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~ Previous Chapter ~
The Mouse Report.
“ANYTHING TO REPORT?” Healer Nehtl was waiting when Mouse and Greig returned from their watch with the nakhounds. As welcome a sight as the head healer had often been during their concealment, it was the bowls in his hands that Mouse was truly interested in. They steamed gently in the warm cavern and Mouse’s stomach rumbled hopefully.
Familiar with the priorities of growing boys, Nehtl handed Mouse and Greig a bowl of broth each and made room for them before the fire. This cavern was one of several they’d utilised over recent months, moving regularly to conceal their presence as best as possible. At the moment they were under the hills west of the lake, taking advantage of the haze that hung over the forest each morning to hide their cook fires.
Settling down to enjoy his broth, knowing he would be allowed to finish it before having to report, Mouse looked around the chamber. Smaller than their last base, its rough floor was strewn with bracken and pine needles, providing soft beds and sweet scents. Twelve men lay on one side of the fire, all that remained of the worst wounded that had been evacuated from Aquila. Some had recovered, but most…
Gods, those days haunted Mouse. Crawling through slick, crumbling tunnels, dragging stretchers bearing dying men, discarding the dead. And running. He remembered running a lot, terrified he would be left behind as his bad leg slowed him down. Then the screams, the shrieks of pain and the pervasive stench of panic, fear, desperation and blood. Until the water came, flooding the tunnels that connected them back to the citadel, washing away their trail, their enemies and the bodies of those who hadn’t made it.
He dreamed of that water often, rushing in a great torrent to sweep him away. Or creeping and seeping through the walls, roof and floor, drowning him by stealth.
Shuddering, Mouse shook off his fears and focused on his food. Weak and watery the broth might be, but it was warm, and he could just about taste the rabbits Lieutenant Imaino had caught the day before. Meat was so rare that even a hint of it was delicious. Having an active imagination wasn’t always a bad thing.
As he and Greig slurped up the last of their broth, Imaino emerged from a side cavern, dressed for the forest in greens and browns. The biting scent of cold clung to him and he placed a bucket of snow beside the fire to melt for the patients.
“Anything?” he asked, accepting a drink from Nehtl and turning his attention to the boys.
“Quiet,” Greig said. “It’s too cold for the kaz-naghkt to fly. They’re getting restless, though.”
Imaino raised his eyebrows enquiringly.
“There were three separate incidents during our watch,” Mouse explained. “And the sentries atop the west tower were eaten.” He shuddered at the reminder, his stomach churning.
“You saw this?” Nehtl pushed a warm cup into Mouse’s trembling hands.
He clutched it gratefully, enjoying the comfort even if he had no intention of drinking it. The healer was forever experimenting with the sparse ingredients and herbs the foraging parties brought back for him. Never one to waste a speck of anything, Nehtl was determined to find a use for every last thing. Some experiments were more successful than others. Mouse could still remember the stomach cramps after the last time. He let the warmth soothe his hands instead.
Greig shuddered, accepted his own cup and nodded. “They had a brazier lit to keep them warm. It didn’t throw out a lot of light.” Just enough for them to see.
“How many?” Imaino was ever practical.
“Two kaz-naghkt came out, but there were four men up there. They ate one, killed the others and left. The brazier got knocked over during the fight and went out. Later we heard something else feeding.”
Nehtl shook his head in disgust. “How can they still stay when they keep getting eaten? Do they think the kaz-naghkt will ever stop feeling hungry?”
“They’re pirates,” Imaino said. “When they succeed in capturing anything, they’re loath to let it go. Regardless of death and circumstances. They might work together, but they all care for themselves first.”
“Maybe they’ll fight the kaz-naghkt,” Greig suggested hopefully, and they all sighed.
It was a nice thought, but even if it did happen the kaz-naghkt would win. Which would leave Aquila still inhabited by creatures even more unwilling to move.
“Though it goes against my instincts and principles, I’m glad the pirates are there,” Nehtl said, breaking their glum silence. Mouse wasn’t the only one to look curious. “While they remain, the kaz-naghkt feed easily and roam less. Which leaves us the freedom of the mountain. It’s when the pirates have had enough and return to the Wrathlen that we’ll really have to worry. When it comes to hunting, none of us know how good the kaz-naghkt noses actually are.”
“True,” Imaino agreed, frowning. “But while there are still humans in the citadel we should find a way to make that work to our advantage. Somehow.” He rubbed a hand over his right knee, one that had never been the same after a kaz-naghkt slash during the evacuation, though he didn’t let it slow him down any. “I’ll think on it. Anything else?”
When Greig said nothing, Mouse hesitated, unsure if it was important or not. “Someone went up to the west tower again,” he said quietly.
“Before or after the kaz-naghkt took the sentries?” Imaino asked, eyes bright and alert.
“Before. The kaz-naghkt attacked shortly after the shadows stopped moving.”
The lieutenant scratched at the ragged beard on his chin. “How far up?”
“The dean’s office,” Mouse said reluctantly. It wasn’t the first time watchers had seen lights and movement in the dean’s office, but it wasn’t a regular occurrence either. Just enough to make them wonder.
Imaino stared into the fire for a long moment, then eyed Nehtl. “Well?”
“Marshall wouldn’t have left while a single Rider or student remained. Aquila was his to govern, his to protect. And all who lived there.”
“And he would make a most valuable hostage,” Greig added.
“Or an amusing one,” Imaino agreed grimly, and stood up. “Good work, lads.” A squeeze on their shoulders accompanied the praise. The lieutenant always made people felt appreciated, especially now. “I need you to gather fresh bedding from the forest later, so get some rest. Nehtl, we’ll talk tonight.”
“Eyes bright, wits sharp,” the healer told him.
“I’d rather leave that to miryhls and weapons, if it’s all the same,” the lieutenant replied, gave a wry salute and strode out to join the morning patrol.
The mention of miryhls brought a sharp ache to Mouse’s chest and he wondered where his Onyx was now. He hoped he was well and with the others, many, many safe leagues away.
A knock on the head broke through his thoughts and he scowled at the wooden spoon Nehtl was brandishing. “Rest, the lieutenant said,” the older man reminded them firmly, pointing to a space in the corner. “Now, or I’ll hit something more tender than your rock heads.”
Grumbling and rubbing their tender noggins, the boys grabbed blankets from the pile warming near the fire, removed their boots and curled up. Weariness dragged at Mouse as Bumble wriggled between him and the wall, snuffling in his ear.
“Go to sleep, bumbling pup,” he yawned, stroked her wings and within heartbeats they both were.
~ Next Chapter ~
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