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~ Previous Chapter ~
The final preparations.
IT WAS STRANGE to be among proper Riders again. Mouse had spent so much time grounded on the mountain, amongst regular townsfolk and grim-faced survivors, that seeing uniformed groups of Riders with their own miryhls was almost a surprise. He had been one of them once. He was considered one of them still. But Onyx was gone and he’d made his choice. He had Nightriver now. He would never fly again.
Mouse sat beside a campfire with Haelle, listening to her recount some of their many adventures, while Silveo and Greig scrambled back up to the cave to fetch the miryhls. They needn’t have bothered – Mouse could talk to Nightriver from anywhere on Aquila, no matter how much distance lay between them – but his friends had been eager to prove themselves, so he’d let them go. Nightriver wouldn’t come back with them. He claimed the time was not quite right for him to make his appearance.
Mouse wasn’t sure, although it was nice not to be stared at with suspicion for a change. Instead he was allowed to sit in peace and quiet, with a warm bowl of broth in his hands, while the captain and Haelle talked. No one demanded anything of him, no one expected anything. He was just a student again, unremarkable and of no importance.
Until Haelle mentioned that he’d become the head healer for Buteo, Nehtl’s last student, and Hylan put him to work. Oh well, the rest had been nice while it lasted.
Halfway up the mountain, Nightriver chuckled into Mouse’s head, and let him know that Thunder had consented to Haelle’s request to carry Greig the short distance back to the Rider camp. They would arrive soon. In the meantime, there were a few minor cuts and bruises and a nasty throat infection for Mouse to see to.
Before long, Haelle’s tale was done and Hylan gave the order for the camp to pack up. Silveo and Greig returned and were swiftly swallowed into the ranks of Riders. Mouse worked on, with a little assistance from Haelle, bandaging up a sprain and seeing to a persistent headache. It soon became obvious that Hylan was getting ready to launch an attack – and that he was going to leave Haelle and Mouse behind to tend to the wounded.
Part of Mouse was grateful. He was not a natural fighter. He was much better suited to mending things than breaking them. Except that he was bonded to Nightriver now, and the dragon had slept for centuries untold in the tunnels beneath the mountain, ready to protect the Riders at their utmost need.
Which was why when Hylan’s troops were at last ready to make their move, Mouse packed up his things and went to stand with Silveo and Greig. His friends were in a mishmash of spare flight armour, borrowed swords at the ready, looking nervous but determined. Silveo was an even worse fighter than Mouse, but surviving the winter had changed them all. Regardless of whatever else they did in their lives after this, they would be there when the Riders reclaimed Aquila. They had earned the right.
So despite the fact that he had no miryhl to carry him over the rock spurs that currently hid them from the citadel, Mouse found a sword for himself and waited with the others. In the back of his mind he could feel Nightriver moving, coming through the trees and lurking in the shadows, ready – as always – to carry Mouse wherever he needed to go. Haelle too, since she’d also found a sword and acquied a determined set to her jaw.
When Thunder nuzzled her anxiously, begging her to stay behind, Haelle ran her fingers through her miryhl’s dark feathers and gently nudged her away. “Nightriver will look after me,” she said firmly. “I need you to look after Greig.”
Thunder huffed and grumbled and shot Greig a narrow-eyed glare, but nevertheless agreed to her Rider’s request. “Be safe.”
“As any of us ever can be,” Haelle agreed, smiling at Mouse. “Come on, let’s slip off before the captain spots us and sets us back to work.”
Mouse hesitated, having wanted to hear whatever rousing speech the Hylan would have to offer his Riders before battle.
“Go,” Silveo urged softly. “It will take Nightriver longer to get over the spurs than it’ll take us to fly.”
Only if they climbed, Mouse thought silently, but didn’t say it; both Greig and Thunder were worried enough about Haelle’s insistence on coming.
“All right,” he agreed, resting a hand on his friends’ shoulders and patting both miryhls on the wing. Thunder sniffed at him, making Mouse smile. Perhaps one day the two of them might become friends.
“Take care of my Haelle or I’ll gut you like a pike.”
Or maybe they wouldn’t.
Silveo grabbed his wrist before he could leave, pulling him into a tight hug. “Luck go with you.”
Mouse squeezed him tightly in return. “Always with you.”
Under the curious gaze of Hylan’s Riders, Mouse and Haelle slipped away into the shadows of the forest, while behind them the captain gave a rousing speech of, “Riders, we’ve cleaning to do. Mount up and get ready to mop the filth from our home!”
Haelle caught his eye and grinned. “I always did like Hylan. He reminds me of Stirla.”
Which reminded Mouse of his long-ago days at the selection school in Nimbys, where he’d first met not only Haelle but the rest of his first real friends – Mhysra, Derrain, Dhori and Corin. None of whom he’d seen since Aquila fell all those months ago. He hoped they were well, and perhaps even now were nearby, preparing to join them in this last assault upon the citadel. He wouldn’t even consider that some or all of them might be lost. Not now, not in this moment, when the potential of victory was finally within sight.
The Riders had returned to Aquila. Now all they had to do was take it.
“Ready, my Mouse?” a voice rumbled from the shadows.
Mouse stepped forward and rested a hand against Nightriver’s shoulder, looking back through the trees as Hylan’s Riders took to the air in a flurry of wings and feathers. “I’m ready,” he agreed, helping Haelle onto the dragon’s back.
“Then hold tight and breathe deep,” Nightriver chortled, breaking into a swift run down the hill.
“Breathe deep?” Haelle asked, arms clamped around Mouse’s waist. “Why do we – ? Oh no. No, Nightriver, you can’t!” Her protests escalated to a shriek as Nightriver burst out of the trees and ran across the narrow shore.
“Breathe deep,” Mouse reminded her, taking a breath of his own and bracing himself as the three of them plunged into the icy lake.
* * *
YULLIK STOOD IN the highest room of the east tower, fists clenched as all his plans unravelled around him. He hadn’t truly expected to hold onto Aquila for long – the Riders were far better trained and motivated than his kaz-naghkt and the building was too open to truly defend – but he’d hoped to hold it for a little longer yet.
“Things appear to be getting heated out there,” Rion remarked, staring out of the south windows at where fire spread through the town. It burned above their heads too, ignited by that upstart young dragon who spat lightning. Yullik wasn’t too concerned. Most of the tower was stone and the fire had started at the roof. There weren’t too many places it could spread from there. Although…
He rested a hand against the wall, smiling softly as his own power sparked back. After months of anger and abuse, plus the ferocious roar of a Thunderwing, the tower was largely held together by the strength of his will. One little tug and the whole lot would collapse.
If he couldn’t have the citadel, he didn’t see why the Riders should keep it either.
“I believe it’s time for us to make our exit,” Riame said, breaking Yullik’s thoughts.
He eyed the captain twins speculatively. “You still have a ship?”
“Two, actually,” Riame replied smugly.
Yullik raised his eyebrows. “Where have you hidden those away?” At first he’d hoped the twins had left with the majority of the pirates when they scuttled back to the Wrathlen with their tails between their legs, but he had never been that lucky. When they reappeared, and kept showing up, he believed it was because their skyship had been amongst those destroyed by the roaring Thunderwing.
Apparently not, because Riame was grinning and even her brother was wearing a smug little smile. “Just a few coves over. Nowhere too prominent, but hardly well hidden either. The Riders failed to notice them because they were not what they expected to see.
“Hiding in plain sight,” Riame chuckled.
Yullik eyed them both again, wondering if he would ever discover their true story – wondering if he really cared to. No, not really. “Then this is farewell.”
“For now,” Rion agreed, holding out his hand.
Yullik was reluctant to shake, but had no reason to refuse. The jolt of power that raced up his arm left a taste of shadows and ash in his mouth. He narrowed his eyes, but Rion shook out his hand and laughed.
“If things prove too hot up here for you,” Riame said, stepping forward and holding him by the shoulders so that she could kiss first one cheek, then the other, her power buzzing against his skin and making his teeth ache, “come find us. We always have a place on our decks for those who make life interesting.”
He didn’t trust either one of them in the slightest, and yet, their offer seemed genuine enough – and might prove useful later. “I’ll bear it in mind.”
“Do,” Riame ordered, fluttering her fingers as she headed for the door.
“Try not to die in the meantime,” Rion said, sauntering after his sister. “The fun is far from over yet.”
Yullik didn’t bother dignifying that with an answer. The door shut behind them with a soft click and Yullik spread his senses through the citadel.
“Come,” he whispered. “Come, my little cousins. Your feast is here at last.”
All over Aquila, in halls and side rooms, in the kitchens and the practice barn, his sleeping kaz-naghkt stirred. Then, as the first miryhl shadow swept across his window, he unleashed them.
~ Next Chapter ~
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