Orla makes a friend.
“THE FIRST IHRAN Rift Rider, ha,” Orla scoffed softly to herself that evening as she stood at the rear rail of the Miryhl Heart and watched the shadowy peaks of her homeland fade into the gloom.
Despite her parents’ best efforts, she had never been so far away from Ihra before. She’d never even left the docklands. No matter how many skyships her parents had settled her aboard, Orla had always managed to make it back to solid land before they departed. Except for this time. This time she’d foolishly let her heart rule her sensible head.
She’d let a momentary rush of hope and elation cloud her mind, full of dreams of a glorious future full of flight and adventure, and forgotten that underneath it all beat a heavy heart that was much attached to home, the ground and staying in one place. She’d let herself dream of giant eagles and lifelong bonds, and forgotten the everyday people she’d have to deal with first.
Like Taryn, the spoiled and resentful. Orla didn’t know what her story was, nor did she much care, she just wished she hadn’t been handed over to her the moment the ship started creaking away from port. Taryn’s disdain had brought Orla crashing back to earth, shaking loose her foolish dreams and reminding her of who and what she was underneath it all. She would have been almost grateful to the rude girl, if only the realisation hadn’t come too late.
By the time Orla had made her way onto the deck, bag in hand, ready to slip back to the dock, Ihra was already a distant sight, getting smaller by the moment. She’d missed her chance. There would be no turning back now.
Resting her arms on the top rail, Orla propped her chin on top and sighed. Everything was so big here. The rail itself was as high as her chest, the stairs were spaced just a little too far apart for comfort and everyone around her towered at intimidating heights. The captain was the biggest, of course, but even Taryn the brat topped Orla by head and shoulders, making her feel even more like a lost child than she already did.
It was most disconcerting, and Orla had always been comfortable in her place in the world, secure inside her own skin. Being here, constantly reminded that she didn’t fit, made her feel odd, like a nail improperly hammered in, catching at every shoe and thread. She didn’t like it.
A wash of cool night air ruffled her hair and she wished she’d brought her coat up on deck with her. Except Taryn had been in their cabin, slamming and crashing around as she moved chests and luggage about, grumbling and complaining about having to find space for Orla. Anyone would think Taryn was the paying passenger and Orla the stowaway. It wasn’t as if Orla would take up much room. Just somewhere to lie down, that was all she needed. She only had one bag and wasn’t planning on unpacking it.
She hadn’t wasted her breath telling Taryn any of that. The furious young woman made Orla nervous and left her entirely tongue-tied. Orla had never known she was shy, but then her parents had never tried to ship her off with only outsiders before. Usually their madcap ideas centred around other Ihrans and their adventures. Not this time. This time they’d left their daughter adrift in a world of tall, intimidating people and Orla was struggling to adjust.
She sighed again, almost wishing she was fanciful enough to believe the wide Cloud Sea below was just a bed of fluffy pillows that she could jump on and bounce her way home. Alas, she’d never been fanciful, nor was she desperate enough to simply jump. Instead she watched her home getting smaller and smaller and wondered what was to become of her.
The world was so much larger out here, and not just because she was Ihran. The horizon stretched as far as her worried eyes could see, full of clouds, clouds and more clouds, with only the last smudge of Ihra’s mountains to break the monotony. There was no going back, not unless she had wings. That was the problem with living on a world cursed by the gods to be covered with clouds. Walking got you nowhere.
“Feeling nervous?” a soft voice murmured behind her. “It’s a big step you’ve taken today. No one could blame you for feeling homesick.”
Startled, Orla twisted to look over her shoulder and squeaked.
A huge shadow loomed at her back, vast and dark, outlined against the silvery silk of the gasbag to form a shape Orla could barely comprehend. She mouthed silent nonsense, words of any language utterly failing her.
The shadow chuckled and lowered its head. “Forgive me, I did not mean to startle you.”
“Zeph? Who’re you talking to?”
A tall figure emerged from the shadow and Orla felt no more able to speak when the captain raised his lantern and smiled in the glow. “Hello there, Georlanash, I see you’ve met my Zephyr. Zeph, this is Georlanash, our passenger, soon to be a Rift Rider student.”
The words Rift Rider acted as a spur, breaking through Orla’s shock into a fresh form of disbelief. “But she’s a miryhl,” she burst out. “Only Rift Riders are supposed to have miryhls.”
Orla didn’t know much about the world outside of Ihra, or even about the Rift Riders, despite her long held dreams, but she did know this one indisputable fact. The giant eagle miryhls of the Overworld were rare and treasured and kept solely for the provision of the Rift Riders. That was what made the Riders so special. If anyone could have a miryhl, what would be the point of joining the Riders?
“Or the ruling families of the Overworld lands,” Captain Derrain said, although Orla had never heard of that rule before.
“Or Wingborn,” the miryhl added, reminding Orla of another rare piece of Rider lore that had filtered down to her eager ears. Not that she’d much believed it – a human and a miryhl born and hatching at the very moment, within a mile of each other, and somehow bonding for life. Orla could just about believe that Goddess Maegla had worked with dragons to create miryhls in the first place, but mythical magical bonds were a step too far for her practical mind.
Rules, however, were easy to believe in – and this miryhl was breaking yet another one.
“You’re talking to me! You can’t talk to me!”
The miryhl sighed and the captain patted the bird with a chuckle. “It only takes a moment to break a tradition, but it might take a lifetime for everyone to notice.”
Orla’s mind was still scrabbling to catch up. “Are you a prince?” she asked the captain, somewhat doubtfully. She knew the Kilpapan family were powerful, but she didn’t think they were that powerful.
It was the miryhl’s turn to chuckle, while the captain rubbed a hand over his short curly hair. “I’m no prince.”
“You’re my prince,” the miryhl cooed, earning herself a light flick on the beak.
“Are you Wingborn?” Orla tried again, marvelling at the obvious bond between the two. It was like watching her cousins squabbling at the dinner table. Familial bonds were easy to believe in, magic ones not so much.
“No,” eagle and man answered together.
“Thank the gods,” the miryhl muttered, earning a snort from the captain.
Orla frowned in confusion. “Did you steal her?”
The miryhl laughed, long and loud, while the captain rubbed a hand over his face.
“I’m more likely to steal him,” the miryhl said confidingly, lowering her head to Orla’s level with a wink. “He’s quite the catch, you know.”
“Zephyr,” the captain growled. “Stop teasing.”
Still chuckling, the miryhl straightened up and ruffled her wings. “Only if I must.”
When Orla still looked confused, the captain finally took pity on her. “We were Riders,” he explained. “Until I was injured.”
Orla blinked again, staring from the man to the eagle and back again. He didn’t look the least bit injured. She swallowed. They were both so big and strong looking. Were all Riders this big? Were all miryhls this big? Was this why there had never been any Ihran Riders before?
Oh, gods, was she making an even bigger mistake than she’d feared?
“Derry was one of the Six,” Zephyr announced with obvious pride.
Orla blinked, realising that this was obviously something important, but having no idea as to why. Ihra didn’t care much for the outside world and rarely bothered to spread important news. If it didn’t affect trade or industry, it rarely made the gossip circuit, and certainly never as far as Uhra. Orla probably wouldn’t have learnt anything about the Riders at all, if it wasn’t for her uncle moving to Nimbys to train their selection school students.
Oh, Maegla, Uncle Hethanon was going to train her!
“I don’t think she knows what that is, Zeph,” Orla distantly heard the captain mutter to his miryhl.
The big bird gave an offended ruffle of her wings. “If she’s heading to Nimbys, she’d best learn or Aquila will come as quite the shock.”
“Aquila is always a shock,” Captain Derrain replied, patting his miryhl on the wing. “Don’t overwhelm her please, Zeph, she’s only just left home.”
The miryhl sniffed and shuffled her wings yet again. “She’ll have a new home soon enough,” she retorted, tilting her head to study Orla with a thoughtful dark eye.
Orla stared back, her mind still whirling at all the changes her life had tumbled through in less than a day, and all the challenges that still lay ahead. She didn’t know if she was equal to them.
The miryhl crackled her beak and settled down on the deck, like a hen on an egg. “Come over here, youngster, and settle in beside my wing. I’ve got a grand story to tell you and I’d rather not get a crick in my neck in the telling.”
When Orla crept cautiously forwards, reaching a tentative hand towards the eagle’s plush brown feathers, Zephyr curled her beak around her shoulder and hauled her close.
“Make yourself at home,” the miryhl commanded, wriggling herself into a better position and draping warm, soft, glorious feathers over Orla’s disbelieving shoulders. “This could take a while.”
Crossing her legs, Orla sat down and stared up at the vast eagle, wanting to pinch herself to see if this was a dream, but fearing to wake up if it was.
Zephyr tilted her head towards her and winked her dark eye. “Our story begins long, long ago, in the farthermost west, deep in the World’s End mountains. Isolated and alone, a strange being, half man, half dragon, created monsters and, resentful of the Rift Riders, he unleashed them upon the world.”
“Kaz-naghkt,” Orla whispered, having learnt that much from the outside world.
“Kaz-naghkt,” the miryhl agreed. “This is the story of the Riders and the kaz-naghkt, and how a handful of Riders saved the Overworld.”
“Including the captain?” Orla interrupted.
“Including my captain,” the miryhl agreed, fluffing up her feathers proudly. “I said he was a catch. Now hush up and let me tell you why…”
More on Friday.
Thanks for reading!