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Sorry I missed a week, should be back on track again now.
Let’s go flying!
ORLA FELT SICK. She stood on the flying field at the end of a long line of students and their brand new miryhls. Sunshine had been pouring down over Nimbys for the best part of a month, but today it was overcast, the sky heavy with the promise of rain. A gusty wind alternatively huffed and teased, ruffling feathers and fraying nerves.
“It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine, it will definitely be fine,” one of the Storm Peaks students was muttering a couple of places up the line, his knuckles white from the death grip he had on his miryhl’s stiff new reins.
“It will be fine,” a gentle voice murmured in Orla’s ear, and she felt a smooth beak rub against her plait. Feeling a tug, Orla tipped her head and saw Milk nibbling on the end of her braid. She winked a dark eye and straightened up, white feathers fluffing out as a great shadow rushed overhead.
Students and miryhls looked up and cooed with appreciation as Captain Stirla, his four lieutenants and their four sergeants swept over the landing field, the sound of their wings a vast whoosh above the capricious wind.
“Magnificent, aren’t they?” Milk sighed, right as Captain Stirla’s miryhl turned on a wing tip and glided into land.
Orla patted her miryhl’s neck. They would never be the biggest pair, but they would look just as wonderful in the air one day. She hoped.
The broad-shouldered captain swung down from his saddle and strode to where Mhylla Wrentherin already stood in front of the students. Everyone, miryhl and human alike, straightened up.
“Students and miryhls, you have made your Choice,” the big captain boomed in his impressive voice. “Now comes the first test of your partnership. A student who cannot fly is a sorrowful thing, but a miryhl alone is lonely. Only together can you command the skies. Only together can you become Rift Riders. You might think your journey started seven months ago. You might believe it doesn’t truly begin until we reach Aquila. You’d be wrong. It starts here, now, today, on this field, in these saddles. When your name is called, come forth, students and miryhls, and mould yourselves into Riders.”
* * *
“CAELO AND FYRA.”
Zett watched, heart in mouth, as his best friend strode confidently away from the dubious shelter of the rocks onto the open slope of the clearing. A compact miryhl awaited her there, a mahogany tint to its feathers that perfectly suited the red of Caelo’s hair. Lieutenant Cayn murmured instructions, which the watching students strained to overhear, but the ever-present Kaskad wind snatched them away before they could.
“I’m not sure I’m cut out for this Rider business,” someone muttered, as the students huddled together for warmth.
“Oh gods, she’s actually in the saddle.”
Zett kept his eyes fixed on his friend while the others muttered, grumbled, moaned and placed bets. He felt sick with nerves, but Caelo was laughing as she settled into her miryhl’s saddle, looking as if she’d done it a thousand times before. She shifted her leg forward while the lieutenant adjusted her stirrup, then leant forward herself to run her hand through Fyra’s red-tinted feathers.
“Maegla, preserve me. Maegla, protect me,” a desperate voice chanted over and over, as Cayn stepped back and took his hand off the miryhl’s bridle.
Caelo flashed a grin as she waved at the students by the rocks, then she was gone..
The students whooped and cheered as the eagle took off, leaving the ground behind and sweeping towards the cliff at the bottom of the slope. The watchers gasped as the miryhl tilted on a wing, turning almost side-on to the ground. Then the first new Kaskad pair whooshed back to the clearing, landing with a confident bounce.
“Yeah, Caelo!” someone shouted, leading the students in a rousing cheer. Zett was astonished to find it was him. They whistled, whooped and applauded, while Caelo sprang out of the saddle and bowed, blowing kisses to her adoring public.
Lieutenant Cayn rolled his eyes. “Calm down, rabble,” he shouted over the wind. “It was a test flight, not first place in the Kaskad to Nimbys Sprint. Settle your feathers. Yansan, Galin, you’re up next.”
* * *
“NEVHEN AND CEREYN.”
Vhen blew out a hard breath and turned to the curious creature beside him. Crazy Cereyn, he’d heard a miryhl mutter that morning when Vhen went to collect his new partner. For all that the bird did look a little unsettling, with his pale blue eyes, overly long wings and neck, and the curious caramel and black mottles of his feathers, at that precise moment he looked relatively benign.
Catching Vhen’s eye, he winked. “Shall we?” he asked, in a voice like smoke.
“Good luck,” his friends whispered, and Rhiddyl squeezed his hand as he passed. The sight of his dragon friend striding onto the field that morning with her own stunning miryhl in tow had been the only thing to disrupt the icy fear that had all but frozen Vhen in place while he watched other students and their miryhls take their first steps together along the path to becoming Riders.
Now it was his turn, and Vhen had never been more fond of the ground beneath his feet.
“Nevhen, is it?” The tall captain who had greeted them on the skyship gave him a reassuring smile, while the woman beside him checked the miryhl’s tack with brusque, practised motions. “Nothing to fret about. It’s just a quick flight today, more to show off to your friends than anything else. You’re from the Storm Peaks?”
Vhen heard the captain’s doubt and knew he didn’t look the part. For all that the Storm Peaks was a hub of world trade, Sutherall wasn’t, and Vhen very much looked like the product of his homeland: bronze-brown skin, straight black hair, dark eyes with a tint of amber.
His Storm Peaks friends didn’t look the least bit like each other, but none of them looked like him either, and they all had the tell-tale Storm Peakian knots in their hair, gifts from friends and family. Vhen’s hair was still ruthlessly short and too smooth to ever hold a knot for long.
The captain studied him for a long moment, then shrugged as if remembering that now was neither the time nor the place for curiosity. Nor, in fact, was it any of his business. Vhen lifted his chin, reminding himself that it didn’t matter where he’d started or how he’d come to be here, he was here now and a miryhl was standing alongside him, waiting for their joint journey to begin.
“Left foot here.” The woman – Mhylla Wrentherin, a name of legend, even in Sutherall – stepped up to his side, holding out the left stirrup. “Have you ridden before?”
Vhen nodded. He’d never flown on anything other than a skyship, but he’d ridden a horse back on his family’s estate. He knew how to mount.
“Up you get then.” She handed him the stirrup and moved to hold the miryhl’s head. Cereyn watched over his shoulder as Vhen placed his left foot in the leather loop and lifted himself up. The miryhl jerked, rising to his full height.
It wasn’t anything like mounting a horse. A horse’s back was flat, with plenty of room to either side. Cereyn’s back sloped downwards, meaning Vhen had to grab onto the front of the saddle or risk colliding with it and bouncing straight off. There were also wings to contend with, great long feathers that looked so very fragile as Vhen tried not to smack his knee into them.
He landed with more weight than he’d intended and clung to the high pommel with white-knuckled relief.
Cereyn grunted at the heavy landing and shuffled his wings over Vhen’s legs with a chuckle. The feathers were silky soft, but warm and strong as they rasped across Vhen’s boots and breeches. He reached out and touched the nearest one with breathless wonder.
“These are your safety straps.” Captain Stirla stepped up beside them, uncoiling two bands of leather from behind the saddle. “Chances are you won’t need them today. You’re not going far and you’re not rising high, but if you feel at all unsteady, tell me now and we’ll strap you in.”
“He’s fine,” Cereyn said, before Vhen could even process the words. Holding his wings out to either side, the miryhl rocked his weight and waggled his tail, swaying his passenger in the saddle. “See?”
Vhen clung to the pommel with both hands and tried not to slide off.
Captain Stirla’s mouth twitched. “On your neck be it, miryhl. He’s your Rider – it’s your responsibility to keep him on your back.”
“Ptcha!” Cereyn scoffed in a most unsettling manner. “He’s young. He’ll bounce.”
Captain Stirla patted Vhen on the knee. “Maegla help you,” he murmured, and stepped back. “All right, you know the drill by now. Down to the far end of the field and back. Not too high, not too fast, and nothing too showy. There’ll be time enough for all of that after we reach Aquila. Today’s about bonding. Try to stay together and don’t frighten each other too much.”
“Ha! Fear,” Cereyn sneered, snapping open his wings. “We feel no fear!” He bounded forward, throwing Vhen against the front of his saddle and almost out of it all together. If it hadn’t been for the high pommel, he would have toppled straight over Cereyn’s mottled neck. As it was he caught the top right in the guts and slammed back into the saddle with a wince.
“Gently!” Captain Stirla shouted, making Cereyn laugh again.
“Like a lamb,” the miryhl cooed, spreading his wings and tipping into a glide.
Breathless and sore, it took Vhen a moment to realise he was flying. Flying! His first time on miryhl-back, his first time off the ground on anything but a skyship. He was flying! They were flying!
Cereyn slammed the air with his wings, whooped and flipped over. And Vhen wished he’d bothered with the safety straps after all as his backside left the saddle again. There was no pommel to catch him this time and he smacked headfirst into the ground to the delightful sound of his miryhl’s curse.
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