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~ Previous Chapter ~
Mouse and Nightriver, just hanging out and having fun. Well, one of them is.
14th Winter Rains
ANOTHER DAWN, ANOTHER drenching. Mouse sighed as he scraped yet another shovel full of snow into the drainage trench. He’d thought the work at Buteo was hard, dull and repetitive when Stirla and Fleik had brought him and his friends as students. It seemed like a life time ago, but it was truly less than a year.
Being here brought back memories of those long days slaving away under the bright sun, cultivating food for the citadel and people of Aquila, followed by evenings spent in study, joking with his friends while trying to stay awake. They’d barely paid attention to Stirla’s lectures about kaz-naghkt and how best to kill them. Why should they have listened when none of them expected to encounter such monsters for years?
How long ago that seemed, how pure and beautiful. Mouse’s missing friends sat like a constant ache in his chest, more persistent than any cold or chill. Of which there were plenty running around their makeshift camp, demanding his attention. If scraping snow into trenches was bad, it was nothing compared to the constant round of treatment and fuss, struggling to divide his pathetic supplies between men who wouldn’t look him in the eye. Gods, he was barely trained as a healer, but he was the best they had.
A point that was constantly reinforced when practically all his fellows avoided him as soon as they’d been treated. If they didn’t need him so badly, Mouse doubted he would still be here.
“I thought you wanted to reach Buteo,” a familiar voice rumbled from the terrace above him. “I thought you would be happy here.”
Mouse tilted his head and eyed Nightriver sideways. “I did want to reach Buteo. I have been happy here.”
Lounging in one of his biggest and most intimidating forms, while apparently soaking up the snow and frost from the ground, the dragon lowered his eyelids lazily. A glittering gleam was all that showed he was still awake. “Ah,” he breathed after a long, thoughtful moment, clearing another stretch of ground with an arrogant sweep of his broad tail. Since it dumped the whole lot onto Mouse’s recently cleared patch of terrace, he was not remotely pleased.
He became even less so when the dragon rumbled, “My poor little Mouse. Your friends are scattered far and wide. I thought you had all you needed here, but I was mistaken.”
Not wishing to discuss his missing friends with anyone, least of all this dragon who felt free to rummage around in his memories whenever he felt like it, Mouse put his head down and scraped violently at the ground. He didn’t want to think of the others or where they might be. He could only hope they were out in the world somewhere, far from Aquila, and not buried in the collapsed tunnels with the rest of the kaz-naghkt meat. Even if it meant they’d forgotten him, he’d much rather they all lived. There had been so much death. He had lost too much. Mouse scraped harder to banish his thoughts.
“You will damage the topsoil if you persist in such a way,” Nightriver warned, groaning as he hefted his bulk up and slithered another body length along his terrace, furrowing a trench with his blunt-ended snout. Water cascaded off him, and not all of it was due to the pounding rain. “Less crops will grow if you continue like that.”
“Who cares?” Mouse snapped, throwing his spade down, finally pushed beyond his limits as more snow was dumped onto his cleared ground. “Who bloody cares when there will be no one here to eat it?”
Nightriver lifted his head and looked back over his shoulder, head tilted curiously. “You are here, Mouse, and your friends also. You cannot exist on dried meat and wizened vegetables forever.”
“We cannot exist here at all,” Mouse muttered, weary and defeated. They had been in Buteo a half-moon and the initial euphoria at being back beneath the open sky had quickly faded. Not least because almost everyone avoided him – except when they needed his healing talents – due to the hulking creature currently washing yet more snow onto his terrace.
“Stop that,” he snapped.
Nightriver swished his fat tail in deliberate provocation.
“I said stop!”
“Make me,” the dragon dared lazily, pushing at the snow bank with his hind leg.
Frustration welled up inside Mouse until he thought he might burst. He balled his fists and glared at Nightriver in impotent rage. When the dragon was this big, Mouse was barely as tall as his head was long. He couldn’t make him do anything – except laugh. Rain battered against his head, and he was surprised it wasn’t steaming he was so angry.
But as quickly as the rage swelled, it drained away, leaving Mouse small, cold and weary in the middle of a hillside of terraces half-filled with snow. “Why bother?” he muttered, picking up his shovel again. “There’s no point to any of it.”
A wave of water poured from the terrace above, washing the snow away for once, as Nightriver shrank his form enough so he could turn around. Sighing, he lowered his down until his glowing green eye was level with Mouse’s gaze. Not that Mouse looked at him, and steadfastly refused to do, as he continued scraping up snow and tossing it into the drainage trench.
“What has happened to my Mouse?” the dragon rumbled. “He would not have accepted defeat so easily.”
“Your Mouse, as you call me, was at his most defeated when he first encountered you,” Mouse retorted. “I couldn’t get any lower. Defeat was a beautiful dream.”
“And yet you are low now,” Nightriver pointed out.
Mouse ignored him.
“Your rage was strong enough to shake the foundations of the citadel,” the dragon murmured dreamily. “It was powerful enough to wake me, when not even the invasion of the kaz-naghkt had succeeded. I felt your need and I answered. My little Mouse was strong then.”
“You little Mouse was broken.”
“And so I fixed you.” Nightriver eyed him speculatively. “Must I break you again to reawaken that strength? By making you whole, did I make you pathetic?”
Finally Mouse turned, glaring at the mocking creature. “I am not pathetic.”
“No,” the dragon agreed. “Even pathetic beasts moan and whine for a purpose. You are merely futile.”
Mouse clenched the shovel, unconsciously shifting his grip as if to swing it.
Nightriver gave a throaty laugh of approval. “Better,” he purred. “Much better. Will you fight me, little Mouse? Will you strike me down for telling the truth.”
“It is not the truth,” Mouse growled. “I am neither pathetic nor futile. Unless you’ve been asleep for the last half-moon you will have seen me working every day, and most of the nights too, to keep my thankless companions alive. They come begging to me, morning, noon, twilight and midnight, wanting herbs and potions for their coughs and colds. They bleat like a flock of sheep, wanting me to help them, while all the while discussing me behind my back and saying how changed I am. Mad, dangerous, reckless. How can I be otherwise with a dragon at my back? They’re scared of me, they want rid of me, and yet they need me still.
“I’m not deaf, nor am I stupid,” Mouse snarled, putting his nose right against the dragon’s. “Don’t you dare call me weak if I chose a pointless task over sitting in the barn with the rest, pretending not to hear them whisper. Don’t call me pathetic if I think our chances are slim, and I work in the rain so as not to see the fear in their eyes when they look at me. Don’t mock me if I no longer hold onto my rage and anger, because I am too tired to care anymore.
“The thaw is coming and with it the kaz-naghkt. How long do you think it will take them to find us? How long will it be until they’ve taken every last one of us? And why should I care? I’ve cared too much and look where it got me.”
Yet the anger was back, filling him so tightly he was shaking with it. All the world had dwindled to the beast before him, who had the audacity to laugh.
“There’s my Mouse,” Nightriver purred, nudging Mouse affectionately and knocking him back several paces.
Stumbling, Mouse tripped over the unevenly scraped ground and fell into the banked snow. The sharp cold bit through his wet clothes and he dropped the shovel he’d been swinging with the intention of braining that blasted dragon. He flopped onto his back instead and laughed at the stupidity of it all.
“Are you well?” Contrary to his earlier levity, Nightriver was now all concern, crawling from his terrace to crouch beside Mouse, nuzzling him worriedly. “Why are you laughing? You were angry. Did you hit your head? Are you concussed?”
That only made Mouse laugh more. Gods, he’d been a miserable article these last few days, nursing his grievances so close to his chest, feeling sorry for himself and whining at Nightriver. Maegla, it was his own head that deserved to be beaten with a shovel. Luckily, a well timed snow bank and a bit of goading had done the job just as well.
True, it wasn’t very nice being treated as he was, but gods, he’d faced worse. Besides, if he’d been on the other side of this dragongift nonsense he might be a bit wary too. At least Silveo, Greig and Haelle were still on his side. Even if Silveo did spend most of his days tramping around the mountain in search of gods knew what, while Greig and Haelle worked on getting her mobile again with only one leg. When he thought of her, and how cheerfully she was accepting her loss, Mouse felt pathetically stupid.
“I’m fine,” he told Nightriver. “Just a bit cold and rather damp.”
The dragon nuzzled him some more. “Foolishness,” he grumbled. “Next you will succumb to one of your human sniffles, and then your friends will be stuck. Who will coddle them then?”
Mouse put his arms about the dragon’s neck and chuckled as he was hauled to his feet. “Not you, I’m thinking, for all you could cure the lot of them with a flex of your claws.”
“Hardly,” Nightriver muttered, nudging Mouse until he climbed onto his back, before the dragon soaked up some more snow to make himself bigger again. “My claws make them nervous. I believe they would faint if I were to flex in their presence. Perhaps I should smile more?”
“No,” Mouse said firmly. “Not if you’re trying to stop them from fainting.”
The dragon sighed and began crawling up the terraces again. “Who knew humans were so delicate? Rift Riders especially. I would think you would be a hardier breed.”
“You’d have thought so,” Mouse murmured, hunching closer to Nightriver’s back and shivering as the cold, rain and emotional reaction caught up with him. “But we’ve grown unused to dragons.”
Nightriver shook his head as they crested the final terrace and ambled towards the nearest cottage. “Unfathomable,” he rumbled. “I would think of all things we were the most memorable. You humans should live longer, perhaps then your memories would not prove so faulty.”
“I’ll put in a request to the Stratys,” Mouse agreed sleepily.
Shouldering his way into the cottage Mouse shared with Silveo, Greig and Haelle, Nightriver gently shrugged his burden onto the rug before the fire and sighed. “See that you do,” he ordered softly, before going in search of one of the few humans who weren’t afraid of him.
~ Next Chapter ~
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