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~ Previous Chapter ~
New friends! And far too much exercise for a Sunday morning.
“NOT… WHAT… I… expect-ed,” Derrain puffed as they completed their laps. They were among the first to finish, though plenty had claimed to be done earlier. Except the little man with the big voice had the eyes of a hawk. The cheaters probably wished they hadn’t bothered now, Mhysra thought, watching the stragglers stump out two extra laps.
“Evil,” she gasped, bending over to catch her breath. Before this morning she’d thought herself fit. At Wrentheria she regularly ran with the fledgling miryhls, encouraging them to fly, or played chase with her cousins and the nakhounds. This was torture, with every breath stabbing frozen knives inside her chest. Even Derrain was worn out and he was used to scrambling around skyships in the middle of a storm, hauling himself up ropes and other such daring stuff.
“Still alive, though,” Derrain said as he straightened. “I feel ready for anything now.” He stretched his arms and went to fetch their coats from the pile of discarded clothing.
“Unnatural,” Mhysra grumbled, noticing some of the other girls eyeing her friend. She smiled when one walked over and introduced herself.
Derrain shrugged into his coat and grinned. “I’m Derrain, and she’s Mhysra.”
Mhysra straightened and nodded politely, surprised when the girl dragged her eyes away from Derrain long enough to nod back. Short and stocky, Corin was pretty when she smiled, lighting up her amber eyes. “You both did well back there. I don’t think you got barked at once.”
“All right for some.” A scrawny girl limped over, clutching her ribs. “I never moved so much in me life, and all to get back where we started. Ain’t what I was expecting. Ulla.”
“Corin,” the short girl replied, and pointed at the others. “Derrain. Mhysra. I’ve seen you around the docks.”
The scrawny girl nodded, scratching her tight brown curls. “Aye. Me da’s a gladhand.” Which was docker slang for men who turned their hand to anything to earn a coin. She nodded at Corin. “You’re merchant stock.” She looked at Derrain. “You’re off the ships.” Turning to Mhysra, she narrowed her eyes. “You’re new. Don’t know what you do, but I seen you about.”
“Impressing people again, Ulla Bright-Eyes?” asked a tall boy with a broad grin.
“Harlan,” the girl grumbled. “An’ Mouse.” This was said to the small lad in Harlan’s shadow. Whereas one boy was tall and exuded confidence, the other was small and fidgety. “Thought you said you weren’t gonna bother.”
“I needed to do something over the winter.” Harlan shrugged. He looked too fine for the Riders, with his artfully arranged curls and brightly polished boots.
While they waited for the rest of the new students to finish, they got to know each other a little. Corin and Harlan’s parents both ran moderately successful skyships, Mouse was Harlan’s cousin, fresh from the mid-Imercian country and Ulla had grown up on the docks. Being his usual charming self, Derrain quickly fitted right in. He was just explaining how he knew Mhysra when their instructor clapped his hands.
“Who wants to go home now?”
Harlan looked at his muddied boots and sighed, making the others chuckle. There were a few discontented mutters from the crowd, but no one left. The little man smiled, the expression filling Mhysra with dread.
“Good. I am Hethanon Armsmaster and your mornings belong to me now. With me you run and sweat until you break. Eventually I may let you touch a weapon. Because before you go near a miryhl with a pointy object, you must prove you can use it without maiming yourself. Understood?”
There were a couple of mutters, a few affirmative replies, but mostly subdued silence.
“So much to learn,” Hethanon said pityingly. “When I ask a question, you reply. Understood?”
“Yes,” they replied, mostly together.
“Something is missing, students,” Hethanon continued, voice stern. “When I speak, you answer, and when you do you call me sir. Understood?”
“Better,” Hethanon said. “Now your instructors. Real Rift Riders whose time could be better spent than on you. Do not waste it, do not test their patience and do not forget that they are worthy of your respect.”
“Sergeants Honra and Rees,” Hethanon introduced, pointing to each. “Lieutenants Stirla and Lyrai. You address them as sir and obey at the first time of asking. Understood?”
“Then pay attention. You are too many, but that will change. For now I will divide you up, and you will not complain!” His bark silenced the dissenters before they even began. Mhysra shot Derrain a worried glance; she hoped she was in his group.
“I will point at you and say a name. That is your group. Go stand by them.” Hethanon nodded at the Riders, who spread out. “My group wait in the middle.” He started to point, barking Stirla, Honra, mine, Lyrai or Rees, making more than one student jump. His method was swift and effective, splitting up any groups he spotted and placing any potential troublemakers under his or Sergeant Rees’ command.
“Stirla.” He pointed at Derrain, who sighed with relief.
“Honra.” He pointed at Corin.
He divided the group in front of Mhysra, before coming back. “Lyrai.”
Her heart sank and she trudged towards her line. The lieutenant was expressionless, despite the eight students chattering behind him. She joined Mouse, who was pitifully pleased to see her. A couple of lines over, Derrain made a sad face, though he had nothing to complain about in Stirla. It was just her luck to end up with the man she already knew didn’t like her.
When Hethanon finished, she looked at her line and suppressed a sigh. She was the only girl. Stirla and Honra had two each, Hethanon had three. There were none in Rees’ group.
Mouse smiled shyly. “Bet I’m the last person you wanted to be with, but it’ll be good, you’ll see. But if it does get bad we can always thank Heirayk we’re not stuck with Rees.”
“There’s a bright side,” she said, morosely studying the other boys in their line. Two were highborn, and showed it. Four were friends already, while the remaining two didn’t seem to know anyone. One was even smaller than Mouse. He was shaking and she doubted he would last long. The other was tall and calm, looking around curiously. Catching Mhysra’s eye, he smiled.
“All right, everyone.” Lieutenant Lyrai clapped his hands for their attention. “I’m going to teach you some exercises to build up your strength and keep you warm, then we’ll do more to improve your fitness. The Rift Riders are about more than flying pretty birdies.” He caught Mhysra’s eye, and she could have sworn there was a hint of a smile as he recalled the day she’d forced her way into the Riders. Then his gaze passed on and he was as cold as ever.
“I’m sticking with you,” Mouse whispered as Lieutenant Lyrai began pairing people off, telling them about Rider life – it wasn’t easy, they had to be fit and willing to fight, and so on. Reaching them, he pointed Mhysra to the far side of the line and positioned Mouse next to her.
Mhysra bit back a smile as Mouse groaned: he hadn’t got his wish. Standing opposite her was the lad who’d smiled earlier. Mouse was paired with the timid boy. It was obvious why the lieutenant had done it, since they were of a similar size. And twitchy temperament.
“I’m Dhori,” the lad opposite her said, as tall as she was and just as lightly built.
That was all they had time for, because the lieutenant was talking again, demonstrating stretches, jumps, pattern steps, blocks and holds, some of which required two people, hence the pairings. A quick glance around showed that everyone else was doing similar exercises. She smiled at Dhori and started counting star jumps, followed by tucks. It looked daft, but she wasn’t alone in her folly. Derrain and Ulla had had it right earlier – this wasn’t what she’d expected. Not at all.
* * * * *
THEY TRAINED UNTIL noon, then were shown the bathing chambers beneath the Rider offices. Fresh uniforms waited and, once clean and changed, they ate in the hall. Afterwards they were divided into those who were literate and those who weren’t. Since there were only twelve who couldn’t write, the remaining thirty-two were split again into two groups. This time Mhysra managed to stay with Derrain. They were joined by Harlan, Mouse, Corin and Dhori. Ulla had been one of the first to leave, being able to read a little but not write at all.
Though the students’ mornings might belong to Armsmaster Hethanon, their afternoons lay in the hands of the clerks. They would test their literacy and arithmetic as well as teaching them geography, history and languages. The lieutenants would instruct them about life in the Riders later in the term.
Mhysra tried to take in all the things being said, but she was not the only one smothering yawns after their busy morning.
“Remember we asked for this,” Derrain murmured, as they settled into a classroom.
If she’d had more energy she would have hit him.
“Now we know why there are so few Riders,” Harlan grumbled. His boots were now sadly scuffed. “Gods, I don’t think I can take this.”
“Don’t be soft,” Corin scolded. “This is a great opportunity. I’m not giving up yet, not after a paltry bit of exercise. I might change my mind when they start lecturing us on poetry, but I’m hoping they’ll skip that.”
“They save it for Aquila,” Dhori said, taking the seat next to Mhysra.
“That’s something to look forward to,” Mouse chuckled.
Corin and Mhysra groaned, “Great,” and shared a grin.
Moaning, Harlan put his head on the desk. “Wake me if anything interesting happens.”
It didn’t, and at the end of the day Mhysra waved farewell to her new friends before going to see Cumulo. He hopped down two perches to meet her.
“Well? How did it go?”
Smiling, she tickled his head. “It’ll do.” She’d made some friends and if it stayed like this everything would be fine. “I can cope.”
Tilting his head for a stroke, he sighed with relief. “Good. Tell me the same tomorrow.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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