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Two more flights to go!
ORLA WATCHED THE girl with the pretty lilac hair tow her bratty golden miryhl back into line and stroked Milk’s neck, relieved she didn’t have a partner like that. Milk might have been small, but she was perfect for Orla, and her pure white feathers made her stand out just as much as Sunshine’s gold.
“Orla and Milk,” Captain Stirla called, but it wasn’t until Taryn poked her in the back that Orla realised what that meant.
“Good luck,” her friend whispered. Orla gulped.
“Come on,” Milk urged, strutting across the grass. Attached to each other via the leather reins, Orla trotted to catch up instead of being towed.
Stirla and Mhylla met her with reassuring smiles, checking over the tack and instructing her how to mount. Orla didn’t register a word, but some part of her must have heard because the next thing she knew she was on Milk’s back.
The ground wasn’t so very far away, but Orla wasn’t sure she liked being so disconnected from it. She’d ridden a doelyn before, but somehow the little deer-like creatures seemed so much more solid than a miryhl. Perhaps it was the feathers, so soft and buoyant beneath the saddle, slippery as silk across Orla’s clenched fingers.
Milk glanced over her shoulder with a worried eye and Mhylla showed Orla how to tie the safety straps. Almost no one had bothered with them at the beginning of the day, until that poor Storm Peak lad had been dumped by his odd-looking miryhl, then everyone had.
“You’ll be fine,” the legendary miryhl breeder assured her, tugging the straps into place and patting Orla on the knee. “You’re not going far and Milk won’t go too fast or too high, will you, Milk?”
Milk shook her head, the movement travelling down her body and rocking Orla in the saddle. “We’ll go steady.”
“Then away you go,” Captain Stirla urged, waving at the open field before them.
Girl and eagle breathed out in unison, then Milk was moving.
“Hold on!” she called, even as Orla dropped the reins in favour of gripping the saddle.
The miryhl leapt forward, Orla lurching back and forth in the saddle with each bound. Her stomach knotted, but she was just beginning to pick up the rhythm when Milk opened her wings and pushed off with a powerful kick.
Orla leant forward, bracing herself for the landing.
It didn’t come. There was no hard bounce, no force thrusting her back in the saddle. There was only wind in her face, air slicing across feathers and a breathless moment of weightlessness.
Milk flapped twice, lifting them higher, making Orla’s heart clench.
“Are you well?” her miryhl called.
Orla looked at the pale feathers, the ends wafting in the breeze, and below at where their giant shadow raced over the grass. They weren’t very high, less than Orla’s own height, but they weren’t connected to the ground at all.
They were flying.
Orla carefully straightened in the saddle and slowly, painfully slowly, prised her hands from the pommel. She didn’t slip, she didn’t shift, not even when Milk flapped her wings again. Centred perfectly in the middle of the saddle, she felt the miryhl rise beneath her, making her stomach skip and her heart lift.
“Orla?” Milk called over her shoulder, even as she guided them into a gentle turn. “Are you well?”
She felt so much better than that. Raising her hands in the air, she stretched her arms out to the sides as if she was flying too, tipped her head back to the overcast sky and laughed.
* * *
IT HAD BEEN a very long and tiresome day. Taryn didn’t even bother to mask a yawn behind her hand, sitting in the grass and smiling as Orla and her white miryhl came softly into land. Hearing her serious Ihran friend laugh had been the highlight of an otherwise boring afternoon. That and watching that poor Storm Peak boy come unstuck. It hadn’t been funny at the time, but since nothing remotely as interesting had happened all day, it did rather stick out in the memory. Especially as everyone else had already enjoyed their flights, giving them something to talk about with their neighbours at least.
All Taryn could do was sit in the grass and watch everyone else have fun.
“Taryn and Pinwheel,” Stirla finally called.
Yawning again, Taryn hauled herself off the ground and prodded her snoozing miryhl awake. He woke with a start, jumping to his feet and looking around, wide-eyed, wings trembling.
Taryn clenched her teeth, wishing she knew who or what had made the poor creature so fearful. He was a miryhl, a creation of Maegla, the fiercest thing in the skies. He should have evoked fear in the foolish, not feared them himself.
She twitched the reins to draw his panicked attention. “Come on, Pinwheel, it’s our turn.”
“Oh.” He blinked at her, blinked at the captain waiting across the field, then lowered his head. “Of c-course.”
She patted his neck and led him to where Stirla and Mhylla were waiting. If they had any thoughts about the strangeness of this terrified, moth-eaten miryhl being the Choice of a princess, they wisely kept it to themselves.
“You know the ropes by now, Taryn,” Stirla greeted cheerfully. “I don’t have to tell you one gods-blessed thing.”
“Thank Maegla,” Mhylla agreed, her voice hoarse from all the instructing she’d been doing. “This lad might be from South Imercian, but I’m sure he’s smart enough to have picked it up for himself.”
Taryn had already known Pinwheel couldn’t have been one of Mhylla’s, who would never have allowed any miryhl to get into this state. She ran her hand over her shivering eagle’s neck again, trying not to wince as scurf showered down.
“I have a nice herbal wash for that. Mhysra created it. You’re lucky she’s already at Aquila. Between her, Cumulo and Hurricane, they’ll soon sort this lad out.” Mhylla smoothed her hand along Pinwheel’s neck too, settling his shivers.
Part of Taryn wanted to protest that she would give Pinwheel all the care he needed, thank you very much, but the rest of her acknowledged that her sister-by-marriage was far better qualified. Not only was she Wingborn – bonded to her own miryhl, Cumulo, since birth – she’d been raised by Mhylla at Wrentheria. There wasn’t a person on the Overworld who knew miryhls better than she did. For the first time, Taryn was grateful Mhysra was at Aquila.
“On you get,” Stirla encouraged.
“Ready, Pinwheel?” Taryn asked, because she feared her poor miryhl had been given far too few choices in his life.
He nodded quickly and peered shyly at her over his shoulder. “If you p-please, P-Princess.”
“It’s Taryn,” she reminded him, for what felt like the fiftieth time. “We’re partners, remember. No titles between partners.”
He crackled his beak uncertainly, but stood firm as Taryn put her foot in the saddle and swung onto his back. While she had seen her brother, Mhysra and their friends climb aboard their own miryhls countless times before, it was the first time she’d done it for herself. She’d ridden horsats and bullwings, and even tried to sit on a pyrefly once – although she’d promptly dismounted before reaching the saddle, which had proved more than long enough for her – but never a miryhl.
Miryhls were different. Miryhls were special. Miryhls were for Rift Riders.
She settled into Pinwheel’s saddle and held her breath, hardly able to believe she was there.
He glanced timidly at her, fanning his tail and flexing his wings. “All right?”
“Perfectly,” she assured him, leaning forwards to stroke his neck. “Why don’t we show them how it’s done?”
Miryhls couldn’t smile, but Taryn felt the lift in Pinwheel’s spirits as he nodded and leapt. No gentle bounds for them, no momentum building skips. Her scrawny, moth-eaten, nervous miryhl leapt straight into the air and with three clawing beats of his wings, lifted them high above the flying field.
The bored and somewhat sleepy crowd murmured with appreciation as Pinwheel opened his wings and swept down the wind, racing across the field at a speed far above anything the other miryhls had shown today. Acting on instinct, Taryn tucked tight against his back, the wind whipping her hair back from her face, tugging tears from her eyes.
Her heart pounded in her chest, as fast as the rapid beats of Pinwheel’s wings. He zipped across the grass like a falcon, then tilted up, wings wide, sweeping high against the jagged cliff.
A pair of ravens cawed and cursed as they were startled from their roost. They swiftly scattered as Pinwheel snatched a playful talon in their direction, then he was twisting and Taryn’s world turned weightless as they dropped towards the ground.
Feathers flung wide with a crisp snap. Sweet smelling grass brushed against Taryn’s knees. Then they were dashing back towards the cheering crowd.
Fast, so fast. Too fast, Taryn thought, as Stirla and Mhylla grew larger with worrisome speed. Taryn could see the worry growing on their faces, see the tension in their bodies as they prepared to leap out of the way.
Pinwheel snapped open his wings one last time, ramming Taryn into the pommel with a grunt. The world stopped and twisted as the miryhl lost all speed and twirled to drop lightly onto the grass. Pinwheel indeed.
Mhylla began to clap, followed by Stirla, followed by Orla and all the watching students. Someone whistled, the miryhls shrieked and Taryn leant forward to ruffle Pinwheel’s neck.
“Did we show them?” he asked softly. “We did.” Laughing, Taryn tumbled out of the saddle and hugged him tight. “We most definitely did.”
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