They were about halfway to Caerdu when Rai gave a horrified cry.Â Valeria reached down and stroked his feathers as she looked down to see what had disturbed him so.Â Her hands closed convulsively on his plumage and she gaveÂ a sob when she saw the brightly coloured feathers and scarlet blood scattered across the snow and rocks below. Valeria had no doubt itÂ belonged to the thunderbird whoâ€™dÂ been trying to take Salia to safety.
â€œSalia!â€ She scannedÂ the gore-strewn scenery for any sign of her daughter, but found none.
â€œIgnifer!â€ Albanâ€™s shout reached Valeriaâ€™s ears in spite ofÂ the distance. He was kneeling on the back of his mount, supporting Karen, and they were both staring at the ground. She followed his gaze and spotted a figure lying face-down in the snow. The fire nymph was stirring weakly, but the cold couldnâ€™t be doing her good. The fact the she wasnâ€™t thawing the ice just by lying there was a very bad sign.
We have to land. Karenâ€™s mental tone was precariously weak but still coherent. We canâ€™t leave her there. Sheâ€™ll die.
We donâ€™t have time. Valeria bit her lip. The girl was right, of course, but time was off the essence. She managed to avoid broadcasting the thought that Ignifer would probably die anyway.
Karenâ€™s right, mother, Alban said. Ignifer will die without immediate help. You and Rai can land and grab Ignifer while we carry on for Caerdu. There wonâ€™t be any delay getting Karen to help. Youâ€™re Igniferâ€™s queen and you gave her this mission. Itâ€™s your duty.
Prince Albanâ€™s plan is best, my queen, Rai said. We can soon catch up to them.
Part of Valeria still wanted to protest. She didnâ€™t want to leave her son. She definitely didnâ€™t want to face the horror below. But Alban and Rai were right; she had a duty to Ignifer. She couldnâ€™t leave her there even if she truly wanted to. Which she didnâ€™t. And besides Ignifer was her only lead on whether Salia was still alive. She took a breath, clutched Raiâ€™s feathers again and ordered him to land.
My queen. He banked away from Albanâ€™s mount and began to spiral down towards Ignifer as the other thunderbird carried on towards Caerdu.
As he came in to land Valeria felt around for dragons. She didnâ€™t think it was a trap; the dragon Karen had fought had been completely focused on Salia. But she couldnâ€™t be too careful. She couldnâ€™t feel any close by, though the sense of a few in the distance scritched at her skin and she looked back towards the Eyrie. She squinted into the light and spotted several dragons flying west towards dragon territory. Tears sprang to her eyes when she realised they were herding a flock of thunderbirds. They must be the prisoners theyâ€™d taken at the Eyrie. She wiped her eyes furiously. There was nothing that she could do for them.
The same was true of the thunderbird who had been carrying Ignifer and Salia. She was dead; the amount of blood and feathers proved that. She must have refused to land when the dragon caught up with her and been torn to pieces for her courage. Valeria just hoped she could save Ignifer since sheâ€™d given her this mission.
She leapt from Raiâ€™s back and ran across the blood-drenched snow to Igniferâ€™s side. She knelt down by her and gently turned her over. The nymph was alive but unconscious. For a fire nymph to be so pale and icy cold meant the dragon must have devoured almost all her energy and left her for dead. He probably wasnâ€™t wrong. It would take a miracle to save her, but she had to try.
Valeria removed her own cloak and wrapped it around the nymph, then lifted her with effort and dragged her back towards Rai. He crouched down to make it as easy as possible for her to get them both onto his back. ItÂ still wasnâ€™t going to be easy. She gritted her teeth, crouched down and lifted Ignifer into her arms long enough to push the nymph onto Raiâ€™s proffered leg, then climbed up onto his backÂ and pulled her up after her.
Once she was sure Ignifer wouldnâ€™t fall off as soon as they took off she collapsed beside the nymph gasping for breath.
Are you both secure, my queen? Rai asked.
We are. Valeria pulled Ignifer close, trying to share at least a little of her body heat with the weakened nymph. Take us to Caerdu. We need to catch up with Alban and Karen.
Oh, itâ€™s Karen again now instead of â€˜that girlâ€™, is it? Rai mental tone was full of strained amusement as he launched himself into the sky.