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~ Previous Chapter ~
Flying is fun!
On board the Steadfast
30th Winter Rains
HE’D MISSED THIS. Six days out of Ihra and Derrain was back on Zephyr again. He couldn’t believe that after all the flying and travelling they’d done over recent moons, a mere six days onboard a skyship was enough to make him miss his wings.
Smiling, he ran his hands through her neck feathers making her purr with contentment as she fanned out her flight feathers and they soared into the crisp afternoon air. The wind was brisk and sharp, ruffling feathers and clothes, but neither Zephyr or Derrain cared.
Behind them, the squat hulled bulk of the Steadfast bumbled quietly along, emerging from a fog bank, while ahead another clump of weather awaited.
“Looks like rain again,” Zephyr called, as they dipped along the air currents before sweeping high. The clouds in front of them rose even higher, turning the sky grey.
Derrain had never believed he could have learned to miss snow, but the prospect of another drenching didn’t fill him with joy either. “Let’s go back.”
Zephyr double-flapped her assent, before tucking in her wings and diving towards the Steadfast. Derrain’s heart pounded as the wind roared in his ears, dragging tears from his eyes as he tucked himself as tightly as possible against his miryhl’s back.
A dark shape raced up towards them, setting a head-on collision course. Derrain’s thundering heart stopped, until he recognised Atyrn and Stirla. Then it began pounding even faster.
Neither Zephyr nor Atyrn showed any signs of yielding as they held their line, Stirla tucked tight on his miryhl’s back as they powered upwards. They were going to crash.
Derrain’s world slowed and sharpened until he could see every detail of the fine feathers that gathered around Atyrn’s intent eyes.
Then Zephyr thrust out her wings and rolled to the right. Beneath them Atyrn rolled the other way, both miryhls screeching with joy. Stirla was laughing, but Derrain could barely breathe.
Such tricks were for Cumulo and Mhysra, or the lieutenants. People who had been flying significantly longer than two years – and liked showing off into the bargain.
Chuckling and calling to each other, the two miryhls spiralled down towards the ship, blithely unconcerned that they’d just risked all four of their lives.
“Gods,” Derrain whispered, pressing a hand to his pounding heart. It felt like it would punch itself straight out of his chest. He was almost sick from it.
Glancing across at him, Stirla muttered something to Atyrn and their descent became swift and precise. Within moments they were back inside the Steadfast’s hull, which the three miryhls shared with two teams of bullwings and a stocky horsat.
Neryth stood by the doors, hauling them closed once they were inside, her eyes wide. “Great Gods,” she murmured, staring at them in awe. “I thought you were going to crash.”
Derrain slithered from Zephyr’s saddle, his legs barely strong enough to hold him up. “Me too,” he wheezed.
At last his miryhl noticed his distress. She swung her head around to nuzzle him. “Are you all right, Derry?”
He could only shake his head, sitting down into the musty straw. His legs were trembling and his hands far from steady enough to manage her harness buckles.
“Derry!” Zephyr crowded above him, nudging against him and feeling along his shoulders and arms with her beak, as though searching for breaks. “We were only playing. Miryhls do it all the time. There was no harm in it. It was just for fun.”
Derrain rubbed his chest with the heel of his hand, wondering if his heart would ever settle down again. At Stirla’s nod, Neryth came over to untack Zephyr, urging the miryhl back to give her Rider some room.
The lieutenant knelt beside Derrain and put a warm hand on his shoulder. “It seems hard to remember you’re still only a student.”
It was a compliment, but Derrain was in no mood to acknowledge it. All he could think of was that awful moment when he’d stared into Atyrn’s narrowed eyes and knew they were going to collide. Then the tilt and swoosh, so close he could still feel the sting of a flight feather lashing his cheek. It was the only part of him that felt remotely warm.
“I’m sorry, Derry,” Zephyr murmured contritely, head hanging low as Neryth pulled off her saddle. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
He forced his heavy arm to move and caress her drooping beak. “I know,” he murmured, his heart finally beginning to slow. “Maybe a little warning next time.”
She crooned contritely and rubbed her beak against him, then Stirla grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. “Come on. I think you need a proper lie down, young’un. Too much excitement for one day. Let’s not overdo it by rolling around in crap-caked straw.”
Back on his feet again, Derrain was already feeling better. His legs still shook, but he could walk. It left him feeling embarrassed at his overreaction. “Sorry,” he murmured to Zephyr. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Then we’re even.” She nuzzled him one last time and nudged him firmly towards the ladder. “Go lie down.”
He trailed a hand over her head and followed his lieutenant up to the cargo deck. Since the Steadfast was built to Ihran specifications, this was also the passenger deck. Also, because it was an Ihran ship, that meant it was packed to the gunnels with precious cargo. Which didn’t leave a lot of room for sleeping. People had to make do with whatever space they could find. Ihrans had no time for comfort when there was a potential profit to be made.
Fortunately, since he’d played a major role in hauling Destevan’s crates onboard, Derrain had made sure to leave a space between the heavy boxes. It wasn’t much, just enough for them to lay out their bedrolls every night. Still, it was a space they could call their own, which was more than most got on these ships.
Weaving his way between crated armour, forge supplies, barrels and boxes marked with mysterious trader symbols, Derrain was grateful to collapse on his bedroll and get his breath back. He never wanted to do anything like that again.
Stirla settled beside him, peering out of the tiny window, misted and splattered with the fresh rain outside.
“Sorry,” Derrain mumbled again, lying on his back and staring at the planked ceiling.
Stirla waved his apology away. “You’re taking it better than I did the first time Atyrn pulled that trick on me. She went diving after Lyrai’s Froth. Since Froth was all lightness and speed, the only way my Atyrn could catch her was to sneak up from behind and above. Gods, I thought she was going to snatch Lyrai right out of the air.”
The lieutenant laughed in remembrance. “You should have seen his face! Froth flipped over at the last moment, almost throwing him off completely. I’ve never seen his eyes so wide. Mine were pretty big too,” he added, to be fair. “Our miryhls didn’t care, they tangled talons and tumbled through the sky like crows. Gods, I thought we were all goners.”
Neryth arched incredulous eyebrows. “What happened? Was that how Froth got injured?”
“Huh?” Stirla blinked away the memories and shook his head. “Gods, no. Stupid feather-brain flew into a cliff when she was showing off to her flurry. She clipped a wing and broke something vital, and did it all on her own that time. No, with Atyrn they tumbled and turned, the pair of us screaming on their backs as the Cloud Sea grew closer and closer. Then, just as I was bracing myself to be swallowed in swirling, ferocious white, they separated, calm as you like and swept back up into the sky. Mangy crows.”
“I’m surprised you ever flew again,” Neryth murmured.
Stirla chuckled. “Well, we didn’t have much choice, since we were out flying sweeps with Captain Myran at the time. We were on a rest day, on some isolated spit of land, somewhere off the edge of eastern Imercian. We had no choice but to get back on the next morning. It was that or stay marooned and hope a skyship might pick us up before we starved to death.”
Which when added to everything else made Derrain feel a little bit better. Zephyr’s little trick wasn’t nearly so bad. He felt like a fool, but at least he hadn’t been tumbled into the sea. “Do they forget sometimes that we’re with them?” he wondered, staring at the ceiling. “Or are they testing us?”
Stirla shrugged and turned from the window. “Who knows? Mostly I think they’re just feeling playful and expect us to feel the same. Which is easy for them, since they’re the ones in control.” He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “It’s us who forget, I think.”
With his heartbeat back to normal, Derrain sat up. He flexed his hands and gave an unsteady chuckle. “Probably for the best. We’d never fly anywhere if we were always thinking about our fates resting in the talons of those crazy birds. Or in the talons of a fiery, bad-tempered pyrefly.”
Neryth grimaced. “You’ve just reminded me why I never ride those things. I don’t trust the glint in their eyes.”
“At least it shows intelligence.” Stirla shrugged.
“A sly, mean intelligence,” Derrain corrected.
“Which is why I don’t ride them,” Neryth chuckled.
“Better that than the docile vacant gaze of a bullwing,” Stirla said. “Gods, I hate riding them. They’re so cumbersome and slow. I’m always worried they’ll forget to flap and we’ll both fall out of the sky.”
“Whereas the average doelyn is too skittish,” Derrain added, getting into the spirit of things. “When I watch them fly I always wonder how they manage to keep enough energy to reach their destination. Their wings are a constant flutter.”
“Like some horsats I know,” Neryth agreed. “They’re bred to be fast, which makes them high-strung, then they’re fed on high-energy grains that leave them so fired up they can’t even beat their wings in time. Maegla, give me a miryhl any day of the moon.”
“Even with their strange sense of humour,” Stirla chuckled, and they shared a grin.
The cry filtered down through the deck and had them all scrambling for the porthole. Stirla used his sleeve to wipe the glass, but all they could see was a distant dark shadow.
The Steadfast drifted steadily onwards, until, without warning, a jagged line of rocks jabbed out of the rain towards them. On the other side the clouds parted just long enough to reveal the green, rolling lands beyond. There were mountains here, but they’d been softened and smoothed out by the weather. Dotted darkly across this verdant landscape were trees. Not firs, evergreen and dark, but broad-branched beeches, twisted oaks, upright hornbeams, stately elms and feathery willows, lacking leaves in this late season, but proof of life nonetheless. Livestock grazed in wandering herds, while here and there farmsteads and villages were tucked into little valleys. They’d reached the Lowlands.
“Riders!” a familiar voice called across the cargo deck. “Riders! I need you. Heavy things to lift. Come. We reach the market soon. Come!”
Derrain turned from the window and shared a wry smile with Stirla, before they flexed their shoulders and stood up. Who knew the smiling little Ihran would turn out to be such a tyrant?
“Coming, Destevan,” Stirla called to placate their bossy companion. “We’re coming.”
Derrain sighed and trudged after him, gaining a new respect for the docile, empty-eyed bullwings. The things he did to earn his passage…
~ Next Chapter ~
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