Dragongift: Chapter 9, Part 1

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~ Previous Chapter ~

Since this isn’t the Tales of Stirla (alas), I wonder what happened to Mhysra, Lyrai and co after they flew into the Stormwash…


Nine
Storm Wrath

 11th Blizzard

MHYSRA WOKE ALONE. She knew it without opening her eyes. The ground beneath her was hard, damp and cold – unpleasant – and all around was silence. Frowning, she lifted her head and squinted at the glare of white surrounding her, then prodded the hard rock she was lying on. No wonder she ached, she thought, rubbing her fingers over the damp surface. Mist crept and curled around her and she struggled to figure out where she was and what had happened. Had they left Misthome already? Were mists like these usual during a Havian winter? Had the lieutenants completely lost their minds?

Growling in frustration, she gripped her head and squeezed her eyes shut, wracking her brain to remember. “Cumulo.” She remembered being with him. Where were they going? She tapped her clenched fist against her forehead, thinking hard. The last thing she could recall was flying in the gloomy dawn with Lieutenant Lyrai —

“And Dhori!” she told the mists triumphantly. They swayed around her, whispering softly.

Ignoring them, she pressed her hands to her temples and pummelled her memory some more. “Cumulo, Lyrai, Dhori,” she murmured. “Flying south.” To where? Where had they been going so early? Had they been infected by some strain of madness? After all, the only thing directly south of Misthome was…

“Maegla,” she whispered, a flood of images playing behind her clenched eyes. Now she remembered. They’d flown into the Stormwash.

The chaos had been enough to stop her heart, ripping her from Cumulo’s back and tossing them both through the air like dolls. The winds had battered her from all directions until she no longer knew whether she was flying or falling. Lightning had struck close enough to burn, while thunder shook her to her bones. She’d been torn apart, scattered wide, then thrown back together all in the space of a heartbeat. Now she was awake and alone, somewhere in the cold, whispering mists.

“Maegla,” she repeated, then cautiously pushed to her feet, patting her body in search of the injuries that simply weren’t there. It was miraculous, unless… “Am I dead?”

*

“HURRICANE! DHORI! MHYSRA!” Lyrai cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting over the pounding rain. Each drop was a whipping sting against his exposed skin, bruising even through his clothes. Shaking his head to clear his eyes, he looked around the rain-drenched emptiness. “Corin! Jaymes!”

Only the rain answered, but he stumbled across the pitted ground anyway. He might have been blown off course, but he was a lieutenant and refused to lose his students. Or his miryhl. “Hurricane!”

Over the hammering of the storm, a distant call reached his ears. Spinning towards it, Lyrai lost his footing on the loose stones. Catching himself with one hand, he took a deep breath and yelled, “Hurricane!

The sound came again, a faint cry, so he stumbled in search of it. Even when the stones slid away and threw him to his knees he kept going. Not even the thundering rain could stop him now. He was a lieutenant, and he refused to remain alone.

Until the ground vanished and night leapt up to embrace him.

*

“JAYMES?” CORIN WHISPERED, turning in the darkness that clung to her like a cloak, searching for the distant, elusive voice she’d heard. Rocks were firm under her hands, but she couldn’t see them. A gentle rain whispered over the rough ground, but it was the only sound apart from her breathing. “Wisp?”

Nothing, only the rain. She was alone.

“Anybody?” she called, raising her voice. “Is there anybody there?”

The darkness rippled, then the wind hit her with enough force to throw her backwards. No rocks rushed up to meet her and she fell screaming into the abyss.

*

THE WIND HOWLED in Jaymes’ face as he struggled to walk. Behind lay empty mists, ahead were rocks and cliffs. There wasn’t much to choose between the two, but forward always seemed more attractive than going back. So he pushed into the face of the wind, defying the storm that tried to hold him down. With every step his legs grew heavier, his body wearier, his clothing wetter, but he would not give in.

“I won’t,” he growled. “You can’t stop me.”

Lightning spat above his head, striking sparks in his hair and dancing shocks across his skin. But not even the heavy snarl of the thunder, pushing him down like a giant hand, could make him stop. Balling his fists, he turned side on to the roaring winds and sidled along the cliff face, until the storm twisted and spun him about, trying to confuse him into losing his bearings.

“I won’t,” he vowed, and the thunder growled. Winds shoved his shoulders, but he held his ground and leant into the gusts. “You can’t stop me!”

Lightning sparked, heat flashed and burning filled his mouth and nose, before the force of the strike lifted him clean off his feet, throwing him away from the cliff into the maw of the storm.

*

LYRAI LANDED WITH a grunt. The ground gave oddly under his weight, grasping and cushioning him, rather than breaking every bone in his body. It still knocked the wind out of him and he lay breathless, waiting for the world to become clear again.

White mist crept into the hollow his landing had made, curling around an ankle and brushing against his face. With it came a soft, gentle rain and he shifted onto his side to catch the drops in his mouth. It was warm and metallic, but welcome. After the downpour, this was sweet and his throat felt parched as if he’d been screaming for days. He might have, he couldn’t remember.

All he remembered was that he wasn’t supposed to be alone – and yet he was. In a hollow canyon, between two steep cliffs. Nothing but him, the mist, the rain and the rocks. The rain fell harder, tapping his face and chest like little drumming fingers. It was starting to hurt, so he gathered his weary strength and rolled onto his knees. Lightning flickered and the rain fell harder. Thunder growled like a grumpy bear, but he welcomed the noise. He didn’t feel so alone that way.

A distant scream brought his head up, and he twisted.

“Mhysra?” he murmured, remembering why he was there, who he’d been looking for. “Corin?”

Where he had gone.

“Gods.”

The storm exploded overhead.

*

“MUST FIND CUE, must find Cue, must find Cue.” Mhysra shuffled through the featureless mists, refusing to think about being dead. There were many stories about what a person could expect once they passed through Typhaestus’ hands, but she’d never paid much attention. She was seventeen years old, by the gods, she wasn’t supposed to think about the afterlife yet. Although as a Rift-Rider-in-training she probably should have listened a time or two.

“Bit bloody late now,” she grumbled, not happy that even her thoughts were babbling. The mist unnerved her, hanging around in a whispering curtain. Surely the whispering wasn’t normal. Then again, she wasn’t sure any of this was normal. She remembering falling from Cumulo and screaming, on and on, but she didn’t remember hitting the ground. Such a fall would have broken something, if not killed her outright…

“I’m not dead,” she said firmly, shaking her head against the insidious thoughts that were as crafty at creeping as the surrounding mists. “I have to find Cue first.”

Although if she really were dead, it was likely Cumulo would have followed her into the hereafter, so he would be close by anyway.

“Stop it!” she snapped, scowling at the mists. “I am not macabre. I do not think morbid thoughts. Stop putting them there. Go whisper at someone else.”

A bolt of lightning ripped open the sky and something heavy knocked her to the ground.

*

THE FALLER NO longer screamed. Lyrai sprinted as fast as the broken ground would allow, blinking furiously every time the brilliant lightning threatened to blind him. He didn’t bother shouting, saving his breath for the run, as the incessant thunder drowned out everything but the pounding rain.

Lightning struck the walls of the canyon, rattling the loose stones and sending them raining down. Ducking between them, he was almost knocked off his feet as the oppressive thunder rolled. Though it felt like hot hands had a hold of his lungs and were squeezing inwards, he didn’t let it slow him. The faller was still going, the scraps of her cloak fluttering around her limp body. He wasn’t going to make it, no matter how fast he ran. He was never going to catch her.

Thunder and lightning shattered the sky – and she hit the ground.

No!

The storm held its breath as Lyrai stumbled, righted himself, stumbled again and fell to his knees. Everything waited as he crawled the last few feet towards his student, despairing at what he would find.

“Corin,” he whispered, recognising her small frame and dark hair as rain tapped gently on her outstretched hand. “Corin.”

Lightning flickered, her fingers twitched and she turned a whole, uninjured face towards him. “Sir? What’s going on?”

Thunder chuckled overhead.


~ Next Chapter ~

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A Courtship of Dragons: Part 28

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A Courtship of Dragons is a M/M Romance short novel (approximately 60,000 words) told in short scenes, between two young dragons, Estenarven kin Boulderforce Clan Stoneheart and Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight. It’s pure fluff ‘n’ stuff and not intended to be anything other than that.

|| First Part || All Parts || Last Part ||

Fourth gift feelings.


28
Well…

MASTEKH STARED AT the little wooden figure on his palm. It was obviously old and had clearly been handled often. It was battered and scarred and featureless and strange, yet his fingers curled instantly around it, feeling a powerful need to protect.

He wondered where Estenarven had found it, how long he’d carried it for, how many memories it held. The fourth gift was traditionally something of meaning from the giver, though since there were no hard and fast rules as the order of the gifts it might also be something precious or handmade, like the fifth and sixth gifts.

Yet the strange little figure was clearly too old to have been made by Estenarven, and though Mastekh instinctively wanted to protect it, he didn’t think many would find it precious. Which meant it must be meaningful to Estenarven.

And the wretch had run off before Mastekh could ask any pertinent questions.

Or try and give the thing back, which was far more likely the reason why Estenarven had run away, infuriatingly wonderful dragon that he was.

Mastekh held the little figure up to the nearest glow globe and studied the flecks of long ago paint still clinging in tiny patches. The fourth gift. If he was truly serious about letting Estenarven go, believing he was better off without a soggy Rainstorm dragging him down, then Mastekh would have to give this back. Along with the jade pot and the daisy. He couldn’t do much about the memory of flying through the Rainstorm together, which he was selfishly glad about. Everything else, though, had to go back. The longer he kept them, the longer the courtship went on.

He stared at the figure again, but the thought of returning it, of never finding out what it meant to Estenarven, had his fingers closing into a fist, locking the figurine tight inside his grip.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give it back; he couldn’t halt their courtship. Just as he couldn’t lie to Estenarven and tell him that he didn’t want him, that he had to leave. There was nothing in the world he wanted less.

“You’re h-h-hopeless,” he whispered to himself, thumping his closed fist against his forehead.

Yet he was smiling as he did it. Because Estenarven had come for him – again. He’d heard the same gossip, realised they had become a laughingstock amongst the dragons, but he’d come looking for Mastekh anyway. Because Estenarven didn’t care.

He. Did. Not. Care. Not about gossip or gossipy dragons. He only claimed to care what Mastekh thought.

Which was too heady and wonderful a thing to give up.

He mattered. Mastekh mattered to Estenarven.

His heart felt so full it hurt.

Mastekh stared down at the figure in his hand again and felt his eyes fill with tears.

By the Family, what was he going to do with his stubborn, wonderful, foolish, glorious Boulderforce?

“Love h-him,” he vowed to the strange little figurine before tucking it into his pocket. “That’s all I can d-d-do.”

Which since he already did and had no idea how to stop doing so, should prove simple enough.

Patting the pocket where the figure lay between his naming shells, Mastekh headed back towards the kitchens. Who knew that saving lives and mending hearts would prove such hungry work?


More next week.

Take care, my lovelies!

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Dragongift: Chapter 8, Part 3

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There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

~ Previous Chapter ~

I want one of those hats!



Havia

“YOU’RE AN IDIOT. A gods-blasted, thrice-cursed, pea-brained fool,” Seiryn said, with what Stirla thought was astonishing restraint. “Tell me again how this unfathomable idea came about. I was in shock the first two times.”

Cradling his pounding head between his hands, Stirla related his time in Misthome. He recounted as much of his drunken night as he could remember, sparing himself no mercy. If he could have flayed off every patch of his skin he would have, if only it meant he could go back and never encounter that damned Lorfyn. He retraced his conversations with the boy, the failed attempt to incapacitate the young nobles with drink. Then he went through his meeting with Princess Neryth, unable to believe he’d gotten rid of one high born enthusiast only to be saddled with another that was ten times worse. He had the Overworld’s worst luck.

“Maegla,” Seiryn whispered once he was done, more plea than curse.

Stirla dropped his head to the table. “Kill me now. You don’t even have to make it quick.”

“Ha!” Seiryn reached into his saddle bag and pulled out a wineskin. “You’re not that lucky, boyo. I’ll let Captain Hylan deal with you. That is if he doesn’t keep you around for Myran to take a swing at. Gods, I hate this place,” the older lieutenant grumbled, dragging Stirla up and shoving the wineskin into his hand. “Half the nobles hate us, the rest want to join us and, for some ungodly reason, believe they have every right to. Maegla preserve us from enthusiasts with more money than sense. Drink up, lad, you’ve done a foolish thing, but you’re not the first. It’s been happening every other year since the Old Pyrefly stopped them joining the selection school.”

Stirla stopped with the wineskin just below his mouth. “Excuse me?”

“Whenever we Riders – squad, flurry, messenger – passes through, they always have to leave sharpish, in case a gang of nobles try hanging off their tails. Misthome is infamous for it. I was pleasantly surprised everything had stayed quiet this long. Now I understand why you were so eager to leave.”

“Huh.” Unimpressed that no one had bothered to warn him, Stirla soothed his wounded feelings by draining the wineskin. “Remind me to write Captain Grynt a letter of thanks.”

Seiryn actually chuckled, slapping Stirla’s back. “You’re training to be a captain, lad. It’s good practise. People will be interested to see how you get out of this without causing offence all over the place.”

As if he had a chance of getting out of it. Seiryn had clearly never spoken to Lorfyn or Neryth. There would be no escape, short of going to the king and asking him to lock both of them in his deepest dungeon. Then again, he wasn’t sure Misthome had dungeons. If it did, Stirla would bet one had his name on it, for recklessly corrupting the youth.

“Hallooooo!” a call drifted up from the eyries. “Halloo, Riders! Permission to come up!”

“Maegla bolt me and boil my innards,” Stirla groaned, head thumping back onto the table. “Kill me. Now.”

“Friend of yours?” Seiryn asked, amused. Until he lifted his wineskin and found it empty.

Ha.

“Go away!” Stirla shouted, not lifting his head.

“Now is that any way to greet your newest recruits, lieutenant?” Lorfyn asked cheerfully, popping up through the hatch, oblivious to the incredulous stares he was drawing from all quarters.

Stirla rolled his head sideways to look, quickly wishing he hadn’t. The boy wore an imitation Rider uniform topped off with the oddest contraption of a hat. It looked like a cross-eyed goat with digestion problems.

“I’d like to die now, please.”

“Do you like the hats?” Lorfyn asked, clambering the rest of the way up the ladder. “I designed them myself. It’s the Havian ram. From the royal crest. Thought it would be perfect for the Havian Special Force, to tell us apart from the Riders. Wouldn’t want to get us all mixed up now, would we?”

“What a terrible tragedy that would be,” a Rider solemnly agreed. It sounded like Theryn. Stirla decided before he died he would be taking at least one person with him. More if he could include those helping Lorfyn and his friends climb into the loft.

“Impalement, garrotting, poison, dismemberment, I’m not fussy,” he groaned, crossing his arms over his head and wishing he could make it all stop.

“Yes, the Havian Special Force. It was all Lieutenant Stirla’s idea!” Lorfyn’s happy babble filled the loft, the newcomers surrounded by fascinated Riders wanting to see their hats.

“Hanging, starvation, burning, you could throw me into the Cloud Sea, I really don’t mind.”

The chair opposite creaked as someone sat down. “I don’t think that’ll work,” Derrain said.

Stirla glared at the student. “I find it comforting. Don’t interrupt.”

“Very well, but I thought it prudent to let you know that they won’t go away if you ignore them.”

Even though he knew that, it was still the last thing Stirla wanted to hear. “You know when I said we couldn’t go after Lyrai and the others? I lied. It’s a great idea. Get your stuff, Derry, and I’ll meet you in the eyries.”

Derrain grinned. “I’ve changed my mind. I think I’ll stay here.”

“Your loss.” Stirla stood, saw the latest figure climbing through the hatch and slumped in defeat. The princess had arrived, carrying her own hat. “Why me?”

“Poor lieutenant,” Derrain murmured soothingly. “It just isn’t your day, is it?”

“Understatement.” His forehead landed back on the table with a loud enough thud to stop the babbling. Brain throbbing, he shut his eyes. “Wake me for my execution.”

Derrain patted his shoulder as he stood up. “You never know, sir, this might turn out to be a good thing. It might be just what we need to get Aquila back.”

And Stirla might sprout wings and waltz from here to Nimbys in a day, but neither seemed likely. Still, he was a lieutenant and he’d been trained to deal with situations like this. He knew what to do when things got completely out of control.

Delegate.

“You’re in charge, Derry. If you think it’s such a great idea, you can sort them out.” The silence that greeted his words was beautiful, if only that twit Lorfyn wasn’t still yammering in the background. He managed to ignore it long enough to raise his head and look at Derrain: the lad was stunned, jaw agape.

Recovering, he narrowed his eyes. “You are evil.”

Stirla smiled – well, smirked – because a trouble shared might not have been a trouble halved, but at least it wasn’t solely his problem anymore. “I try my best, Derry, I truly do.”

Evil,” the student repeated.

“Thank you.”

“You’re going to regret this,” he promised.

Stirla snorted and returned his forehead to the table. “Trust me, I already do.”

* * *

Aquila
10th Blizzard

FOUR DAYS OF steady, stealthy tracking became a two-day hard march, and Mouse returned to the den footsore and weary, with a fervent desire for roasted goat. He hated goats. Yet they arrived to find the place almost deserted. Even the healers were missing, aside from the ever-present Nehtl. He greeted them with a surprised double blink at the goats, before sending them into a deeper cavern in search of food.

It was there, as Mouse prised off his boots and grimaced at the stench, that Lieutenant Imaino found them. “Good work,” he praised, patting both Mouse and Greig on the shoulder before settling down with Rechar to hear the full story.

When he was done, the lieutenant pulled on his bottom lip, thinking through all he’d been told.

As the silence kept growing, Greig asked, “Where is everyone?”

“Raiding.” At their stunned silence Imaino looked up, a mischievous glint in his eye. “With the tower exploding and the alliance in turmoil, you didn’t expect us to sit on our hands, did you?”

“The tower exploded?” Mouse repeated dumbly.

“Golden light, smashed windows, cracks in the walls,” Imaino explained. “Which according to your info from Willym’s new friends was all thanks to the top man losing his temper. Why shouldn’t we go in and take back some of what’s actually ours?”

Greig and Rechar echoed the lieutenant’s excitement with grins and began pelting him with questions, but Mouse was not so keen. Pressing his back to the wall, he studied the new blisters on his chilblained feet while his stomach tied itself in knots. There were times when he wondered whether he’d been right to join the Riders. At moments like these, it became brutally obvious that he simply wasn’t as brave as his friends.

Too tired to fake an enthusiasm he didn’t feel, he left them to their plans and limped to the infirmary in search of something to stop the itching.

Nehtl met him with an understanding smile and a jar of salve. “This should help.”

When Mouse sat down without a word and started rubbing it on his purple toes, the healer settled beside him, offering a warm drink of dubious colour. “I’ve spent many years at Aquila,” Nehtl said, leaning against the wall with a sigh. “Treated a lot of wounds, made mistakes, learned a thing or two along the way.” He sipped his drink and waited while Mouse washed his hands. “Seen a lot of Riders come and go.”

Mouse sniffed his drink cautiously before taking a sip. Mint. There might have been other things in there as well, but the mint overpowered them all. He sighed with relief. “None as inept as me.”

Nehtl chuckled. “You’d be surprised. Besides you’ve just been unlucky. No one questions your place amongst us.”

Mouse squirmed, the unsettled feelings swirling and pressing against the knot in his stomach. “I’m not brave,” he blurted. “I don’t think it’s exciting to sneak into the citadel to stir up trouble. I can’t even pretend like I used to. We shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves. We’re safer if they don’t know we’re here.

“And I’m weak,” he added, trying to cover up his cowardly admission with bitter truth. “I walk with a limp and can’t run much either. I’m undersized and I can’t handle a sword very well. I’m not clever like Silveo, or good at talking to people like Greig. I’m not good at anything, really.”

For a long moment Nehtl said nothing, just drank his tea while Mouse blushed. Whatever else about him had changed, his tongue was as impetuous as ever.

Eventually, the healer put his mug down and linked his fingers loosely, staring into the fire. “I was like you, Mouse, when I was a Rider.”

“You?” Mouse squeaked, blinking and wondering what else had been in the tea. “You were a Rider?”

“Me.” Nehtl chuckled. “How else do you think I wound up here? In truth I’m a captain, unofficially and permanently assigned to Aquila, my rank unsaid but understood. A bit like the dean.”

Mouse choked on his drink.

“Careful, lad.” The healer’s smile was wry as he thumped him on the back. “I should have waited for you to swallow. Still, I thought you’d like to know, since I was like you when I was a student. Skinny, not as strong as the others. I didn’t like fighting, though I liked being outside. Was never much of a flier, truth be told, and I couldn’t get excited about risking my life. But saving others? Now that was something I could get enthusiastic about.”

For a moment Mouse’s heart lifted, wondering if one day he could be like Nehtl. Then he plunged back into his despair. “You’re clever, sir. Like Silveo. I’ve never been one for books.”

“But you follow orders perfectly, have nimble fingers and learn swift once you’ve been shown,” the healer told him, taking away his empty cup. “You were a real asset in the infirmaries all through the siege, not that I’d have wanted your apprenticeship to have started the way it did. Even with your limp, you’re not inept, Mouse. Look at Captain Myran, he manages.”

“I’m not Captain Myran.”

“True,” Nehtl agreed, since it was so obvious that they were very different people, even making allowances for age and experience. “But that doesn’t make you useless. I used to question myself all the time, especially after I graduated and started the real Rider work. But no matter how unsure I was, the moment I started taking care of someone it felt right. I might not be able to protect the Overworld with wing and sword, but I can still make a difference in my own way.

“I’ve seen a lot of Riders over the years, Mouse, and I’ve learned that they fall into two camps. Those that fight and those that mend. Captain Hylan is one who fights, Captain Fleik is a mender. Captain Myran’s a rare one, able to do both, but it takes all sorts to save the world, Mouse. Once the fighting’s over, someone has to pick up the pieces, and that’s a job that can be harder than all the rest.” Ruffling Mouse’s hair, Nehtl got up to tend a patient who was tossing with fever.

Chewing his lip, Mouse glanced over his shoulder at the others, still talking and planning fights with relish. Then he looked at Nehtl, picking up the pieces and mending once the damage had been done. Using the wall to push to his feet, he tested his weight on his sore feet and limped after Nehtl to see if he could help.


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Dragongift: Chapter 8, Part 2

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

~ Previous Chapter ~

Meanwhile, back at Aquila…



Aquila

TWILIGHT SETTLED ON the mountain as Mouse descended towards the shadowy keep, following in Rechar’s careful footprints. In the snow dampened quiet, even his breathing sounded loud. The slightest misstep could end in disaster. Yet as they reached the stubby thorn trees bordering the cleared ground before the gates, their caution was rewarded.

The nanny goat and kid munched on the thorn saplings with belligerent determination, occasionally stamping a cloven hoof in protest at the cold. Slipping his pack from his shoulders, Rechar drew out a length of rope and crept right, signalling for Greig to mirror him to the left. Leaving Mouse with the packs and the prospect of stopping a charging goat, should things not turn out well.

They didn’t. Whether the dim light caused Rechar to misjudge the distance or Greig’s stumble over a stone alerted her, the nanny threw up her head, spotted the danger and bounded back up the mountain. A swift tackle by Rechar was enough to bring the kid down, bleating in alarm, which caused the mother a moment’s hesitation and allowed Mouse to limp closer. As she turned to defend her baby, Mouse lunged, bringing her down in a flurry of bleats, hooves and pointed little horns.

By the time the others came to tie the nanny up, Mouse was bruised, sore and frozen. After such a noisy encounter, Rechar spared only enough time to help him up, brush down his cloak and pat his back before forcing them all on again. Whether the Heights were occupied or not, the goats had made enough noise to attract half the citadel.

Moving quickly but quietly, Rechar took them back into the forests above the Heights, circling broadly around before leading them down into the valley again. Yet, for all his caution, it was Greig who dragged them into the undergrowth when voices sounded up ahead.

“Why the intrigue?” drawled an all-too-familiar and highly despised voice. “Do you think meeting in the dark, unnecessarily far from the citadel on such a bitter night will make you more interesting?” It was Lieutenant Willym – and he wasn’t alone.

“We have little need for intrigue, my lord,” said an unknown voice, one that made all the hairs on Mouse’s arms stand up, it was so lacking in warmth. “And you will be grateful for both the dark and the distance.”

“Indeed?” Willym’s voice was the epitome of bored indifference.

“Indeed,” agreed the other, coldly amused. “We seek a deal.”

“I don’t make deals with pirates,” Willym replied haughtily, though his continued survival implied otherwise.

“Perhaps now is the time to start. As a man so fond of winning, my lord, it would be a shame for you to back the losing side.”

Silence fell, broken only by the low, rhythmic grinding of goat teeth.

Then: “Speak.”

Another pause as soft footsteps crunched over snow. Mouse and his friends ducked lower, tugging the goats down at the stranger’s approach. The beasts’ protests were rudely muffled beneath Rechar’s cloak.

“Admiral Akavia is… displeased,” the man said, too close to their hiding place for Mouse’s comfort. “She tires of her people getting eaten.”

“Then she should take better care of them,” Willym replied, as insouciant as ever.

A cold chuckle. “Perhaps, but why should she? Allies do not eat each other.”

“And lambs should not seek shelter with wolves. Only fools make alliances with the kaz-naghkt.”

“And yet you serve Lord Yullik?” The unknown man sounded amused. “You would be safer with the wolves. Did you not feel the explosion earlier? Such a temper,” he tsked. “So untamed and dangerous, particularly to those he is closest to. So dangerous to himself. Have you seen him today?”

“The well-being of Lord Yullik is no concern of mine,” Willym retorted, voice fading as he walked away. “If this is all you have to say, take your silent sister and go back to your mistress. Any complaints she has about Lord Yullik must be taken up with him.”

“Cowardly, lieutenant?” a second cool voice asked, speaking for the first time: the silent sister.

Boots scuffed snow and undergrowth crackled as Willym turned back. “I am no coward, madam. And were you male you would answer to my sword for that.”

Metal sang as a low chuckle hummed through the clearing. “Scared to fight a woman, my lord? I am no man, but I can still oblige your honour.”

“Sister.” Softly spoken, but with a power that raised bumps on Mouse’s skin. “It is not time for that.”

The disappointed sigh that followed the sheathing of the sword was ripe with regret. Mouse wished he could have seen Willym’s face.

“Lord Willym,” the man said. “We wish to make a deal with you concerning your master.”

“I call no man master,” Willym replied, his tight words indicative of his barely leashed anger.

“Then it is well he is not one,” the woman murmured.

A puzzled silence followed, and Mouse didn’t think he was the only one confused by the fresh twist of the conversation. “Be that as it may,” Willym spoke slowly as though dealing with lunatics. “I cannot see what the admiral wants of me. I have no influence over Lord Yullik. As I said before, if she has any complaints she should speak to him herself.”

“He refuses to see her.”

“Then he is more wise than I gave him credit for.”

“Be that as it may,” the man echoed mockingly, “you see far more of him than we humble pirates.” Mouse almost let out a disbelieving snort – this man had never been humble.

“And my words have no effect on him.” Willym sounded disgruntled. “I can do nothing for your mistress. Find some other way to speak with him.”

“We do not wish to speak with him,” the woman said.

“We want you to watch him,” her brother continued.

“Watch him, remember every word he speaks in your presence, then tell us.” They spoke together, creating an unnatural echo. “That is all we ask.”

“You wish me to spy?” Willym demanded archly.

“You call no man master, my lord,” the woman reminded him. “What harm to share your thoughts about Lord Yullik with your friends?”

“We are not friends.”

The strangers laughed, making Mouse shudder.

“Think about it,” the man suggested lazily, as if it mattered little what Willym chose to do. “If only fools make alliances with the kaz-naghkt, what does that say of those who serve the one who controls them? You may wish for friends before long, my lord.”

Another silence, then: “I will think about it.”

“That is all we ask,” the man agreed, and footsteps retreated into the night. “Take care, Lord Willym. We will speak again.”

“Not if I can help it,” came the soft reply, snow crunching inches from Mouse’s nose.

Willym’s angry footsteps soon faded out of hearing and night settled over the woods, bringing with it flakes of snow. It was the goats who moved first, protesting the tight hold Rechar had on their tethers.

As if a spell had been broken, the Rider crawled out of the undergrowth, dusted himself off then tucked the kid beneath his arm. “Come on,” he ordered the students. “The lieutenant needs to hear about this.”

Mouse exchanged a grimace with Greig, reminded of Willym’s former rank. Of all the people lost he would be the one to survive. Even at Aquila, in the depths of winter, life was never fair. Mouse didn’t know why he felt surprised. With Willym allied to the kaz-naghkt, he’d simply found where he truly belonged.

9th Blizzard

HE WAS COLD, truly, deeply, bone-achingly cold, in a way he hadn’t been since he was a small child, hiding from his parents’ murderers. Frowning at the memory, Yullik peeled open his eyes. Frost – white, glittering, perfect – covered every part of the room, including him. He moved his heavy tongue around his dry, swollen mouth and licked at the inside of his lips until he could open them without tearing his skin. That done, he breathed for the first time since waking, wincing as his nostrils unstuck from their frozen state. The entire right side of his body was locked to the floor by ice, his exposed skin burning from the prolonged contact with such cold.

Some would take this as a valuable lesson against losing one’s temper. Yullik inhaled deeply, closed his eyes and called to his blood, which had mostly withdrawn after his flagrant – and utterly pointless – waste of power. Had he slept away an entire day? He hoped for his servants’ sake that they hadn’t left him like this for any longer.

There was nothing like thoughts of punishment to warm the blood, and heat washed through him with exquisite agony. He flexed the blackened fingers of his right hand, pinned beneath him all night. Bones cracked and skin split, but nothing fell off, so Yullik counted himself lucky as he peeled his face from the thawing floor. Water dripped as his body heat spread into the room, melting the ice into a flood.

Yullik hated being wet even more than he hated being cold, but a night of deep hibernation had replenished his energy and power reserves to a pleasing degree. So, once free of the ice’s embrace, he raised his hands and pulled the moisture from the floor, the furnishings and himself. Droplets drifted upwards, forming large, flowing bubbles, which he directed out of the shattered windows. Once beyond the confines of the tower, they burst, cascading onto the snow far below. He found it strangely satisfying to see it hit the snow with a steamy hiss. As destructive and troublesome as water frequently was, particularly to him, it was good to know it didn’t always win.

All things in balance, as his father used to say. Yullik scowled at the rogue thought, having blocked out those memories long ago. “A full night’s sleep isn’t always good for me,” he muttered, studying the cracks in the walls. They snaked like bolts of lightning from floor to ceiling – and no doubt beyond.

Typical. This was why he hated losing his temper – it wasted so much energy. With that in mind, he approached the biggest fracture, wide enough for him to put two fingers inside and not touch the sides. It really wouldn’t do. The last thing he wanted was for the walls to fall in on him while he was plotting someone else’s downfall. It would be embarrassing. He wriggled his fingers and waited for the golden light to gather, then tapped either side of the fissure as high as he could reach. A hand span below he tapped again, and so on until he reached the floor.

“Like to like,” he commanded, clapping his hands.

Glowing threads leapt between the dots, from one side to the other, throwing out further webs to connect the ones above and below. He raised his hand and a golden thread of light spun into life between his thumb and index fingertip.

“Be made one.”

Steadily, slowly, dragging against a force far greater than air, Yullik brought his thumb and finger together. The threads on the wall did the same, making stone groan and plaster flake. The tower shivered and, with a flash of bright light, the crack was sealed. All signs it had ever existed vanished, leaving that section of the wall whole and perfect.

Yullik allowed himself a smug smile as the leftover light crackled back to his hands. “One down,” he murmured, looking around the wrecked room with a sigh, “twenty-four to go.”


~ Next Chapter ~

Thanks for reading!

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A Courtship of Dragons: Part 27

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A Courtship of Dragons is a M/M Romance short novel (approximately 60,000 words) told in short scenes, between two young dragons, Estenarven kin Boulderforce Clan Stoneheart and Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight. It’s pure fluff ‘n’ stuff and not intended to be anything other than that.

|| First Part || All Parts || Last Part ||

Time to talk…


27
Talk

ESTENARVEN WAS WARM and dry, snuggled down on something soft. The ground rose and fell ever so gently beneath him, making him think he was back on the Skylark. Back in Elder Blazeborn’s cabin with Mastekh sleeping tantalisingly close, yet still out of reach. Estenarven could smell him, even in sleep, the mossy, damp, water lily scent of him somehow stronger than ever.

Not wanting to get up yet, even though he knew he probably should, Estenarven refused to open his eyes and instead snuggled deeper into his bedding. Something cool was pressed against his cheek, a slightly abrasive hardness that didn’t seem to fit with everything else. Frowning in his doze, Estenarven flexed his fingers and pressed against the object he was clinging to.

Hard, sharp, then smooth and cool. He stroked his palm over the smoothness and grunted as his world turned over and he was unceremoniously dumped onto a bed of soggy moss.

“Neurgh?” he said, as eloquent as ever, raising his head from the moss and spitting out his inadvertent mouthful. It might be soft to land on, but Sibling Stone, he definitely did not want to eat the stuff.

Making more incoherent noises, he shoved up on his hands and knees and spat uselessly for a few moments, trying to remove the unwanted taste of pondweed and wet feet from his mouth. Realising it was a fruitless endeavour, he sat back on his heels and scrubbed his arm across his mouth, looking up and up at the Rainstorm sitting demurely beside him, wings half mantled, head curiously tilted to one side, absently rubbing the smooth, sensitive webbing of one front foot with the other.

And it all came rushing back. There was no Skylark, no soft, gentle sleep in a cabin with Mastekh close, but not quite close enough. Not here, not now.

Instead there had been gossip and hurt feelings and a chase through the tower. Then water and… Estenarven didn’t remember much after that.

A quick glance around told him that they were still in the cavern beside the gushing waterfall, but not only was Estenarven no longer in the water, he wasn’t even wet, except where he’d recently landed in a pile of soggy moss.

“Mastekh?” he said tentatively, uncertain where they stood now that he’d almost drowned himself and had apparently needed to be rescued. He wished his fellow aide would shed his scales and shrink down to human size. Mastekh might not have been very big for a dragon, but he currently topped Estenarven’s kneeling height many times over and Estenarven wasn’t used to feeling small. He didn’t like it.

Great, shimmering green eyes blinked down at him as the crest on top of Mastekh’s head rose, the side fins where his ears would be fanning out. Neck flexing to full height, the Rainstorm tilted his chin and looked down his long, narrow snout.

Unsure what to expect, Estenarven swallowed hard and dredged up his most charming smile. It was a bit wobbly, but he knew it was an expression Mastekh could rarely resist. Estenarven counted it amongst his greatest assets – and his most effective weapons.

Mastekh growled – he actually growled, like a feral, uncivilised wyvern – and dropped his head until his soggy, grey-blue snout was pressed right against Estenarven’s chest.

Startled, Estenarven leant backwards, knees protesting the strain, eyes wide, charming smile gone. “Mastekh?” he squeaked.

“Why?” The angry Rainstorm beast snarled, giving him a hard nudge in the chest that sent him toppling onto his back. “Why d-did you d-d-do it?” The question bubbled up as if from the depths, words popping like angry bubbles.

Holding up his hands in a defenceless plea, Estenarven shook his head. “I had to find you.”

Growling, Mastekh withdrew his head and stomped angrily away. Whether by accident or design, his long tail flicked around and smacked Estenarven across the face. Cursing in surprise, he curled away from the soggy limb and rolled over on the moss.

When he sat up he found a distinctly human-shaped Mastekh glaring down at him, hands on hips, scowl firmly on his face. Probably not an accident then. Estenarven winced, rubbing his tingling cheek and hunching his shoulders. He might be more than a head taller in this form, but sitting at Mastekh’s feet, he felt small and meek and exceedingly sorry.

“You f-fool,” Mastekh snarled, dropping to his knees in the moss the better to thump Estenarven on the chest with his fists.

He emitted a feeble “Ow,” and rubbed the spot, even though it didn’t really hurt. Mastekh wouldn’t hurt him, not even when he was so angry his face had turned entirely grey.

Mastekh thumped him again for good measure. “What were you th-th-thinking? You’re a B-Boulderforce. You can’t s-s-swim!”

Hearing the real distress in his Rainstorm’s voice and seeing the way he was shaking, Estenarven gave into his instincts and wrapped his arms around Mastekh. Though the Rainstorm wriggled and continued to swat at him, he wasn’t really trying to escape.

He was angry. He’d been frightened. But he was here and he was Estenarven’s to comfort and contain. Even if Estenarven was to blame for all of it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, burying his face against Mastekh’s neck and breathing in the cool, clean scent of him. “I’m so sorry, Puddle.”

“Never d-d-do that a-g-gain,” Mastekh growled, pummelling him on the back for good measure. Then he sagged limply in Estenarven’s grip and let out a sob. “I thought I’d l-l-lost you. Stupid St-Stoneheart.”

“Never,” Estenarven vowed, squeezing Mastekh until finally, thankfully, his arms gripped him back as equally hard in return. “You could never lose me. Don’t you understand yet, Puddle? I’m yours. Eternally and entirely yours.”

Shaking, Mastekh buried his head against Estenarven’s chest and didn’t answer. So Estenarven held him, rocking slowly from side to side, waiting for the storm to pass.

He knew it would be worth it. It would always be worth it, especially if the chance to hold Mastekh was his prize.

After a seemingly endless moment, Mastekh regained control of himself and pushed free of Estenarven’s grip. Swiping at the moisture on his face, the Rainstorm folded his arms across his chest and shuffled out of arm’s reach on his knees. Then he glared.

“What were you th-thinking?” he demanded again, the feral growl from earlier back in his voice.

A light chill chased up Estenarven’s spine and he tried not to reveal just how attractive he found that sound. It probably wasn’t appropriate to be attracted to such a tone at such a moment, and he doubted Mastekh would appreciate the knowledge when he was trying to be serious. Still, Estenarven filed the thought away for later exploration and summoned up another smile. This one was a little bit sad and rather wistful.

“You were upset. I wanted to find you.”

“You couldn’t h-have waited until d-dinner?” Mastekh sniffed.

Estenarven snorted. “Would you have shown up for it? The way you fled, I feared I might never see you again.”

Mastekh looked away, not denying anything. Instead he shifted his hands back to his hips and brought back the glare. “So you t-tried to d-d-drown yourself?”

“Got your attention, didn’t it?” Estenarven replied teasingly, unable to help flirting even at a moment like that.

Mastekh’s arms dropped by his sides as his mouth formed a hard, narrow line His jaw worked noiselessly for a long moment, then his fists clenched and he growled.

Estenarven didn’t even try and hide his reaction this time. His smile turned lazy, his eyes half closed and he allowed his shiver to show.

“St-stop it!” Mastekh snapped. “This is s-s-serious!”

“So is this.” Estenarven waved a hand up and down himself and shivered again. “I like you as you always are, Puddle, but I can’t deny this angry, growly Mastekh is a delicious surprise. Who knew you could be so… forceful?”

Snarling, Mastekh shoved Estenarven into the moss again.

Except this time Estenarven was prepared for the move and, since Mastekh had helpfully shrunk to a smaller, more manageable size, it took very little effort to grab his upper arms and drag him along for the fall. Landing on his back, Mastekh flopped gracelessly over his chest, Estenarven smiled smugly.

“L-l-let me go,” Mastekh growled, putting them nose to nose after a few moments of useless tugging failed to free him from Estenarven’s grip.

Having no intention of doing anything so foolish, Estenarven curled a leg around one of Mastekh’s and easily flipped them over. Grinning with triumph, he settled his heavier weight on top of the Rainstorm and lowered his nose to brush teasingly against Mastekh’s.

“Make me,” he challenged softly.

Mastekh snapped his teeth, clearly in no mood to kiss and make up. Claws pricked warningly against Estenarven’s sides and Mastekh arched his back, trying to throw the other dragon off him.

Trying not to take too much pleasure in his escape attempts, Estenarven held very still, knowing his greater Stoneheart mass would do most of the work for him. Besides, Mastekh clearly had a lot of anger and frustration to work out, so he let him snap and snarl and wriggle fruitlessly for as long as he wished. If Mastekh truly wanted to get away, he could use those claws and teeth and really fight – Estenarven wouldn’t fight back. Or he could shift.

The fact that he did neither gave Estenarven hope.

As did the way Mastekh kept arching against him. The move was useless in the general escape scheme of things, but when it came to the private fight between the two of them… Estenarven couldn’t deny that each full body caress was very effective.

His Rainstorm might not be quite ready to kiss and make up just yet, but he also wasn’t above a little teasing.

“You’re b-b-better off without m-me,” Mastekh finally grumbled, once he’d run out of energy and stopped fighting. Now he lay still and quiescent beneath Estenarven, head turned stubbornly away.

“If you truly think that,” Estenarven murmured, resting his forearms alongside Mastekh’s head and encouraging him to face him once more, “you should have let me drown.”

Green eyes clashed with his, wide and horrified. “I could n-n-never let you d-drown!”

Stroking the back of his fingers against Mastekh’s cool, grey-tinged cheek, he smiled sadly. “Not in water, but without you, Puddle, I’ll drown anyway.”

His Rainstorm frowned at him. “N-nonsense.”

Estenarven shook his head. “Now that I’ve had a taste of you, beloved, I don’t want to live without you.”

Rolling his eyes, Mastekh began to struggle again, bringing his surprisingly sharp elbows into play. Cursing, Estenarven took evasive action and moved off him, but remained within easy tackling distance in case his Rainstorm decided to flee again.

“You’d th-thrive without me. I’m no g-g-good for you,” Mastekh insisted, getting to his feet.

“I might survive,” Estenarven corrected, standing up and ducking his head to try and catch Mastekh’s eye again as he looked aside once more. “But it wouldn’t be living, it would just be existing. I love you, Mastekh.”

Watery green eyes stared into his, faintly pleading. “You c-c-can’t.”

Estenarven’s mouth twisted in a wry half-smile. “Haven’t you learnt better than to tell a Boulderforce what to do? We’re stone stubborn -”

“And twice as f-f-foolish,” Mastekh agreed, with a soggy little chuckle. “You could h-have anyone. Jesral s-said -”

“Forget Jessie. Forget everyone. I don’t want anyone, Mastekh, I want you. You’re all that matters. Who cares what anyone else thinks?”

“I c-care.” Mastekh folded his arms across his chest again. It seemed Estenarven wasn’t the only stone stubborn one around here.

“Why?” he asked.

For such a small word, Mastekh gave it a lot of thought, until he finally offered up a sad smile of his own. “I won’t b-b-bring you d-down.”

“You won’t,” Estenarven agreed.

“They’re l-laughing at us,” Mastekh’s voice dropped to an ashamed whisper. “At you. I’m u-used to it. You sh-shouldn’t be.”

Now Estenarven was the one getting angry. “Neither should you. No one should be laughing at you, Puddle. I dare them to do it in my presence.”

Mastekh smiled that sad, defeated smile again. “See. I b-b-bring you down.”

Estenarven frowned at him. “Even if I wasn’t in love with you, I’d still set people straight. No one should be laughed at for being who they are. It’s a horrible way to be.”

A soft snort answered that, making Estenarven’s frown deepen. He hated it when his Puddle was sceptical. Mastekh should never be that way. It made Estenarven wonder about what it was like growing up in the Flowflight Clan, though he had a feeling he wouldn’t like to find out.

Moving slowly, he caught one of Mastekh’s hands and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m not afraid of gossip.”

“You sh-should be,” came the stubborn reply. “It’s b-better if no one kn-knows about us.”

“The Riders know,” Estenarven pointed out. “You’re the one that told them. And the dracos – they’ve been helping you all along.”

Mastekh gave a sharp shake of his head. “That’s d-different. They’re d-different. Humans and s-s-servants are not d-dragons. They don’t m-matter.”

Surprised to hear such a sentiment from Mastekh, Estenarven dropped his hand. “They matter to me,” he said sharply. “I thought they mattered to you too. They’re our friends. The dracos love you.”

“You’re just p-proving my p-point.” Mastekh hugged himself and sighed. “A f-friend to humans and d-dracos isn’t m-much of a d-dragon. You deserve b-b-better.”

As he turned to leave, Estenarven jumped forward and seized him by the shoulders. He gave him a firm shake. “Now who’s talking nonsense,” he growled. “If you don’t want me, Puddle, just say it. Stop making up stupid excuses. If any opinions don’t matter, it’s those of the dragons who will gossip and laugh at us for not meeting their ridiculous standards. I like our friends, and yes, I care what those friends think of us, but no one else. I love you. Don’t tell me what I do and don’t deserve when all I want is you.”

He took a deep breath before continuing: “But if you’ve changed your mind, if this courtship isn’t what you want anymore, tell me. Send me away. I’ll go. I won’t fuss or fight. But only if I hear the words. Tell me you don’t want me. Tell me to leave.”

Wide green eyes stared at him in the globe light, out of a face that had gone deathly pale. Mastekh’s hands shifted until he gripped both of Estenarven’s wrists where he held his shoulders. The Rainstorm’s grip tightened, as if he needed the support of something sturdy. He licked his lips.

Eyes skittering away from Estenarven’s, Mastekh huffed out a hard breath. “I…” he began, swallowed and closed his eyes. “I d-d-d-” He coughed and tried again. “I d-d-don… I w-w-w-want you to l-l-l-l-…”

Estenarven allowed him to go on like this for a little while longer, each stutter becoming more pronounced, each lie becoming more difficult to tell. The bubbles in Mastekh’s voice popped all the words, until, finally, Estenarven moved his hands from the Rainstorm’s shoulders to his cheeks. Turning his face towards him, he bent his head until their forehead pressed gently together.

“Puddle,” he murmured, cutting through the stuttering words. “Stop lying to me.”

“I’m not l-l-lying!” Mastekh was indignant. “I d-d-d-”

“No, you’re not lying,” Estenarven agreed. “You’re a terrible liar. You can’t even get the words out.”

“I c-can,” he protested. “And I w-w-want you to l-l-l-”

Estenarven kissed him, fierce and strong, hauling Mastekh in close until all the lies and hurt were squeezed out between them, leaving nothing but passion and the feelings that neither could deny.

Only when Mastekh’s hands were clutching him hard enough around the neck to near-choke him, and one of the Rainstorm’s legs had somehow wrapped itself around his waist, did Estenarven relent and soften their kiss.

Face flaming green, Mastekh untangled himself and stumbled away a few paces, hands pressed against his mouth. “This changes n-n-nothing,” he mumbled through his fingers.

Estenarven grinned. “Of course not, love.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the little wooden figure, turned Mastekh’s hand over and placed it firmly in his palm. “We’re exactly where we were this morning. Happy fourth gift, Puddle. Thank you for saving my life for mine.”

Stealing another kiss from the spluttering Rainstorm’s mouth, he bid a hasty retreat before Mastekh gave into his incoherent frustration and decided a drowned Boulderforce wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Whistling cheerfully, Estenarven sauntered back through the tunnel – as well as one could saunter when bent in half and squeezing through gaps not designed for one’s impressive stature anyway – winked at the nearest dracos as he left the kitchens and jogged towards the dining hall.

Now would probably be an excellent time to leave Mastekh alone for a bit. In the meantime, there was a certain gossiping young Lightstorm he needed to have a word with, and if there were a few Rift Riders around to help him prove a few points, all the better.


More next week.

Take care, my lovelies!

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Dragongift: Chapter 8, Part 1

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

~ Previous Chapter ~

A longer than usual update this morning, since there’s no easy way to split this scene. I’m sure Stirla would have preferred I’d found a way, though. Poor lieutenant, his stay is getting worse.


Eight
Special Forces

“There is no possible way that I, or my men, can be ready to leave today, lieutenant. By the time we’ve gathered our gear, and taken leave of Corporal Ferryth and the city, it will be dark. Therefore it would be foolish to set out today.”

Stirla looked at Lieutenant Seiryn and knew he stood no chance of changing the older man’s mind. He was all serene obstinacy. Stirla clenched his jaw so hard his teeth creaked; they had to leave today. “Fine, you and your men take proper leave of the city. I, meanwhile, will be going today, along with my Riders. You may return to Captain Grynt. We head east from here, so should have no further need of your escort.”

Seiryn narrowed his eyes. “You would go before receiving word from Lieutenant Lyrai?”

“I told you,” Stirla repeated for what seemed the fiftieth time, “Lyrai’s gone. He flew south this morning, and with Lyrai gone there’s no reason to stay.”

The other lieutenant snorted. “Nothing I’ve heard of Lyrai leads me to believe he would be so idiotic as to fly towards the Stormwash, not even in pursuit of a pair of lunatic students.”

“Which shows how well you know him,” Stirla replied, wondering if there was a place in existence Lyrai wouldn’t go in defence of his students. Truly, his friend took responsibility too seriously sometimes.

“I’ll wait until Lyrai sends word,” Seiryn announced with pompous finality. “You may do whatever you wish, though I will be writing to Captain Hylan about this.”

As if that was much of a threat. Stirla shook his head and turned his back on the stubborn old fool. As a man who hated Misthome and everything it stood for under Heryff’s rule, Seiryn was oddly reluctant to leave. If Stirla didn’t know better, he’d have accused the man of being contrary. Perhaps he should tell him about the Havian Special Force – that’d get him moving. It would also earn Stirla a lecture or five, and he really wasn’t in the mood for chastisement.

Shaking his head, he climbed down to the eyries. His men could easily be ready to leave this afternoon, regardless of what Seiryn the Fusspot said. At the bottom of the ladder, however, one glance was enough to tell him that his Riders were missing. As were their miryhls. Grumbling, he wove between the remaining eagles and pushed open the rickety doors.

The sun was shining over Havia, making the piles of slushy snow glisten. Pretty, in a freezing cold way. Oblivious to the temperature, his students had roped the older Riders and all their miryhls into a slush-war, which involved a lot of running around, throwing mud and slush, ducking, yelping and accusing the other team of cheating. Stirla grinned – that was his sort of game.

“Lieutenant?”

He turned towards the unfamiliar voice with a sigh and looked the newcomer up and down. The woman was of medium height and build, dark in the Havian way, and though her clothes were unusually casual, they were also of the finest fabrics. Expensive. There was also no denying the gold rings in both ears, each with a diamond bead.

Hiding a grimace, Stirla bowed in the presence of royalty. “May I help you, Highness?” Since the princess looked only a few years older than him, and wasn’t wearing a scrap of lace, he assumed this was Neryth, the second heir. The one rumour claimed would truly rule once the current king was dead.

Princess Neryth inclined her head. “I have come to see Prince Lyrai, if he is available.”

Trust Lyrai to have been meeting up with royalty while Stirla got merry downtown. Once or twice Stirla had felt a twinge of envy for his friend’s social position, but mostly he wouldn’t exchange places with him for the world.

He studied Neryth again and smiled. Not for any number of worlds. “I’m afraid Lyrai isn’t here. Is it something I might assist with?” he asked, dredging up his much neglected manners.

Unfortunately at that moment something wet and slimy struck the back of his head. “Watch out!” came the warning, far too late to be of use. Followed by snickers and guffaws. “Sorry, sir!”

Stirla pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the slush off the back of his neck. “You will be.” Turning to Neryth, he couldn’t help wondering why a royal princess had decided to visit. A miryhl shriek behind him made him wince, and he dreaded to think what the princess could see over his shoulder. The woman looked more amused than shocked, thankfully, but who really knew with royalty?

As Stirla tucked his handkerchief into his pocket, the princess’ eyes narrowed with humour. “Lively, aren’t they?”

Relieved she hadn’t taken offence over the near miss with the slush ball, Stirla smiled. “Bored, mostly. After so long in the saddle, they’ve had enough rest and are eager to be busy again. Such is youth. My apologies for their behaviour, Highness. Do you wish them to stop?”

Neryth looked genuinely surprised. “Gods, no, let them enjoy themselves, lieutenant. Staying here can hardly be easy.”

Uncertain how to answer, Stirla chose the most diplomatic option and stayed silent. Half-turning, he could watched Atyrn pounce on Thetik to hold him down while the students plastered slush in his hair.

“Justice is swift amongst the Rift Riders,” the princess murmured, her smile widening a little. “Would that be your miryhl holding him down?”

Stirla laughed. “My Atyrn doesn’t take it well when others disrespect me.”

The princess looked at the miryhl again, her eyes bright. “Magnificent. A truly splendid specimen.”

Well, after that Stirla had to like her. “My thanks, Highness. Pardon me if I agree entirely.”

Neryth chuckled. “Your pride is justified under the circumstances.” She fell silent, and Stirla waited, curious as to why she had come. “I do not wish to seem rude, but why are you still here? Prince Lyrai gave the impression your stay would be brief. Not that you are unwelcome,” she hastened to add, then grimaced. “Well, no more than usual. What I mean to say is I expected to hear of your departure this morning. The prince gave the impression he was eager to leave.” She shook her head. “Can’t think why.”

Intrigued about what had passed between this princess and his friend, Stirla sighed. “It’s my intention to leave tomorrow, Highness. You need not fear we’ll outstay our welcome.” Such as it is, he added silently.

“Such as it is,” Neryth said wryly, proving she was a reader of minds. “Still, it gives me a chance to look at some real miryhls. I showed Lyrai my own yesterday and was sorry not to have the chance to meet his.”

“Ah.” Stirla wasn’t sure how much to reveal about the current whereabouts of the errant lieutenant. He studied the bouncing miryhls and ducking Riders for a moment, then opted for something near the truth. “I’m afraid you still won’t, Highness. Lyrai isn’t here. He and a handful of students left this morning.”

“Oh.” Though she sounded disappointed, the princess’ eyes were uncomfortably sharp, one eyebrow arching slightly. “That is a shame, but it cannot be helped. I would be just as honoured to meet your miryhl, and those of your Riders.” She looked at the raucous group, smiling her half smile. “Perhaps when they have settled down.”

Knowing a hint when it was thrown at him, Stirla sighed for the game he definitely wouldn’t be joining now and strode onto the field. “Riders!”

They stopped at once, heads turning in his direction. Slush balls were dropped unheeded to the ground as clothes were straightened, faces wiped and feathers ruffled into order. It was one thing to tease Stirla at the edge of a field, another to do it when he used that voice. Glances darted over his shoulder and the Riders belatedly realised they had serious company.

“Cloud scutt,” one student muttered. “Royalty. And I’ve got mud in my teeth. If me mam hears of this, she’ll tan my hide.”

Struggling to conceal his amusement, Stirla clasped his hands behind his back and paced along the ragged line of Riders, students and miryhls. “We have a visitor,” he pointed out affably. “Princess Neryth has done you the honour of requesting to meet your miryhls.”

Embarrassed groans drifted along the line, while the miryhls fluffed themselves up caught between excitement and chagrin.

“Your Highness,” Stirla called, turning to where he’d left the princess, relieved to find her smiling. “Please, come and meet my squad, such as it is.”

The last words raised a few blushes, even beneath the mud, as they studied their filthy boots.

“Well met, Riders and miryhls,” Neryth greeted. “May I ask whose aim caught the lieutenant so precisely?”

There was suddenly a wide space around Thetik, though his hand shot out to keep Rhyk beside him. Both Riders looked considerably worse for wear, covered head to foot with mud, except for smeared streaks where they’d wiped their eyes.

At Stirla’s arched eyebrow, Thetik cleared his throat. “Ah… that was me, Highness. But it was Rhyk’s idea,” he added, before the full blame could fall.

“Indeed?” Neryth looked between the two as they twitched miserably. “Well, you seem to have been punished. Both of you. Excellent shot, by the way,” she added casually, ignoring the ha-told-you-so punch Thetik gave Rhyk’s arm. “Are these miryhls yours?”

With that question Neryth turned from royalty to ordinary Rider as the others gathered eagerly around to discuss miryhls, miryhl-care and who they deemed the best eagle in existence. Stirla could hardly believe the woman he’d first met that morning, with her slightly stiff and aloof demeanour, was the same one now arguing with Kerryl and Derrain about the benefits of speed versus endurance. When others piled into the argument and things progressed towards threats of violence, Neryth slipped away to rejoin the head-shaking Stirla.

“A fine squad, lieutenant. And a wonderful collection of miryhls. I see now that, though I love my pair, they are nothing by Rider standards. Pretty, sleek and swift, but lacking the grit your birds need to survive.” She sighed, running covetous eyes over the miryhls preening idly while their bondeds declared war. “But perhaps it is best,” she murmured. “This way I may keep my miryhls without feeling guilty about taking them away from where they are needed.”

Stirla said nothing, once more unsure what was expected, and with no diplomatic escape.

The princess eyed him slyly. “Unless, of course, I join the Havian Special Force.”

He stared at Neryth with a mixture of disbelief and dismay. “Beg pardon?”

“I received an interesting visit yesterday afternoon,” the princess said. “You have my deepest sympathies, lieutenant. Lorfyn is nothing if not tenacious, and has been obsessed by all things Rift Riders since he was a boy.”

“He’s still a boy,” Stirla grumbled, thrown off balance by the princess’ amusement.

“He’s one and twenty,” Neryth corrected. “Though I see how his behaviour could be viewed as such. Still, for all his enthusiasms and boyish tendencies, I assure you he is not a child.”

“It doesn’t matter. There is no such thing as a Havian Special Force.” Realising his exasperation had made him sharp, Stirla rubbed his head. “Forgive me, Highness, my days have been trying of late.”

Neryth waved a dismissive hand. “Understandable. Lord Lorfyn has that effect on the best of us. Still, it’s a shame there will be no special force. It sounded interesting.”

There was a sinking sensation in Stirla’s stomach as he croaked, “How so?”

“Hmm?” Neryth pretended to watch the Riders and students, who were devising a series of tests to prove which miryhl was best. “Well, since my father promised Prince Lyrai whatever aid he could to help the Riders regain Aquila, this force seems an ideal way to fulfil his pledge.”

Only if it scared the nobles into paying heavily to prevent such a force being dispatched, thus keeping their heirs safely at home. Stirla might be willing to pay himself, if it meant he never saw Lord Lorfyn again.

“Just a thought,” the princess said in the face of his silence. “All rudimentary training and kit would at least be paid for by the crown. As things currently stand, it seems Lorfyn is prepared to lead his band of semi-willing friends after you, on whatever flying beasts they can find, regardless of funding or permission.”

“Ah.” Understanding dawned, and Stirla smiled. “Came begging feathers from you, did he?”

The princess inclined her head. “He seemed quite putout when I said no. Claimed there was an international conspiracy keeping him from miryhl-back.”

“Gods, if only there were.” Stirla laughed and pinched the bridge of his nose against the headache building at the thought of that damned special force. “Did he come alone, or had he already lied to his friends about Lyrai providing miryhls for them all?”

“He said Lyrai promised that?” Neryth choked with disbelief. “Heirayk’s fire. He choose his target poorly there. Your princely friend only agreed to see my miryhls to ensure they were being properly looked after. Not that he said so, but I swear he entered my eyrie prepared to start an international incident by removing them should there have been the slightest sign of mistreatment.”

Stirla could picture the look on his friend’s face perfectly. “In all fairness, Highness, any Rider would do the same. We know what a precious gift we’ve been granted, and jealousy guard our rights.”

The princess gave a surprisingly sweet smile. “I understand entirely. But Lorfyn told me it was you who said this, then reneged on your promise.”

Fists clenching with rage, Stirla forced himself to relax. “That boy will be the death of me.”

“I believe his father would agree.”

Which didn’t comfort Stirla one bit. “Thank you for the warning, Highness. You’ve reminded me why we must leave tomorrow.”

“While it is always an honour to assist the Riders, you have misunderstood.” When Stirla raised his eyebrows, Neryth smiled deviously. “I am not trying to warn you, lieutenant. I am trying to join you.”


~ Next Chapter ~

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Dragongift: Chapter 7, Part 3

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There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

~ Previous Chapter ~

Oh, Derry…


“LIEUTENANT!”

The shout, unexpected and panicked, stopped Stirla in his tracks. “Derry?”

The affable student darted towards him, eyes wide with distress. “Lieutenant, you’re finally back.” The lad seized his arm and tugged him into the eyries. “Gods, I didn’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.”

Looking around for help, Stirla noticed some of the more familiar miryhls were missing. “Where’s Hurricane? Cumulo? Did Lyrai take Mhysra and the others out flying?”

Derrain shook his head. “Tell him, Zeph.”

Having spent a lot of time with Cumulo, Zephyr hesitated only a moment before saying, “They’re gone.” Her voice was surprisingly soft for a miryhl, without the gravelly texture he was so used to in Atyrn.

“Who? Gone where?”

“Lyrai, Mhysra, Dhori, Jaymes and Corin,” Atyrn said behind him. “They left before dawn.”

What?” Stirla stared at his miryhl, then Zephyr and Derrain. “Where?”

“I knew something strange was happening,” Derrain said to his miryhl, fists bunched with frustration. “Didn’t I tell you something was going on?”

Zephyr nudged him gently. “Jaymes and Corin went first,” she told Stirla. “Dhori followed, but was too late to stop them. Then Lyrai and Mhysra arrived and they all went after them.”

“Where?” Stirla repeated, catching Derrain’s panic. “Where did they go?”

“I didn’t believe what Dhori said,” Atyrn murmured. “I couldn’t.”

“Where did they go?” he growled between gritted teeth.

“The Stormwash,” the miryhls said together.

Stirla blinked, wondering if he might have had more to drink last night than he thought. “Am I dreaming?” he muttered. “Or still drunk?”

“Neither.” Derrain shook his head. “They’ve gone. All of them. They left me behind.”

“But the Stormwash?” Stirla repeated, his laughter holding a hysterical edge. “Madness! Why would anyone go there? What’s the point?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Derrain told him firmly, tightening the breast band of Zephyr’s saddle. Which was when Stirla realised the miryhl already wore her bridle. “I won’t be left behind.”

Knowing he was dealing with a youngster who was in no way rational, Stirla rubbed his forehead and sighed. “You can’t go alone, Derry. It would be suicide.”

“I’m not alone,” Derrain insisted stubbornly, tying his bags to his saddle. “Zephyr’s with me.”

“Don’t be foolish, you know what I mean,” Stirla growled, pulling the bags off.

Derrain grabbed hold and started an undignified tug-of-war. “If you came,” – yank – “too,” – heave – “we wouldn’t,” – pull – “be alone.”

Gritting his teeth, Stirla wrenched the bags from Derrain’s hands and threw them towards Atyrn, who planted a large, taloned foot on them. “You know I can’t.”

“Please,” Derrain whispered, staring at his boots. “They left me behind.”

“I know.” Stirla put a hand on the lad’s shoulder. “But I can’t go with you, and I can’t let you go alone.”

Jerking away, Derrain turned back to Zephyr, who nuzzled him comfortingly. He put his arms around his miryhl’s neck and rested his cheek against hers.

Not trusting them, Stirla indicated for Atyrn to block the miryhl’s way. “I’m sorry, Derry.”

“How can you be?” he demanded, glaring with angry eyes. “How can you possibly be sorry? All my friends are out there. All. Either at Aquila, food for the kaz-naghkt, or flying towards the Stormwash, likely never to be seen again. I’m the only one left, and you say you’re sorry?”

“More sorry than you could ever know,” Stirla said, his own frustration starting to rise. “You think you’re the only one to lose friends? The only one left behind? I am a lieutenant, Derrain, it is my job to gather support to take back to Aquila. Where more people will die. They all have friends too, families, loved ones, children even. Do you think they like being left behind? Do you think anyone does? With Lyrai gone, I have to stay here. The students and Riders here are not Seiryn’s responsibility, they are mine. Would you have me abandon all sense of duty and honour to flee madly after the others, purely because they are friends I don’t want to lose?”

Derrain clenched his jaw. “Let me go.”

“No.” Stirla shook his head firmly. “You have great potential, Derry. You’re strong, steadfast and loyal. I won’t let you fly to your death in a madcap attempt to follow them. I won’t be responsible for you throwing your life away. Nor Zephyr’s. As your lieutenant it would be unconscionable.” He gripped Derrain’s shoulder again, holding tight when the lad tried to throw him off. “And as your friend it would be unthinkable. Not all your friends are gone, Derry. You’re not alone.”

Derrain stilled and looked away. “I don’t want to be the only one left.”

“Nor do I. But there’s nothing you can do for them. You don’t even know for certain where they’ve gone.” He let his hand slip from the student’s shoulder and stepped back, indicating for Atyrn to do the same. The boy was so stubborn, it had to be his own choice. “You’re badly needed here, Derry. I need you. With Lyrai gone, and Dhori, Mhysra, Corin and Jaymes with him, I need a student on my side. More than that, I need someone I’ve fought with, in darkness and in blood. But I won’t force you.” Turning, Stirla headed for the ladder to the Rider quarters above. “Go, if you have to. I can’t stop you. I was wrong to try.”

Shoulders slumped, heavy with worry for those already missing, Stirla was halfway up the ladder when the lad called, “Wait.”

Stirla froze. The clink of buckles and sigh of leather on feathers made him turn as Derrain pulled Zephyr’s harness off.  “Thank Maegla,” he whispered in fervent prayer.

“You’re right,” Derrain said, collecting his bags. “I’m not the last and, even if I were, I signed up for the Riders so with the Riders I’ll stay. Until orders say otherwise.”

Stirla jumped down and took hold of his shoulders. “Be sure, Derry, because we’ll be leaving today or tomorrow. You won’t get another chance. From here on you’re with me. Regardless of what else happens.”

Derrain’s eyes widened, realising there was more to Stirla’s words than the simple orders of lieutenant to student. “Aye, captain,” he whispered.

“Not yet,” Stirla chuckled, ruffling Derrain’s hair. “Maybe not ever at the rate I’m going. But come on, we’ve got work to do.”

* * * 

Aquila

THEY HAD BEEN out on the mountain for four days, creeping over snow and slush, snapping through brittle undergrowth and following tracks. Those tracks were the sole reason for this journey, why they were still out here, in the cold and the open. Huddled in a hollow, Mouse hugged his pack to his chest for warmth, watching as Greig and Rider Rechar conversed in low voices. They were in dangerous territory up above the eastern citadel, close to the Heights, but if these tracks led them to their quarry it would be worth it.

Goats. Three of them, from what Mouse could read of the tracks, though Rechar had hopes of a fourth. They must have been released by the town folk once they realised Aquila was lost. Better for the beasts to run wild than let their enemies have them. Rumours and half-glanced sightings had been coming in ever since they escaped the tunnels, but this was the first time Rechar had got involved.

A gifted tracker out of Captain Myran’s flight, the Rider often assisted in Lieutenant Stirla’s survival lessons. Born and raised in the isolated wilds of the Heighlen Range, there was no man more suited to scratching out a life against the odds. Even in the harshest of seasons.

Winters at Aquila were often bitter, and this year was proving no different. A quarter-moon into Blizzard and the river was already frozen. Snow had been falling for almost a month and was showing no sign of easing. With food scarce and their supplies growing thin, they had to take whatever chances were offered. Hence the four days in the cold. Shivering, Mouse tugged his cloak tighter about his neck and pulled his scarf higher up his nose. Just because it wasn’t snowing right at that moment, didn’t mean it wouldn’t again soon, and the wind was ice cold.

“They must have split up,” Rechar muttered, crouching to study the prints. “The nanny and kid went to lower ground, but the others went back.” Shaking his hair from his eyes, the Rider glared at the forest.

Beside him, Greig crawled along the forest trail. “They went up the ridge.”

Leaning forward, Mouse followed the line of his friend’s arm and shuddered. The ridge was high, narrow and exposed. Only an idiot would go up there in winter. Then again, they were tracking goats and there was never any knowing what went on in their devious minds.

Rechar pulled his scarf down and scratched his beard. “We’ve lost them then. If they weren’t picked up by something -” and there were plenty of other predators on the mountain, besides pirates and kaz-naghkt, “- or haven’t died of exposure, they’ll be too far off now. Besides the nanny and kid are worth more.”

Milk, Mouse thought wistfully. As a farm boy he’d hated the sight, taste and smell of the stuff, especially from goats. But now a mug of warm, fresh milk sounded blissful.

“That’s if the citadel hasn’t picked them up,” Greig grumbled, covering his face and head with his hood and returning to Mouse’s hollow to pick up his pack. “We’re getting too close.”

“From all we’ve seen,” Rechar said, retrieving his things, “the pirates keep mostly to the centre of the citadel. They like to be near the town. And the kaz-naghkt are sleeping.”

Or so it would seem. It was a common assumption that kaz-naghkt didn’t like the cold, since they never attacked in the winter. Yet no one knew for certain whether it was true. Just because they hadn’t seen the kaz-naghkt since the snows began, didn’t mean they weren’t still moving. Something kept eating pirates at night.

When neither student said anything, Rechar wrapped his scarf around his face and pulled up his hood with a shrug. “We have to try,” he murmured, creeping back into the cold.

That was the trouble with living under the shadow of the enemy – they always had to try. No matter what the opportunity, if it might aid their survival, they had to take it. Even if it was a vague sighting of goats, leading to the enemy’s doorstep. Fresh milk, and fresh meat, was too valuable to pass up. So as the false dark of more snow stole what little light was left in the day, Mouse and his friends crept through the sparse cover surrounding the Heights.

* * *

Havia

IT WAS A league from Misthome to the Stormwash, a straight flight over the lowered Cloud Sea. Below all was white, above was blue with hints of snow clouds in the distance. Ahead lay the storm. Pewter, black, silver and purple, the clouds were a vibrant bruise on the sky, rising ever higher the closer they flew. And it growled, rumbled, hissed and spat. Thunder, lightning, rain and the constant force of the wind.

A little over halfway Mhysra began to feel it; the pull of the Wash, sucking in everything to feed its hunger. The miryhls shrieked as they were dragged into the tide, feathers and wings buffeted in opposing directions. They flapped and struggled against it, but there was nothing they could do. The only way now was forward.

The distance shortened rapidly as the winds gathered power and their momentum increased. Fearing the worst, Mhysra looked over at what could be the last human face she might ever see.

“See you on the other side,” Lyrai called, and with a whoop was gone.

The Stormwash fill her vision. With one last breath, she gripped Cumulo as tight as possible, shut her eyes and prayed, hoping that here of all places Maegla would hear her voice. Then she surrendered to the inevitable.

And the fury swallowed them whole.


~ Next Chapter ~

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A Courtship of Dragons: Part 26

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A Courtship of Dragons is a M/M Romance short novel (approximately 60,000 words) told in short scenes, between two young dragons, Estenarven kin Boulderforce Clan Stoneheart and Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight. It’s pure fluff ‘n’ stuff and not intended to be anything other than that.

|| First Part || All Parts || Last Part ||

And this would be why I don’t recommend taking swimming lessons from a Stoneheart…


26
Breathe

SOMETHING WAS IN the water with him. Drifting in his lonely sea of self-pity, Mastekh noticed the instant his sanctuary was invaded. A pulse of magic brushed against him, cold and frantic, tapping along his side as if searching for something.

He frowned and uncurled a little from his ball of misery, just in time to feel something brush against his wing as it plummeted towards the dark depths.

Another pulse, a wave of magic so strong, so familiar that it almost stopped Mastekh’s heart.

Estenarven!

Arching his back, he dove, senses outstretched for the one thing that would never belong in the water.

A Stoneheart. Attempting to swim. Sibling Water, what had possessed him?

His nose bumped against a small, plummeting shape and he darted forward with a swish of his tail. Webbed paws outstretched, he gathered Estenarven against his chest and twisted around in the darkness.

By the Family, he was heavy!

Mastekh paddled his back legs and swished his tail, but only succeeded in slowing their descent. Estenarven thrashed once in his grip before falling worryingly still.

Panic tried to take hold, but Mastekh was a Rainstorm Clan Flowflight, he would not let water defeat him.

He opened his wings and, preparing himself for effort and a bit of pain, flapped down as hard as he possibly could. It felt slow and heavy and tugged hard on tendons unused to so much resistance, but it worked.

Bubbles swirled around him as they shot upwards, aiming for the tiny speck of shimmering surface and the safety that lay beyond.

Legs kicking, tail swirling, he beat his wings again and again until, with a great lurch, he hefted them both out of the water and onto the mossy cavern floor.

They landed with a thump and Mastekh instantly stood up, water streaming away from him as he curled his neck and pressed his head against Estenarven’s chest.

Nothing. Cold and hard and silent as stone.

Keening, he folded his wings and draped himself across his would-be lover’s chest, careful to keep most of his weight off the silent dragon. Magic sparked across his scales, sending tingles and shivers running through him as he called the water away from Estenarven.

Steam filled the cavern, but still Estenarven remained stubbornly silent.

“P-please, please, p-p-please,” Mastekh begged, once Estenarven’s robes were dry and his magic was of no more use. He rubbed his head against the Boulderforce’s chest, nuzzled at his throat and nudged his neck.

“B-b-breathe…”

Still nothing.

Worming his snout beneath Estenarven, he rolled the Boulderforce onto his side and, whispering prayers to the Divine Family – and an apology or two – pulled back his tail and slapped Estenarven’s solid back.

A gasp, startled, unexpected and wonderfully welcome.

Mastekh slapped him again – harder – and Estenarven started to cough.

Crooning apologies and encouragement, he patted Estenarven’s cheek with a webbed foot that was the size of the Boulderforce’s human head. Magic sparkled again and this time, when Mastekh called to it, the water inside Estenarven’s lungs answered.

More coughs, a few moans, followed by heavy gasps as Estenarven rolled onto his back, eyes closed, but alive, so wonderfully alive.

“Th… thank you… P…Puddle,” he panted after a long moment.

Mastekh hung his head, every part of him trembling, and collapsed beside Estenarven in the moss.

Groaning with effort, Estenarven rolled onto his side and gripped Mastekh’s nearest leg. Clutching the sodden limb to his heaving chest, he curled around it and let out a deep sigh. Eyes still closed, he seemed to drop into an instant sleep.

Leaving Mastekh staring down at him, exhausted, wrung out and utterly bemused.

“Ah, I see he found you then.” Goryal appeared out of the waterfall mist, smiling benignly.

Mastekh glanced between the dragon he had almost lost and the Starshine he was never quite certain he could trust, and narrowed his eyes. “You s-s-sent him after m-m-me?” he asked in a deceptively calm voice.

Goryal raised their eyebrows. “He would have found you eventually. You seemed determined to sulk down there for an awfully long time and Estenarven was bound to jump in sooner or later. I merely speeded things up a little.”

Unable to deny that Estenarven’s loyalties did indeed know no depths, Mastekh ground his teeth together and glared at Goryal, still angry that the Starshine had stood by and watched while the Boulderforce tumbled into danger.

They were gone.

Of course.

Growling beneath his breath and calling silent curses down upon the interfering old wyvern’s head, Mastekh shifted until he could curl up around Estenarven, wriggling his tail between the Boulderforce and the moss. He tugged on the foot Estenarven still wouldn’t release, until the Boulderforce was half-sprawled across Mastekh’s narrow chest. Then he draped a wing across Estenarven, to hold off the worst of the waterfall’s spray, and tucked his head alongside his sleeping companion.

Mastekh heaved a heavy sigh and prepared himself to wait for however long it took for Estenarven to wake. There were questions that needed answering and a conversation that had to happen, but they’d both been through an ordeal and Mastekh could be patient.

He owed Estenarven that after almost allowing him to drown.

He could wait. And while he did, he would watch over his would-be lover and make sure he came to no more harm. Pulsing his magic, he gathered the fresh dampness that had settled over Estenarven and dashed it away with a flick of his wing.

He would keep him safe and dry until Estenarven woke and told him to stop.

The gentle rhythm of Estenarven’s heart beat reassuringly against his own and Mastekh closed his eyes, the better to savour their closeness while it still lasted.


More next week.

Take care, my lovelies!

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Dragongift: Chapter 7, Part 2

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

~ Previous Chapter ~

Stirla’s stay just keeps getting better.



Havia

IT WAS WITH great reluctance that Stirla approached the Riders’ temporary quarters, ready to face his fate. It wasn’t that he liked Misthome so much, though he had appreciated the luxury of the Ketthik household. Excellent food, the finest wines and comfortable quarters. In truth he would have been happy to have stayed there, but he was equally happy to return to his Riders. He hadn’t been born to luxury and was perfectly able to do without. He wouldn’t even miss it much. Stirla knew he was blessed to feel comfortable wherever he was, or if not comfortable, then tough enough to deal with it.

No, it wasn’t the glimpse of a different life that made his steps heavy in the morning light. It was the company and the prospect of how he was going to explain himself to the others.

A Havian Special Force, made up of overindulged, foolish young nobles, who had nothing better to do with their time than brag to impress the girls. Maegla! He should throw himself off the Mistfalls now and save Lyrai the job.

“I know you wanted us to stay behind and wait for word,” Lord Lorfyn bounced alongside Stirla’s creeping steps, frighteningly enthusiastic, “but it’s better this way. You’ll see.” He beamed at his friends, who were all heavy-eyed after another long night of carousing. “If we don’t come with you now, why, we might never be able to leave, and where would you be then?”

Miles away and many miles the happier for it, Stirla thought, but didn’t bother to speak. No amount of blunt talk could dim the boy’s determination. Although he was too old to become a real Rider, he was still certain he could make a lasting contribution in the efforts to wrest Aquila back from the terrible foe. Or something along those lines. Stirla hadn’t really been listening when the boy spouted his rhetoric the night before. He’d been too busy refilling everyone’s glasses and making the fools blind drunk. The plan had been to sneak out at first light, pack up the others and leave before the idiots woke.

It might have worked, if not for Lorfyn. The boy might get tipsy on a mouthful of wine, but he also saved himself a headache in the morning. Nor was he quite as stupid as he frequently acted, which was why Stirla had cursed and pounded on the door before dawn, finding himself and his Riders locked in, incapable of escape. Not that they’d had to wait long before being freed. The force of Lorfyn’s personality was a terrifying thing to behold, especially when it turned seven hung-over nobles out of bed just after dawn and managed to march them through the painfully bright streets without a hint of dissent or desertion.

Stirla would have been full of admiration for the boy, if he hadn’t been ruining his life.

“I’ve been thinking.”

Stirla gave into the urge to cover his face with his hands. In their short, but terribly memorable acquaintance, he had learned that when Lorfyn thought the world moved one step closer to ending. The boy was too earnest, too keen and too damned determined for his own – and everyone else’s – good. And when he liked an idea, nothing would turn him aside.

“About those miryhls, you know, the ones you’ve been using to carry your baggage.” Lorfyn smiled, his expression like an overanxious puppy. “How many did you say you had?”

Knowing where this was leading, Stirla tried to head it off early. “No.”

“Because there are only eight of us -”

“No,” he repeated, forcing himself to be strong.

“And it would make so much more sense -”

“No.” Nothing about this made sense, least of all mounting these fools on some of Aquila’s finest.

“Horsats are all very well, of course, and we’ve got the best in Havia,” Lorfyn rambled on, oblivious to the strident rejections he was getting, “but a miryhl is so much faster. So much stronger. Better adapted to fight. Better all round, in fact.”

“No.” Though the boy’s enthusiasm had defeated him at every turn thus far, this was the one thing on which Stirla would never back down. Miryhls were for Rift Riders – no one else.

“We’d be much more effective -”

“Stop!” Stirla shouted, channelling his best Captain Hylan impression. “Just stop.”

Lorfyn shut his mouth with a snap, blinking like a bewildered child. “But -”

“Ah!” Stirla held up a finger. When Lorfyn opened his mouth, Stirla jabbed it warningly in his direction. “Not another word. It’s my turn to speak.”

Lorfyn’s lips formed a mutinous pout.

“Listen,” Stirla ordered, “I can’t convince you to stay put. I can’t convince you that the last thing the Riders need is a Havian Special Force. I can’t even convince you that if we did, you would definitely not be it, untrained and unskilled as you are. Enthusiastic, yes. Useful, no.”

Lorfyn’s pout turned into a scowl and he opened his mouth again.

“First rule of military discipline,” Stirla barked, before the boy could speak. “Always obey your commanding officer.”

“But we’re not under your command,” one of the other lordlings pointed out, voice scratchy from his hangover. Lorfyn smirked.

“And if the gods are kind you never will be,” Stirla agreed, turning it into a prayer.

Half the nobles interpreted his comment correctly, sadly but predictably, Lorfyn was not one of them. “You’re not so bad,” the young lord said, then frowned. “Until just now, anyway.”

Praying for strength didn’t seem to be helping, so Stirla shook his head. “You are not, and never will be Rift Riders. Only Rift Riders are allowed to fly miryhls -”

“Except for families of royal houses and elected rulers,” one of the less hung-over lordlings pointed out.

“Hands up how many of you that applies to,” Stirla drawled, safe in the knowledge that though these boys might be noble, royal they were not. Gods be thanked for small mercies.

They shuffled their feet and muttered amongst themselves, while Lorfyn huffed sullenly. “You said you needed help and that Havia was too cowardly to provide it. We are not cowards.”

“I was drunk,” Stirla replied, though his cheeks warmed at being reminded of his own foolishness.

“You said that just one man could make a difference in the fight against the kaz-naghkt and, because Havia didn’t send even one boy to the selection schools, we were as bad as them.”

“Er…” Had he really said that? Gods, it was a miracle only Theryn had got thumped. “Still drunk.”

“You promised we would have miryhls if we joined up,” accused one of the lordlings.

“Never!” Stirla protested, positive he’d said no such thing. Miryhls were too important, even to his drunken, slurring brain. “I would never say that.”

“Not you,” the lordling corrected, jabbing his finger at Lorfyn. “Him. He said Prince Lyrai told him.”

Lyrai?” Stirla and his Riders chorused in incredulous disbelief.

It was Lorfyn’s turn to blush as he shuffled his feet and avoided everyone’s eye. “Well…” He coughed, voice squeaking. “I might have been a little drunk then too. Just a little.”

“What?”

“We’re not getting miryhls?”

“I got out of bed for nothing? Just another bloody horsat?”

“Bugger that!”

“Wait!” Lorfyn cried as his friends, previously so susceptible to his enthusiasm, headed back towards the city. “Wait!”

“I don’t think they’re interested in what you’ve got to say,” Stirla said, trying to hide his relief. “Shame.”

Lorfyn scowled. “You did this,” he accused, hurrying after his friends.

“If only I could take the credit.” Stirla grinned at his three Riders. “Come on, lads, before he changes their minds.” He chortled, pleased to have shaken off his noble baggage. Now he could face Lyrai without an execution in his immediate future.

“I don’t think that’s the last we’ve seen of them,” Rhyk warned, walking backwards to watch the young lord gathering his friends and pleading with extravagant gestures.

“Not by a long shot,” Theryn agreed.

“Spoilsports,” Stirla grumbled, and picked up his pace towards the barn, throwing a glance over his shoulder to check that the lordlings weren’t following. “We’ll be out of here tomorrow. It’ll take him longer than that to bring them around.”

“Maybe,” Theryn murmured unconvinced.

“Maybe he won’t bother bringing all of them this time,” Dhenn said thoughtfully. “Perhaps he’ll just bring one or two.”

Stirla shot his Riders a disgusted look. “Cheer me up, why don’t you?”

They grinned.

“Second rule of military discipline,” Rhyk barked, mimicking Stirla. “Always be prepared.”

“We wouldn’t want you to be surprised, sir,” Theryn agreed. “It’s not good for your health.” They ducked inside the barn, laughing at their own wit.

Stirla couldn’t burn holes in people with the strength of his glare but, by Heiryak’s rays, he tried. Dhenn stuck around long enough to pat him consolingly on the shoulder before he too headed inside.

“No one likes a smart arse,” Stirla grumbled to no one in particular, especially as it was advice he never took himself. Casting a final glance at the city, he was relieved to note that all the lordlings had gone. Hoping that meant they weren’t coming back, he shook his head and stepped into the barn.


~ Next Chapter ~

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Dragongift: Chapter 7, Part 1

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First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.

~ Previous Chapter ~

Fresh trouble and a sort-of answer to an older mystery.



Seven

Storm Fury

8th Blizzard

THE STARS HAD clouded over when Lyrai woke, aching from the cold. Mhysra muttered a complaint as his movements shifted the cloak off her face. Whispering an apology, he tucked her more firmly against his side and stifled a groan. Falling asleep outside at the start of Blizzard Month was not clever. Even in Havia. That didn’t explain what had woken him, though. Frowning, he blinked as the Stormwash exploded with a particularly showy display. Though it hurt his eyes, he didn’t think that was what had disturbed him.

A shadow moved across the meadow. Careful not to disturb Mhysra, he sat up and waited for more lightning.

Two miryhl-shaped shadows, each with a Rider on its back. Lyrai cursed.

“Who is it?” Mhysra asked, awake and alert beside him.

“I’m not sure.”

Now she was up, Lyrai felt no guilt in hopping off their rock. Before he could move far, she threw his cloak over his shoulders and wrapped herself in the blanket they’d been sitting on. It was a tricky path in the deep darkness and, before they were even halfway, the miryhls took off, spiralling shapes silhouetted against the flickering Stormwash. The lightning strikes were almost constant now, so Lyrai took advantage of the light to run.

Dhori met them at the door.

“What happened?” Lyrai demanded, finding nothing unusual in expecting him to know.

“It’s Corin and Jaymes.”

Corin and Jaymes?” Lyrai echoed incredulously.

“Why?” Mhysra questioned.

Lyrai shook his head before Dhori could answer. “Never mind that,” he growled, fetching his bags from where he’d dropped them near the door. “Where have they gone?”

Dhori grimaced as he followed Lyrai to Hurricane’s side. “You won’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“The Stormwash,” he answered reluctantly. “They’ve been called.”

“Called?” Mhysra repeated, while Lyrai was too stunned for words.

“Called,” Dhori confirmed. “To the Dragonlands. They’re going to cross the Stormwash.”

Lyrai dropped his bags and rested his forehead against Hurricane’s wing. “Then we’d better stop them.”

* * *  

Aquila

THE SUN SHONE brightly over Aquila, blinding on the thick, heavy snows that covered the mountain. Yullik stared moodily at the view, uncaring that tears of strain were gathering in his eyes. His body may have been in the tower room, but his mind was elsewhere. Far to the west, searching for answers. Why, after two months of successful dream-walking, was the Wingborn able to evade him now?

He could still feel her mind, could still sense her presence, but there was no access for him. He could no longer see her thoughts, no longer slide inside her dreams and gather the information he needed. His grip on her had loosened. He could no longer stop her from talking.

Fists bunched and teeth clenched, Yullik’s mind searched and searched. Like a nakhound on the scent of downed and wounded prey, he drifted through the air, tracing her last known thoughts and locations. He was getting close; he could feel her desperation. Was she running from him? Had she finally realised the truth?

A shadow rose up, but he was so focused on his prey he almost missed it. Almost.

A short, sharp shock rippled through his thoughts and he looked up. Mhysra was swallowed by the shadow, and it was only with a twist and a wrench that Yullik avoided the same.

He landed back in his body with a lurch that sent him tumbling clumsily to the floor. His skull cracked against hard stone and blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He hissed, clenching his eyes shut as the backlash seared white fire through his brain. His nails bit into his palms, his knuckles cracked beneath the strain as his body quivered with the force of defying the shudders and seizures.

Show nothing. Keep it all inside. Reveal no weaknesses.

The words rippled through him from the deepest recesses of memory, and he clung to his shredded control with all that was in him. Eventually the fit passed and he sagged against the stone floor, exhausted. His head tipped to one side as his cheek pressed against the stone, warm from where his energy had seeped into the world around him. The scent of blood filled the air, dripping from the cuts in his palms, but he ignored it as his shoulders relaxed and his joints unlocked.

All was well. He had come through unscathed. No one had been around to see.

Double checking, in case his mind had been too damaged to register any intruders, Yullik opened his eyes and rolled to his side. Empty. The room was as he’d last seen it before he sent his mind wandering far from his body.

The reminder made him frown and he did a quick internal check, searching for the ever-present shadow that was his connection to Mhysra Kilpapan. Nothing.

“No.” He looked again, deeper, ripping through the other shadows he’d collected over time.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

“No!”

Mhysra Kilpapan, the only Wingborn he’d found left on this cursed Overworld, was gone. As cleanly as if she had never been connected to him.

No!” He wouldn’t believe it, he couldn’t. Not after all the work and energy he’d poured into following her over recent months. She was his, her and that miryhl. Their Wingborn bond was his, his alone to do with as he willed. They would never be free of him, unless he willed it.

Ignoring the protesting throb from his bruised brain, Yullik shut his eyes and sent his mind out again. He flew over the empty leagues of the Cloud Sea, arrowed over the mountains of Havia, centred his focus on Misthome and picked up traces of her. Gathering them like gold nuggets in a rushing stream, he sped southwards, picking up speed as the scent grew fresh.

With all the force of sprinting into a glass wall, Yullik hit the shadow. The shock was enough to rip him from his wandering, throwing him back into his body. This time he had no cares for the backlash. The pain, the thrashing, the weakness was nothing to him.

His quarry was gone to the one place he couldn’t follow. Inside the Stormwash.

Into the Dragonlands.

Memories laughed at him from centuries past, taunting him with all that he was, all that he wanted, all that he could never be. He slammed his bleeding fist into the glowing floor and roared. Stone cracked, glass shattered and heat engulfed the east tower as everything exploded in a wash of golden light.


~ Next Chapter ~

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