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~ Previous Chapter ~
Back again, and this time I’ve brought along a familiar character or two to help things along.
This is my kind of end of year exam!
Aquila in Summer
21st Sun Month, 787 CE
ALL WAS QUIET as Lady Mhysra Kilpapan, Wingborn and first-year Rift Rider student, crept down the bank. Around her, evergreen trees stood in silence, blocking out all but the strongest light. They marched up the mountainside in haphazard style, over all terrain – steep, shallow, rocky. Nothing stopped them from growing or shedding a pungent carpet of needles.
Mhysra was taking advantage of that carpet now to keep her footfalls quiet as she slithered from tree to tree. The woods might look and sound empty, but she knew better. They were out there. Waiting. Watching. Ready to take her captive.
Crouching behind some thick bracken, she edged sideways, senses alert. The bank was steep, but nothing that she couldn’t handle as she slipped down it, cursing the pebble avalanche rattling in her wake. Flattening herself against the nearest pine, she waited.
A branch snapped. The entire wood seemed to hold its breath and Mhysra hid behind a stand of ferns. They were over six feet tall but she didn’t dare crawl in amongst them: the slightest movement would give her away.
“See anything?” a voice muttered from the top of the bank.
“No. Could be a deer.”
The first person snorted. “How many deer have you seen up here?”
“I saw two herds last year,” the other retorted, sounding young and sulky, but then he was only a second-year. “These woods are littered with deer tracks. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?”
“Next you’ll be warning me about bears and wolves,” the first student mocked. “Let’s move on. There’s nothing here and I want to bag myself a couple of firsties.”
“Still sore over your capture last year?” his companion chuckled.
“As if you weren’t getting caught right beside me.”
Mhysra stayed in her crouch as the sounds of a tussle reached her, before the second-years continued in a more dignified manner. Even when they were out of hearing, she remained still, waiting for her heart to calm. Under the thunder of her pulse was a tingle of exhilaration. She was still in play, still in the forest, evading her hunters. This wasn’t so hard.
Grinning, she eased around the ferns and continued. She still couldn’t believe she’d almost completed her first year at Aquila, training school and home of the Rift Riders. That was why she was running around the mountainside, dodging other students. Because rather than sit the pupils down for dull examinations, Aquila preferred to assess their progress in more practical ways. Thus the hunt.
With most of the first-years still learning how to fly, not to mention handle their weapons, their role in the hunt was simple: prey. They were taken high into the valley above the citadel, where an enormous lake was surrounded by a thick pine forest, and turned loose. Two bells later the second-years were released to pursue them. The goal for the first-years was to reach the end of the valley without getting caught. The second-years’ task was to capture as many firsties as possible. It was up to each individual whether they worked solo, in pairs or teams.
In order to monitor everyone’s progress, and ensure that there was no foul play, instructors, officers, attendants, servants, tutors and off-duty Riders were scattered through the forest. Even ordinary folk from the town came up to keep watch. It was an annual event.
And the hunt was just the start.
The sun blazed hotly down as Mhysra reached the bottom of the ridge and the canopy overhead thinned. Here the undergrowth was littered with scrub, gorse and the occasional birch sapling. It made hiding easier, but each step was more perilous. With silence now impossible, she pushed on regardless. The end of the valley was in sight and a flock of miryhls waited beyond the finish line. They looked bored and irritated: their day had been nothing but dull so far.
Determined that would soon change, Mhysra sought out her Wingborn amongst the giant eagles and sighed with relief. Cumulo was close, his head raised, looking for her, knowing she would come. A group of Riders laughed and played cards in the shade while they waited for the first-years to arrive and claim their mounts. They also ensured that the birds remained under cover, away from the burning sun, while keeping away the worst of the midges. Swearing under her breath, Mhysra waved the flies away from her face and wished she’d stayed away from the water a little while longer too.
Fast approaching footsteps made her freeze. She darted her head around and threw herself into the gorse bushes, stifling yelps as the prickly branches seized her with glee. It was as good a hiding place as any since surely there weren’t two people on this mountain foolish enough to jump into gorse bushes.
Wriggling down to the ground and welcoming the respite from the midges, Mhysra crawled on her elbows until she could see the miryhl enclosure and watch the commotion.
A student – slender and red-haired – was sprinting as though a pack of pyreflies was after him. It was Jaymes, Mhysra’s regular sparring partner. His russet hair was dark with sweat, his shirt clung to his back and he was panting hard. Mhysra silently urged him on as four second-years broke from the woods, whooping at the chase.
One of them paused long enough to draw his bow, using a blunt arrow marked with paint. They didn’t fly very far, or very well, but Mhysra had already seen two students taken out by them. The second-year loosed, but Jaymes started running in lunges from side to side and avoided it with ease. The other boys fumbled at their packs and pulled out little cloth bundles, lobbing them towards the fleeing figure. Only a stumble saved Jaymes from the first, which burst in a shower of red dye, while the second missed altogether.
The drowsy miryhls looked up as the Riders gathered by the finish line, cheering the students on – some for the hunters, some for the prey. At Jaymes’ approach they unlatched the rope, while the second-years cursed and threw more bombs.
Jaymes lurched on, stumbling, one hand pressed to his side. The end was in sight. Less than six feet from the line a bumble sailed over his shoulder. It struck a Rider, who rolled his eyes good naturedly and caught Jaymes as he tripped into safety.
The Riders slapped him on the back and offered him water, while the second-years begrudgingly congratulated him before trudging back into the woods. No traps were allowed within fifty feet of the enclosure, in order to give the first-years a fighting chance. Mhysra estimated that she was just about within that distance. Still, it would be better to wait for the second-years to leave. No point making life difficult for herself.
With the hunters gone and Jaymes recovering, Mhysra wriggled out of hiding. Sneaking around a copse of silver birches, she debated whether to sprint for it or continue creeping and hope she didn’t alert anyone.
A distant crashing in the forest startled her and she sprang forward.
“Here comes another one,” a Rider chuckled.
“And more,” another agreed. “It’s all go now.”
The crashing behind grew louder and closer, but Mhysra didn’t dare look. The ground ahead was covered in clumps of grass, rocks, tree roots and shrubs. Moving quickly over it and keeping her feet was tricky.
Something whistled over her shoulder and she threw herself to one side as the bundle struck a rock, exploding in a burst of red dye. Rolling over her shoulder, she came easily back to her feet and ran on, checking for signs that she’d been hit. Her clothes were clean, or as clean as they could be after a day crawling through the forest.
“Duck!” a familiar voice yelled, and she bent down as a painted arrow bobbled overhead.
Using a hand to push herself upright again, she shook the sweat from her eyes as the cheering Riders opened the enclosure. She stumbled over a loose pocket of ground and swore. Another bundle flew over her head and yet another landed off to her right.
Each stride sent a jolt up her left calf, but she hobbled on, yelping as a strong hand seized her arm. It threw her across the line and she landed with an undignified thud. Her saviour thumped down beside her, chuckling as a bundle hit Mhysra’s knee and showered them both in red dye.
“Too late,” her rescuer panted, rolling onto his back. “You all right?”
Sitting up, Mhysra flexed her ankle and winced. “Just about,” she said, and smiled. “Thanks for the help, Derry. Appreciate it.”
Derrain fra Canlen, her broad-shouldered, good-natured, best friend grinned. “You were so close. Seemed a shame to let you lose.”
“Don’t get too comfy,” a Rider warned, offering them a drink. “Fun’s not over yet.”
Groaning, they accepted the water and crawled over to join Jaymes. He smiled weakly in welcome. “Did you two work together?”
Emptying the remains of his canteen over his head, Derrain shook himself like a dog. “No chance. I lost sight of her around midmorning. She moved too fast for me. I was with Mouse and Haelle. Haelle tripped an arrow trap around noon, while Mouse ran smack into a second-year just after. His leg was starting to play up, so he wouldn’t have stuck it much longer anyway. I’ve been running since.” He looked at Mhysra and raised his eyebrows. “What happened to Corin and Greig?”
She sipped from her canteen, shaking her head. “Corin got hit by an arrow, tried to keep going and ended up shouting at Lieutenant Stirla. Greig was so busy joining in that he missed a net dropping on him. I only escaped because I fell down a gully.” She pushed up her right sleeve and showed them the graze running the length of her forearm.
They hissed in sympathy and one of the Riders went to find something to clean it with.
“How about you?” she asked Jaymes.
“I was with Silveo,” he said, to no one’s surprise. The two North Point lads were born in the same village and had been inseparable ever since, even if Silveo was intensely studious while Jaymes was more active. The only time they didn’t pair up was when the instructors and teachers separated them. “He grew bored around midmorning and started cataloguing the different species of fern. Last I saw of him he was smearing his shirt with red dye and talking to Captain Fredkhen about gorse.”
They chuckled tiredly, while Rider Theryn arrived to patch up the worst of their scrapes and bruises.
“Has Dhori been through yet?” Mhysra asked him as he washed her graze.
Theryn grinned. “First in and skipped off before the third-years even left the eyries.”
“I don’t know why he even bothers pretending to be one of us,” Derrain grumbled. “I could have sworn he’d done all this before.”
“And then some,” the Rider agreed. “If he wasn’t so young, I’d think him a captain.”
The students thought about it, then Jaymes shrugged. “At least he’s on our side.”
“True,” Theryn chuckled, with a last swipe over Mhysra’s arm. “All done. You can go.”
Though it was tempting to remain beside the lake, Mhysra’s day was only half done. “Come on,” she said to the boys, batting away a cloud of midges. “Time to make the third-years work.”
The amused Riders wished them luck and returned to their card game.
~ Next Chapter ~
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