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Catching up with Mouse and co.
Kiss and Tell
“WHAT’S GOING ON, MOUSE?”
Finding himself the focus of his three friends, Mouse shifted uncomfortably. An action he could be forgiven for, since the floor of the tunnel was littered with debris, both sharp and soft. At his back Nightriver hummed happily as he dug through a rock fall with ease. As well he might, since he’d been responsible for all of them. This was the third they’d encountered today, yet they could still hear the sounds of their friends struggling in the distance to reach them.
Everything was turned around underground. Or so Nightriver said. He would know.
Smiling at the thought, Mouse forced himself to meet each of his friends’ eyes in turn, his amusement fading. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Where Nightriver’s concerned I honestly don’t know anything.”
“Nightriver,” Haelle murmured, rubbing the stump of her amputated leg and staring at the digging dragon. “It suits him.”
She’d get no argument from Mouse there.
Greig followed her gaze, then took her hand away from her leg, linking their fingers together. “How did you meet him? Where did he come from? What is he?”
The scrabbling paused. “I am a dragon,” came a muffled reply from the mountain beside them. “A dragongift dragon. Don’t interrogate my little Mouse – he knows no more than you.” The digging resumed.
The three friends frowned and Mouse shrugged. “He found me. After W-W-Willym,” he stammered, hating himself for the weakness. “After Nehtl d-died, I was angry. So very angry.”
The digging had stopped again and a comforting paw, with surprisingly soft pads between a wicked fist of claws, patted his shoulder. “I felt it,” Nightriver rumbled. “Down in my lake, in the depths of my sleep, his anger called me. A strong, pure note in the symphony of Aquila. It had fallen out of rhythm, but I had not noticed. Until my little Mouse woke me with his rage, his pain, his grief.” He patted Mouse’s shoulder again. “And so I stirred.”
Silveo was still frowning, but thoughtfully now. “Dragongift,” he murmured. “Like the globes.”
Nightriver blinked his large, luminous eyes and practised his new smile – one that didn’t reveal quite so many teeth. In his almost human-sized form it worked surprisingly well. No one recoiled, at least, but that might have been because they’d grown used to having a sharp-toothed, strangely-behaved dragon around.
“The globes are indeed dragongifts, like miryhls and nakhounds, and the other flying beasts, but I and my kind are the epitome of the art,” Nightriver said, a little smugly. “And little Mouse is my dragongifted.”
It was Silveo’s turn to blink, his eyes growing wide. “Like a Wingborn?”
Nightriver wrinkled his snubbed nose. “A poor comparison, but it will serve for now.” He turned to smile at Mouse, who was stunned speechless. “We have yet to go through any formal bonding ceremony, but I believe we are as bound as any dragongift and -gifted. How could we not be when he woke me and I healed him? Blood and promises.”
“Gods,” Silveo and Greig muttered.
Beside them, Haelle smiled. “As you healed us, Nightriver. I haven’t thanked you yet.”
To Mouse’s further surprise the dragon ducked his head, suddenly bashful. “There is no need for thanks,” he said gruffly. “You are friends of my Mouse. I could not let you suffer when it would bring him further pain. You are also Rift Riders of Aquila. My first role, long ago, was to protect you. That is why my lake was placed here, to come to Aquila’s defence if it should ever be in need.”
Mouse winced as his friends all scowled.
Nightriver scuffed his claws in the dirt. “I realise to you it must seem that I failed. After all Aquila is now in the hands of your enemies and many lives have been lost. Aquila was in need, great need, and I was nowhere. I was not woken. That alone should tell you something.”
The four students looked at the dragon with varying expressions of confusion and anger. Nightriver nodded to each of them before resting his dark gaze upon Mouse.
“The days may have darkened, but there is hope yet.” A spark ignited deep in his eyes, growing brighter with every word. “I have woken, my little friends, which can mean only one thing: Aquila has need of me. The war is not over yet.”
Laughing, the dragon returned to his digging, humming more happily than ever. “Prepare to be reunited with your friends, little Mouse,” he called through the rock. “And think of what news you will have to tell them.”
There was a sharp crack, then a deep silence. Mouse shared a look with his friends. When the shouts and swearing began, he scrambled in Nightriver’s wake.
“It’s all right!” he shouted, half-running, half-crawling through the space the dragon had made. “It’s all right! He’s a friend.” Intent on getting out and reassuring everyone that the dragon wasn’t a threat, Mouse failed to notice the drop ahead. Yelping, his hands scrabbled at empty air and he tumbled head-first down a very rocky, very unstable slope.
Something firm and familiar reached out and pinned him to a stop, just as his nose bumped against someone’s boot. Groaning, he raised his head, spitting off to the side and wiping further dust and stones from his teeth. Then he looked up into the astonished eyes of his lieutenant.
“Morning, sir,” he coughed, as a claw-tipped paw hauled him upright by his shirt. “Good to see you again.”
Imaino blinked and looked up the slope as Silveo, Greig and Haelle appeared, peering down at them. They waved sheepishly.
The lieutenant rubbed his forehead. “What’s going on, Mouse?”
Sighing at his least favourite question in the world, Mouse rested his head against Nightriver’s shoulder. “Who knows, sir? Except he’s on our side.”
Imaino eyed him with disfavour and studied Nightriver with wary curiosity. “Unless there are more of them out there, Mouse, your friend appears to have shrunk.”
Nightriver rumbled in annoyance, deep enough to make the mountain shiver. “I was trying to be discreet,” the dragon muttered. “Since you took such an exception to me last time.”
The lieutenant, already pale from the fresh tremor, stumbled back, hands reaching for his sword. “Mouse,” he barked. “Explain.”
Too tired to be afraid, and knowing Nightriver wouldn’t allow anyone to get hurt, Mouse shook his head. “Can it wait?” he asked. “Only Nightriver says we’re not far from Buteo now, and I would like to see the sky again before I turn grey.”
Flexing his fingers on his sword hilt, but leaving his weapon sheathed, Imaino ran a hand through his own hair and ruffled the dust from it. “Underneath all this muck I think I already have,” he grumbled, with a hint of humour. “All right, Mouse, we’ll save it for later. Just tell me one thing, is your friend dangerous?”
Nightriver smiled his old smile, the one with all the teeth, causing Imaino to draw his sword. “Oh yes, lieutenant, I most certainly am.” When Mouse elbowed him sharply, the dragon chuckled. “But not to you. I save my darkest behaviour for the enemies of Aquila. And of my little Mouse,” he added, looking at him with an unfathomable expression in his glowing eyes.
“All right,” Imaino said slowly, reluctantly sheathing his blade. “To Buteo. Explanations can wait.” When Mouse exhaled heavily in relief, his lieutenant fixed him with a steely glare. “But only until Buteo. Once there I want to know everything.”
Helping Greig with Haelle, Silveo slithered down the slope with a laugh. “We all want that, sir. Mouse most of all, I think.”
Watching the three boys lift Haelle onto the dragon’s back, arranging her good leg and her new stump until she was comfortable, the lieutenant gave a wry smile. “I can see there’s more going on here than I understand.”
“That goes for all of us, sir,” Mouse said apologetically.
“Apart from me,” Nightriver rumbled, padding slowly forward so as not to unseat Haelle. “I understand everything.”
“You would,” Mouse grumbled, but not as bitterly as he once might have. Instead he put a hand on his dragongift’s shoulder and walked confidently with him into the gloom.
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