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~ Previous Chapter ~
Nice and early this morning. Getting in before I go off in search of more standing stones – which I hope won’t be blocked by frisky giant cows this time! (They had calves, there was nothing to hide behind, some were friendly, others were… not. Wasn’t worth the risk.)
Anyway… Onto the important things, with one important question:
Where is Stirla leading them?
“THIS IS NOT what I expected.”
Mhysra looked up from watching the heels of the person in front, having been following blindly while thinking over her farewell to Cumulo that morning. Still sulking, he’d ignored her until she had to leave, then engulfed her under one wing before shoving her away. Silly bird.
Shaking her head, she shifted the heavy pack on her shoulders and trudged along the uneven tunnel. It was wide enough for four people to walk abreast, though they marched in pairs, the way winding up and down and side to side, without any clue as to where it was heading. Lieutenant Stirla liked being secretive.
“Are you listening?”
Mhysra blinked at Corin beside her. “Sorry. Thinking.”
“We could tell,” Silveo said, turning to walk backwards, his heels no longer available for Mhysra to follow. “It looked painful.” He winked. “What did you expect, Corin?”
“To fly,” she said, which considering the remoteness of Aquila made sense.
“Even without the miryhls?” Jaymes asked, walking beside Silveo, his red hair looking purple in the lamp light. The small, rough cut crystals emitted a strong blue glow for almost twenty strides and Mhysra had never seen their like before. They flickered into life when someone approached and pulsed in a slow, steady rhythm until the last person passed, then faded into darkness again. Dragon-made, Lieutenant Fleik said. A gift on the founding of Aquila.
“Gods, can you imagine us leaving on miryhls?” Silveo chuckled. “A quarter would fall off before we got two bells out.” He shook his head, silvery hair glowing blue. “You’d all be fine, no doubt, but I assure you I am not ready to die yet.”
“Maybe you should practise more,” Mhysra teased.
“I will when you start getting top marks in arithmetic,” Silveo challenged, ducking as his head brushed the ceiling.
“That’s asking for a miracle,” Dhori murmured from behind, his grey eyes an eerie violet in the glow.
“So is Silveo flying long distance,” Jaymes quipped, sidestepping his friend’s arm punch.
“Children, please,” Corin scolded, and tripped on a loose stone. “This place is unsafe.”
“We’re in the Riders,” Mhysra said. “Why should we be safe?”
“Yes, acclimatisation with danger is of vital importance.” Silveo shrugged at their raised eyebrows. “It is.”
“Anyway,” Corin said, trying to regain control of the conversation. “I expected us to go somewhere by skyship, not end up in a tunnel.”
“Why not?” Dhori asked. “The mountain is riddled with passages. We go down into the caverns every day to bathe.”
“But still,” Corin protested. “Do we know where this tunnel is leading? And aside from the caverns have any of you ever gone inside the mountain?”
“No.” Mhysra wrinkled her nose, shivering in the steady draft that grew cooler the deeper they went. “But there’s probably a good reason for that.”
“Which we’re about to find out. Hopefully. Soon.” Derrain had been trudging quietly alongside Dhori and was behaving far from his usual self. His dark skin looked waxy and he was clearly sweating.
“Are you all right, Derry?” Mhysra asked.
He took a shuddering breath and dragged up a smile. “Fine.”
“He’ll be all right,” Dhori assured her, and she frowned. Derrain was her best friend; if he needed looking after it was her job. She hadn’t known he was unnerved by small spaces. He was fine in the caverns.
She looked at Derrain again, but he was too busy watching where he was going to meet her eyes. “We’ll be out soon,” she murmured.
He nodded tightly without looking up. Since none of them knew where they were going, there was no possible way she could have known such a thing for sure.
“He’ll be all right,” Dhori repeated firmly. It was strangely comforting.
“Good,” she murmured, facing forwards again. Corin and Silveo were still bickering about why they were walking through the mountain. She rolled her eyes and shared a rueful glance with Jaymes. It was never easy being the quiet friend to talkative people.
Dripping water sounded up ahead, loud enough to be heard over forty-odd pairs of feet, as the tunnel curved down and around to the left. Derrain groaned and Dhori whispered to him. Mhysra couldn’t make out the words, but his voice was soothing, matching the tread of feet, the pulse of the lanterns and the splash of water as the path sloped steeply downwards.
“I hope we don’t have to climb out of here,” Corin grumbled, and Derrain cursed.
“Careful, students!” Sergeant Loyek called from somewhere up front.
“Watch your step!” Lieutenant Stirla passed on from the middle.
At the back of the group, Sergeant Rees grumbled something that was too far away to be decipherable. Which suited Mhysra just fine. Her brief smile vanished when she put her foot in a puddle. Her yelp was drowned out by a shriek further forward, followed by more shouts and yips to the rear.
“That’s cold!” Corin squeaked on finding a puddle of her own.
“Better watch your step then,” Stirla chuckled, keeping Mouse company a short way ahead. “We did warn you.”
“He didn’t say anything about freezing cold water, though,” Corin grumbled.
Mhysra hummed consolingly, grimacing as her boot squelched with every other step.
Other tunnels branched off their route, but they stayed on the main path, skirting a subterranean lake, before their way began to climb again. It was just as steep and tiring as Corin had feared, and soon no one had any breath left to talk. Except Dhori, who maintained a soothing murmur for Derrain’s benefit. The higher they climbed, the warmer the breeze became and stronger too, until it was almost as fresh in the tunnels as a walk in the citadel. Derrain’s breathing evened out and, as the tunnel flattened, high spirits returned. Corin swapped places with Jaymes so she and Silveo could bicker more comfortably.
“A perfect match,” the redhead chuckled. Since Silveo was about a foot taller than Corin and pale everywhere she was dark, they couldn’t have looked more different. But they were happy in their arguing, making Mhysra smile.
“Just so long as they don’t unite against the rest of us.”
“Gods save us,” Jaymes groaned.
Then there was light up ahead, natural light, shining from a westward sun with the warmth of mid-afternoon. But Mhysra only managed a brief upward glance before her attention was wholly distracted. Even Derrain, rushing past to breathe in great gulps of unconfined air, registered only dimly. Stopping at the mouth of the tunnel, Mhysra stared.
Flanked by two high, steep and uncompromising cliffs, the valley opened out before her, comprised of long, uneven terraces stepping jaggedly down to the edge of the Cloud Sea. Green and grey and white. Bullwings, sheep and doelyns grazed in high paddocks, nestled on narrow ledges around the cliff face, while small huts and hideaways were carved from the rocks. Crops flourished along the terraces and fruit trees bordered some edges.
A farm. Aquila had its own farm. Tucked half a mountain away from the citadel. Secret and perfect. Dhori and Jaymes stood by her shoulders and she grinned at them.
“A farm?” Mouse questioned, while Lieutenant Stirla counted heads to make sure no one had been lost along the way. “They brought us to a farm for Midsummer break?”
“Well, we can’t have you getting out of shape, can we?” Lieutenant Fleik said, his smile wicked.
Mouse and Jaymes groaned, as only farm boys who had thought themselves freed from the chores of childhood could.
“I can’t wait.” Mhysra laughed, loving the chance to work in the green again after so long in cities and citadels.
“That’s because you’re weird,” Corin said, looking around with the horror of a city girl.
Chuckling, Lieutenant Stirla shooed them away from the tunnel and into the warm sunshine. “She’s not the only one, Corin. I’m looking forward to this too.”
“That’s because you’re cruel.”
He grinned, just as wickedly as Fleik had. “But I’m the nice lieutenant, remember?”
“Gods save us,” the students muttered as one.
Stirla laughed, shaking his head pityingly. “Too late for that, my lambs. Far, far too late. You’re in my clutches now. Ah, what fun awaits.” He clapped his hands, making Mouse and Corin jump. “Come on, tents to set up, food to prepare. Wouldn’t want to sleep in the open tonight, would we? It might rain.” Chortling, he strode off, leaving them staring uneasily after him. “Merry Midsummer and welcome to Buteo, everyone!”
“He’s enjoying himself far too much,” Derrain said.
The others nodded, following after Stirla to begin setting up their tents. Knowing their run of recent luck, it would rain if they didn’t. Merry Midsummer, indeed.
~ Next Chapter ~
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