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~ Previous Chapter ~
Derry in the Deeps.
TWO DAYS AFTER arriving in the Heighlen Range, Derrain doubted he’d ever been so cold. The month was more than living up to its name, as he paced restlessly around their camp in the gloomy pre-dawn light, slapping his fleece-lined gloves together and breathing through the wool of his scarf. He had no idea how the miryhls were coping, but they did look fluffier than usual.
On the other side of the fire, Stirla was obsessively checking his maps and searching the surrounding peaks for familiar landmarks, while absently giving Neryth a lesson in cooking. It was difficult to say whether the princess’ attempts were improving, or if the worsening conditions had made them too hungry to care.
“Where are you from, Derry?” Stirla asked, putting aside his maps for a moment in order to replace the sugar pot in Neryth’s hand with the salt.
“Kevian,” he mumbled, voice distorted by the layers over his face.
“Really?” Neryth looked up, eyebrows raised. “Then aren’t you used to the cold?”
“Yes,” Derrain agreed. “I was also a skysailor for twelve years.”
Stirla rolled his eyes and returned to his maps. “Then why are you making such a fuss?”
“Because I’m used to being too busy to feel my fingers falling off,” Derrain growled, remembering with fondness the number of times he’d scurried about the rigging, flexing his fingers to dislodge the ice that had formed across his knuckles. Or sucking his fingers after a shift on deck in an ice storm, trying to restore feeling where his fingerless gloves hadn’t provided protection. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d slipped on an icy deck, saving himself from going over the rails with a last minute grab. Yes, he was used to the cold and all its hazards, but he wasn’t used to being idle. Plus winter in the Heighlen was something else.
“Go see to the miryhls then,” Stirla said. “We’re almost done here.” Folding his maps, he nudged Neryth aside and pulled the pot off the fire, prodding its contents dubiously with a wooden spoon.
Unwilling to go through the torment of being this morning’s taster, Derrain ducked into the shelter they’d rigged up to keep the worst of the wind away from the miryhls.
“She’s burnt the doelyn again,” Atyrn greeted, lifting her head so Derrain could walk past her.
“Great,” Derrain grumbled. He’d almost forgotten the taste of uncharred meat.
“The potatoes smell all right, though,” Zephyr consoled him, ruffling her feathers as he pulled off his gloves with his teeth and buried his hands beneath the warmth of her wings. “Brr. You’re cold this morning.” Though it was a complaint, she used her beak to tuck him closer. Just one of the many reasons why he loved her.
“It’s the wind. Nasty.”
“We’re in the Deeps,” Birch muttered, almost too softly to be heard. He was still struggling with the idea of talking to humans other than his Rider, but clearly couldn’t help himself at times. Especially when it came to showing off his knowledge. “The lowest part of the Heighlens, where the peaks form a natural bowl with only two passes out, one at either end. The worst weather gets trapped in here, making it colder, windier and more unpleasant than anywhere else.”
“Lovely.” Derrain was starting to wish he hadn’t got out of his bedroll this morning. “How long will we have this delightful weather then?”
“Five days, maybe as much as eight, depending on which way the wind blows.”
“Or four, if it should blow hard in our favour,” Atyrn corrected, no happier with Birch’s unrelenting pessimism than Derrain was. “You can never tell with the Deeps.”
Feeling worse and worse, Derrain rested his head against Zephyr’s wing and sighed. “I thought the journey across from Kevian would be the worst we’d face for a while.” Two days and a night of wide open Cloud Sea, with nothing to shelter or hide behind. The tricky, unpredictable winds had made them lose track of Birch and Neryth more than once. Still, at least it hadn’t snowed. Or rained. Or sleeted. Maybe there were kind gods out there after all.
All three miryhls snorted, the two older ones shaking their heads. “Poor Derry,” Atyrn crooned. “You have so much to learn.”
“Can’t wait,” he grumbled. “Crossing the Heighlens in the Storm Season was hard enough.”
“It was,” Birch agreed. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t get worse.”
“Cheerful as always.” Stirla shoved his way through the flap, bringing a steaming bowl with him. “Eat up, Derry. If all this optimism doesn’t give you indigestion, tack up after, would you? We’ll break down the camp.”
Derrain eyed the warm broth worriedly. “Is it edible?”
“It’s warm. And not all of it’s burnt.” Stirla shrugged and vanished through the flap again.
In terms of Neryth’s cookery skills that was practically praise. Derrain tucked in, welcoming the inner warmth. Who knew when he’d eat his next hot meal? He swallowed the first spoonful with a pondering tilt of his head, and chuckled to see the miryhls watching him expectantly.
“Better than yesterday,” he announced, spooning up some more.
“Yesterday she got distracted and charred the pheasant to a crisp,” Atyrn reminded him. “You had to sprinkle the results on your trail biscuits.” It had worked surprisingly well, but then not much could make trail biscuits taste worse.
Smiling, Derrain scooped out a lump of potato and enjoyed the heat of it, taking away a little of his chill. “Stirla might make a Rider cook out of her yet.”
Birch snorted. “High praise indeed.” After all, a Rift Rider cook had to be the one member of the flurry who wouldn’t poison the rest.
“She’ll get there,” Derrain said, licking the last of his breakfast off his spoon. It could have been worse, and he was starting to like the taste of charcoal.
“We all will,” Zephyr agreed. “Eventually.”
“Well, she’ll have plenty of time to practise before we reach Nimbys,” Birch agreed.
“I doubt Stirla will put up with her for that long,” Atyrn predicted. “Such strapping boys as you two need a proper meal on occasion or you’ll fall out of the saddle.”
“Which is something to look forward to,” Derrain chuckled, and started sorting out bridles from the tangle on the ground. “Hopefully not today, though. I think we’ve all got more than enough to be dealing with without adding that.”
The miryhls grunted their assent and settled down to conserve as much heat as possible before being forced to face the elements once again.
* * *
IT WAS A lonely time, sitting in the darkness by the edge of the lake. All alone. Mouse toyed with the woodpile Nightriver had collected for him, adding the bare minimum he needed to keep his little fire alive. Though it was dark and eerie beside the lake, he didn’t feel cold. Perhaps it was because the last time he was here he’d been so very, very cold. Now it hardly seemed to touch him.
Like the water. Several times he’d tried to fill his canteen in the lake or wash his face, but the water simply moved away from him. Once he would have found that strange, possibly even scary, but Mouse was beyond being scared. All that mattered to him were his friends, who had vanished into the dark depths and had yet to return.
“The lake will take care of them.”
He didn’t even twitch as the voice rippled out of the dark. Not even when Nightriver padded across to sit beside him. The dragon had changed again. He was still small, barely longer than Mouse was tall, but the elongated snout full of teeth had changed. It was snubbed now and slightly rounded, with enough of a lip to hide the sharp weapons within. He would never look human, but Mouse appreciated the effort.
“They are mending.”
Mouse threw a handful of twigs on the fire. “Was I in there this long?”
“Longer,” his companion rumbled, the emotion in his voice causing rocks to fall in the far-off dark. “There was much more work on you to do and I was out of practice. Your friends are broken on the surface, you were shaken in the mind.”
He couldn’t argue with that, though shaken seemed a curiously polite way of putting it. “Why didn’t you fix my limp?”
Nightriver hummed beside him, as if deciding what to say.
“Tell me the truth,” Mouse demanded.
The dragon sighed. “I did not fix it because it is part of you now, though most of it remains in your mind. Oh,” he continued when Mouse would have interrupted, “there is still some damage to the muscles, but it is all but healed now and will continue to get better. I could do little to help that along. The rest is in your head. Your thoughts are a tangle of confusion, my little Mouse, but I always did like a challenge.”
Uncertain how to respond to that, Mouse frowned, not liking the possibility that his limp might be his own doing, or that it had become such an important part of who he was now. So he said nothing, just sat in silence, pondering.
“I have upset you.”
“Not really,” Mouse murmured, and to his surprise it was the truth. He wasn’t happy thinking that he was to blame for his limp, but it didn’t upset him. It made sense. The person he had become after his fall from his miryhl was far different to the one he would have been without it. On reflection he preferred who he was now to who he could have been. He wouldn’t have changed his time with Nehtl for all the Overworld, except to have kept him alive through Willym’s torment.
A new thought occurred. “What about Haelle? Can you heal her leg?”
Nightriver shifted his weight, sighed and shook his heavy head. “I cannot put back what is already dead,” he admitted sadly. “I can only stop the infection from spreading.”
“She is strong. A fighter. She will adapt.”
Mouse could only hope so, for Greig’s sake as well as her own. He knew she was a fighter – how else would she have survived this long? – but that didn’t mean she would know how to fight this new battle. “She will need help.”
They sat in a surprisingly peaceful silence, Mouse lost in his own thoughts. Then the fire snapped, making him blink. “What about the others? When will they return?”
“Soon,” Nightriver hummed, getting up and wading towards the water. “Yes, soon. The silvery one, at least. He had only broken bones to mend. The other will take longer.” He slipped into the water and vanished without a ripple.
“Great,” Mouse sighed, tossing more wood onto the fire, wondering how soon was soon and how he could tell in the unrelenting dark.
“Soon is now.” The words dropped into his mind like pebbles in a deep pool.
The surface of the lake heaved and Mouse jumped to his feet, racing down to the shore as a familiar head of pale hair bobbed into view.
“Silveo.” He knelt in the shallows, not caring that the water still flowed away from him. All that mattered was that his friend needed to get out of the lake as swiftly as possible.
This time Mouse didn’t hesitate to put his hands beneath his friend’s arms and haul backwards, dragging him out of the shallows and up the small slope to the fire. Making sure Silveo was lying safely on his side, Mouse hurriedly built up the blaze.
Then he knelt beside him and tapped his pallid cheek. “Silveo,” he called. “Silveo, it’s me, Mouse. Wake up.”
It took a few moments, but eventually Silveo stirred, eyelids fluttering as he stared at the fire in dazed confusion. Then he looked up, grey eyes slowly focusing. “Mouse.” He smiled.
“Welcome back, Silveo,” Mouse said, almost too choked up to speak.
“Am I… dead?” his friend asked, voice hoarse.
“No.” Mouse shook his head, unable to stop smiling as he ran his hands down Silveo’s legs and arms, across his ribs and down the back of his neck, searching for the breaks he’d been so horrified to discover before. “No, my friend, you’re healed.” He laughed in delighted disbelief as Silveo raised the arm that had been a smashed pulp not so long ago, using it to push his damp hair off his forehead. “You’re completely healed.”
“Oh.” Silveo blinked dazedly. “Good.” He smiled again and fell back to sleep.
Mouse didn’t mind, he simply pulled a blanket from his stockpile of salvaged items and made sure his friend was properly covered. He wasn’t alone anymore. “Thank you,” he whispered to the lake and Nightriver, wishing there was a better way to convey his gratitude.
The surface of the lake bubbled. “You are welcome, little Mouse.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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