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~ Previous Chapter ~
Stirla’s stay just keeps getting better.
IT WAS WITH great reluctance that Stirla approached the Riders’ temporary quarters, ready to face his fate. It wasn’t that he liked Misthome so much, though he had appreciated the luxury of the Ketthik household. Excellent food, the finest wines and comfortable quarters. In truth he would have been happy to have stayed there, but he was equally happy to return to his Riders. He hadn’t been born to luxury and was perfectly able to do without. He wouldn’t even miss it much. Stirla knew he was blessed to feel comfortable wherever he was, or if not comfortable, then tough enough to deal with it.
No, it wasn’t the glimpse of a different life that made his steps heavy in the morning light. It was the company and the prospect of how he was going to explain himself to the others.
A Havian Special Force, made up of overindulged, foolish young nobles, who had nothing better to do with their time than brag to impress the girls. Maegla! He should throw himself off the Mistfalls now and save Lyrai the job.
“I know you wanted us to stay behind and wait for word,” Lord Lorfyn bounced alongside Stirla’s creeping steps, frighteningly enthusiastic, “but it’s better this way. You’ll see.” He beamed at his friends, who were all heavy-eyed after another long night of carousing. “If we don’t come with you now, why, we might never be able to leave, and where would you be then?”
Miles away and many miles the happier for it, Stirla thought, but didn’t bother to speak. No amount of blunt talk could dim the boy’s determination. Although he was too old to become a real Rider, he was still certain he could make a lasting contribution in the efforts to wrest Aquila back from the terrible foe. Or something along those lines. Stirla hadn’t really been listening when the boy spouted his rhetoric the night before. He’d been too busy refilling everyone’s glasses and making the fools blind drunk. The plan had been to sneak out at first light, pack up the others and leave before the idiots woke.
It might have worked, if not for Lorfyn. The boy might get tipsy on a mouthful of wine, but he also saved himself a headache in the morning. Nor was he quite as stupid as he frequently acted, which was why Stirla had cursed and pounded on the door before dawn, finding himself and his Riders locked in, incapable of escape. Not that they’d had to wait long before being freed. The force of Lorfyn’s personality was a terrifying thing to behold, especially when it turned seven hung-over nobles out of bed just after dawn and managed to march them through the painfully bright streets without a hint of dissent or desertion.
Stirla would have been full of admiration for the boy, if he hadn’t been ruining his life.
“I’ve been thinking.”
Stirla gave into the urge to cover his face with his hands. In their short, but terribly memorable acquaintance, he had learned that when Lorfyn thought the world moved one step closer to ending. The boy was too earnest, too keen and too damned determined for his own – and everyone else’s – good. And when he liked an idea, nothing would turn him aside.
“About those miryhls, you know, the ones you’ve been using to carry your baggage.” Lorfyn smiled, his expression like an overanxious puppy. “How many did you say you had?”
Knowing where this was leading, Stirla tried to head it off early. “No.”
“Because there are only eight of us -”
“No,” he repeated, forcing himself to be strong.
“And it would make so much more sense -”
“No.” Nothing about this made sense, least of all mounting these fools on some of Aquila’s finest.
“Horsats are all very well, of course, and we’ve got the best in Havia,” Lorfyn rambled on, oblivious to the strident rejections he was getting, “but a miryhl is so much faster. So much stronger. Better adapted to fight. Better all round, in fact.”
“No.” Though the boy’s enthusiasm had defeated him at every turn thus far, this was the one thing on which Stirla would never back down. Miryhls were for Rift Riders – no one else.
“We’d be much more effective -”
“Stop!” Stirla shouted, channelling his best Captain Hylan impression. “Just stop.”
Lorfyn shut his mouth with a snap, blinking like a bewildered child. “But -”
“Ah!” Stirla held up a finger. When Lorfyn opened his mouth, Stirla jabbed it warningly in his direction. “Not another word. It’s my turn to speak.”
Lorfyn’s lips formed a mutinous pout.
“Listen,” Stirla ordered, “I can’t convince you to stay put. I can’t convince you that the last thing the Riders need is a Havian Special Force. I can’t even convince you that if we did, you would definitely not be it, untrained and unskilled as you are. Enthusiastic, yes. Useful, no.”
Lorfyn’s pout turned into a scowl and he opened his mouth again.
“First rule of military discipline,” Stirla barked, before the boy could speak. “Always obey your commanding officer.”
“But we’re not under your command,” one of the other lordlings pointed out, voice scratchy from his hangover. Lorfyn smirked.
“And if the gods are kind you never will be,” Stirla agreed, turning it into a prayer.
Half the nobles interpreted his comment correctly, sadly but predictably, Lorfyn was not one of them. “You’re not so bad,” the young lord said, then frowned. “Until just now, anyway.”
Praying for strength didn’t seem to be helping, so Stirla shook his head. “You are not, and never will be Rift Riders. Only Rift Riders are allowed to fly miryhls -”
“Except for families of royal houses and elected rulers,” one of the less hung-over lordlings pointed out.
“Hands up how many of you that applies to,” Stirla drawled, safe in the knowledge that though these boys might be noble, royal they were not. Gods be thanked for small mercies.
They shuffled their feet and muttered amongst themselves, while Lorfyn huffed sullenly. “You said you needed help and that Havia was too cowardly to provide it. We are not cowards.”
“I was drunk,” Stirla replied, though his cheeks warmed at being reminded of his own foolishness.
“You said that just one man could make a difference in the fight against the kaz-naghkt and, because Havia didn’t send even one boy to the selection schools, we were as bad as them.”
“Er…” Had he really said that? Gods, it was a miracle only Theryn had got thumped. “Still drunk.”
“You promised we would have miryhls if we joined up,” accused one of the lordlings.
“Never!” Stirla protested, positive he’d said no such thing. Miryhls were too important, even to his drunken, slurring brain. “I would never say that.”
“Not you,” the lordling corrected, jabbing his finger at Lorfyn. “Him. He said Prince Lyrai told him.”
“Lyrai?” Stirla and his Riders chorused in incredulous disbelief.
It was Lorfyn’s turn to blush as he shuffled his feet and avoided everyone’s eye. “Well…” He coughed, voice squeaking. “I might have been a little drunk then too. Just a little.”
“We’re not getting miryhls?”
“I got out of bed for nothing? Just another bloody horsat?”
“Wait!” Lorfyn cried as his friends, previously so susceptible to his enthusiasm, headed back towards the city. “Wait!”
“I don’t think they’re interested in what you’ve got to say,” Stirla said, trying to hide his relief. “Shame.”
Lorfyn scowled. “You did this,” he accused, hurrying after his friends.
“If only I could take the credit.” Stirla grinned at his three Riders. “Come on, lads, before he changes their minds.” He chortled, pleased to have shaken off his noble baggage. Now he could face Lyrai without an execution in his immediate future.
“I don’t think that’s the last we’ve seen of them,” Rhyk warned, walking backwards to watch the young lord gathering his friends and pleading with extravagant gestures.
“Not by a long shot,” Theryn agreed.
“Spoilsports,” Stirla grumbled, and picked up his pace towards the barn, throwing a glance over his shoulder to check that the lordlings weren’t following. “We’ll be out of here tomorrow. It’ll take him longer than that to bring them around.”
“Maybe,” Theryn murmured unconvinced.
“Maybe he won’t bother bringing all of them this time,” Dhenn said thoughtfully. “Perhaps he’ll just bring one or two.”
Stirla shot his Riders a disgusted look. “Cheer me up, why don’t you?”
“Second rule of military discipline,” Rhyk barked, mimicking Stirla. “Always be prepared.”
“We wouldn’t want you to be surprised, sir,” Theryn agreed. “It’s not good for your health.” They ducked inside the barn, laughing at their own wit.
Stirla couldn’t burn holes in people with the strength of his glare but, by Heiryak’s rays, he tried. Dhenn stuck around long enough to pat him consolingly on the shoulder before he too headed inside.
“No one likes a smart arse,” Stirla grumbled to no one in particular, especially as it was advice he never took himself. Casting a final glance at the city, he was relieved to note that all the lordlings had gone. Hoping that meant they weren’t coming back, he shook his head and stepped into the barn.
~ Next Chapter ~
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