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~ Previous Chapter ~
Mouse and co move on.
She patted the bags piled up on either side of her. “Ready. Just waiting for Nightriver to return.”
Mouse sent out a seeking thought and the dragon sighed, making Mouse smile. “He’s on his way.”
“Then let’s load up.” Grinning, Greig put his hands down to push himself up.
“Ah!” his three friends shouted together. “Slowly.”
Rolling his eyes, Greig eased his body backwards very, very slowly until he was crouched over his bent knees, only then did he push onto all fours. “Can I stand up now?”
“Carefully,” Mouse agreed, even if the healer part of him would have preferred to have his friend crawl about, keeping his back level at all times. However, he knew that wouldn’t happen, so with Silveo’s help he eased Greig upright and the three of them carefully made the transition from knees to feet.
“Gods,” Greig laughed, as he tried to take a step and would have fallen if not for the support of his friends. “I’m as weak as a newborn kitten.”
“Just as well,” Silveo grumbled, clearly not happy about any of this. “Or you’d be running about all over the place and tearing out my stitches.”
After all the stress and trauma Silveo had gone through to get those stitches onto Greig’s back, he’d become extremely invested in their welfare. Mouse wasn’t sure how his friend would take it when the time came to remove them. He half expected tears and made a mental note to locate another bottle of Buteo’s homebrewed whisky to keep both of his friends calm.
“Oh, oh, oh.” Jupi hopped across the cavern to nuzzle at her Rider, once again getting thoroughly in the way. “Are you all right, Greig? Does it hurt? Are you sore? How are your stitches? Are you bleeding?”
Mouse rolled his eyes, but Greig laughed. “I’m fine,” he lied. With his arms over Mouse and Silveo’s shoulders, it was impossible for him to hide the fact that he was shaking and sweating after even so small an exertion. Mouse rested a hand on Greig’s lower back, partly out of support but also to monitor the heat below his skin. Warmer than his own, but not yet too warm. Still, the sooner they got him on Jupi’s back and able to lie flat again, the better.
“Settle down.” Thunder appeared at the mouth of the cave, having returned from leading another batch of ferals to Buteo. All that remained now were Mouse and his friends’ miryhls and a few extra pack carriers and guards, helping to keep their numbers up and make them less of a target for Mercata. Willym’s miryhl had been unusually quiet over recent days, and Mouse wasn’t the only one feeling nervous about it.
“Stop jigging about,” the big black miryhl ordered, glaring at the smaller, stockier female. “How’s any Rider to get in the saddle with you dancing around like that, let alone your injured one? Stand straight.”
“Sorry.” Jupi stopped bouncing and lowered her head in contrition. “I’m just excited. It’s been so long.”
It certainly had. Seven months since the fall of Aquila with a hard winter and a bad fever in between. Mouse patted the miryhl in sympathy and looked at Silveo, preparing themselves for the most difficult bit.
“Ready, Greig?” he asked.
Teeth clenched with determination, mouth tight with pain, Greig unwrapped his arms from his friends’ shoulders and gripped the saddle. Jupi lowered her wing to enable him to get closer and Thunder positioned herself on the far side in case Greig needed catching.
“On three then. One…” Mouse bent to hold Greig raised left shin. “Two…” He met Silveo’s eye as he also crouched. “Three!”
Greig grunted as he managed a small hop and the other two hefted him up. Torso sliding over Jupi’s saddle, Greig lifted his right leg and – with Silveo’s help – managed to straddle his miryhl’s back.
“Keep low, keep low,” Mouse cautioned unnecessarily, hand hovering over Greig’s back in case he decided to try sitting up.
Highly unlikely, since his friend was now sprawled and panting, slumped over the front of Jupi’s saddle, forehead buried in her neck feathers.
“Greig? Greig?” the miryhl called, twisted her head this way and that. “Is he all right? Is he conscious? Did we rip his stitches?”
Mouse took a quick glance over his friend’s bare back before covering him with a coat. “Stitches are fine,” he reassured everyone – humans and miryhls – who had gathered to watch, while he and Silveo coaxed Greig’s arms out so they could slide the coat on, reaching beneath him to button it, trying to move him as little as possible. Unable to lift his arms over his head, Greig had been shirtless since the attack, but they couldn’t have him flying back to Buteo bare-chested, like some barbarian of old. The coat was a spare brought up from the town by Thunder and was far too big, but better than nothing, and it wasn’t like Greig needed to use his hands anyway. With such thoughts in mind, Mouse made quick work of the saddle straps, keeping his friends legs and hips in place. Then he and Silveo used some rope for a little extra security.
“Tying me down?” Greig mumbled, voice tight with pain. “Didn’t know you were into that.”
“Save the flirting for Haelle,” Silveo advised, slapping Greig’s boot to signal he was done.
“Ropes, eh? Sounds promising,” Haelle teased, from where she watched on her crutches. Although her voice was light, her face was concerned. Mouse eyed his patient and the miryhl again. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but Greig was as secure as they could make him and Jupi wouldn’t do anything to risk him. Besides, unlike Haelle, Greig couldn’t ride Nightriver down from the cave – and no one had suggested the dragon carry him in his mouth again like last time. It might have worked when Greig was unconscious or delirious from fever, but he was wide awake now and they didn’t have anything strong enough to knock him out.
Too tricky, Nightriver confirmed in Mouse’s mind as the dragon slipped back into the cave, damp and glistening from his time in the spring. Too wriggly. I might swallow him.
By accident, Mouse hoped. Nightriver’s dark chuckle was not the least bit reassuring. Even though he had shown no signs of devouring everything in his path since the first night he woke, Nightriver was still a dragon, a wild and untamed force of nature and a predator that had no scruples against eating anything – humans and miryhls included.
Not miryhls, Nightriver murmured softly, the words bubbling in the back of Mouse’s brain like a stream just out of sight. Too many feathers. Takes too long to pluck them, and it’s just too tickly otherwise.
Almost certain his dragon was winding him up – almost – Mouse opted to ignore him and concentrate on loading up the other miryhls instead. While he spread their packs out amongst three volunteer miryhls, Silveo helped Haelle onto Nightriver’s back and tied her with the last of the rope.
Head tilted to one side, Greig watched them through half-closed eyes. “What a pair we make,” he mumbled.
Haelle grinned. “I know. You’re on a miryhl and I’m riding a dragon. We’re legends brought to life!”
Thunder eyed her Rider with an indulgent expression, strutting over to check the ropes for herself. “You certainly are one of a kind.”
Onyx tossed his head at Mouse and tutted when he carried his tack over to his little miryhl. “Are we finally leaving?”
Chuckling, Mouse slid the bridle over his disgruntled eagle’s head and tickled him beneath the chin. “Yes, we are finally leaving.” Straps buckled, he lifted the saddle into place, struggling to imagine that he’d once found even this simple task exciting almost beyond bearing. He’d also been hopeless at it, getting the saddle on the wrong way and the girths twisted and crossed the first time he’d tried. Onyx had been incredibly patient with him, thank the gods. Mouse couldn’t imagine any other miryhl being so tolerant.
“Come on.” Although he was less so now.
“All right, all right,” Mouse sighed, bending to grab the girths and ensure they were tight but not too tight. “Give me a moment.”
Then, finally, all was ready. The cave was emptied of everything but dirty bedding and dust, while miryhls and dragons lined up at the entrance, peering out into the clear spring day. Somewhere out there Mercata or one of her sentries would be watching, but what they would decide to do on seeing them leave, Mouse had no idea.
Nor did he much care. Unlike Silveo, who had flown several trips a day in search of herbs and trees and flowers when they first arrived, then back and forth to Buteo in latter days, this was the first time Mouse would fly since Onyx brought him up to the cave. Only the second time since before Aquila fell. The first time with a saddle, and therefore, the first flight he could genuinely enjoy since before the pirates laid siege to the citadel, back when he and his friends flew purely for training or fun, never imagining the way their lives would soon turn.
His first real flight without Cumulo and Mhysra nearby, without Derrain and Zephyr’s quiet strength, Corin and Wisp’s nippy speed or Dhori and Latinym’s uncanny ability to always be where they were needed. Sadness and homesickness for a time long lost pressed against him as Onyx shuffled to the mouth of the cave, peeked out into the bright sunshine and leapt.
Heart lurching, Mouse grabbed hold of his reins, knotted and frayed but still real in his hands, and laughed as the wind rushed into his face. The world fell away beneath them, miryhls launching on either side, dark wings flapping in a whoosh and a rush, as they soared, higher and higher into the clear blue sky.
And Mouse remembered what it was to be free.
~ Next Chapter ~
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