew that would swiftly change.
“Gods.” He cradled his head in his hands, wishing Honra had never started this conversation. “I’ll talk to her.”
“Gently,” his friend advised. “It’s even less her fault than it would be yours.”
He nodded, though his mind was still busy with other things. Like how to avoid returning to the city of his father. Perhaps he could entice Captain Myran into meeting them all off-shore? That would cut down on potential dragon problems.
“Lyrai?” Honra snapped his fingers in front of his eyes, the impatience in his tone hinting that he’d been trying to attract his attention for a while. “Glad as I am that you’re thinking things through at last, I wanted to talk to you about something else.”
“Oh.” Lyrai rubbed his forehead and tried to push this newest tangle of problems to the back of his mind. They had plenty of other things to deal with before they turned for Nimbys. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, specifically.” Honra sighed, then pulled out their precious maps of the Storm Peaks from their protective waxed envelopes. “Or not yet anyway, but it’s time we started thinking about transport and accommodation. You’ve been here as many times as I have. Where do you think we should charter a skyship from? And how likely is it that we’ll find someone willing to take us to Sanctuary without much profit to show for it.”
With three dragons on board, one of which wasn’t able to shift to anything below thirty feet in length, not to mention the two dragonets and the overlarge vulardi, Lyrai couldn’t blame his fellow officer for thinking about this now. True, they were barely half way across the Storm Peaks, but with such an impossible task ahead of them they could plan for ten times as long and still not come up with any answers.
“I think we’re going to need a miracle,” he answered honestly.
Honra raised his eyebrows; Lyrai grinned. “Dhori,” they both called, and waited for the silver-eyed student to join them.
~ Next Chapter ~
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