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It’s now or never.
“VHEN!” CEREYN’S ANGUISHED scream broke through Taryn’s shattered numbness. She watched in astonishment as the long-winged miryhl dived, for all the world as if he was an osprey going fishing.
Except Rhiddyl was still rolling and the spot where the three humans had fallen was soon full of dragon wing.
Cereyn screamed a war cry that raised the hairs on the back of Taryn’s neck and swung his talons forward, about to attack Rhiddyl.
“No!” Sunshine barrelled into him from the side.
“You can’t swim! You’ll make it worse!” Milk shouted above the fight.
Watching the others carefully, Strike skimmed low across the icy water, looking for a chance to intervene. But Taryn wasn’t interested in their struggles, leaning forward, she swung her right leg over Strike’s back while the miryhl was distracted, and pushed free.
Several voices shrieked as Taryn plummeted feet-first towards the water. It took longer than she’d expected and she flinched as she hit the fragile ice and plunged into the deeps.
Dear gods, it was cold. It locked around her body like an iron cage, squeezing her lungs tight and punching her straight in the heart.
For a moment she could do nothing but sink, then instinct – or stubbornness – made her kick and she rushed back to the surface, clawing at the pallid light above her.
The miryhls were still screaming. Taryn gasped desperate breaths as the birds argued above her, until Milk spotted her and they started screaming at her instead.
She ignored them, treading water and turning until she saw the edge of Rhiddyl’s wing, half-buried in ice not too far away. She struck out towards it. Moving was agony but necessary unless she wanted to die.
No one was dying today. Not Taryn, not her friends. She reached the edge of Rhiddyl’s wing, took a deep breath and ducked beneath it. The light was strange. She’d expected darkness or a blue tint, but silver sparkles shimmered instead, drawing her back to the surface. Rhiddyl’s wing arched above the water, forming a protected pocket of unexpected warmth. She looked up, gaping in wonder at the silver veins framing stretches of sky blue skin, pulsing with magic and life. Unable to help herself, she reached for the nearest vein.
She whipped around. “Orla!” Her Ihran friend sat on the edge of Rhiddyl’s elbow, close to the shimmering dragon’s side. Her good arm was wrapped around Zett’s chest, while one of her legs was looped through Vhen’s makeshift harness. All of them were more in the water than out of it, but Taryn had expected to find them all floating facedown, if she found them at all and they hadn’t simply sunk to the bottom of the lake, never to be seen again.
“Blessed Maegla, you’re all right!” While the air under Rhiddyl’s wing was warm, the same could not be said for the water and Taryn’s legs and arms cramped painfully as she moved. Gritting her teeth, she pushed through the discomfort until she could free Vhen from Orla’s hold and haul him a little higher.
With their arms full of friends, Taryn and Orla couldn’t hug. They couldn’t even clasp hands since Orla’s working one was holding Zett, but the relief on Orla’s face was as good as both for Taryn. Until the Ihran looked around their shimmering cave and frowned.
Exhausted though she was, Taryn knew her job wasn’t over yet. “Now we get out of here,” she said, sighing as she positioned Vhen in front of her, lay back in the water and kicked off Rhiddyl’s sturdy side. “Wait for me.”
Unable to do anything else, Orla watched her swim away, towing Vhen through sparkles of dragon magic and melting slush. “Be careful!” her Ihran called.
Reaching the side edge of Rhiddyl’s wing, Taryn nodded over her shoulder, took a deep breath and ducked into the water again.
The ice pinched her face with needle fingers, pressuring her ribs to deflate her lungs as she kicked hard, hauling Vhen’s weight through the water. It would be so easy to stop, to let go and sink. Neither of them would know much about it. It was peaceful under the ice, quiet, dark where the sparkles of Rhiddyl’s magic surrendered to the wider lake gloom.
A deep groan sounded in the distance, a low hum that shuddered through her bones, turning her limp.
Her arms fell slack by her sides, leaden, too heavy to lift.
The weight of Vhen dragged her down and Taryn kicked again, remembering why she was there and what she was doing. She was saving her friends. No one would die today. Especially not anyone under her care. She kicked again and broke the surface, groaning as she dragged Vhen’s impossible weight up too.
“Vhen!” Cereyn circled above her, eyes wide, beak moving. He was talking, chattering away, but Taryn couldn’t understand a word. It was all she could do to float on her back, supporting Vhen’s head, trying to remember what was going on.
“Taryn! Taryn! Nataryn!”
The repetition of her name caught her attention and she frowned at the shapes wheeling above her, struggling to focus on their feathers and forms.
“Don’t call me that.” The despised nickname snapped her awake and she jolted, almost losing Vhen in the process.
Vhen! She’d almost forgotten she was saving him. Not just him, but Orla and Zett too. She couldn’t afford to stop now. They needed her. Wrapping an arm around Vhen’s shoulders, she felt for his rope and pulled it up from the depths. A good soaking hadn’t improved the quality of her braiding, but now was not the time to be picky.
“Here,” she called to the birds, her voice a weak and reedy thing. “Catch.” She threw it with all the strength of a newborn mouse. It barely cleared the water, flopping against the ice before sinking out of sight.
“Try again,” Strike encouraged.
“Wait,” Cereyn called, banking around and gliding low across the water, flexing his talons. “Now, now, now!”
Taryn hefted the rope again. It flopped onto the surface, barely visible before it sank.
“Ha!” Cereyn plunged his feet into the water and caught it, cursing as he was forced to flap fast and shallow to stop his wings from hitting the ice.
Taryn squinted against the cool downdraft, splitting out water spray and doing her best to shield Vhen’s face.
“Ha!” the miryhl said again, rising higher to where he could flap properly. “Now we’re moving!”
Taryn yelped as Vhen was snatched from her arms, the tug of the rope pulling him free and sending her under.
She surfaced, spluttering, and heard a familiar wail.
“No!” Cereyn shot into the air, the broken rope trailing below him. “We were doing so well!”
Taryn wanted to cry, but swam to where Vhen was rapidly sinking instead. She hugged him to her, feeling hopeless. She was so tired and if she didn’t get out of this water soon, she never would. What would happen to Orla and Zett then? The miryhls couldn’t rescue them and Rhiddyl was still unconscious. Only Taryn could do it, and right now, she was barely keeping herself alive.
“What do we do now?” Cereyn cried to his fellow miryhls, all of whom were circling above Taryn once more. “What do we do?”
“I suggest you let the professionals take over.”
Squinting through blurry eyes, Taryn decided she was hallucinating as two new miryhls joined the flock. Both of which were particularly large, one a distinctive pale marble, the other brown tinged with gold.
“It’s all right, Natty,” Cumulo called, as more miryhls arrived, carrying a transport boat strung on ropes below them. “Help is here.”
Then Lyrai was there, pulling her and Vhen up with Stirla’s help. Then she was wrapped, safe and warm in her brother’s arm for the first time in her life.
“You did it, Taryn,” he said. “You saved them. You’re safe now.”
Hugging her brother as tight as she possibly could, Taryn burst into tears.
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