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~ Previous Chapter ~
Interesting story, Lyrai. Tell me more…
“WHAT IS IT?”
“Bring the light?”
“What do you see?”
“I think – Gods! Give me a hand.”
“He’s cold as ice.”
“Get him to the fire. Take his arm, and heave!”
The words were gabbled above Mouse’s head as he drifted just below waking. His shoulders burned as his tormentors dragged him from the firm clutch of the waters. The ground was rough as his skin dragged along it. His clothes scraped and twisted, doing nothing to cushion him as the heavy water dribbled away to trickle back into the lake.
“Build it up,” one voice ordered, as the dragging stopped and his arms were gently lowered.
“There’s barely any wood left,” the other warned.
“I’ll find some more,” the first growled. “Later.”
Heat and light flared, causing both pleasure and pain as his body wanted to get closer, but his aching eyes and head rebelled.
“Do we take his clothes off to dry or leave them on and hope for the best?”
“Even with the blanket, he’ll freeze on this floor.”
“He’s freezing anyway.”
While his rescuers dithered, Mouse turned his face from the light and wriggled backwards, letting the heat spread across his back. He sighed as it soaked through his sodden clothes, caressing his skin, sinking into his bones. Bliss.
“Silveo, watch him!”
“Maegla!” Rough hands dragged him away from the beautiful heat.
Mouse moaned, fighting the restraint, wanting to return to the warmth.
“Gods,” his tormentor growled, hauling him away again. “He’s delirious.”
Mouse groaned in protest. He wasn’t delirious; he was cold. He needed to get closer, to crawl into the heart of the fire where the heat was born. Then it would become a part of him and he’d never be cold again. He hated being cold.
“As if we didn’t have enough to worry about.”
Someone started pacing, while Mouse’s tormentor pinned him in place and started rubbing his hands and arms. It hurt, but he was too weak to fight the fiend.
All he could do was moan, “No, no.” The words dribbled from his lips, but they didn’t help.
“What’s the matter?” The pacing came closer.
“I’m trying to get his circulation going again. His fingers are blue.”
“Damn.” The other tormentor grabbed Mouse’s foot and started pushing and rubbing at it.
“No,” Mouse mumbled. “No.” The brutes were torturing him, rolling glass beneath his skin, stabbing him with burning needles. “Hurts.”
“I know, Mouse,” the closest tormentor soothed – the cruel-hearted bastard. “But it’ll help.”
He could only growl, though it emerged as a whimper when the sadist picked up his other hand. His skin itched and burned, but he was trapped, weak and entirely at their mercy.
“His feet are like ice, Silveo. His toes are almost black.”
“Keep massaging,” the chief tormentor ordered. “If the blood doesn’t return soon he’ll loose them. And that really is something we could do without.”
The hands on his feet slid down from his heel and arches, circling with deceptive gentleness to make the pain go deep. He reached Mouse’s toes.
Mouse screamed, his body snapping into an instinctive huddle, a solid knot of pain.
“Gods, can’t we -”
“Now, sir! We have to.”
He tried to roll away, cradling his hands protectively against his chest, his knees pulled up as high and tight as possible. But his feet were still vulnerable. They grabbed his ankle.
“No, no, no,” he begged, rolling towards the fire. “Please.”
“Hold him down!”
They were too strong. He fought, but he was weak and small, and they were determined. One man sat on him, the other grabbed his ankle.
Pain blacked out his brain, and Mouse fled to its unfeeling safety.
* * *
“DID YOU KNOW Maegla once married a human king?” Lyrai asked, instead of a greeting when he joined them in the tiny dining hall.
As conversation openers went Mhysra didn’t think it was too bad. It certainly distracted everyone from the way she jumped when Lyrai plunked down on the bench beside her. His leg pressed firmly against hers as they were squeezed in tightly together on the narrow bench.
Lieutenant Lyrai, she reminded herself sternly, and a little desperately too. She wasn’t sure what had passed between them on the rocks at sunrise, but something had. Something important. It had changed her somehow, and she knew she could never go back to what she was before. All because of him. Lieutenant Lyrai. Her captain. One day and every day.
While waiting for her pounding heart to settle, she stared at the breakfast broth in her bowl, watery as it was and weighed down with stringy, overcooked meat. She knew how it felt.
On the opposite side of the table, Corin fed Skybreeze a chunk from her bowl – or tried to, since even hungry little dragonets had standards. “My grandma used to tell that story when she’d had too much gin. What chance did an ordinary girl have at marrying a king once a goddess stuck her oar in, she’d complain. Which my grandda used to find hilarious before joking about blind, deaf kings without any sense possibly finding her attractive. Ungrateful little bleeder.”
It took Mhysra a moment to realise the last had been aimed at Skybreeze, not Corin’s interesting grandfather. The dragonet’s response was to knock the pile of overdone meat onto the floor with a contemptuous swipe of his tail. He glared at Corin, daring her to comment.
“Starve then,” she retorted, ignoring him while she drained the rest of her breakfast.
Having begged uncooked scraps from the kitchen earlier for Emberbright, Jaymes stroked his snoring dragonet and smiled. “The tale of Maegla and Her King is popular in North Point. That’s where the king came from.”
“Well, that explains how my grandma knew,” Corin murmured, grimacing at her next mouthful. “She was from some gods-forsaken spit of rock jutting out into the Eastsea, barely above the cloudline. Fharedeen. From the way she told it, the place couldn’t even claim to be a village.”
“Home sweet home,” Jaymes sighed. “How I miss the place.”
Corin shot him a suspicious glare, but he just smiled, stroking his drowsy dragonet, who rolled onto her back with a replete burp. Skybreeze cheeped in annoyance, so Corin transferred her glare to him.
Mhysra raised her eyebrows. “I’ve never heard of it.” And she’d thought she knew everything about her favourite Goddess.
“Very few have. Who’d want to visit North Point anyway?” Corin grumbled.
“No, I meant the story,” Mhysra corrected, while Jaymes and Corin traded sneers. “It’s not like North Point is all that far from the Lowlands. Why did they keep such a story to themselves?”
“Because it’s ours.” Jaymes shrugged, turning away from Corin. “We don’t have much, so we look after what we’ve got. If the whole Overworld knew the story, what’s to stop Havia or Lansbrig trying to claim it?”
“My money’s on Imercian,” Lyrai drawled. “They’ve tried claiming everything else.”
As the conversation took a side-step into colonial history and age-old complaints, deftly helped along by an unusually animated Dhori, Mhysra huffed with frustration.
“Problem?” Lyrai asked, dragging his attention away from the debate that was rapidly drawing interest from the rest of the room, including Reglian and Goryal.
As he turned to look at her, his knee brushed hers and Mhysra found she couldn’t meet his eye. Instead she stirred her sloppy broth and shrugged shyly. “I wanted to hear the story, but I’ll never get a chance now.” She nodded at the argument raging opposite.
“I could tell it to you,” he offered, but when she hunched her shoulders, trying to hide her confusion at all her sudden rush of feelings, he shrugged. “Or I could lend you the book I found it in?” He glanced across the table at where a chuckling Dhori was holding Corin back from pummelling Jaymes. “I think you’d find it interesting. I did.” He winked.
Mhysra’s heart stuttered, feeling as though it had missed a beat, making her dizzy and more confused than ever. But as Lyrai’s – lieutenant, lieutenant, lieutenant, she reminded herself fiercely – smile faded into concern, she managed to drag up a smile of her own. “I’d like that, sir. Thank you.”
At the word sir, his lips twisted, but he nodded. “I’ll drop it into your room later. For now,” he looked across the dining hall towards Honra, “I’d better go. There’s still so much to sort out.” He pushed away his three-quarter full bowl of slop, shook his head and stood up, brushing against her whole side as he moved.
By the time she had herself under control again, he was walking out the door with Honra. While she was trapped in the middle of a ridiculous debate about long dead history, which none of the people present could influence or change. Life as usual then, she thought, and sighed.
“HOW DID YOU sleep?” Honra asked, leading Lyrai into the sparsely furnished, glorified cupboard that served as the Shoreditch office. It suited the place, being small, empty and ravaged by the weather. A bit like Mistrune in general.
“Well enough, considering.” Not wanting to talk about the nightmares brought on by recapping his life since leaving Aquila, Lyrai wandered over to the window to watch rumpled miryhls venturing out of the eyries below to preen in the sunshine. “How do you feed them all the way out here?” he asked, doubting the great eagles would be content to accept such sloppy rations as the Riders had faced that morning.
“I don’t,” Honra said, grimacing. “They have to hunt for themselves. And us, if we’re lucky.”
Lyrai winced, able to guess how well that was received by the locals. “How many are with you?”
“Five,” the other lieutenant replied. “Plus four stationed here full-time as part of the Mistrune patrols.” Which explained the size and emptiness of the place. Lyrai didn’t envy the poor Riders who had to stay here for months at a time, just in case something interesting happened. “The captain planned for us to stay in Mirul, awaiting the decision of the Guilds, but Commander Chepney had other ideas.”
Lyrai winced again. “Old Cheery would.” He’d only met the humourless commander of the of Storm Peaks and Mistrune once, but it had been more than enough. Almost too fat to fly, the aging officer liked his comforts and hated anything that disrupted his day-to-day indolence. Poor Honra. Lyrai understood why Myran had sent him, but still pitied his far too well-mannered friend. “What was he doing in Mirul anyway?” The capital of Mistrune was hardly the most entertaining place.
“Hiding.” There was a glint in Honra’s eye as he joined Lyrai by the windows and leaned on the sill. “Fleik rousted General Keipen from his winter break somewhere in South Imercian.”
“Ah.” Lyrai grinned, wondering how his fellow lieutenant had survived that one. General Keipen was nothing if not volatile. “Should I send my condolences his family?”
“Not yet,” Honra said, also grinning. “But the good general attached Fleik to his staff, while he went rounding up captains and commanders, so you might want to draft it in preparation.”
“And so our mighty leaders reward us.”
Honra snorted. “Indeed.”
“Where does that leave you?”
“Until recently, kicking my heels and doing nothing much, while awaiting orders,” his friend admitted, smile twisted with contempt for the commander. “But now, things have changed.”
Taking the credit where it was due, Lyrai bowed. “I’m always glad to be of service to my fellow Riders.”
Honra chuckled. “Yes, well, with you here, I have all the excuse I need to return to Nimbys. Especially if Fleik is still trailing around after Keipen. However much Chepney tries to hide, it’s all redundant now. The news is out, people are getting stirred up and with your new friends in tow, things are likely to move faster than anyone dared anticipate.”
“Excellent,” Reglian rumbled from the doorway, and Lyrai turned, unsurprised to find the two dragons eavesdropping. The presence of Corin, Mhysra and Jaymes was more unexpected, but Dhori’s half smile told its own story.
“When do we leave?” asked Goryal.
Honra looked at them, glanced out of the window at where Rhiddyl, the vulardis and several miryhls were skylarking in the sun and raised his eyebrows at Lyrai. “When can you be ready?”
Though tempted to eke out a few extra days of rest, for the recuperating Hurricane as much as himself, Lyrai bowed to the inevitable. The longer they left things at Aquila, the longer it would take to reclaim. Much as he wished to avoid Nimbys, he needed to find Captain Myran as swiftly as possible. So he ran a hand over his short, barely-grown hair and sighed.
~ Next Chapter ~
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