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~ Previous Chapter ~
The Choices of Silveo
HE WOULD NEVER forget the silence. One moment all was chaos and roaring, then the dust cleared and everything stopped. Perched high on a crag, struggling to regain their breath after finally driving their attackers away, Silveo and Vehro peered down through the murk – and he saw them.
“Vehro, take me down!”
His miryhl didn’t hesitate, already jumping off the crag and opening his wings to glide to what had once been the pass between the narrow valley and the next. Now it was all one valley, one side of the spurs once keeping pass and valley apart having utterly collapsed.
Nightriver, the likely cause of the rockslide lay in the middle of the rubble, hunched over a mass of feathers and limbs. As Vehro brought Silveo lower, he realised there was another miryhl lying off to one side, towards which Haelle was crawling, hand over hand, silent tears streaming down her face.
Tearing at his saddle straps, Silveo threw himself off his miryhl’s back and ran towards Nightriver. In three short paces the scene began to unravel. Two miryhls, one large and dark, the other small and chestnut, and pinned beneath them both was Mouse.
“Maegla weeps,” Silveo gasped, sinking to his knees.
There was so much blood.
Snarling, Nightriver raked the dark miryhl aside. Mercata flopped lifelessly into the rubble, a misshapen mess that had once been glorious. Silveo didn’t spare her a glance as he crawled along the dragon’s side. Mouse, face covered in blood, his left leg crushed, didn’t even stir as Nightriver carefully lifted Onyx away.
Poor patient Onyx, sweet Onyx, the little miryhl with the heart big enough to wait for Mouse to get it right, no matter how many tries it took. The one miryhl who never snapped, lost patience or seemed to care that the other Riders were laughing at his. Dear Onyx who had been so very jealous of Mouse’s bond with Nightriver. He didn’t move either when Nightriver moved him gently aside, nor ever would again.
“Maegla weeps,” Silveo said again, voice tight in his chest as he laid a shaking hand on Onyx’s beak, the only bit of him that wasn’t bloodied, twisted or askew. Sliding his hand through sticky feathers, Silveo carefully shut Onyx’s dark eye and bowed his head in tears.
Drawing in all the water he’d forced out of the rocks during the landslide, Nightriver began to grow. He had already been the length of three miryhls, but when he was done he was twice the size and bigger than Silveo had ever seen him.
Only then did Nightriver lower his head to Mouse. Rumbling softly, the dragon picked his human up between his jaws and began walking across the rubble. Silveo stumbled after them.
Jupi was also dead, and Haelle scrabbled at the ropes, trying to release the boy crushed beneath. Greig, dear gods, Silveo had almost forgotten about him. Staggering past Nightriver’s slow and ponderous body, he pulled the knife from his belt and began sawing at the ropes. Haelle was sobbing openly now, whispering prayers beneath her breath. Silveo didn’t tell her to stop, didn’t tell her it was too late. He didn’t want to believe it. He wouldn’t believe it.
Nightriver loomed over them as the last rope snapped. With a scoop of his massive claws, he carefully lifted Jupi aside and lowered his head towards Greig.
“No!” Haelle threw herself forward, trying to shield the body, but Nightriver rumbled again and nudged her aside. “No! He’s not dead! He’s not dead!” she screamed.
There was so much blood that Silveo couldn’t see how his friend had possibly survived. Yet when he cleaned his knife and held it below Greig’s nose, the blade clouded with impossible proof.
“He’s not dead,” Silveo whispered, astonished and faintly horrified. The whole front of Greig’s body was black with blood, and he couldn’t imagine what injuries lay beneath his clothes.
Nightriver rumbled impatiently and opened his mouth.
“Leave him! You leave him!” Haelle cried, beating at the dragon’s face.
Nightriver ignored her, picking Greig up between his jaws and tossing his head back as if swallowing.
“No!” she screamed, trying to stand to throw herself against the dragon. Silveo caught her before she could fall and hurt herself, then he wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.
“It’s all right,” he said, holding her firmly so she couldn’t move. “It’s all right. Mouse is already in there. Nightriver would never swallow Mouse. It’s all right. He’s going to look after them. He’ll heal them, Haelle, you know he can.”
Nightriver rumbled again, but whether in agreement or not Silveo neither knew nor wanted to. He chose to believe Nightriver could heal his friends and he wasn’t going to accept anything less.
“Mouse?” Haelle wept, sagging in his arms. “Mouse too?”
“He’s not dead,” Silveo assured her, even though he had no idea if that was true. All he’d seen was blood before Nightriver picked him up. “They’re going to be all right. Nightriver will heal them.”
Huffing out a long sigh, the enormous dragon turned around and began scaling the rubble slide.
“Wait,” Haelle called, pulling away from Silveo and almost falling again. “Wait! Take me with you!”
If Nightriver heard her over the shifting, cracking stones he was digging down into, he chose not to listen. Fearing the rest of the rubble would slide down on top of them, Silveo pulled the resisting Haelle away, deeper into the pass, towards where the remaining miryhls were watching.
“Please,” Haelle begged, tears streaming down her face. “Please.” But her pleas went unanswered as the dragon dug out of sight, carrying their wounded friends within his jaws as he returned to the darkness beneath the mountain.
Sagging to his knees under the collapsed weight of Haelle, Silveo stared around at the wreckage and realised he was in charge. Mouse was gone, Greig was lost, Nightriver had left, and dead and injured miryhls lay scattered all over the rockslide.
With one supportive hand on Haelle’s back, Silveo turned to face the cluster of miryhls who seemed whole if not entirely healthy. Thunder was at the front, blood on her beak and talons, slashes across her back. The other five miryhls stood behind her, waiting for orders.
“I want to bury them,” Silveo said, glancing at the broken bodies of Jupi and Onyx, and ignoring Mercata and her fallen ferals. “We can use the rockslide. Build cairns over them.”
For a long moment Thunder stared at him, a wildness in her eyes that made him wonder if she would turn on them next, as if Mercata wasn’t dead after all. He held Haelle closer, aware that he had only a small knife to defend them both with.
Then the big black miryhl bowed her head, the miryhls behind her following suit. “We will bury them,” she agreed. “The rest we leave for carrion.”
Silveo glanced past her into the setting sun and shivered as he realised night would soon fall. There were wolves in these mountains and the scent of blood was strong.
But it was his turn to bow his head. “We leave the rest for carrion.”
* * *
MOUSE WAS IN the lake again, surrounded by the strange, viscous water that didn’t flow like it should. It was heavy and clung when he moved through it, pulling him back, holding him down.
Mouse. Mouse. Mouse, it whispered in a voice that was at once strange and familiar. Stay. Stay here. Stay.
Mouse wrinkled his nose, thinking there was something he was forgetting, but as the water pulled harder, he shook his head. It didn’t matter, whatever it was, he needed to get out of this water.
A light blazed on the shore. He walked towards it, determined to reach it. A fire, flickering and crackling, with a figure sitting alongside it. Mouse had a sudden longing to join them. He redoubled his efforts, pushing through the water, ignoring the voice, until finally he reached the shore.
The water threw out a last great effort to hold him but Mouse was determined. With a final heave, the water’s grip snapped and Mouse tumbled gracelessly up the slope onto dry land.
Where a fire was waiting for him and Healer Nehtl smiled as he held out a hand to help him up.
“Hullo there, Mouse. What took you so long?”
* * *
IT WASN’T AN easy task, made all the harder by the fact that Silveo was the only one of them with two working legs and opposable thumbs. Still, Haelle and the miryhls helped out where they could, scooping aside rocks and digging out good-sized stones that were perfect for stacking. The miryhls also took care of the enemy bodies, gathering up the five carcasses and dumping them near the old narrow valley entrance. It kept the wolves away.
In the end there were three cairns, settled in hollows dug out of the landslide. He and Haelle scratched a headstone for them, promising to come back one day to make something more permanent.
Under these rocks, peaceful at last, lie
A brave companion and protector
A partner most patient and true
A fierce defender of all free miryhls
May they find glory and peace in Maegla’s skies.
We will remember them.
It took four days until the task was completed to everyone’s satisfaction, then Silveo finally turned his attention to what lay ahead. Somehow, between him and the five whole miryhls, they needed to get Haelle and the worst wounded miryhl, Mist, back to Buteo.
“I will carry her,” Thunder insisted, when Silveo raised the issue of Haelle. And even though Thunder had no saddle, a scratched up back, and Haelle’s balance was all thrown off because of her missing leg, Silveo agreed because what else could he do? They still had some rope left and both Jupi and Onyx had been wearing saddles when they fell.
The end result was neither pretty nor comfortable for either miryhl or Rider, but Haelle needed Thunder’s comfort and her miryhl refused to let anyone else carry her. Which only left the issue of Mist, whose wing looked to be broken. Once Silveo might have thought the injury too bad to recover from, but the miryhls brought him branches for splints and saved sinews from their kills to bind it with. They also advised him how best to set the break and tie it, thanks to their incomplete lessons from Nightriver.
Once the splint was fitted, they made a very rudimentary stretcher out of birch saplings and torn up blankets from the supplies. It didn’t look particularly safe or strong, but the miryhls were determined to make it work and Silveo wasn’t about to tell them no.
So five days after Nightriver carried Mouse and Greig away, the survivors finally left the newly enlarged narrow valley, flying in short bursts and taking frequent rests. With Thunder and Haelle leading, Silveo brought up the rear so that he could keep a close eye on the miryhls carrying Mist, ensuring that they swapped positions after each rest, four carrying, one remaining free.
It took another three days to make the journey a healthy miryhl could fly in less than a morning, and it was a very sorry flock that glided down into Buteo a full quarter moon after they were expected.
“Silveo!” Imaino ran to meet them as they dragged into land. “Where have you been? What happened?”
Climbing down from Vehro’s saddle, feeling as though he had the whole mountain on his shoulders, Silveo rubbed his face and went to untie Haelle from her saddle. “Mercata,” he said, sad and exhausted and drained. “Mercata happened.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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