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~ Previous Chapter ~
I want one of those hats!
“YOU’RE AN IDIOT. A gods-blasted, thrice-cursed, pea-brained fool,” Seiryn said, with what Stirla thought was astonishing restraint. “Tell me again how this unfathomable idea came about. I was in shock the first two times.”
Cradling his pounding head between his hands, Stirla related his time in Misthome. He recounted as much of his drunken night as he could remember, sparing himself no mercy. If he could have flayed off every patch of his skin he would have, if only it meant he could go back and never encounter that damned Lorfyn. He retraced his conversations with the boy, the failed attempt to incapacitate the young nobles with drink. Then he went through his meeting with Princess Neryth, unable to believe he’d gotten rid of one high born enthusiast only to be saddled with another that was ten times worse. He had the Overworld’s worst luck.
“Maegla,” Seiryn whispered once he was done, more plea than curse.
Stirla dropped his head to the table. “Kill me now. You don’t even have to make it quick.”
“Ha!” Seiryn reached into his saddle bag and pulled out a wineskin. “You’re not that lucky, boyo. I’ll let Captain Hylan deal with you. That is if he doesn’t keep you around for Myran to take a swing at. Gods, I hate this place,” the older lieutenant grumbled, dragging Stirla up and shoving the wineskin into his hand. “Half the nobles hate us, the rest want to join us and, for some ungodly reason, believe they have every right to. Maegla preserve us from enthusiasts with more money than sense. Drink up, lad, you’ve done a foolish thing, but you’re not the first. It’s been happening every other year since the Old Pyrefly stopped them joining the selection school.”
Stirla stopped with the wineskin just below his mouth. “Excuse me?”
“Whenever we Riders – squad, flurry, messenger – passes through, they always have to leave sharpish, in case a gang of nobles try hanging off their tails. Misthome is infamous for it. I was pleasantly surprised everything had stayed quiet this long. Now I understand why you were so eager to leave.”
“Huh.” Unimpressed that no one had bothered to warn him, Stirla soothed his wounded feelings by draining the wineskin. “Remind me to write Captain Grynt a letter of thanks.”
Seiryn actually chuckled, slapping Stirla’s back. “You’re training to be a captain, lad. It’s good practise. People will be interested to see how you get out of this without causing offence all over the place.”
As if he had a chance of getting out of it. Seiryn had clearly never spoken to Lorfyn or Neryth. There would be no escape, short of going to the king and asking him to lock both of them in his deepest dungeon. Then again, he wasn’t sure Misthome had dungeons. If it did, Stirla would bet one had his name on it, for recklessly corrupting the youth.
“Hallooooo!” a call drifted up from the eyries. “Halloo, Riders! Permission to come up!”
“Maegla bolt me and boil my innards,” Stirla groaned, head thumping back onto the table. “Kill me. Now.”
“Friend of yours?” Seiryn asked, amused. Until he lifted his wineskin and found it empty.
“Go away!” Stirla shouted, not lifting his head.
“Now is that any way to greet your newest recruits, lieutenant?” Lorfyn asked cheerfully, popping up through the hatch, oblivious to the incredulous stares he was drawing from all quarters.
Stirla rolled his head sideways to look, quickly wishing he hadn’t. The boy wore an imitation Rider uniform topped off with the oddest contraption of a hat. It looked like a cross-eyed goat with digestion problems.
“I’d like to die now, please.”
“Do you like the hats?” Lorfyn asked, clambering the rest of the way up the ladder. “I designed them myself. It’s the Havian ram. From the royal crest. Thought it would be perfect for the Havian Special Force, to tell us apart from the Riders. Wouldn’t want to get us all mixed up now, would we?”
“What a terrible tragedy that would be,” a Rider solemnly agreed. It sounded like Theryn. Stirla decided before he died he would be taking at least one person with him. More if he could include those helping Lorfyn and his friends climb into the loft.
“Impalement, garrotting, poison, dismemberment, I’m not fussy,” he groaned, crossing his arms over his head and wishing he could make it all stop.
“Yes, the Havian Special Force. It was all Lieutenant Stirla’s idea!” Lorfyn’s happy babble filled the loft, the newcomers surrounded by fascinated Riders wanting to see their hats.
“Hanging, starvation, burning, you could throw me into the Cloud Sea, I really don’t mind.”
The chair opposite creaked as someone sat down. “I don’t think that’ll work,” Derrain said.
Stirla glared at the student. “I find it comforting. Don’t interrupt.”
“Very well, but I thought it prudent to let you know that they won’t go away if you ignore them.”
Even though he knew that, it was still the last thing Stirla wanted to hear. “You know when I said we couldn’t go after Lyrai and the others? I lied. It’s a great idea. Get your stuff, Derry, and I’ll meet you in the eyries.”
Derrain grinned. “I’ve changed my mind. I think I’ll stay here.”
“Your loss.” Stirla stood, saw the latest figure climbing through the hatch and slumped in defeat. The princess had arrived, carrying her own hat. “Why me?”
“Poor lieutenant,” Derrain murmured soothingly. “It just isn’t your day, is it?”
“Understatement.” His forehead landed back on the table with a loud enough thud to stop the babbling. Brain throbbing, he shut his eyes. “Wake me for my execution.”
Derrain patted his shoulder as he stood up. “You never know, sir, this might turn out to be a good thing. It might be just what we need to get Aquila back.”
And Stirla might sprout wings and waltz from here to Nimbys in a day, but neither seemed likely. Still, he was a lieutenant and he’d been trained to deal with situations like this. He knew what to do when things got completely out of control.
“You’re in charge, Derry. If you think it’s such a great idea, you can sort them out.” The silence that greeted his words was beautiful, if only that twit Lorfyn wasn’t still yammering in the background. He managed to ignore it long enough to raise his head and look at Derrain: the lad was stunned, jaw agape.
Recovering, he narrowed his eyes. “You are evil.”
Stirla smiled – well, smirked – because a trouble shared might not have been a trouble halved, but at least it wasn’t solely his problem anymore. “I try my best, Derry, I truly do.”
“Evil,” the student repeated.
“You’re going to regret this,” he promised.
Stirla snorted and returned his forehead to the table. “Trust me, I already do.”
* * *
FOUR DAYS OF steady, stealthy tracking became a two-day hard march, and Mouse returned to the den footsore and weary, with a fervent desire for roasted goat. He hated goats. Yet they arrived to find the place almost deserted. Even the healers were missing, aside from the ever-present Nehtl. He greeted them with a surprised double blink at the goats, before sending them into a deeper cavern in search of food.
It was there, as Mouse prised off his boots and grimaced at the stench, that Lieutenant Imaino found them. “Good work,” he praised, patting both Mouse and Greig on the shoulder before settling down with Rechar to hear the full story.
When he was done, the lieutenant pulled on his bottom lip, thinking through all he’d been told.
As the silence kept growing, Greig asked, “Where is everyone?”
“Raiding.” At their stunned silence Imaino looked up, a mischievous glint in his eye. “With the tower exploding and the alliance in turmoil, you didn’t expect us to sit on our hands, did you?”
“The tower exploded?” Mouse repeated dumbly.
“Golden light, smashed windows, cracks in the walls,” Imaino explained. “Which according to your info from Willym’s new friends was all thanks to the top man losing his temper. Why shouldn’t we go in and take back some of what’s actually ours?”
Greig and Rechar echoed the lieutenant’s excitement with grins and began pelting him with questions, but Mouse was not so keen. Pressing his back to the wall, he studied the new blisters on his chilblained feet while his stomach tied itself in knots. There were times when he wondered whether he’d been right to join the Riders. At moments like these, it became brutally obvious that he simply wasn’t as brave as his friends.
Too tired to fake an enthusiasm he didn’t feel, he left them to their plans and limped to the infirmary in search of something to stop the itching.
Nehtl met him with an understanding smile and a jar of salve. “This should help.”
When Mouse sat down without a word and started rubbing it on his purple toes, the healer settled beside him, offering a warm drink of dubious colour. “I’ve spent many years at Aquila,” Nehtl said, leaning against the wall with a sigh. “Treated a lot of wounds, made mistakes, learned a thing or two along the way.” He sipped his drink and waited while Mouse washed his hands. “Seen a lot of Riders come and go.”
Mouse sniffed his drink cautiously before taking a sip. Mint. There might have been other things in there as well, but the mint overpowered them all. He sighed with relief. “None as inept as me.”
Nehtl chuckled. “You’d be surprised. Besides you’ve just been unlucky. No one questions your place amongst us.”
Mouse squirmed, the unsettled feelings swirling and pressing against the knot in his stomach. “I’m not brave,” he blurted. “I don’t think it’s exciting to sneak into the citadel to stir up trouble. I can’t even pretend like I used to. We shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves. We’re safer if they don’t know we’re here.
“And I’m weak,” he added, trying to cover up his cowardly admission with bitter truth. “I walk with a limp and can’t run much either. I’m undersized and I can’t handle a sword very well. I’m not clever like Silveo, or good at talking to people like Greig. I’m not good at anything, really.”
For a long moment Nehtl said nothing, just drank his tea while Mouse blushed. Whatever else about him had changed, his tongue was as impetuous as ever.
Eventually, the healer put his mug down and linked his fingers loosely, staring into the fire. “I was like you, Mouse, when I was a Rider.”
“You?” Mouse squeaked, blinking and wondering what else had been in the tea. “You were a Rider?”
“Me.” Nehtl chuckled. “How else do you think I wound up here? In truth I’m a captain, unofficially and permanently assigned to Aquila, my rank unsaid but understood. A bit like the dean.”
Mouse choked on his drink.
“Careful, lad.” The healer’s smile was wry as he thumped him on the back. “I should have waited for you to swallow. Still, I thought you’d like to know, since I was like you when I was a student. Skinny, not as strong as the others. I didn’t like fighting, though I liked being outside. Was never much of a flier, truth be told, and I couldn’t get excited about risking my life. But saving others? Now that was something I could get enthusiastic about.”
For a moment Mouse’s heart lifted, wondering if one day he could be like Nehtl. Then he plunged back into his despair. “You’re clever, sir. Like Silveo. I’ve never been one for books.”
“But you follow orders perfectly, have nimble fingers and learn swift once you’ve been shown,” the healer told him, taking away his empty cup. “You were a real asset in the infirmaries all through the siege, not that I’d have wanted your apprenticeship to have started the way it did. Even with your limp, you’re not inept, Mouse. Look at Captain Myran, he manages.”
“I’m not Captain Myran.”
“True,” Nehtl agreed, since it was so obvious that they were very different people, even making allowances for age and experience. “But that doesn’t make you useless. I used to question myself all the time, especially after I graduated and started the real Rider work. But no matter how unsure I was, the moment I started taking care of someone it felt right. I might not be able to protect the Overworld with wing and sword, but I can still make a difference in my own way.
“I’ve seen a lot of Riders over the years, Mouse, and I’ve learned that they fall into two camps. Those that fight and those that mend. Captain Hylan is one who fights, Captain Fleik is a mender. Captain Myran’s a rare one, able to do both, but it takes all sorts to save the world, Mouse. Once the fighting’s over, someone has to pick up the pieces, and that’s a job that can be harder than all the rest.” Ruffling Mouse’s hair, Nehtl got up to tend a patient who was tossing with fever.
Chewing his lip, Mouse glanced over his shoulder at the others, still talking and planning fights with relish. Then he looked at Nehtl, picking up the pieces and mending once the damage had been done. Using the wall to push to his feet, he tested his weight on his sore feet and limped after Nehtl to see if he could help.
~ Next Chapter ~
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