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A slightly longer segment than usual today, just so as to leave you on a bit of a cliffhanger.
You’re welcome :D
It also proves that there is something actually going on in this chapter other than a time jump and some recap-type things.
Don’t say I never think of you.
AS THE SNOWS of Cold month drew to a close, the world began to warm again. Winter Rains lived up to its name and Mhysra’s fortitude was tested every morning as she slogged through mud and sleet. The winds were merciless, but nothing compared to Hethanon Armsmaster.
Regardless of whether it was because of the training master or the weather, fewer and fewer students showed for their morning torture sessions. As the end of the year crept closer, the fifty recruits had been reduced by half. The remaining six girls and nineteen boys were now able to jog eight laps without pause. They could also handle a staff competently, with the promise of archery lessons should they make it through to the new year.
Thanks to their dropping numbers, the students were granted one blessing: Sergeant Rees was released back to his regular duties. The three students who’d survived his regime rejoiced. Though the same could not have been said when Sergeant Honra was also dismissed.
For the most part, Mhysra kept her head down and worked on her staff skills, often paired against Dhori. She was one of the best girls and in the top half overall. Derrain also did well, a natural athlete and of a similar disposition to Lieutenant Stirla, who treated him more like a brother than a student. Harlan quit with the first downpour, but he met up with them on most Stardays to complain about his boring clerk apprenticeship. Ulla vanished amidst the snow and was last seen by Harlan boarding a south-bound trade ship.
Mouse and Corin remained, though Corin preferred their afternoons, being a bright girl and not really built for the rigours of Rider training. But she was determined to succeed. The longer Mouse trained the less nervous he became, though he still talked too much and was never still.
It was monotonous work, both in the mornings and the afternoons, but Mhysra knew she was making progress when she no longer fell asleep, no matter how dull the lesson. The work became easier too, even if the subject matter was supposed to be harder. As the new year washed out winter and ushered in spring, she and her friends felt confident that they would last.
“Four months and we’ll be Riders,” Derrain remarked one Starday, as the friends lazed at their favourite picnic spot in the pastures above Nimbys. It was one of the few places they could go and not be disturbed by Riders wanting tasks done or city brats picking fights.
“You’ve got the exams yet,” Harlan warned as the students clinked their beakers. “Winter isn’t the worst of it.”
“Exams, pah!” Corin scoffed. “I’ve heard you can sleep through them and still pass.”
“And yet a handful of people fail each year,” Harlan said, smiling slyly at his cousin.
“Why are you looking at me?” Mouse queried nervously. “Do you think I’ll fail? I’m not going to fail, am I? Gods, what’ll I do? I can’t fail!”
“Stop it.” Corin whacked Harlan on the arm, while Derrain pulled Mouse into a rough hug.
“Take no notice,” Dhori advised. “You’ll be fine.”
“You think so?” Mouse quivered, peeping over Derrain’s arm.
“I know so,” Mhysra assured him, lifting her cider. “To Mouse’s glorious future!”
“To Mouse!” the others agreed, and he looked as pleased as if he’d graduated from Aquila already. Not even Harlan could bring himself to drag him down again.
* * * * *
BY THE TIME the new year passed, the remaining students seemed set to stay, with fifteen boys and four girls. Milluqua was delighted, keeping her sister informed about the current betting and how much she’d won thanks to Mhysra’s resilience. Yet despite the feeling of belonging that had grown with every passing day, Mhysra was still uneasy. How could she feel otherwise when her deception against her parents was still in place?
Her father knew nothing of her daytime activities, nor did he care. Her mother was busy, returning too infrequently to grow suspicious, but Mhysra knew that wouldn’t last. The months were passing and her exams were approaching. Even if she managed to finish the selection school without being found out, how was she to leave for Aquila without being missed?
“You’ve time left,” Milluqua said one evening, while Mhysra was practising deportment by walking around the library with a stack of books on her head. Her sister was embroidering by the fire, the ever-growing Bumble snoozing on her feet.
“Time, yes,” Mhysra grumbled, avoiding a footstool and a lump in the carpet. “But I need ideas. He’s assumed I’ve given up because I’ve stopped pestering him.”
“Hm.” Milluqua yanked her thread taut. “I’m tempted to say leave without telling him.”
Part of Mhysra agreed, but it was the weak bit. “What kind of Rider behaves so cowardly?”
Milluqua didn’t answer and they continued their tasks in silence. Until Bumble tripped Mhysra and scattered her books, causing Milluqua to stab herself with her needle.
Lying on the floor amidst the carnage, Mhysra fended off the puppy with a weary laugh. “Is this as an omen?”
Sucking her finger, Milluqua shook her head. “More of a warning. Don’t make Bumble part of future discussions.”
Though she laughed, the problem weighed on Mhysra’s mind until she confided in her friends. Unfortunately they happened to be the same ones who’d laughed when they found out she was Wingborn.
“Tell him,” Corin said, leaning back to watch the Riders come in for the noon meal.
“Don’t.” Naelya, another female student, shook her head.
“No, don’t,” Mouse agreed. “Not yet, anyway.”
“What would you know?” Corin grumbled, slumping as the last Rider closed the door.
“No need to ruin Mhysra’s life just because Rider Theryn isn’t here,” Derrain teased.
Corin snorted. “As if telling the truth would ruin her life.”
“Shows what you know,” Haelle, the fourth girl and by far the quietest, muttered. Tall like Mhysra and even more willowy, she said very little about herself and her family, but whenever the subject came up she took on a hunted look. “You should keep it a secret as long as you can, Mhysra. Trust me.”
“But surely it would be better to tell him herself, than risk him finding out some other way,” Dhori said reasonably. Mhysra shared a glance with Derrain and they both shook their heads.
“You’re lucky someone hasn’t told him already,” another lad grumbled. “I only lasted a half-moon before word reached my father.”
“That’s because you were supposed to be studying with the harbour masters,” Naelya reminded him. “And your father is known for paying his informants.”
“The only reason it took that long is because they like you down there,” Corin agreed. “Anyway what does it matter, you’re still here, aren’t you?”
“I might be, but I’ve been doing extra bookwork every night as penance.”
“What I don’t understand is how Mhysra got in without her parents’ permission,” Mouse said, stopping the conversation dead.
Derrain raised his eyebrows and smirked, while Mhysra squirmed in her seat, not about to admit that her cousin had forged her father’s signature. “I had a letter from my aunt.”
“Mhylla Wrentherin,” Derrain said, adding, “of Wrentheria,” in case any of them had misunderstood her aunt’s importance.
Mhysra scowled as the others made sounds of awe. It was bad enough being a Kilpapan, now she had the Wrentherin name to contend with. She was lucky her friends weren’t the jealous sort.
“Well, that explains where Cumulo came from,” Corin said, her head whipping around as the door opened. She sighed with disappointment when only Sergeant Rees entered.
“Eyes down, everyone,” Derrain mumbled, and the students became fascinated with their empty plates, their discussion forgotten. Rees did not approve of conversation at mealtimes.
* * * * *
THE AIR WAS filled with moisture when Mhysra and her friends left the cathedral on the second Starday in Feather month. Bidding the others farewell, she traipsed home to change, before heading to the eyries to give Cumulo a preen. Working beneath his wings, she listened to the pair on the walkway and smiled. Lieutenant Stirla was often in the eyries on a Starday, happy to show visitors around.
On this occasion, however, Stirla and his companion were already acquainted. Concealed beneath her miryhl’s feathers, Mhysra listened as the big lieutenant flirted with her sister. Neither knew she was there, nor realised how often she overheard these little chats. What amused her most was that they thought they were being discreet. While it was true each miryhl only spoke to their Rider, those same Riders were notorious for their gossip.
“Humans are such idiots,” Cumulo muttered, and at that moment she had to agree.
“Ho, Riders!” a shout came from outside. “Ho, miryhls! To wing! Riders to flight!”
Feathers rustled as Riders poured into the eyries from all directions, their miryhls dropping down to meet them. Mhysra ducked out from beneath Cumulo’s wing and pressed close to him, trying not to get in anyone’s way.
“Mhysra!” Milluqua cried, when Stirla raced off towards Atyrn. “What’s happening?”
“I’m not sure.” Tugging her sister off the walkway, she dragged her against Cumulo as Riders and miryhls jostled around them.
“Messenger, what news?” Striding through the chaos, Lieutenant Lyrai was the only Rider not scurrying for his mount, the only one currently grounded.
“Trouble, sir,” the messenger panted, allowing his sweating horsat to be led away. The man was in a bad way, bleeding across his head, back and shoulder and down one arm. A spear was clenched in his right fist as if he was frightened to let go. “East. Attack. Raiders.”
All activity paused as the Riders waited for more information.
“Raiders?” Lyrai repeated. “Of what sort?”
The messenger’s face was pale, his eyes wide as he breathed the word every human on the Overworld feared, “Kaz-naghkt.”
There was silence as the eyries absorbed the shock. Kaz-naghkt so close to Nimbys? In the east. No one had ever heard of such a thing, not in all the years since the clouds came and humans were forced to fly in order to survive. Kaz-naghkt came out of the west, that was how it had always been.
Lieutenant Lyrai clenched his fists. “Riders to wing!”
Chaos resumed and within moments the eyries emptied, miryhls leaving through the hatches, collecting their Riders outside. The lieutenant thanked the messenger and handed him over to an attendant, then stood alone in the middle of the walkway, staring up at the open hatches.
Mhysra ventured out from Cumulo’s shadow, one hand resting against his chest and thundering heartbeat. They knew how the lieutenant was feeling.
He turned to them, eyes fierce. “It shall not be borne. It will not.” Spinning on his heel, he left.
Mhysra’s fist clenched in Cumulo’s feathers, longing to follow the Riders. To fight and defend. To do what they had been born for and were training to do.
“Is it true?” Milluqua asked. “Are the kaz-naghkt here? So close to the city?”
Cumulo rested his beak against Mhysra’s cheek, breathing fast with frustration. She reached up to soothe him and glanced at her sister. “You heard them. What do you think?”
Milluqua looked towards the hatches where so many miryhls had gone. “I think I am afraid, that this is no longer a game, and I think,” she continued, tears in her eyes, “that I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
Mhysra shook her head sharply. “It was never a game, Milli.”
Her sister bit her trembling lip and nodded. “I know. It’s just… with all the bets and sneaking about under father’s nose, it felt like a game. It wasn’t about fighting. Don’t ask me what it was about, but it wasn’t dangerous. It wasn’t real.”
“And now that it is?” Mhysra asked, dreading losing her sister’s support.
Milluqua took her hand and squeezed. “I could never be as brave as you.”
Mhysra didn’t know what to say, but when her sister opened her arms, she hugged her tight.
“Whatever happens, you will do this,” Milluqua whispered fiercely. “And whatever it takes, I will help you. The Overworld needs every pair of wings it can get. If that includes yours, so be it.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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