This is a free short story featuring characters from the Wingborn series.
For more stories and info about the novels, please head here.
Taking place five years before Wingborn, when Stirla is eighteen and Lyrai is not quite sixteen. Both are freshly arrived at Aquila and about to encounter each other for the very first time…
(Thanks to EF for the suggestion. I never would have thought of this one on my own.)
Word Count: 3,500 words.
A Royal Welcome
13th Harvest, 780 CE
STIRLA WAS LATE. Having spent the majority of the day exploring the nooks and crannies of Aquila, while trying not to feel homesick for the wider, greener lands of home, he’d been in the eyries visiting his miryhl when he’d heard the news.
His miryhl, his. Stirla still couldn’t get used to the idea that he had a miryhl of his own now. Completely his. Atyrn had never belonged to anyone before him, and – Gods and luck willing – would never belong to anyone else hereafter. She was his entirely, as he was hers.
Which for a farm boy from rural Etheria, was a huge and meaningful thing. Stirla couldn’t think of anything in his life that had been entirely his before. As the youngest of a large family, there wasn’t one possession in his life that hadn’t belonged to someone else first. Even as the only son in a family of far too many daughters, Stirla’s clothes had usually belonged to two, sometimes even three or more people first. A smock was a smock, as far as farm attire went, and they were big enough to cover even his growing shoulders.
Stirla straightened those shoulders now as he hurried down the corridor towards the main hall. It had been while he was in the eyries that he’d heard the big news of the day: the Easterners had arrived. Not that Stirla was overly concerned about that – he’d met plenty of young idiots already amongst the Greater West students and doubted the others could be much worse, even if they were from the east – but the dinner bell had rung while he was chatting to Atyrn, and if there was one thing Stirla had learnt not to be late for during his brief time at Aquila, it was meals.
Not that the Riders were overly formal, or anything, but they ate like starving wolves. If he wanted to claim his own share, he needed to get to the table on time. Especially as a new bunch of students had just arrived.
Running the last stretch, he crashed through the doors and landed in the first free seat he could find. The long table was largely empty, save for a group of Riders down the far end. No one even noticed his undignified entrance, thanks to the room being abuzz with the usual chatter and squabbles.
As he caught his breath, Stirla turned over his plate and bowl and reached for the nearest platter. Casting his eyes around the room in search of the mysterious Easterners, his gaze fell instead on the sadly recognisable bunch sitting smugly at the next table. Right in the centre of them, preening and proud as a young mountain lion, sat Willym. Or, to be more accurate, Lord Willym fra Wrellan Yurrayn, since Gods forefend anyone should ever forget how important the wretched puppy was.
Dark eyes locked on Stirla’s for a brief moment before Willym looked away with a contemptuous toss of his head.
And the same to you, you arrogant prick.
Shaking his head, Stirla focused on the truly important part of the evening and started eating. What did he care about the newly arrived students? If they were anything like the ones Stirla had trained with in Etheria, they weren’t worth knowing anyway. Willym was the worst of the lot, with his high and mighty Scudian noble name, and the rest had flocked to him like the stupidest kind of sheep, eager to earn praise from the black-eyed beast.
“Are you one of the Easterners? Do you know the prince?”
The eager voice made Stirla look up, blinking into the round, slightly sweaty face of Toifen fra something, lord of somewhere or other that wasn’t very important to anyone but other useless nobles.
Stirla arched an eyebrow at the sturdy whelp, who he’d thrashed soundly in staff training on more than one occasion. Some people might have felt embarrassed to have been so clearly forgettable, but Stirla was confident in his own skin. Being a little older than the average new student, and taller than all of them, he knew he was memorable. But only if the boy in question had a brain to store memories in.
“Don’t be a dolt all your life, Toifen,” Willym drawled, raising his lazy voice just enough to be audible over the general chatter of the hall. “I know one farm boy looks much the same as any other, but surely even you recall the unnecessary giant? Just look at the way he eats. No one could forget manners like that.”
Heat rose in Stirla’s cheeks and he looked down at his plate. It was piled high with a mishmash of everything he’d been able to reach from his seat, and his hands were shiny with grease from the chicken wing he’d been eating with his fingers. A muscle clenched in his jaw as he reminded himself that there was nothing wrong with his manners. They might not be as fine and finicky as some, but at least he didn’t have soup all down his shirt like Toifen did.
The young lad stared blankly at Stirla for a long moment, his face as placid and devoid of intelligent thought as a bullwing calf. Then he wrinkled his nose. “I don’t remember you,” he said.
Stirla snorted softly and said nothing.
“You don’t remember anything,” Willym said pointedly, making his cohorts guffaw and Toifen’s shoulders droop with dismay.
Even though Stirla had been thinking a similar thing, he never would have been so cruel as to have said it aloud. He gave Toifen a sympathetic smile.
The boy beamed in return, until Willym snapped at him to come back to their table. The lad did as he was bid, slinking away like a whipped puppy.
Stirla shook his head and licked his thumb, wishing that for once the brainless lordlings would stand up to their false idol. Watching the way they continued to flock around Willym, fluttering and eager to obey his every wish and whim despite his constant cruelty, Stirla had little hope for any of them.
Thirty students had survived the Etherian selection school over the winter, half of which were sitting with Willym now. Twelve more had formed a tight knit group of their own, whose only aim in life seemed to be to taunt and thwart Willym’s cronies (while secretly pining for Willym’s attention). Two of the remaining three were twins who rarely spoke to anyone except each other, and the last was Stirla himself, who would have been happy to have made friends of any of the others, if only Willym hadn’t marked him out as a worthless farm boy on day one. Maybe Stirla should have pretended to have been awed by the younger lad, but he’d never been good at swallowing bullwing shit. He’d far rather toss it out on the muck heap where it belonged.
The news of the arrival of the Easterners filled him with equal parts hope, dread and resignation. If Aquila turned out to be anything like the selection school had been, he was in for a very lonely three years.
“Is this seat taken?”
He glanced up at the hesitant, lightly-accented question. The boy was pale, his blond hair trimmed so close to his head that it bristled, making him looked far too young and weedy to be here. Maybe they made them smaller in the east?
Stirla shrugged. “Have it.”
The lad’s smile was small as he slid into place beside Stirla, turning over his plate and bowl and keeping his head down as a great commotion filled the hall: the Easterners had arrived.
“Where’s the prince?”
“There’s a prince?”
“Prince of where?”
“It’s the Stratys’ heir.”
“The Stratys brought him himself.”
“He is the Stratys!”
Rumours abounded up and down the tables, passing from seat to seat and across the tables, making Stirla chuckle around his mouthful. The boy beside him hunched lower in his chair as the rest of the newcomers marched inside. Most of them were instantly sucked into Willym’s orbit.
“Is there really a prince amongst you Easterners?” Stirla asked, pausing to drain his beaker. The apple juice was tart and refreshing, helping to wash away the sour taste brought on by the sight of Willym preening beneath the fresh flood of attention.
“Yes,” the blond boy murmured, squirming in the seat. “But he’s just a second son. Hardly important. The Stratys probably doesn’t even know he’s here. Or care.”
Stirla looked sharply at the lad, whose pale face was flushed with some kind of emotion, his blue eyes bright as he studied the group around Willym. “I take it this prince is no friend of yours then?”
The lad’s smile was small, almost a smirk, and he finally met Stirla’s eye for the first time. “He’s never done much for me.”
Grinning, Stirla slapped the boy on the shoulder. “You sound like my kind of Easterner. I’m Stirla.” He offered his hand, unable to help noticing how much larger and rougher it was when the boy placed his own smaller, slimmer hand against it. There were calluses on the Easterner’s fingers, though, which meant he couldn’t have been quite as soft as he looked.
“Lyrai,” the lad said, shaking his hand firmly. “From Imercian.”
“Etheria. I’m a farm boy.” When Lyrai looked a little startled at the bluntness of his tone, Stirla smiled wryly. “Someone else will tell you before nightfall if I don’t.” He jerked his head in Willym’s direction.
Lyrai narrowed his eyes at the large group of young students, who were guffawing at some joke or other, no doubt at some unfortunate boy’s expense. “Like that, is it?” he murmured.
Stirla’s lips tipped up in a smile. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t.”
The boy studied him speculatively, taking in his large shoulders and the pile of food still heaped upon his plate. Then he grinned. “If I was your size, I wouldn’t either.”
Since Lyrai sounded more admiring than mocking, Stirla relaxed into a grin of his own. “The Riders wouldn’t be much cop if we were all skinny runts like you,” he teased.
A slight frown creased the boy’s forehead, until Stirla nudged him gently in the ribs with his elbow to let him know he was only joking. “Why don’t you fill your plate up? Looks to me like you’re still a growing lad. You never know, if you eat enough, one day you might even reach half my size.”
When Lyrai turned to stare at him for a long moment, the crease on his forehead getting deeper and more pronounced, Stirla worried that he might just have insulted away his best hope of friendship in this place. Typical. He’d had one chance to make a new friend and he’d wrecked it by calling the kid a runt. Good work.
Lyrai wrinkled his nose and reached for the platters of food in the middle of the table. “Half your size?” he finally said. “Not a chance. I don’t think they even breed miryhls in your size. What are you bonded to, a pair of bullwings?”
Light-headed with relief, Stirla laughed harder at the joke than it truly deserved, making Lyrai blush. Reaching out, he scrubbed his hand over the boy’s head, his hair as bristly and short as a boot brush. “I like you, Lyrai. Even if you are a skinny runt.”
The boy’s blush deepened and he ducked his head, shoving Stirla’s hand away. “I like you too, even if you are a damn tree trunk.”
Chuckling, Stirla turned his attention back to his meal, letting Lyrai get on with his own.
“So where is this prince then?” Willym’s voice suddenly rose above the general clamour. “Or was it just another made up tale to try and impress us Westerners?”
A flutter of interest rippled through the hall, drawing the attention of the older Riders as well as the students. Knowing he had the eyes of everyone upon him, Willym stood up and smoothed a hand over his carefully rumpled dark hair. Smirking, he cast his eyes across the room. “I see no princes here,” he announced in his arrogant drawl.
“That’s funny, ‘cause I can see a right royal prat from where I’m sitting,” Stirla muttered to make Lyrai laugh.
Except his new friend didn’t laugh – he was too busy sinking down in his seat, making himself look even smaller than before. Stirla hadn’t thought it was possible.
“Hey, runt, you all right?”
Wide blue eyes peered up at him as Lyrai shook his head and shrank even further, until he was practically sliding under the table.
“Well?” Willym said, raising his arms and looking at the newcomers. “I’m waiting? Where is this precious prince of yours?”
There was a wave of fuss amongst the Easterners as they too looked around, trying to locate their special little boy.
Stirla rolled his eyes, uninterested in Willym’s latest theatrics, and kicked Lyrai’s ankle under the table. “Come on, runt, he can’t be that bad. Prince or no prince, I won’t let him beat you.”
“Just don’t let him see me,” Lyrai hissed back, crouching on the floor.
Weird kid. Shrugging, Stirla dug into a slice of pie.
“I think you’re making him up.” Folding his arms across his chest, Willym smirked as his cronies began to laugh. “Or is he an invisible prince? Is that an Eastern thing?”
“I wish you were invisible,” Stirla muttered, cutting up his pie. “Or better yet, silent.”
A stifled giggle reached him from beneath the table, making him smile.
“He’s not here,” a voice piped up.
Willym clapped both hands to his face in mock surprise. “But how would you know? He’s an invisible prince!”
Most of the Riders huffed with boredom and returned to their meals, while Willym’s little friends laughed as if he was the funniest thing on the Overworld.
Rolling his eyes, Stirla bent down and hauled Lyrai out from under the table. “There you go, runt, the prince isn’t even here. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“There he is! Right there!”
Stirla looked up, startled to find that he was suddenly the centre of attention.
Equally surprised, Willym stared at Stirla for a long moment, his mouth pulling into its usual contemptuous sneer. “That’s no prince. He’s just another farm boy.”
Stirla narrowed his eyes in return, but managed not to sneer since it would only drag him down to Willym’s level. Which was what the arrogant idiot wanted, of course. Stirla had been the only one never to fawn all over him, and Willym hated him for it.
“No, not him, you fool. Him!”
Willym whipped around with a murderous glare, ready to annihilate whoever had dared call him a fool in public, but there were too many Easterners pointing in the same direction.
Stirla followed the line of those fingers himself, right to the spot beside him, where Lyrai was hunched up, looking small and miserable and paler than ever.
“That’s the prince?” Willym remarked, voice curiously flat and empty.
Stirla knew how he felt as he blinked at what he’d thought was his new friend. “You’re the prince?”
“I’m Lyrai,” the boy said, voice barely above a whisper. “Just Lyrai.”
“Prince Lyrai of Imercian, I presume.” Willym suddenly loomed over their table, poise, control and arrogance firmly back in place. He offered a hand, which Lyrai apparently had too many manners not to shake, and dragged the boy to his feet. “Why don’t you come and join us, Highness? We sit on the civilised side of the hall.” His dark eyes flicked briefly in Stirla’s direction before he aimed his smoothest smile at the younger lad.
Sighing, Stirla rested his elbows on the table and tried not to let his shoulders droop. He’d thought he’d made a friend this evening, his first since he had started this Rift Rider adventure. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted. Shrugging off his disappointment, he viewed the food still covering his plate and realised he wasn’t quite so hungry anymore. Pushing away his plate, he reached for the nearest jug and refilled his beaker, wishing Lyrai would hurry up and leave already, so he could mope in peace.
But Lyrai wasn’t leaving. Wriggling his hand free from Willym’s grip, he sat firmly back beside Stirla and smiled politely. “I’m happy where I am, thanks all the same,” he said, his voice a little soft but without any sign of hesitance.
Willym flexed his fingers and glared at Stirla. “But he’s a farm boy. A rural nobody from the backwoods of Etheria. He wasn’t born so much as planted, since all they have out there is dirt.”
Rolling his eyes, Stirla shook his head at such pathetic nonsense. Where would all the precious lordlings get their food, if not for farms like the one run by Stirla’s family? Even the great Scudian families like Willym’s imported food from Etheria, since their own land was mostly mines and quarries. Stirla might only have been a stupid farm boy, but he’d pick dirt over bare rock any day of the moon.
Lyrai picked up his spoon and sipped cautiously at his soup. “Is that right?” he said, sounding bored as he eyed Stirla beside him. “That would explain why he’s so tall.”
Thoroughly amused, Stirla winked at him, while across the table Willym’s hand balled into a fist. “He is beneath you, Highness.”
Lyrai looked pointedly up at where Stirla towered over him. “I sincerely doubt that. In fact, I would say that everyone is most likely beneath him. Even if I stood on this bench, he’d still be taller than me.”
“You know what I mean,” Willym hissed. With his mouth pursed like that and his eyes narrowed to slits, the little Scudian lordling looked rather unattractive. Stirla grinned.
Despite his earlier nerves and momentary attempt to hide beneath the table, young Lyrai showed no signs of fear or reluctance now as he tilted his head and studied the lad standing opposite. “I’m sorry,” he said with unfailing politeness, “but who are you?”
A collective gasp rose from the students behind Willym’s back, followed by no small amount of tittering. Willym breathed in deeply, his nostrils flaring as he bared his teeth. Stirla half expected the man to lunge across the crockery towards them, though he wasn’t sure who the lordling would attack first – him or Lyrai. Stirla rather hoped he would.
“I,” Willym snarled, almost incomprehensible in his fury, “am Lord Willym fra Wrellen Yarrayn, third son of Jarl Yarrayn of Scudia.”
“Oh.” Lyrai put down his spoon and blinked, and for a moment Willym looked almost mollified at this sign of deference. “A jarl. That’s like an Imercian duke, isn’t it?”
Willym gave a tight nod.
Lyrai smiled graciously and picked up his spoon again. “How nice for you. I’m Prince Lyrai Henstrati Henrykran, second son of the Strays of Imercian. That’s like a Scudian king,” he added, as if Willym was unaware of such things. Or the fact that Lyrai outranked him in every possible way. He slurped his soup obnoxiously and blinked at Willym some more. “Was there something else?”
A muscle bulged in Willym’s jaw as his nostrils flared again. His chest heaved visibly and his eyes narrowed. For a long moment the entire hall held its breath, waiting to see how this little drama would unfold next.
Holding himself so stiffly Stirla could have sworn he heard his muscles creak, Willym lowered himself into a shallow, perfunctory bow that would have been considered the height of rudeness, if Lyrai had showed any sign of caring about such things – which he clearly didn’t since he just slurped his soup again. Then the lordling clicked his heels, turned around and stalked back to his table. Where he was welcomed in a flutter of concern by his minions.
Lyrai continued to eat his soup in a calm – and thankfully now quiet – manner. Until he realised Stirla was staring at him. “What?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
Stirla tilted his head. “You do know you haven’t made yourself any friends over there, don’t you?”
Lyrai licked his lips and swirled his spoon in his soup before looking up at Stirla again. “Have I made myself a friend over here?” he murmured, his earlier hesitance returning.
Pretending to think about it, Stirla studied the boy in front of him – small and pale and royal: everything that Stirla wasn’t. Then he smiled and slapped his little companion on the back. “Aye, Prince Lyrai Henwhatever Henrywhotsit of Imercian, I think you have.”
“Good.” Grinning, Lyrai abandoned his soup in favour of a chicken leg – which he also ate with his fingers, thank you, Mr Manners. “So tell me about Aquila. When did you get here? What’s your miryhl like? Are you really a first year student too? You look too old.”
Reaching for his drink, Stirla took a long swig and prepared himself to answer all the questions. Whatever hesitance had held Lyrai back before was clearly gone now – and Stirla couldn’t have been more delighted.
Thanks for reading!
Got a request or suggestion for a character you’d like to more about or a scene you’d like to see? Please let me know, and I’ll see what I can do.