“I’M SORRY TO appear all cloak-and-dagger about this,” Mhylla explained, as she led Orla away from the temporary eyries, through a side door and into the big barn where the Rider miryhls stayed. “But we couldn’t afford for anyone else to see her first.”
Like most of the students, Orla had visited the eyries a time or two since arriving in Nimbys. It was impossible not to, since the draw of the miryhls was so strong. Still, the sheer size of the place and the enormity of the eagles often left her deflated when she left. She rarely felt confident of her place with the Riders, but standing in the eyries made her feel small and stupid.
Until Mhylla Wrentherin led her to the very centre, where a familiar eagle was roosting with a bunch of others.
“Orla!” She barely had time to take a breath before she was engulfed in feathers.
“Zephyr,” she tried to say, through a mouthful of down. “I’ve missed you.”
“Oh, I’ve missed you too,” the miryhl cooed, pulling back to preen a few stray wisps of hair back against Orla’s plaits. “You’re looking well.” She eyed her approvingly. “Training agrees with you.”
Feeling shy, Orla murmured something grateful and stared at her boots.
“As touching as this reunion is, Zeph, you’re not the reason she’s in here.” Mhylla sounded amused as she dragged Orla out of the feathery embrace. “Here now, what do you think?”
Strong hands turned her around and she squinted against a bright shaft of sunlight, spearing down through the open skylights.
Her eyes refused to clear. The spot in front of her was sparkling.
A white miryhl. Pure white, but small and stocky. Like Orla.
“This is Milk,” Mhylla said, stepping around Orla to rest a hand on the white miryhl’s wing. “Somewhat undersized, some might say, but I think she’s perfect.”
The pale miryhl darted a shy look up at the woman, then peeped at Orla, the feathers on her face all puffed out.
Orla stared at the most beautiful creature she had ever seen and felt her heart squeeze in her chest. “I…” She couldn’t find the words, until Zephyr gave her a firm shove in the back.
“Say hello,” the big miryhl ordered.
Stumbling forward, Orla almost dropped to her knees. Except Milk caught her, a bone-white beak pressing against her chest, holding her up with surprising strength.
They stared into each other’s eyes and Orla dared to press a hand against the beak that held her.
“Hello,” they both whispered, and the eyries chuckled around them.
* * *
Every eagle Lieutenant Dhori led them to was met with immediate and rapturous approval from each of Vhen’s friends before he could even open his mouth. Surprisingly, Guro was the first to pick. Vhen barely had time to look at the stocky miryhl with a reddish hue before Guro was stepping forward and offering his hand to the eagle with a decisive, “Yes.”
Then it was Tenzi, falling for a dainty little male who fluttered his eyes coquettishly despite the bird’s lack of eyelashes. After that it was Keiva’s turn to melt into a puddle at the talons of a large chocolate female with golden eyes. The pair bonded instantly and were soon cooing rapturously to each other.
Vhen met the lieutenant’s amused eye.
“It takes them that way sometimes,” the Rider said, then jerked his head. “Come on, I promise there are still plenty of good options left for you.”
Vhen didn’t mind too much. The eagles he’d seen so far were impressive and beautiful, but nothing that he’d wanted overmuch for himself. They suited his friends perfectly and he was happy for them, but he couldn’t deny he felt a touch apprehensive for himself. Whatever it was that had made even the most stoic of his friends step instantly forward to claim his miryhl ahead of everyone else, wasn’t anything Vhen had ever felt in his life. Perhaps he never would?
Lieutenant Dhori stopped again. He didn’t say anything, just stepped aside, revealing a miryhl standing in its little roped off enclosure. It was one of the larger ones, perched in a patch of sunlight, feathers glinting brown and gold in the glow. Vhen stepped up closer to the rope and peered into dark brown eyes, waiting for the feeling to hit him, for the rush of knowing, for a voice to whisper deep inside, “This one. Yes. Mine. This is the one.”
It didn’t happen. The miryhl peered curiously down at him, little feathers rising on its head in expectation.
They stared at each other for a long moment.
The eagle sighed and Vhen stepped back, shaking his head.
The lieutenant rested a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s try again,” he said, waving farewell to the rejected bird and moving them both along. Vhen tried not to feel too disappointed. Having seen his friends taken by such immediate and joyous delight, he’d hoped for the same himself.
Instead, nothing. Perhaps he should have expected it. Perhaps he should have known. Perhaps that happy little voice inside was the same thing that allowed other people to believe in gods. Perhaps that was why Vhen couldn’t hear or feel it. Perhaps he never would.
The lieutenant stopped and Vhen looked up, disappointment already dragging him down. This miryhl was glossy too, although not as big as the last one. Its feathers were a curious mix of black and caramel, making it appear mottled. Its wings looked oddly long compared to most miryhls and its neck seemed almost stretched. A bright gold beak finished the incongruous picture and Vhen was already shaking his head as he met the miryhl’s pale blue eyes.
“Yes,” he heard himself say, all unexpectedly. “This one.” Mine.
The odd mottled miryhl bounced off its perch, staring at him over the rope. They gazed at each other for a long, long moment.
Then the miryhl threw back its head on its overlong neck and laughed, sounding not unlike a throttled rooster.
Vhen jerked backwards, but the miryhl hooked its beak over his shoulder and dragged him in close before he could escape.
“No, no,” the miryhl purred, in a surprisingly soft voice. “You can’t unChoose me. You’re mine.”
Vhen stared desperately at Lieutenant Dhori beyond the curve of the mad miryhl’s wing.
“You made your Choice,” the silver-flecked man remarked completely unhelpfully. “Not even the gods can save you now.” He gave a wry salute and sauntered away, leaving Vhen trapped in the feathered embrace of his foolhardy Choice.
“We’re going to have such fun, you and I,” the miryhl whispered in his ear. “Such fun. You won’t regret Choosing me. I promise you won’t.” Except Vhen feared he already did.
~ Next Chapter ~
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