Fun in the forest and the woes of a lonely dragon.
(Does anyone want a character list? I feel like we might need one for this book. Leave me a comment if so.)
ORLA WAS NO expert when it came to hunting and tracking, but she was certain it wasn’t usually this easy.
“Now if you look here, you’ll see -”
Lieutenant Honra didn’t attempt to stop the stampede, just stayed crouched in the dirt and sighed as students streamed around him, hot on the trail of their quarry. Whoops and yips filled the trees as the prey team broke cover, sprinting for safety as the hunters gave chase.
It was a good thing they weren’t supposed to be hunting for their own food, Orla thought as she trotted after Caelo down the trail. Up ahead Taryn was hot on Vhen’s heels, silent and determined as she ran. Others were less focused. Battle cries roared through the trees, shrieks and screams followed by laughter, all of which were often cut short by coughs, sneezes and one particularly loud cry of, “Ow!”
It was chaos and confusion; the complete opposite of the intended exercise. Orla couldn’t see what this foolishness was teaching them, except reasons not to run full pelt downhill through a forest.
Yelps and shrieks increased in frequency, including both Vhen and Taryn as she launched a desperate tackle and caught the lad around the knees. They dropped into a dell in a flurry of curses that left Vhen coughing and complaining in equal measure.
Orla was never in such danger, thanks to Caelo’s usual exuberance being heavily curtailed by her inability to breathe.
Halting on the edge of the dell to lean against a tree and wheeze, Caelo waved off Orla’s concern. “I’m fine,” she puffed, the crackling in her chest sounding like a fading bonfire. “Don’t fuss.” This was said to Zett who, contrary to the rules of the game, had switched from prey to mother hen.
“Drink this.” Rhiddyl dropped out of the trees from where she’d been observing, having been barred from participating in an effort to give everyone else a fair chance. It was hard to hide your scent from a dragon and just as hard to sneak up on one unawares.
No matter how hard Rhiddyl tried to fit in with the rest of the students, there were times when she simply couldn’t. Dropping effortlessly from a branch fifteen feet above their heads only further emphasised such things.
Caelo pulled a face, making no move to accept the bottle the dragon was offering. “That smells.”
“How do you know? Your nose has been blocked for the last quarter-moon.” Vhen scrambled out of the dell at the perfect moment to antagonise.
“It’ll do you good,” Zett wheedled, taking the bottle from Rhiddyl and offering it to Caelo. His dark eyes were large and pleading, much like a puppy. Orla didn’t think she would have been able to refuse him and she considered herself sensible and not the least bit sentimental.
Caelo pulled a face. “Give it to Vhen. He needs it more than me.”
While it was true Vhen needed to wipe his nose every other breath, he wasn’t the one shivering on a hot day and struggling to breathe after a relatively short downhill jog.
Zett didn’t say anything, just held the drink out and stared at Caelo.
She growled, although the wet, gravelly sound left her choking.
Zett opened the bottle and shoved it at her face.
“Fine, but if I drink, you have to too.”
“Fine,” Zett agreed, and took a deep swig before thrusting it back at Caelo. She eyed him suspiciously as he swallowed and smiled. “Not something I’d choose, but not the worst.”
Reassured, Caelo took a deep draft, choked and tried to spit it out. Except Zett had already slapped a hand over her mouth.
“Don’t fuss,” the quiet Havian boy teased.
Caelo glared at him, her amber eyes promising murder, but Zett was implacable. She swallowed, gagged and punched him in the arm.
“That was vile!”
Zett grinned and danced backwards, thrusting the bottle at the offended Rhiddyl as he passed. “But don’t you feel better? You certainly sound it.”
“I will kill you,” Caelo promised.
Zett was already running, laughing as he led her away through the woods. “Don’t be mad, Caelo, I was only trying to help.”
“By poisoning me?” the redhead screeched, sounding more like her usual self with every word.
Vhen chuckled, sniffed and reached for the bottle in Rhiddyl’s hand. “I don’t care if it tastes like horsat piss, that stuff clearly works miracles.” He took a deep swig.
Taryn hauled herself out of the dell, looking like she was wearing most of it, and shook her head. “I don’t even want to know what just happened.”
Vhen groaned, heaved and was sick at her feet.
“I really do not want to know.”
Rhiddyl looked more offended than ever, especially when Vhen clutched his belly and keeled over in the mud.
Taryn raised her eyebrows.
“You really, really don’t,” Orla said and smiled.
* * *
SOMETIMES IT WAS hard to be both a dragon and a Rift Rider. Such as now, when Rhiddyl accepted she wasn’t enjoying this summer camping experience as much as she had anticipated. Firstly, she wasn’t allowed to take part in most of the activities that kept the other students so entertained. As the lone dragon in the group, there was little point in learning the human way of doing things. What possible need had she to read tracks and trail signs when her nose was sensitive enough to do the same job in a quicker and much more efficient manner? Nor did she need to learn human methods of catching food when she’d been taking care of herself in the wild for over a century.
She couldn’t even play the silly hunting games with her friends because she was too good at hiding. Even in human form it took hardly any effort to scale one of the narrow pine trees and hide amongst the branches. A feat which she was constantly surprised to realise her friends could not emulate. A twenty, thirty, even fifty foot climb was easy for her, even without shifting to one of her handier shapes, but humans needed ropes and other equipment to do the same.
Rhiddyl studied the silver claws on her fingertips and sighed, while Lieutenants Cayn, Dhori and Thani took it in turns to tell the human students just how disappointed they were by their behaviour.
Rhiddyl had been thoroughly entertained watching the prey students break cover, leading the hunters to give chase, but they weren’t here to have fun. They were supposed to be learning.
If only someone would teach Rhiddyl something she didn’t already know.
Sighing, she cupped her chin in her hand and shared a sympathetic glance with Lieutenant Honra. He was a nice man. It had been his idea for Rhiddyl to put her morning to good use by returning to the citadel to ask Healer Morri for some of his special cough syrup. The other lieutenants usually waved her away dismissively after telling her to sit out this or that activity, but Honra always tried to make her feel included or useful somehow.
Not that it mattered, since her so-called friends didn’t even bother thanking her for taking so much trouble to help them. Caelo had been too busy trying to get even with Zett to be grateful, while Vhen kept insisting Rhiddyl had poisoned him. Melodramatic and rude. She’d expected better of Vhen; he was supposed to be her friend.
Feeling distinctly sulky, Rhiddyl sat at the edge of the camp beside the lake and hugged her much maligned cure to her chest. She didn’t have to put herself out for such ungrateful people. She didn’t have to care. She didn’t even have to waste her time here at all. She was a dragon, not a human, she could leave whenever she wanted.
“You’d best hope the wind doesn’t change, else you’ll be stuck with that face and I don’t think even a dragon can shift its way out of it.”
Rhiddyl slid her eyes to the right. Perfect. Her day only needed this. “Sunshine,” she growled. “What are you doing here?”
The prettiest eagle in Aquila raised her wing and preened a flight feather, nibbling delicately along the golden length before shuffling her wings back into line. “Unlike someone I might mention, I am obeying orders.”
Rhiddyl hugged her bottle and bared her teeth. “As am I,” she said, since her orders had been to sit somewhere out of the way while the lieutenants gave their little ‘talk’.
“Ooh, someone has ruffled your feathers,” the golden miryhl cooed, while the rest of the giant eagles glided over the forest canopy and alighted silently behind their humans. Most of the young Riders-in-training had their heads bowed. Not out of any sense of contrition, Rhiddyl suspected, but because of boredom. The lieutenants had been lecturing for a while now and any initial remorse had long since faded.
“I don’t have feathers,” Rhiddyl sniffed, not entirely correctly since her hair in this form was distinctly feathery. A point Sunshine proved by sticking her big beak in Rhiddyl’s fluffy mass and riffling messily.
“Feels like feathers to me.”
Rhiddyl slapped her away and shifted aside with a hiss, losing control of her form enough to turn into a lynx. One that was also covered in feathers instead of fur.
“Lots and lots of feathers!” Sunshine laughed, running her beak up and down Rhiddyl’s indignant sides.
She snarled but the giant eagle paid her no mind. Nor would she. Sunshine liked Rhiddyl’s lynx form. Not only was it beautiful enough to meet the miryhl’s exceedingly high standards, but it left Rhiddyl unable to talk. Sunshine much preferred the sound of her own voice to anyone else’s.
“Who’s a pretty kitty? Who is? Is it you?” the eagle babbled nonsensically. “I think it is. Ooh, so cute and fluffy and pretty and purple. Yes, you are. Yes, you are!”
Rhiddyl planted a fluffy paw in the middle of the bird’s forehead, right between her golden eyes, and shoved hard, careful not to flex her claws. Tempting as it was to take a swipe at the bird with which her Rider career was intrinsically bound, Rhiddyl would never hurt Sunshine. Nor any miryhl. They were too glorious and miraculous for that.
Great eagles, created by Clan dragons and Goddess Maegla to save humans from extinction, and given to the Rift Riders to protect the Overworld. They were a perfect reminder that miracles didn’t just happen, sometimes they flew.
The gruff call wasn’t a plea for refreshment, but one of recognition. It also heralded a great cacophony as the students spotted the miryhls and the miryhls rushed to greet their humans, once again crushing any plans the lieutenants might otherwise have had.
Anyone would think they’d been separated for months. It had barely been three days.
Sunshine ruffled her feathers and sighed happily. “Nice to see that some of us are appreciated.”
Rhiddyl narrowed her eyes and, still as a lynx, jumped onto her miryhl’s back, draping herself heavily around Sunshine’s wings, much to her partner’s dismay.
“Get off me, you mangy flea bag. Get off. Get off. Get oooooofff!” While Sunshine held her wings out and danced on the spot, shrieking about how undignified it all was, Rhiddyl smiled inwardly and stayed stubbornly in place. Sometimes it was good to be both a dragon and a Rift Rider.
~ Next Chapter ~
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