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~ Previous Chapter ~
Poor Stirla is not having a good day.
(Slight cliffhanger warning! Since I had to split this one mid-scene, or the update would have been far too long, it ends a little abruptly. Sorry about that.)
“IT’S GOOD TO have you back, lieutenant,” Captain Hylan greeted as Stirla was shown into Kaskad’s office. “Though what possessed you to travel in such weather? Surely even Heryff would have found room for you with the snows this bad.”
Looking around the cramped office for inspiration, Stirla noticed a second desk had been squeezed into the overburdened space. The lack of the other captain’s presence, however, made him wonder how the two men were enjoying working so closely together. Tempers were bound to be frayed. With that in mind, he sat gingerly in the sole available chair and planned how quickly he could make his confession before fleeing somewhere warm to lick his wounds.
Hylan said nothing, watching him with expectantly raised eyebrows. Stirla tried to remember the question and grimaced. “It seemed more, er, diplomatic not to outstay our welcome.” Which was the truth, if not the most pressing reason for why he’d left Misthome so quickly. “And the weather wasn’t so bad then.”
“Oh?” Hylan asked mildly. “Did you not come straight from Misthome?”
Not trusting this placid approach, Stirla tried to step carefully. “No. After Misthome we went east to visit Captain Korfei at Sherpoint, as you requested.”
Hylan tapped his lips with his linked fingers. “Yes. It was well that you warned the good captain. Yet I’m surprised you did not remain with Korfei. Why was that, I wonder?”
There was a glint in the captain’s eye and Stirla knew he was in trouble. Big trouble. “Oh, Gods,” he groaned, head in his hands. “I wish I could say it wasn’t my fault, sir, but I can’t honestly tell whose fault it was anymore. It might well have been mine, but I swear it wasn’t intentional. Why didn’t anyone warn me?”
Hylan raised an eyebrow.
“About the nobles in Misthome! The do-or-die blistering idiots. You could have at least warned us about what they might try to do.”
“Would it have made any difference?”
“Yes!” As the echoes of his shout faded, he slumped in his chair and groaned, “No. Maybe. I don’t know. I would have been more careful about where I got drunk, but Lorfyn’s such a persistent little bugger he would have cornered me wherever I went and the outcome would have been the same. You don’t know what he’s like, sir. I’ve never met anyone like him.” He couldn’t help adding, “Thank the gods,” in an undertone.
“Lorfyn?” Hylan murmured and picked up a piece of paper from his desk. “This would be Lord Lorfyn Ketthik, only son and heir of Eorn Ketthik, correct?”
Stirla deflated. It was as he feared: news had reached Kaskad long before he did. He was surprised they hadn’t arrested him on landing for criminal stupidity. “Yes, sir. That’s him.”
“And he’s the leader of the, ah, let me see… the Havian Special Force. Is that right?”
“Along with Lord Godfrey Rytoth, second son to a jarl, Heyfen Wydbeam, heir to a surl, Lords Morfrye and Ferdyn Salis, heir and spare to another eorn, not to mention Kern Kennuk and Surl Falfroth who have already come into their titles, young though they may be.” As the captain reeled off the names and statuses of the other fools insane enough to follow Lorfyn across the length of their country and north into the unknown, Stirla sank lower and lower in his chair. Where was that nice convenient hole waiting to swallow him up when he needed it?
“I must say, Stirla, you don’t do half measures. Not only do you sweep in and seduce the cream of Havia’s highborn from their homes, but you drag them off into danger with you. And then,” he added, voice deepening with real anger, making Stirla want to cower, “you top it all off by stealing a princess of the realm. From Havia! Because Heryff doesn’t hate the Riders enough already!”
“It could have been worse,” he found himself saying in a strangled voice, unable to stop his lips from moving. “Neryth’s only the second born.”
“Out!” Hylan bellowed, standing up and jabbing his finger at the door. “Get out!”
Captain Hylan never raised his voice. He was so big he rarely needed to. Stirla was a big man too, but the rage on the captain’s face was enough to make him swallow any protests or excuses. He scuttled out of the office like an insect, keeping his head down as he strode through the base. He had no wish to meet anyone’s eye, in case they knew what a failure he was and what a mess he’d made of everything.
“Gods,” he whispered, as he ducked back out into the foul weather, heading for the isolation of the eyries. “Can this day get any worse?”
He opened the door and stepped into the big barn to find all the miryhls gathered on one side, feathers fluffed up with affront, beaks down, outrage in their eyes. Each one glared in the same direction – at the slender human babbling all kinds of oblivious insults at them.
Lord Lorfyn. The cause of everything wrong with Stirla’s world.
Tempted as he was to let the miryhls kill the irritating pipsqueak, he decided he would much rather do it himself. Growling, he stalked across the eyries, dreaming of ways to make the infuriating noble suffer. When he was close enough, he leapt with a roar and had the pleasure of hearing the idiot shriek before he was tackled to the ground.
DERRAIN WAS SHOWING Princess Neryth to the room she’d volunteered to share with Stirla – the available space not being quite generous enough to give her a room of her own, and the idea of sharing with the much younger female students not appealing – when the lieutenant in question stormed past. His head was down, fists clenched, shoulders hunched. Unsurprisingly he didn’t see them. Things had apparently not gone well with the captain.
Neryth turned to watch him go and smiled ruefully at Derrain. “I think we’ll let him cool off before asking which side of the room he wants.”
He snorted in agreement and turned up the next set of stairs. Before long they were in the officers’ hall, and Derrain was showing her the room Stirla had shared with the other lieutenants the last time they were here. The only bed currently in use was Lieutenant Brathyn’s.
Derrain pointed to the one nearest the door. “That was Lyrai’s,” he explained, and nodded to the bed beyond it. “Stirla stayed there. Hlen had that one.” He pointed at the one opposite the door. “But he must still be in Scudia. Take your pick.”
Since there wasn’t much to choose between either, Neryth dumped her bag on the closest. “If it’s good enough for Lyrai, it’ll do for me,” she said, slumping onto the mattress. For all her impressive lineage and reputation, she was refreshingly unfussy when it came to sharing her space with others. Then again, after the trip they’d just had, Derrain would have put up with a lot too in order to secure a real bed in a semi-decent room, especially with only two other occupants.
“Highness! Your Highness, are you here?”
They turned in astonishment as two of the HSF tumbled through the door in a flurry of excitement. Derrain raised his eyebrows at the princess and stepped back as the lordlings entered. Though the HSF tended to keep apart from the common Riders, Derrain knew them both from his mercifully short time in charge of the foolish lot of them. That was until Stirla took pity and assigned two others in his place. Since Derrain had then been made Neryth’s sparring partner, he wasn’t entirely sure if it had been a rescue or not. He liked the princess well enough, but she was a princess. It made whacking her with a sword fraught with all kinds of meaning, and therefore not nearly as much fun as it should have been.
“Well?” the princess asked, looking between the puffing young men.
The portly Surl Falfroth, who’d come into his title at a young age and appeared to have been eating ever since, drew himself up. “Highness,” he greeted pompously. “Forgive the intrusion. We meant no offence -”
“Get on with it, Falfroth,” Neryth growled.
The lord swallowed and nodded. “Yes, Highness. Umm… have you seen Lord Lorfyn?”
“I have not had that misfortune since we landed, no.”
“Misfortune?” echoed Falfroth, forehead scrunched up in confusion.
His friend, the Honourable Heyfen Wydbeam, shook his head, though whether at the young lord’s dimness or his princess’s inappropriate humour wasn’t clear. “Neither has anyone else. Highness, you don’t suppose anything has happened to him, do you?”
Neryth and Derrain shared a glance; they could never be that lucky. Then the princess blinked. “Do you mean to say the last time anyone saw Lorfyn was near the eyries?”
The lordlings nodded.
“Heirayk’s fiery balls!” the princess cursed, having spent far too much time around Stirla.
“They’ll butcher him,” Derrain agreed, following Neryth as she dived out of the door, heading for the eyries at a sprint.
“And much he’ll deserve it if they do,” the princess growled. “How many times have we told him to leave the miryhls alone? Stupid, stupid, I should have marched him inside and locked him in a room myself. The last thing we need is Eorn Ketthik blaming the Riders for the death of his idiot son!”
Unused to hearing so much emotion in Neryth’s voice, Derrain held his tongue and allowed his longer legs to overtake her as she took a wrong turn. With Derrain in the lead, they were soon crunching across the snow. Even over the howl of the wind, they could hear the commotion coming from the eyries. Within heartbeats they burst inside.
And stopped in complete astonishment.
~ Next Chapter ~
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