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~ Previous Chapter ~
A Stirla, Derry and Mouse update. Well, we don’t want to overdose on dragons just yet, do we?
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER debate. Derrain rubbed his aching eyes as he accepted his morning rations from a sympathetic Theryn, doling out supplies from the nearest pack miryhl.
“I thank Maegla five times daily that you were closer to Stirla than me when this lot joined us.”
Derrain scowled and turned away, in no mood for jokes. The voices of the Havian Special Force were rising again, as they did every time they stopped. Unsurprisingly this morning’s complaint was about food. Nobles weren’t overly familiar with trail rations, apparently. Nor were they impressed with hard biscuits and whatever was left over from the night before. And don’t get them started on the lack of wine. The shock and the horror.
“The only cold meal I eat is supper,” one of the more portly members of the Special Force grumbled. “And I haven’t seen a sniff of that for two days.”
Two days, Gods, was that all it had been? It felt like so very many more.
Turning his back on the over-bred bunch, Derrain shuffled between miryhls and munching Riders, aiming for the spot furthest from the lordlings. Sitting down opposite Stirla, he shot him a reproachful look.
The lieutenant raised an eyebrow. “I offered you a chance to chase down Lyrai and the others, but you said you’d rather stay here. Don’t blame me.”
Derrain was too tired to maintain his glare as he bit sullenly into a biscuit. A day and a half of trying to get a bunch of older, socially superior men to listen to him had left him exhausted. Futility in action. “What are our chances of leaving the HSF here to train?”
“Not good.” Stirla grimaced apologetically. “I had some hopes myself, but I don’t think Lorfyn will let us leave him behind. Even if Captain Korfei could be persuaded to keep them.”
As if on cue that particular young lord appeared, all beaming smiles, despite wrinkled clothes and mussed hair. “Good morning, lieutenant. Rider Derrain.”
Stirla rolled his eyes and swallowed his mouthful. “What do you want?”
Since the grumpy question was how the lieutenant always greeted him, Lorfyn was not discouraged. Unfortunately. “On behalf of the HSF,” he smoothed his crumpled imitation-Rider jacket importantly, as if being their spokesman was an honour, “I wish to enquire how long you intend us to camp in this spot?”
Derrain slowed his chewing and shared a look with Stirla. Since it was just past dawn and the other Riders were already making moves to depart the answer should have been obvious.
However, since they were in need of entertainment, Stirla asked, “Why?”
“Hunting!” Lorfyn threw out his hands as if he’d just suggested the most marvellous idea ever conceived by man. “As lovely as the rations have been,” he eyed the biscuit in Stirla’s hand with ill-concealed distaste, “my compatriots and I believe we might be able to do better. I know Riders come from all walks of life, so it is perfectly understandable that you aren’t as skilled in this area as we are. Consider it our gift to you. A proper meal to celebrate the birth of our glorious partnership.”
Swallowing the last of his breakfast, Stirla stood. “Saddle up, Derry. We’re leaving.”
Derrain nodded and gathered his pack, taking his time as he wanted to hear what Lorfyn would say next.
“Oh.” The young lord looked crestfallen. “So soon? Perhaps this afternoon we might rest a little longer? It would be a great pleasure to teach you how to hunt.”
All activity in the camp ceased as students, Riders and miryhls sucked in a collective breath.
Stirla looked at Lorfyn with deceptive mildness. “We’re on a tight schedule, my lord, but if you feel unable to keep up, please, feel free to return to Misthome. I’m sure you’ll be much welcomed.”
“Oh. Ah, of course.” When Stirla went in search of Atyrn, Lorfyn hurried after him. “Perhaps tomorrow? Or – or the next day?” he asked, ever hopeful. “It wouldn’t take long to teach you the basics, I daresay.”
Stirla scowled and greeted Atyrn where she had roosted beside Zephyr. “I am perfectly capable of hunting for myself,” he snapped, aggravated beyond patience. “And even if I wasn’t, I fly a miryhl, for Maegla’s sake.”
Lorfyn halted, momentarily taken aback. “Oh, but of course. How foolish of me. How splendid it must be to watch a miryhl hunt! I would dearly love to witness one. Perhaps tomorrow?”
Seeing Stirla’s knuckles turn white on Atyrn’s saddle, Derrain intervened. “Whose land are we currently on, my lord?”
Diverted, Lorfyn frowned. “I am not sure. Wenlen, perhaps? Maybe Klevarel. Perhaps no one. It is difficult to tell once one reaches the wilds. No signposts. Why do you ask?”
“Hunting without permission is considered poaching, Lorfyn.” At last Princess Neryth arrived. Despite being the only one with any measure of control over Lorfyn and his enthusiasms, Derrain never felt too grateful towards her for settling the lord down, since she could end this farce with one command. Until she did she was just as bad as Lorfyn and the rest.
“Oh.” Lorfyn paused, and then his smile sprang back twice as bright as before. “Perhaps I was wrong. You know, East Havian geography never has been my strongpoint and there’s plenty of unclaimed land hereabouts. Besides, who would know? We’re hardly going to hunt over someone’s doorstep, and even if we chose to, Highness, I’m sure you would be more than capable of explaining the circumstances.”
“Nothing ever stops you, does it?” Derrain asked, awed by how this man’s brain worked.
Lorfyn stared at him in astonishment. “I am a Ketthik of Havia,” he said, sounding incredulous that anyone or anything might even try. “To cease is to embrace defeat.”
What a world these nobles lived in. Derrain shook his head, wondering how Lyrai and Mhysra had turned out so normal. Well, when compared to Lorfyn and his friends.
“We are on Jarl Klevarel’s land,” Neryth said, after a long pause. “But even if we were not, I could not countenance a hunt in the middle of winter. For many reasons.” She held up a hand, forestalling Lorfyn’s interruption. “Firstly, there is little game to be found this late in the season. Secondly, what little there is would be better off feeding those who have to live in such thankless places. Thirdly, as Lieutenant Stirla keeps telling you, we have no time for these high flights you and your friends seem to expect. If you cannot accept the pace and living conditions of the Riders, go home. Fourthly, and finally, I will not abuse my name, rank, family position or reputation merely to provide you with amusements. This is not a pleasure trip, Lord Lorfyn. Prepare your horsat, I believe we are leaving. Lieutenant, Rider Derrain.” With a curt nod, the princess stalked back to her miryhls.
Watching her go, Lorfyn opened his mouth, took a breath, then huffed in mute frustration. Finally he turned to Stirla with a rueful smile. “No hunting today then. Perhaps when we reach the Rider base we will have better luck.” He ambled back to his friends.
Derrain glanced at Stirla, eyebrows raised. “The Havian Special Force, eh?”
“They’re special all right.” Stirla shook his head and watched Lorfyn haul himself into his horsat’s saddle, beaming with happiness again. “And quite a force,” he murmured. “Or do I mean farce? Mount up, Derry, and let’s get moving before he suggests we swap mounts for laughs.”
* * *
THINGS WERE QUIET in the caves as Mouse worked, cleaning out the old bedding and replacing it with new. He and a handful of other students had spent days gathering fern, bracken and grass before the first snowfall, ready to be dried out and stored over the winter. It had been dull work, but he was grateful for it now. There were only so many ticks, lice and fleas he could take when he went to bed, and a single blanket on the cold, hard floor grew uncomfortable after a night or two.
Besides it gave him something to do while the others were away. After the success of his first raid, Imaino had taken the students off again, risking the tunnels beneath the citadel to ransack whatever unguarded storerooms they encountered within.
Most of the other Riders and regular townsfolk were either out hunting or manning the watch. Even some of the healers had gone. Which left just Mouse, Lehno, Symal and Nehtl to care for the sick and wounded. Although thanks to the brutal blizzard that passed through just two days back, their numbers had dropped to five. Which meant there was only so much work needed doing and why Mouse was changing the bedding. Tedious but necessary, as Nehtl liked to say. Mending wasn’t always about saving a life. Sometimes it was about comfort and preventing diseases further down the road.
“At least I’ve got you for company,” he murmured, pausing to stroke Bumble’s head before gathering up an armful of clean bedding. Wagging her tail, the nakhound grabbed a branch of bracken, eager to help.
Catching sight of her, he chuckled, sneezing as he dumped his bundle and arranged it into a mattress. “Good girl.” Although the rest of the hounds were out hunting, Bumble preferred to stay with him. He didn’t know why, but he appreciated it. There was something comforting in having a dog by his side at all times, especially when she chose to be there.
Completing the last bed, he looked around the snug chamber, cosy even without twenty sleeping bodies, and grinned at the hound. “Of course your decision has nothing to do with the three feet of snow outside or the blizzards soon to come, does it?”
She wagged her tail again, making them both sneeze at the resultant dust.
“Time to go.” Holding his nose, he limped out of the chamber, not breathing until he was far down the tunnel. Snorting and rubbing her nose on his leg, Bumble was close behind.
Preoccupied by dust, they didn’t realise they had company until after they’d entered the infirmary.
Lehno lay slumped against the wall, his head resting at an unnatural angle, while a bleeding Symal scrabbled at his friend’s chest, begging him to answer. Nehtl knelt before the fireplace, blood running down his face, swaying as two men held him in place. A third man held a sword to his throat. More stood over the oblivious Symal, while another strode purposefully between the beds, dispatching the helpless patients with efficient sweeps of his sword. Those who could fight were already dead, some hanging half out bed like discarded toys.
Mouse felt Bumble growl as she pressed against his leg, but he was too numb to react as the murderer loomed over Natten, a student Mouse had been helping to nurse since before the fall of Aquila. He’d been ill for so long, but over the last month he had shown real improvement. Nehtl had predicted he would be well by New Year.
He died with a gurgle and a slice across his throat.
“Butchers!” Symal screamed, lunging for the chief offender, a snarling Bumble close behind.
The man didn’t even look up from cleaning his blade as his men wrestled the distraught healer to the ground. “Kill him,” he ordered without inflection, kicking Bumble in the chest. When she lunged again, he lashed out with his sword.
The nakhound collapsed with a whimper.
“We have all we need here.”
Mouse dropped to his knees, staring at the blood. It stained the floor, the walls, the beds, Bumble’s pale fur. There was so much of it. Nothing had escaped. He watched red footprints approach from beneath the butcher’s stained soles.
Willym stopped directly in front of him, dark eyes bright, arrogant face flecked with blood. He smiled. “Hello, little Mouse, have you come to play?”
~ Next Chapter ~
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