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~ Previous Chapter ~
Roll call time.
DUE TO THE mad scramble of the evacuation from Aquila, especially once the kaz-naghkt got into the tunnels, it had been difficult to know exactly who had escaped, who’d been left behind and who was missing, presumed dead. Derrain remembered the dark nights when the skyship, Miryhl Talon, packed with ordinary folk from Aquila town, as well as the walking wounded, had come under attack from pirates. Thankfully the Harrier had kept pace with them. A lighter, faster skyship, it had housed not only Riders, but two packs of pyreflies, who’d made the pursuing pirates swiftly regret their decision. It had been a shame that it had taken the Talon and Harrier so long on their previous evacuation runs. Perhaps if the pyreflies had remained at the citadel things might have turned out differently.
Probably not, since their flight from Aquila had attracted a mere handful of skyships, rather than the entire fleet the citadel had battled so valiantly against. Besides, it was the kaz-naghkt who’d done the worst damage, and they’d showed no signs of chasing the survivors down. Much to the relief of all.
Entering the hall now, Derrain felt apprehension knot in his stomach. This was the first time he would find out how many friends he’d lost. Things in the Heighlen had been a mess. Leaving the regular folk at Restra, the Riders had recovered from their fevers and wounds and moved on as swiftly as possible. The Heighlen Range was too sparsely populated for them to stay. They had to get to a place of strength as swiftly as possible. Or so the officers said.
Knocked silly from shock, exhausted by grief and washed out by their wounds, most had followed blindly, like so many mountain sheep. Hopping a little further west every day, they met up with other groups and left several behind. Until they made it here.
Now the time of reckoning had come. Captain Hylan sat on the dais at the front of the hall, his table covered with papers, inkwells, quills. Standing behind the captain, the remaining lieutenants – Brathyn, Hlen, Stirla and Lyrai – were all thinner and grimmer than at midsummer.
Just seeing those faces was enough to remind Derrain of the missing. Where were the other captains, Myran and Fredkhen? The other four lieutenants? What about the sergeants, where were they? It made his head hurt, so Derrain turned from the dais to look for his friends. Groups of people huddled around the four long tables that stretched the length of the room. Spotting familiar faces, he headed towards the nearest window. Dhori and Corin had been with him every step of the way, and both looked as tired as he felt. Standing with them was a familiar red-haired lad. But no one else.
“Gods,” he muttered, pushing his way to the depleted group. “It’s good to see you, Jaymes.”
Freckles standing out like bruises on his pale skin, Jaymes smiled. “Hey, Derry. Have you seen Silveo?”
Though his tone was casual, his eyes were worried. He already knew the truth, but was attempting to deny it while the possibility of hope still remained.
Derrain shook his head. “He and Mouse spent so much time in the infirmary, I hadn’t seen them for days before we left.”
Jaymes’ whole body slumped. “Me neither.”
Dhori placed a comforting hand on the smaller lad’s shoulder. “The healers had their own plans, if all else failed. They would have stayed with them and the wounded.”
Before Jaymes could answer, or dwell on the fact that whatever the healers had in mind they couldn’t have left Aquila without a skyship, Mhysra appeared. A pale wraith of silence, she wrapped an arm about Jaymes’ waist and rested her head his shoulder in quiet sympathy.
Jaymes swallowed hard and stared at the floor, leaning his head against hers.
“Dhori, Corin, Derry, Jaymes, Mhysra.” Lieutenant Stirla, armed with a clerk and a chalkboard, came to register them. “All whole?” he asked. “Got your miryhls?”
They nodded, and Derrain realised that they were the lucky ones. Many had been permanently wounded in legs and arms, lost eyes or been heavily scarred. Sure, they all bore scratches, but what Rider didn’t? And they all had their own miryhls. Plenty hadn’t been so lucky.
“Take a seat, and draw up a list of everyone you knew at the citadel, marking whether you know them to be dead, here, if you think they’re missing or you just don’t know.” He and the clerk handed out paper and the five of them settled at the nearest table, where quills and ink were waiting.
“Any of you seen Greig?” Stirla paused to ask after his nephew, another missing year-mate.
They shook their heads, and Corin said, “He was on infirmary duty with Haelle the day before we left.”
Frowning, Stirla told the clerk to make a note, nodded and moved onto the next group.
“They made a right mess of it, didn’t they?” Corin muttered, after silence fell again, each of them staring at their paper, not knowing where to start.
“No one expected the citadel to fall,” Dhori sighed, dipping his quill and writing each of their names in a flowing script. “Not like that. It happened too fast. All of it, from the Wrathlen to the siege, to the catapults. No one expected it.”
So many dead, so many lost. Derrain could only shake his head as he scribbled name after name, still unable to accept the facts. “What happens now?”
They looked at Dhori, because he always had the answers. He shrugged and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It depends on what the Corps decide, and whether the captain is willing to wait for word from the general. Envoys, probably. We need help and we can’t all stay here.”
Derrain wasn’t the only one to look around at the wooden walls. Kaskad was basic at best, not to mention cramped. The girls were sleeping in an old storeroom.
“Where will we go?” Corin asked, sounding lost and forlorn.
“I don’t know,” Dhori admitted, voice full of defeat.
“Well,” Derrain said, as cheerfully as he could manage, “I know it’d be nice to rest, but can’t say I’d mind moving on from here.” A gust rattled the loose slates on the roof of the hall, filling the room with cold. “You never know, we might get lucky and be sent somewhere warm.”
“For a change,” Corin grumbled, but she smiled, which was all Derrain could ask for.
“Or home,” Jaymes muttered, toying with his quill and leaning against Mhysra’s shoulder.
“Anywhere,” Dhori added, shivering as another gust swirled into the room.
Corin nodded firmly and nudged Derrain. “As long as we’re together. I’ve come too far with you lot to risk losing you now.”
Derrain wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her against his side. For warmth as much as comfort. “Best stick with what you know, eh?”
“Where is he? Have you seen him? Why isn’t he here yet?”
The commotion drew their attention to the dais, where a student was thumping the long table and shouting into Captain Hylan’s face. The captain sat calmly through the tirade, looking deeply unimpressed.
For a moment there was silence, filled only by the moaning wind and rattling slates.
Lieutenant Hlen emerged from the crowd and took the boy by the arm. “Not now, Bovei.”
“I saw – I-I saw -” The boy had to stop and shake his head to force the words out. “I saw Sergeant Fherras fall and Captain Fredkhen was captured. But I didn’t see him. Where is he?”
At last Captain Hylan moved, standing up to lean across the table, until he was nose-to-nose with the distraught student. Since Bovei was a scrawny five-and-a-half feet at a generous estimate and the captain was well over six foot, he easily dwarfed the boy. But Bovei wouldn’t back down.
“You are disrespectful, student.”
Bovei opened his mouth, no doubt to issue more demands, but Hlen yanked him back to cut him off.
Hylan straightened, a thunderous expression on his normally calm face. “You are not the only one to have lost someone, student. I make allowances for your grief, but do not think yourself and your needs more important than others. Regardless of who your father may be.”
Derrain shared a grimace with his friends. Bovei’s father was a wealthy lord of the Greater West – even if no one could ever remember his name.
“But he’s a lieutenant!” Bovei wailed, before Hlen could shut him up again.
“And we are missing captains,” Hylan growled in return. “Not to mention men, miryhls and students. Even the dean himself is unaccounted for. Lieutenant Willym’s rank makes him no more, nor less, valuable than any of the others whose names are on this list.” He slammed a broad hand on a stack of papers far thicker than the slender pile containing the names of those present. “His absence has been noted, student. More than that, I cannot say.”
“But you must know. Someone must know where he is!” Bovei’s desperate cry died into silence when no one offered him an answer.
Derrain didn’t know about anyone else, but he thought there were far more important people than Lieutenant Willym missing. The man was practically a poisonous kaz-naghkt in human form. If he’d fallen prey to them, well, it wasn’t as if he’d be missed.
Except by Bovei. Rumpled and trembling, the boy shook off Lieutenant Hlen’s hand, raised his chin and marched from the hall, a smattering of followers in his wake. The door slammed behind them, rattling yet more tiles from the rickety roof.
“Riders,” Captain Hylan said, raising his voice as he looked around the hall. “You may proceed. Let’s finish these lists and move on.”
There were no more arguments as everyone got quietly back to work.
~ Next Chapter ~
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