When the groundling strangers first arrived at Indigo Cloud, everyone was suspicious, of course. Strangers? In a flying boat that could take them right into the canopy of the mountain-tree? No-one had ever seen anyone like them before, or even heard of the region where they lived. Of course nobody trusted them, at first.
Except after ten minutes or so in their company, not even River could see such helpless, hapless beings as a threat. Their little flying boat was a wood-and-glass contraption that moved awkwardly and jerkily through the air, seemingly on the verge of tumbling to the ground at any moment, and its owners were awkward and clumsy too. They were soft furry beings, with large startled eyes and clumsy limbs that seemed too long for their small bodies. All they wanted to do was trade herbs, but even to a Raksuran they seemed charmingly inept at it; what would be the harm in letting them moor their ship and trade for an hour or two?
And of course no-one wanted to be the one to tell Moon, once he finally came home from Ocean Winter, that the colony had rudely driven away the first friendly visitors who had arrived in more than a turn. Or at least, River didn’t. He couldn’t afford to lose his position in Moon’s faction over such a minor threat – that was what he told himself. Moon’s disappointment wasn’t something he ever wanted to face again.
River was thinking about nothing more pressing than his own boredom at watching the trading when Heart took him aside. She wanted him to find Merit in the storerooms and ask him if he really needed the dried purple-leaf heartvine, or whether he’d mind if they just traded for the green-leaf variety instead, a question that could only possibly be of interest to a mentor. And River – went, because that was all he was these days, an errand runner for excitable Arbora who couldn’t make a decision about anything without discussing it with each other five times first.
He’d rather be useful, even in this small way, than the alternative; but sometimes it still hurt to remember what he had once been.
Except Merit wasn’t in the mentor’s storerooms like he was supposed to be, or even in the corridors between the storerooms and the upper part of the colony. Exasperated, River went looking for him deeper into the lower levels of the colony tree.
Nobody else was around; it was dark and quiet down here, smelling of mould and mountain-tree. River looped through the lowest levels of the storerooms and came back around towards the main stairwell to the upper levels, growing increasingly irritated with Merit and Heart and the whole damn colony.
He was just about to step out of the last dark little corridor before the stairs when he caught a strange scent. Acting on pure instinct he froze.
Up ahead one of the strange groundlings was loping with efficient speed up the stairs, holding a large dark bundle in its arms. Everything about the groundling seemed different, now; there was no sign of its earlier clumsiness, and it was moving with shocking speed.
Moving as quietly as he could, River followed behind it, trying to ignore the sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. Surely this wouldn’t be what it looked like.
Surely this wasn’t like the Hians all over again…
A few turns ago he probably would have attacked as soon as he saw a stranger down in the deep levels of the colony without an escort, but a few turns ago he hadn’t taken any threat seriously that wasn’t another Raksura or a Fell.
A few turns ago, a straightforward attack probably would have ended badly for him. River didn’t know why the strangers were pretending to be clumsy and harmless, he didn’t know what this one was doing down here or how it had managed to sneak past the guards, but all the possibilities were terrifying, and he needed to know more before he acted.
He couldn’t help but think that he should have seen Merit down here somewhere; his absence was maybe the most terrifying thing of all.
River forced his doubts down. Coming up to the wide-open space of a landing, he caught a glimpse of another pale-furred groundling, moving far ahead. Instinctively he sped up – and then stopped abruptly, a beat after the first groundling paused.
He braced himself to spring if it had seen him. But instead of turning back it only looked around briefly and then flung the thing it was carrying into the air.
The heavy object dissolved immediately into frantic humming motion, a dark cloud of insects rising like smoke towards the upper levels of the colony. River’s spines twitched, involuntarily, in horror. He would have cried out in warning – but there were already voices above him shouting about the buzzfly swarm.
He could hear Raksura running in all directions above him, closing off doors to protect the vulnerable parts of the colony while others attacked the swarm and tried to herd them towards the light and open air without being stung.
Moving as silently as he could behind the strange groundling, River saw as its quick efficient movements suddenly became lopsided and clumsy again; screaming, it ran towards the exit where its ship was waiting. No-one seemed to be paying attention.
“Stop it! It released the buzzflies! Stop the strange groundlings leaving!” River yelled until he was hoarse, half-flying and half-climbing out of the stairwell, but he didn’t know if anyone heard him over the chaos. It felt like a nightmare, moving too slowly through crowds that wouldn’t listen to him while the real threat escaped.
Some part of him couldn’t help but note bitterly that a few turns ago, more people would have paid attention to him… but there wasn’t time to think about that now.
He could see at least three of the strangers running frantically around this level of the colony – who even knew what they might be trying to do? Desperately River hurled himself after the first one he’d followed. He didn’t know what it was planning, didn’t know why it had set the colony into chaos – or how it had made it undetected into the colony’s protected heart – but whatever it had planned, it couldn’t be good.
He caught up with it just outside one of the larger entrances, a level above where most of the colony was trying to drive the buzzfly swarm away. The little ship was just ahead…
River went cold in horror. One of the groundlings had an Arbora slung over its shoulder, holding him firmly despite his frantic struggling – Merit. They were trying to steal Merit.
All his earlier frustration with the mentor forgotten, River leapt at the strangers, snarling with claws extended. They saw him and ran for the entrance of their ship, but he was right behind them now, and managed to fling himself through the door before it closed.
He hit the side of the groundling holding Merit hard, and caught only a glimpse of Merit breaking free before the groundling flung him aside with stunning strength.
All pretence at clumsiness was gone; these beings were fast and terrifyingly strong, moving those too-long limbs with frightening grace. River knew he was outmatched almost instantly, but he kept fighting anyway.
Then the door opened again. One last groundling was outside – River froze for a moment, just long enough to get flung against a wall again.
He barely noticed.
Babies. The stranger was carrying two Arbora babies.
River’s head was spinning and something was badly wrong with his knee from when he’d last hit the wall, but he sprung desperately at the strangers anyway. There was a Raksuran snarl that wasn’t his own, as Merit joined his attack; between the two of them they somehow managed to break past the first groundling to reach the newcomer.
The door was still open behind them all; but with a shock Moon realised the ship had already begun moving, so effortlessly and smoothly he hadn’t even felt it. It was moving faster than should be possible – certainly far faster than the Golden Islander windships.
He didn’t know how he was going to get Merit and two flightless young Arbora off this ship, but he had to try.
With strength born of desperation, River and Merit hit the new groundling hard. It showed fang in contempt and pulled away effortlessly – but then one of the babies, wide-eyed in terror, whipped round and sank her fangs and claws into its soft, delicate ear.
It screamed in a high voice and loosened its hold, and the babies managed to wiggle free. Merit grabbed them and leapt forward to the edge of the doorway – River went to join them, but then he saw another stranger creeping towards Merit.
He jumped at it to stop it. Merit looked back at him desperately, babies cradled securely in one arm, for a single instant that seemed to stretch on for far too long.
Then he looked determinedly forward again, hesitated for another long moment – and flung himself out into space.
River made a strangled noise and tried to jump for him, but the strange groundling had too firm a grip on his wing. He heard a crash far below as Merit hit branches, but he couldn’t see.
Merit was an adult Arbora, a skilled and powerful climber who’d spent his life managing drops and controlled falls – but with the babies in one arm, he’d have to catch himself from the descent with only one hand. If he hadn’t timed that leap perfectly – if he missed the first high branches of the mountain-tree below – or if he’d timed it right but missed the catch, or fumbled it –
Frantic now, knowing that he was too late to catch Merit and the babies now regardless and not caring, River fought even more wildly, looking to damage the strangers as much as to escape.
But without Merit – without the surprise of the baby’s attack – River was totally overwhelmed now, alone against four of the strangers.
Suddenly they had him pinned. River kept fighting – but then one of them jabbed its fingers into a point in his neck –
He shifted involuntarily back to groundling as the world went black.
River woke sometime later, disorientated by agonising pain in his right leg. It felt like it was on fire, sharp stabs competing with a deeper, nauseating throb.
He tried to move it, and wished he hadn’t. The strange groundlings had broken his leg – in more than one place, from the feel of it. And it seemed like he was a prisoner in a tiny cell – not that the bars made a difference, with his leg in this state.
If they’d wanted to keep him from fighting back, they’d succeeded. Despairingly River realised he barely had the strength to move.
He squeezed his eyes closed, clenching his fists. He’d given the mentor and the babies the chance to escape – surely, surely they’d made it to safety. He was a warrior, a senior male warrior of the court – protecting Indigo Cloud’s most valuable members was his reason for existence. It should be – it ought to be – enough consolation for him, even if he didn’t know how he could escape from this.
River told himself that, over and over. He ought to be relieved. He ought to be grateful that no-one else from the colony had been stolen with him.
Only – he was probably going to die here, unless the strange groundlings wanted to steal Raksura for something worse than merely death – and now that the heat and fury of the battle had faded, he couldn’t help it. He was frightened. And it was so miserable to be alone.
River didn’t know how long he spent drifting. There was the pain in his shattered leg, the despair at the cell and the groundlings who’d imprisoned him; he didn’t want to think about any of it. Instead he tried to lose himself, think of nothing.
But then suddenly he was aware again, and conscious. Breaking through the painful haze, he became aware of a strange noise coming from the walls of the cell, a deep throbbing vibration that was gradually rising in pitch.
River tensed, readying himself for whatever might happen. He didn’t think he could stand, but if he shifted, he might be able to get himself out of the tiny cell, and then it wouldn’t matter if he couldn’t walk – he could fly.
The noise rose louder, and then in an instant dropped away to nothing. River’s tension grew, but nothing happened.
Then the door on the other side of the narrow corridor outside his cell burst open.
River should have been shocked and horrified, that a consort was coming to the rescue of a mere warrior, that the First Consort of Indigo Cloud was risking himself like this.
Except the rush of warmth, of relief and happiness, was too strong to be ignored. River couldn’t pretend that he hadn’t been hoping for exactly this.
Still, River couldn’t help but hide what he was really feeling. He certainly couldn’t let Moon know.
As Moon stepped forward and started poking at a square panel just outside the cell door, River pushed himself gingerly upright, clinging to the wall.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he told Moon, sternly.
Outside the door Moon snorted, eyes still fixed on the panel. “Don’t be stupid. Can you walk?”
River winced. “If I have to.”
Moon’s sharp stare seemed to look straight through him. “I didn’t think so,” Moon informed him, with a final vicious poke at the panel. Suddenly the door swung open.
Trying to prove him wrong, River hopped the two steps over, then swayed and almost fell at the dizzying rush of pain.
Humiliatingly, Moon caught him at the door and slung him over one shoulder. Both of them were still in groundling form.
“I can walk!” River protested, but Moon ignored him.
“We’ve got to go,” Moon said tersely. “There’s no time.”
River just hissed at him.
Moon bounded down the corridor, moving improbably quickly, even for him. River got only blurred glimpses of pale white walls, pale white furniture in strange shapes that he couldn’t figure out the purpose of. There was no sign of the groundling strangers – surely Moon hadn’t killed them all?
But where were they?
He could hear the humming sound again, River realised. Moon could apparently hear it too – he cocked his head, then cursed and ran even faster.
“What – “ River started to ask, but Moon’s speed and the way his bouncing jolted River’s leg cut him off.
“No time!” Moon hissed.
River caught one glimpse of a large room with a half-open door, and a group of the groundlings huddled round a table on the other side of it, frantically prodding and pushing at raised areas on its surface – then they were in the cargo hold again, and the door was open.
Without waiting to see what was below them or even stopping to shift, Moon leapt.
The wind rushed past them – the ground was dizzyingly far below. Hissing, River shifted to his winged form; he didn’t know if he really could fly right now, given how weak and shaky he was feeling, but at least this way he’d be less weight for Moon to carry – but he couldn’t feel Moon shifting. They were in free fall together –
Suddenly there was a flash, a booming noise that seemed to fill the sky. Hot shockwaves sent them buffeting through the air. River closed his eyes and clung to Moon, not daring to look or to try to fly.
Finally the tumbling slowed and they were falling again. And at last Moon opened his wings.
The air caught them, comfortingly, and they drifted slowly down.
“What was that?” River asked at last, shakily.
Moon didn’t answer, at first. The terrain below them was all low steep-sided hills, dry scrub on the slopes and thicker vegetation in the narrow gullies. River guessed he was looking for a good place to land; but instead he levelled off and started flying, west towards the setting sun.
Only when they were steady on their course did Moon reply.
“I overloaded the mechanism that makes their ship run. It’s made with a kind of material that burns, and if it burns the wrong way for too long, it will explode.” He paused for a minute. “I – Glass Mountain people like those ones kidnapped me, a long time ago. It took moons before I figured out how to escape. That’s how I learned how to deal with their ships.”
River shook his head slowly, feeling sick now, as well as dizzy. “I’m glad – I mean, I’m not glad you were kidnapped! It’s good you learned…” he cut his own rambling off sharply.
Moon laughed softly. “You should rest, River. It will be a while before I land.”
River shook his head no, but that just made the dizziness worse. He’d just close his eyes for a minute, he thought.
He woke up again when Moon finally landed. It was night; a huge moon was right above the skyline, swollen and bright.
Ahead of them some kind of high wooden fence stretched between two sides of a narrow canyon, cutting off whatever was inside from view. There were colourful flags hanging from the entrance – a pair of blue-skinned groundlings standing on guard with spears by the door – River tensed all over.
“It’s alright,” Moon said to him, very softly. “Those are green and white flags.” River had no idea what that meant, but while the blue-skinned groundlings were staring at them, their spears were still raised; they didn’t seem like they were about to attack.
Moon let River slide down a little, until he was standing on his one good leg with Moon’s arm around his shoulders. That was the only thing holding him upright – but it was better than being carried.
“Please,” Moon said more loudly to the gate-guards, in Altanic. “My friend has been hurt – we were attacked and separated from the rest of our people. May we seek shelter?”
There was a long pause. Then Moon hopped them both forward, a little closer to the guards. Moon fumbled at something around his upper arm – he was still wearing consort jewellery from his visit to Ocean Winter, River realised.
Then he handed the arm band to one of the groundlings. It whistled and showed it to the other guard; they looked at each other and then at Moon.
“This is sufficient,” the first guard said. “You can come inside.”
River felt Moon’s arm relax in relief under him.
He wanted to protest that Moon was giving away his jewellery so easily… but he was too tired to make a fuss.
One of the guards came over and helped Moon carry him through the gate. This was even more embarrassing than being helped by a consort – but the groundling was muscular and very strong, and River couldn’t bring himself to stop the groundling helping.
There was a town on the other side of the gate, it turned out. The buildings were high and wooden, constructed right into the base of the cliffs at either side of the narrow gorge and filling almost every inch of space between the rocky walls. But there were trees too, lush and green, and everywhere strings of round paper lanterns like tiny mirrors of the moon above.
The guard helped them to one particularly large building not far beyond the gate. Another groundling came out to meet them, this one from quite a different species as the gate guards, lanky and black-furred rather than stocky and blue.
“Better get a healer for this one,” the guard told the newcomer tersely, and River wanted to protest the thought of being treated by anyone but a Raksuran mentor; but then his shattered leg moved the wrong way again.
Pain washed over him, and he went back into the dark.
River woke up one more time, struggling and panicked even before he was fully awake – but when his eyes opened he was on a pleasantly yielding bed of furs, with his leg bound and splinted comfortably. From the fuzzy dreamy way he was feeling, someone had found a simple for him that was effective for Raksura.
The large window on the other side of the room was open – it was late morning, from the look of the light.
Moon was sitting on a comfortable-looking chair on the other side of the room, reading. River didn't recognise the script on the cover of the book, but Moon seemed comfortably engrossed.
River didn’t say anything to interrupt him, but he caught River’s movements and bounded over anyway.
“Feeling better?” he asked, poking over the blankets in the approximate region of River’s leg. River hissed at him.
“You shouldn’t have come for me,” he burst out, half-growling, but Moon stayed infuriatingly calm.
“I told you I recognised the Glass Mountain groundlings, even before Heart told me you'd warned everyone they'd released the buzzflies. They tried to kidnap me for their collection once. I wasn’t going to let that happen to anyone else.”
Their collection… River remembered Magister Ardan from the leviathan city, and snarled at the memory.
“I’d already gotten Merit and the babies out!” He paused, half-afraid to ask. “Did… did they all…”
Moon sat down on the edge of the bed; he reached out with one hand to play with River’s hair, for some reason, and River was too tired and sore to stop him.
“They’re fine,” he said almost comfortingly, and River found himself relaxing all over in relief – but only for a moment.
“You spoke to Merit?” he asked, still not letting his frustration go. “Then you must have known I was the only one left on their ship! You shouldn’t have risked yourself for me! Now you’re trapped out here, lost among strange groundlings, and I can’t protect you…”
The stroking hand paused.
“I don’t need you to protect me. I’m not lost, River. This is the eastern Abascene peninsular, where I spent most of my life. I know these places better than I know the Reaches.”
I don’t need you… this time River did snarl, ducking away from Moon’s hand.
“You’re the First Consort of Indigo Cloud! You can’t risk yourself like this! It’s a warrior’s job, not a consort’s, you should have let the warriors come for me.”
“Warriors can’t fly as fast as me,” Moon said, with an infuriating lack of smugness; he stated it like that was simple fact. Which River supposed it was; he just wished Moon would be more modest about it. “They could never have caught up to the Glass Mountain ship, and they wouldn’t have known how to break into it if they had. And River… I would never let anyone steal you. Of course I came.”
River turned away from him, something in his chest aching. He shouldn’t… he shouldn’t…
“Then no-one should have come for me,” River said at last, voice small and tight. “I’m not worth a consort. Not the First Consort.”
“You’re really stupid sometimes, River,” Moon informed him. River could almost hear the smile in his voice – he had to turn to face him again, had to see, but when he saw the expression on Moon's face he almost turned away again. The emotion on Moon's face was too much; River couldn't bear the warmth in it, the tenderness.
"I would have come for anyone from Indigo Cloud," Moon said, after a moment that stretched out uncomfortably long; River felt his stomach plunge past his feet. "But you - River, I had to come for you. You're - how many times have we saved each other's lives? I can trust you. You belong at Indigo Cloud, with me."
"But you hate me," River started. "I - I behaved badly - "
"That was turns ago," Moon answered quickly. "Do you hate me?"
"I - " River couldn't answer that, not in a way that wouldn't embarrass him.
And then Moon cut his pitiful attempts off. He leaned down close to River – too close – slowly and deliberately, he bit at River’s neck.
River stared at him wide-eyed. Moon just smiled and bit him again.
“Stop being stupid, and move over.”
River couldn’t move much, between his leg and the painkilling simple, but he still shifted a little, out of sheer force of habit at obeying the consort, as Moon slid between the blankets beside him.
“Moon,” River said a moment later, embarrassingly breathy, as the other Raksura tucked River against his chest.
“Go back to sleep,” Moon said into his hair, his hands wrapped warm and comforting around River’s back. “I’ll take care of you.”
Warmth washed over River; he couldn’t fight it anymore. Feeling happier than he’d been for turns, he burrowed closer into the warmth of his consort’s skin, and fell asleep.