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~ Previous Chapter ~
Happy New Year, everyone! I’m still catching up on stuff, so I’ll probably post some stuff – including a character list – next week. For now, most importantly, we return to our regular serial posts. Whoo!
Well, hello there, Derry and Stirla! Looks like we haven’t forgotten all about you after all.
(And I’m ending the spoiler cuts, so if you haven’t read Dragongift yet, you might want to avoid these chapters.)
THE WIND WAS bitter around Kaskad today. The brittle cliffs were bleached pale in the weak winter light, their edges blunted by snow drifts waiting for the next blizzard to hustle them off or pile them up until the stones shattered. The ugly buildings hunched sullenly below the cliffs, half-hidden beneath grey snow. Winter had not been kind to Kaskad, and not even the shimmering ice could lift its desolate darkness. Or was that just what Stirla had brought with him?
“Is all well?” Atyrn’s husky voice pulled him from his reverie.
“As well as it can be, all things considered,” he assured his miryhl, stroking her neck. Her feathers were spiky from where they’d dried after a snowstorm. Gone was the glossy condition he’d always admired. She’d also lost weight during their scrambling trip to Havia and back through the depths of winter. Though fit and healthy, she looked tired and glad to have stopped.
A glance around the eyries confirmed the other miryhls were in much the same state, their Riders haggard and wearied to match. Even the thrice-cursed Havian Special Force fools looked wretched, their poor horsats trembling from the cold. In the midst of it all stood Princess Neryth of Havia. Her clothes were just as wrinkled as everyone else’s, her face as shadowed with fatigue, her miryhl pair fit to drop. Yet her head was up and her eyes bright: she exuded satisfaction.
Then there was Lord Lorfyn positively bouncing with excitement, babbling to the Riders and harassing any miryhl within reach. Not even the worst travelling conditions Stirla had faced in years could dampen that boy’s enthusiasm. Nothing could, and by Maegla, he had tried.
Stirla rested his head against his miryhl with a tired grunt. “Remind me why we came back again?”
A chuckle rumbled through Atyrn’s chest as she preened his unruly hair, which was long past needing a cut. “Because you are a good lieutenant. Even when you don’t want to be.”
He huffed at the compliment and pulled away. “All right then. Rest up, I may need you for a quick getaway.”
Laughing, she rubbed her beak against his cheek and settled on her perch, while he gathered his bags and headed for the door. He was back in Etheria, back at Kaskad, where Captain Hylan and gods knew who else would be waiting to hear about his journey. Casting a last look over his shoulder, he grimaced and trudged into the snow.
He had some explaining to do.
“WELL, MELT ME down with a pyrefly and mould me pretty, look what the wind blew in!”
Tired though he was, Derrain smiled at the exaggerated greeting as he and the rest of Stirla’s ragged flurry dragged themselves inside Kaskad’s common room. Riders were sprawled across the space, draped over armchairs and sofas or lying on the rug-covered floor. Situated in the heart of the base, the common room had no windows and few cracks for drafts to creep through. Which made it toasty warm and blissful, and the only place Riders wanted to be.
With a sigh of relief, Derrain joined the rush towards the nearest fireplace and huddled close to the heat. Now that he was finally indoors, he might actually thaw out before New Year.
“That good out there, is it?” Lieutenant Brathyn left the card game he’d been watching and ambled over to join them. He nodded recognition to several Riders, then sidled up to Derrain. “Bet you never expected to be so happy to see this old shed again, eh?”
Derrain shook his curls out of his eyes and smiled. “After the half-month I’ve had, sir, I’d have been just as happy to see a real shed. This place is a slice of Heirayk’s own heaven.”
“If not quite so warm,” Princess Neryth murmured, holding her hands towards the fire while studying the common room. Derrain wondered what she was thinking. Kaskad was hardly the finest example of Rider accommodations, but this room was cosy, with well-worn, comfortable furniture scattered about, books for the scholars, cards for the gamers and lots of cushions for the weary. The noise level simmered with friendly conversation, laughs and the occasional good-humoured exclamation from the card tables. It felt familiar and comforting to Derrain, but then he wasn’t a princess who’d spent her whole life shining as a wit at court.
Catching his pondering look, Neryth smiled faintly and focused on the fire again. As always, the princess kept her thoughts to herself.
Having been through the group, gathering snippets of gossip and letting fall a question or two, Brathyn returned to Derrain’s side. “Your squad’s a little thin on students, isn’t it, Derry? I thought there were more of you? Has Stirla been slave-trafficking again?”
Neryth blinked, but Derrain dodged the lieutenant’s nosiness with a smile. “It was a long trip,” he said, as if that explained everything. “Almost as long as yours must have been. I wasn’t expecting to find you here, sir. Did Kevian not suit?”
Brathyn’s eyes narrowed with amusement. “Kevian was all it always is,” he replied. “We found the general enjoying himself at the queen’s pleasure, and he was so irritated by our untimely interruption that he sent us straight back again.”
It was Derrain’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “General Dreffen was in Kevian?”
“Aye,” Brathyn drawled. After the fall of Aquila, more than a hundred Riders had fled through Kevian on their way to Etheria – yet the general hadn’t noticed anything amiss until Brathyn’s flurry showed up, asking for aid?
Looking from lieutenant to student, the princess seemed intrigued. “I trust you found everything well in the queen’s court, lieutenant.”
“All seemed fine during the one day my Riders and I spent there,” Brathyn replied dryly, his smile turning sly, seeming to miss the fact that Neryth was both a woman and a stranger. “And what of you, Derry? Did you find all well with the Old Pyrefly? Perhaps he ate your little friends and that’s why so few of you made it back.”
Uncertain what the lieutenant was hinting at, Derrain decided to kill the conversation. “Havia was an education,” he said, and waved a languid hand towards his companion. “Highness, allow me to introduce Lieutenant Brathyn, senior lieutenant in Captain Hylan’s company. Lieutenant, this is Princess Neryth, eldest daughter of King Heryff of Havia.”
“The Old Pyrefly himself,” Neryth added, with a deceptively mild smile.
“Oh.” Brathyn’s eyes widened and he glanced frantically around, searching for a convenient escape route. Finding nothing, he was forced to bow in the western way. “My apologies, Highness. I meant no disrespect.”
Neryth’s lips quirked in a half-smile. “Is it disrespectful to state the truth?”
Brathyn laughed nervously and backed up a step, looking around the room again. Raised voices from the card table drew his attention and he seized the half-opportunity, despite the laughter suggesting that everything was fine. “Ah, please excuse me, Highness. I must speak with my Riders.” He bowed again, clicked his heels together and escaped, muttering darkly about Stirla and his affinity for royalty.
Neryth watched him go. “And so it begins.”
Turning to the fire to warm his chilled hands, Derrain shook his head. If half the introductions went as easily as that one, he would count them blessed. He didn’t envy poor Stirla one bit.
~ Next Chapter ~
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