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~ Previous Chapter ~
Aquila, at last!
THE RAIN WAS torrential as the two skyships docked by the eastern spur outside Aquila. Wide caves offered enough room for the ships to wait out the storm in safety and comfort. For the students and Riders, though, the journey continued.
Waiting by the cave mouth with Cumulo, Mhysra stared at the rain and for the first time ever wished she didn’t have to fly.
“You were the one desperate to come,” her miryhl grumbled, as she secured her hat.
She grimaced and ignored him, looking back at the transport being set up for the students. Each boat seated fifteen and was carried by four bullwings. With Dhori and Mhysra flying in by miryhl that left two boats of students and two of baggage, along with thirty free miryhls.
“I’m so glad I’ve got you,” she told Cumulo, scrambling into the saddle as the students filled the boats. None of them looked happy. Nor did the Riders who had to herd a flock of miryhls through the rain.
Only one person looked cheerful: Dhori. Seated on Latinym’s back, the student’s eyes were fixed on the hammering rain, his mouth curved in a delighted smile.
“There’s something not right about him,” Cumulo murmured, and Mhysra chuckled. Dhori was strange, in a pleasant way. Usually she liked storms, but not for flying through.
“You said you wanted more adventure, Cue.”
“Must have been moulting.”
“Riders, move out!” Lieutenant Stirla ordered, and four Riders took off with six free miryhls. Next, Stirla escorted the first boat with Rees in support, then more miryhls, followed by Lieutenant Lyrai and Honra with the second boat. Dhori and Mhysra were with the third batch of miryhls, while Captain Myran oversaw the supplies and remaining miryhls.
She hunched against Cumulo’s back and they dived into the rain. Both winced at the slap of wind and water, but they’d flown through enough bad weather to settle quickly. Dusk was sweeping in as the storm poured down the side of the mountain. Flashes flickered in the gloom, illuminating the white citadel and lighting their way home.
Latinym swept alongside. “Maegla welcomes us!” Dhori whooped as thunder boomed.
“Cracked as an egg,” Cumulo grumbled, flapping hard as the cold waterfall disturbed the air.
With the storm getting ever closer, the miryhls didn’t spare the time to circle upwards and took the harder route flying straight to the top of the falls. As they got closer to the enormous structure spanning the river, Mhysra realised the bridge was riddled with holes. The bullwing boats went over the top, but the miryhls darted through the hatches into the dry, if not the warmth. It was an antechamber to the eyries, where miryhls could be handled without disturbing the rest of the flock.
“Brr,” Cumulo shivered, landing and fluffing out his feathers. “Call this a welcome?”
Mhysra hopped off and Dhori did the same, quickly untacking their miryhls and gathering drying cloths. Rumpling her big miryhl, Mhysra praised his bravery while the storm snarled ever closer. Attendants appeared to take care of the new miryhls and the air was full of greetings between Riders.
“New miryhls, follow me!” a booming voice commanded, even louder than Stirla’s.
Mhysra peered around Cumulo’s wing in time to see a tall Rider climb a ladder into the eyries above. “Better go,” she urged her miryhl. “It’ll be warm in there.”
Cumulo rubbed his beak against her, then flapped after the Rider. Hurricane swooped in just ahead of him and Mhysra winced, hoping Cumulo wouldn’t cause trouble. The rest of the new miryhls jostled after them.
“We’ll have trouble with those two,” someone chuckled, and she turned to the man dressed in an everyday Rider uniform of brown and black. His voice seemed vaguely familiar, his accent crisp with a hint of the Lowlands. Then a flash of lightning lit the room and the Rider’s face.
“Kilai!” she shrieked, jumping into her brother’s arms.
Laughing, he lifted her off the ground. “Welcome to Aquila, brat.”
“Kilai,” she murmured as he put her down, unable to tell him how much she’d worried, fearing he wouldn’t want to know her. “Oh, I’ve missed you.”
“Aye, brat, me too,” he said carelessly, ruffling her hair and picking up Cumulo’s tack. “Come on. I’ll show you where to store this so it’ll get cleaned, then we’ll settle you in.”
Wiping her face and hoping people would think it was just the rain, she shouldered her pack and called for Dhori. Then she looked at her brother again and smiled. “Let’s go.”
* * * * *
THE CITADEL LOOKED just the same as Lyrai followed his captain from the eyries. He stopped when they crossed the bridge, unable to help himself. It was tradition for returning Riders to pause by the great window to look at the view. Straight ahead the mountain ridges fell back, leaving nothing but clouds and sky. Even shrouded by a storm the scene was breathtaking. Lightning snaked across the darkening day and the horizon was a distant line of crimson-tinged gold. Thunder shuddered through the citadel as the sun surrendered to the night.
Smiling, Lyrai bent over the sill and, heedless of the rain, stared at the surging Aquatai Falls. This was the glory of Aquila: a sheet of roaring water tumbling into the cloudy abyss. Buildings clung to the cliffs on either side as though they had grown from the rocks. Lightning flashed, reflecting off the aqueducts that rippled along each street. On the right were the homes of the tradesmen and women who worked for the citadel and to the left were the barracks.
Aquila: home of the Rift Riders. Lyrai adored it.
Turning from the window, he ran a hand over the smooth stone and followed the others. Unlike the new students, off to eat before being shown to their rooms, he had an appointment. Life for students would begin in the morning, but for the Riders work carried on.
“Pleased to be home?” Stirla murmured.
“I’ll let you know,” Lyrai replied, saving his breath for the East Tower. For a man with a limp, Myran moved fast and his lieutenants struggled to keep up, pausing at the top to catch their breath. Lightning flickered, followed by snarling thunder that shook the torches in their brackets. Casting an experienced eye over his officers, the captain smiled and opened the door.
Two men waited inside. “Good timing, Myran?” Captain Roumn greeted; a grizzled older Rider who looked as if the kaz-naghkt had gnawed on him. He eyed Stirla and Lyrai with a smirk. “Think you’re ready to play the teaching game, lads?”
As the lieutenants traded uncertain glances, the other captain came over. “They’ve just outraced a storm, Roumn, give them a chance to dry out before frightening them off.” The shortest man present, Captain Fredkhen was also the friendliest. “How many with you?”
“Thirty-two,” Myran said. “Nineteen from Nimbys, eight from Storm Peaks, five from Sutherall. You came from Etheria?”
“For my sins.” Fredkhen nodded. “Brought twenty-nine. Gods, I thought we’d never make the Choice. We had over a hundred applicants, thirty of them girls.”
As the captains moved off to discuss student numbers, Myran dismissed his followers with a wave. They were happy to be excused and Lyrai led the rush to the fireplace.
“Ah, Aquila,” Stirla sighed, ruffling the water from his hair, while Rees and Honra held their hands towards the flames. “Not here a day and the olds are already boring me to death.”
Watching the captains, Lyrai smiled grimly. “If Fredkhen’s here you know what that means?”
Stirla straightened up and grimaced. “Willym. I’d forgotten and was happy in my ignorance. How did the nicest captain in the Riders end up with him?”
“Patronage,” Rees grunted, lifting his coattails to warm his backside.
“Fredkhen’s family work for Willym’s father, Jarl Yurrayn,” Honra elaborated.
“Figures,” Stirla grumbled. “Does this mean we’re stuck with that pyrefly scat for the next three years?”
They contemplated the thought in miserable silence. “Gods,” Lyrai sighed. “And I thought the students would be the worst of it.”
Before they could get too depressed, the inner door opened and a fresh-faced secretary peeped out. “Dean Marshall will see you now.”
“So nice to be home,” Stirla grumbled, following the captains into the dean’s study.
* * * * *
“I AM NEVER sitting in another boat as long as I live, so help me gods,” Corin vowed, dripping into the dining hall. The stone walls were shadowed in the lamplight, leaving an impression of immense space barely softened by grand tapestries and banners. Five tables marched down the hall’s length, one of which was covered with baskets of food. Simple fare, but warm and close to the fire. The students descended like a plague of half-drowned rats.
“As good a reason as any for joining the Riders,” Derrain agreed, sitting beside Mhysra and reaching for the pie basket. “Fly in all right?”
“Better than you apparently,” Mhysra replied, helping Corin climb over the bench. Her friend was groaning enough to put an eighty-year-old to shame. “What happened?”
“Cold.” Corin’s teeth chattered as she reached for a roll. “Cramped. Idiots.”
“The rain was freezing,” Haelle explained across the table. “And we were packed as tight as a rain cloak’s weave.”
Mouse, however, was jubilant. “Our boat almost tipped over! We nearly went in the river!”
“Since that flows out over the falls, I was not so happy at the prospect as you,” Derrain said. “Remind me never to sit near him again.”
The students bickered as they devoured fruit, pies and cold meats, while warming up beside the enormous fireplace. As they gnawed on the food, many of them studied the gloomy room. It seemed impossible that they were at Aquila. They might easily have been back in at the Rider offices for lunch. Aside from the abundance of stone and atmosphere of grandeur.
“Hey-ho, Derry-o, you made it!” Warm hands gripped Mhysra’s shoulders and she leant back against her brother as he greeted her friends, old and new. His chest rumbled against her head when he laughed at Derrain’s description of the boat ride, comparing their arrival to his own four years ago.
“You never said your brother would be here,” Corin whispered. “Wrentherin, Kilpapan, Wingborn, and now a Rider-in-training with a personal guide to Aquila.” She glanced up at Kilai. “You have the best looking relations.”
“You think every man’s good-looking, and I can’t say I’ve noticed,” Mhysra said, bumping her head against Kilai’s chest. When her brother looked down, she waved at the girl beside her. “Kilai, meet Corin.”
Her brother smiled. “Welcome to Aquila, Corin. Another pretty face to brighten these bleak halls. I hope you like it here.”
Derrain looked up. “That’s a point. How many girls got through?”
Kilai squeezed onto the bench between his sister and Derrain. “Ten so far, to go with your -” He did a quick count. “Eight. Oww, nine.” He scowled, rubbing where Mhysra had elbowed him for leaving her out. “The North Point lot haven’t arrived yet.”
“Nineteen girls,” Corin said thoughtfully. “That’s not so bad. I expected less.”
“We all did,” Kilai agreed, catching his sister’s arm before she could jab him. “Not like that, hoyden, we’re just surprised. They’re preparing a second dormitory. They expected about fifteen.”
Across the table, a Storm Peaks lad snorted. “Rumour says they expected none.”
Kilai’s smile was crooked. “Then they were wrong. I knew at least one would make it.” He ruffled Mhysra’s hair and stood up. “Now it’s up to you girls to prove just how wrong they were. In the meantime I’ll show you to your rooms. As soon as the North Point lot arrive, the captains’ll divide you into your training flurries, then they set you to work. So get to know the others, explore and make the most of this freedom. It’s the last you’ll see for a while.”
With that cheery advice, he headed for the door, leaving the new students to scurry after him, stuffing fruit and pies into handkerchiefs and pockets.
Looping his arms around Corin and Mhysra’s shoulders, Derrain gave them both an excited squeeze. “So it begins.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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