First time reading? Catch up with everything on the Wingborn page.
There’s also a frequently updated Character List to help keep track of everyone.
~ Previous Chapter ~
Meanwhile, back at Aquila…
TWILIGHT SETTLED ON the mountain as Mouse descended towards the shadowy keep, following in Rechar’s careful footprints. In the snow dampened quiet, even his breathing sounded loud. The slightest misstep could end in disaster. Yet as they reached the stubby thorn trees bordering the cleared ground before the gates, their caution was rewarded.
The nanny goat and kid munched on the thorn saplings with belligerent determination, occasionally stamping a cloven hoof in protest at the cold. Slipping his pack from his shoulders, Rechar drew out a length of rope and crept right, signalling for Greig to mirror him to the left. Leaving Mouse with the packs and the prospect of stopping a charging goat, should things not turn out well.
They didn’t. Whether the dim light caused Rechar to misjudge the distance or Greig’s stumble over a stone alerted her, the nanny threw up her head, spotted the danger and bounded back up the mountain. A swift tackle by Rechar was enough to bring the kid down, bleating in alarm, which caused the mother a moment’s hesitation and allowed Mouse to limp closer. As she turned to defend her baby, Mouse lunged, bringing her down in a flurry of bleats, hooves and pointed little horns.
By the time the others came to tie the nanny up, Mouse was bruised, sore and frozen. After such a noisy encounter, Rechar spared only enough time to help him up, brush down his cloak and pat his back before forcing them all on again. Whether the Heights were occupied or not, the goats had made enough noise to attract half the citadel.
Moving quickly but quietly, Rechar took them back into the forests above the Heights, circling broadly around before leading them down into the valley again. Yet, for all his caution, it was Greig who dragged them into the undergrowth when voices sounded up ahead.
“Why the intrigue?” drawled an all-too-familiar and highly despised voice. “Do you think meeting in the dark, unnecessarily far from the citadel on such a bitter night will make you more interesting?” It was Lieutenant Willym – and he wasn’t alone.
“We have little need for intrigue, my lord,” said an unknown voice, one that made all the hairs on Mouse’s arms stand up, it was so lacking in warmth. “And you will be grateful for both the dark and the distance.”
“Indeed?” Willym’s voice was the epitome of bored indifference.
“Indeed,” agreed the other, coldly amused. “We seek a deal.”
“I don’t make deals with pirates,” Willym replied haughtily, though his continued survival implied otherwise.
“Perhaps now is the time to start. As a man so fond of winning, my lord, it would be a shame for you to back the losing side.”
Silence fell, broken only by the low, rhythmic grinding of goat teeth.
Another pause as soft footsteps crunched over snow. Mouse and his friends ducked lower, tugging the goats down at the stranger’s approach. The beasts’ protests were rudely muffled beneath Rechar’s cloak.
“Admiral Akavia is… displeased,” the man said, too close to their hiding place for Mouse’s comfort. “She tires of her people getting eaten.”
“Then she should take better care of them,” Willym replied, as insouciant as ever.
A cold chuckle. “Perhaps, but why should she? Allies do not eat each other.”
“And lambs should not seek shelter with wolves. Only fools make alliances with the kaz-naghkt.”
“And yet you serve Lord Yullik?” The unknown man sounded amused. “You would be safer with the wolves. Did you not feel the explosion earlier? Such a temper,” he tsked. “So untamed and dangerous, particularly to those he is closest to. So dangerous to himself. Have you seen him today?”
“The well-being of Lord Yullik is no concern of mine,” Willym retorted, voice fading as he walked away. “If this is all you have to say, take your silent sister and go back to your mistress. Any complaints she has about Lord Yullik must be taken up with him.”
“Cowardly, lieutenant?” a second cool voice asked, speaking for the first time: the silent sister.
Boots scuffed snow and undergrowth crackled as Willym turned back. “I am no coward, madam. And were you male you would answer to my sword for that.”
Metal sang as a low chuckle hummed through the clearing. “Scared to fight a woman, my lord? I am no man, but I can still oblige your honour.”
“Sister.” Softly spoken, but with a power that raised bumps on Mouse’s skin. “It is not time for that.”
The disappointed sigh that followed the sheathing of the sword was ripe with regret. Mouse wished he could have seen Willym’s face.
“Lord Willym,” the man said. “We wish to make a deal with you concerning your master.”
“I call no man master,” Willym replied, his tight words indicative of his barely leashed anger.
“Then it is well he is not one,” the woman murmured.
A puzzled silence followed, and Mouse didn’t think he was the only one confused by the fresh twist of the conversation. “Be that as it may,” Willym spoke slowly as though dealing with lunatics. “I cannot see what the admiral wants of me. I have no influence over Lord Yullik. As I said before, if she has any complaints she should speak to him herself.”
“He refuses to see her.”
“Then he is more wise than I gave him credit for.”
“Be that as it may,” the man echoed mockingly, “you see far more of him than we humble pirates.” Mouse almost let out a disbelieving snort – this man had never been humble.
“And my words have no effect on him.” Willym sounded disgruntled. “I can do nothing for your mistress. Find some other way to speak with him.”
“We do not wish to speak with him,” the woman said.
“We want you to watch him,” her brother continued.
“Watch him, remember every word he speaks in your presence, then tell us.” They spoke together, creating an unnatural echo. “That is all we ask.”
“You wish me to spy?” Willym demanded archly.
“You call no man master, my lord,” the woman reminded him. “What harm to share your thoughts about Lord Yullik with your friends?”
“We are not friends.”
The strangers laughed, making Mouse shudder.
“Think about it,” the man suggested lazily, as if it mattered little what Willym chose to do. “If only fools make alliances with the kaz-naghkt, what does that say of those who serve the one who controls them? You may wish for friends before long, my lord.”
Another silence, then: “I will think about it.”
“That is all we ask,” the man agreed, and footsteps retreated into the night. “Take care, Lord Willym. We will speak again.”
“Not if I can help it,” came the soft reply, snow crunching inches from Mouse’s nose.
Willym’s angry footsteps soon faded out of hearing and night settled over the woods, bringing with it flakes of snow. It was the goats who moved first, protesting the tight hold Rechar had on their tethers.
As if a spell had been broken, the Rider crawled out of the undergrowth, dusted himself off then tucked the kid beneath his arm. “Come on,” he ordered the students. “The lieutenant needs to hear about this.”
Mouse exchanged a grimace with Greig, reminded of Willym’s former rank. Of all the people lost he would be the one to survive. Even at Aquila, in the depths of winter, life was never fair. Mouse didn’t know why he felt surprised. With Willym allied to the kaz-naghkt, he’d simply found where he truly belonged.
HE WAS COLD, truly, deeply, bone-achingly cold, in a way he hadn’t been since he was a small child, hiding from his parents’ murderers. Frowning at the memory, Yullik peeled open his eyes. Frost – white, glittering, perfect – covered every part of the room, including him. He moved his heavy tongue around his dry, swollen mouth and licked at the inside of his lips until he could open them without tearing his skin. That done, he breathed for the first time since waking, wincing as his nostrils unstuck from their frozen state. The entire right side of his body was locked to the floor by ice, his exposed skin burning from the prolonged contact with such cold.
Some would take this as a valuable lesson against losing one’s temper. Yullik inhaled deeply, closed his eyes and called to his blood, which had mostly withdrawn after his flagrant – and utterly pointless – waste of power. Had he slept away an entire day? He hoped for his servants’ sake that they hadn’t left him like this for any longer.
There was nothing like thoughts of punishment to warm the blood, and heat washed through him with exquisite agony. He flexed the blackened fingers of his right hand, pinned beneath him all night. Bones cracked and skin split, but nothing fell off, so Yullik counted himself lucky as he peeled his face from the thawing floor. Water dripped as his body heat spread into the room, melting the ice into a flood.
Yullik hated being wet even more than he hated being cold, but a night of deep hibernation had replenished his energy and power reserves to a pleasing degree. So, once free of the ice’s embrace, he raised his hands and pulled the moisture from the floor, the furnishings and himself. Droplets drifted upwards, forming large, flowing bubbles, which he directed out of the shattered windows. Once beyond the confines of the tower, they burst, cascading onto the snow far below. He found it strangely satisfying to see it hit the snow with a steamy hiss. As destructive and troublesome as water frequently was, particularly to him, it was good to know it didn’t always win.
All things in balance, as his father used to say. Yullik scowled at the rogue thought, having blocked out those memories long ago. “A full night’s sleep isn’t always good for me,” he muttered, studying the cracks in the walls. They snaked like bolts of lightning from floor to ceiling – and no doubt beyond.
Typical. This was why he hated losing his temper – it wasted so much energy. With that in mind, he approached the biggest fracture, wide enough for him to put two fingers inside and not touch the sides. It really wouldn’t do. The last thing he wanted was for the walls to fall in on him while he was plotting someone else’s downfall. It would be embarrassing. He wriggled his fingers and waited for the golden light to gather, then tapped either side of the fissure as high as he could reach. A hand span below he tapped again, and so on until he reached the floor.
“Like to like,” he commanded, clapping his hands.
Glowing threads leapt between the dots, from one side to the other, throwing out further webs to connect the ones above and below. He raised his hand and a golden thread of light spun into life between his thumb and index fingertip.
“Be made one.”
Steadily, slowly, dragging against a force far greater than air, Yullik brought his thumb and finger together. The threads on the wall did the same, making stone groan and plaster flake. The tower shivered and, with a flash of bright light, the crack was sealed. All signs it had ever existed vanished, leaving that section of the wall whole and perfect.
Yullik allowed himself a smug smile as the leftover light crackled back to his hands. “One down,” he murmured, looking around the wrecked room with a sigh, “twenty-four to go.”
~ Next Chapter ~
Thanks for reading!