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~ Previous Chapter ~
Okay, Dreffen, you’re just being weird now.
IT WAS THE hunger that woke him. For a moment as Mouse drifted slowly towards consciousness, his stomach cramped in remembered revulsion, then his belly growled and he relaxed. This was nothing but good, honest hunger, coming from within his own body. No creepy outside thoughts, feelings or voices were involved.
Stretching in his bedroll, Mouse filled his lungs with a wide yawn, savouring the delicious scent of roasting venison. Gods, a cooked meal had never smelled so good.
The soft voice made him open his eyes, and he turned his head to see Haelle sitting beside him, her long blonde hair lost to a ragged, untidy crop. In the flickering firelight her face was gaunt and bruised, but she smiled when she saw him looking up at her.
“Hey,” she whispered. “Good to have you back.”
“Again.” Greig walked carefully over, balancing three steaming bowls along his wounded arm. A water bottle hung by its strap from his other wrist, and he was quick to dole out his goodies before helping Mouse sit up. “I almost had a heart attack when you collapsed. Until Silveo and the lieutenant told me it’s become a regular thing.”
He peered worriedly at Mouse as if trying to see beneath his skin and ferret out all his ills. Mouse was quick to duck his head and fill his mouth with food, answering his friend’s concern with a shrug.
“Well, whatever happened, you’re back now,” Haelle said into the uncomfortable silence. “And you brought quite the treat with you.” Smiling, she tucked into her own bowl.
“Imaino shot it,” Mouse pointed out.
“And he was with you,” Haelle reminded him, as if his useless presence had made the slightest difference.
Mouse grimaced, about to make a disparaging remark about his pathetic limp, until Greig’s frantically shaking head caught his attention. And then he remembered. Stuffing his mouth before any stupid thoughts could spill out, he leant slightly to one side and looked at Haelle’s long legs.
The left was twisted unnaturally at the knee, the material of her breeches sinking down at the shin in a way that spoke of shattered bones and irreparable damage. The other leg she had curled in front of her, but in the flickering firelight he could see plenty of black bruising on her foot and swelling around the ankle. It was only when he realised she’d stopped eating during his perusal, that he looked up and realised she was also missing two fingers on her left hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said inadequately, meaning it with his whole heart. Sorry she had to suffer, sorry that Nehtl wasn’t here to help her, sorry that in some warped way he was connected to the thing that had collapsed the tunnels. Sorry that he couldn’t make her better again.
She smiled sweetly, as forgiving as always. “I was always too tall anyway.”
It made him want to cry. He glanced away and saw Greig doing the same thing. Mouse rubbed idly at his weak leg as Greig touched his broken arm. Both knew they were lucky, and that neither would have taken it as well as she was.
“But now that you’re back, Mouse, I wouldn’t say no to learning some of those herb remedies you’d been working on before -” It was her turn to break off, looking uncomfortable, sad and embarrassed, the memory of Nehtl hanging like a ghost between them.
Where once Mouse might have snapped angrily, taking out his grief on the nearest target, or withdrawn into his miserable shell, he knew he couldn’t, not this time. Haelle deserved better.
He dragged up a smile and took her wounded hand. “I’d be honoured to teach you everything I know.”
“Shouldn’t take long.”
The three wounded looked up to find Silveo watching them, his face a blank mask, his silvery eyes shining. Then it was his turn to force a smile. “When you’re done eating, Mouse, I could use your help. Yours too, Haelle, if you’re up to it. Our numbers might have dropped considerably, but the injuries still climb.”
Recalled to his duty, and with the memory of Nehtl firmly in his mind, Mouse gave a quick nod and finished the rest of his meal in a greedy rush. Though in recent months his life had been full of breaking, he had not broken, and it was time to start mending again.
For Greig and Haelle’s sake. And to honour Nehtl. The healer may have been taken from them, but Mouse would do his very best to ensure the man was never forgotten.
Starting now. “All right, Silveo, what have you got for me?”
* * *
“GOOD RISING, LIEUTENANT.”
“Good rising, sir.” After a long and arduous trek around every possible corner of Kaskad’s sprawling, rickety halls, passing from rumour to rumour, Stirla had finally run the general to ground at the westernmost point of the base. As far as possible from the eyries. Here the wooden structure was replaced with stone. Not much stone, perhaps, but enough for a small lookout tower, circular, crumbling and old.
“Have you ever been here before, lieutenant?” General Dreffen asked, running a caressing hand over the weather-bleached ramparts, not seeming to care that the rock turned to dust beneath his palm. “Ever climbed this tower and looked out across the yawning sea?”
Stirla shook his head and fought down his impatience. He’d had far too many opportunities to stare at the empty expanse of the Cloud Sea of late, and he hadn’t come here for nostalgic reminiscences about the good old days, before the kaz-naghkt/dragons/clouds came. He’d come for letters, so that he could leave as soon as possible to complete this Gods-blasted mission he’d been given by this truly awful man. Back when he’d been a student, all sparkly-eyed about meeting the great heroes of legend and recent press reports, he remembered one old timer warning him that truth so very rarely lived up to legend.
Like now. He’d idolised Dreffen before he even reached the selection schools, yet here he stood before a man lost in dreams of distant yore, while Aquila lay in the hands of monsters. The same man who had manipulated him into undertaking a near-impossible feat, all on the hint of a promotion. In truth Stirla didn’t know if he wanted to be made captain purely on this man’s say-so.
Coming from Captain Hylan it would mean something, from Captain Myran it would mean everything, but this man… No, Stirla didn’t want to make captain this way. Yet to say no now, to turn away from this mission, would risk him losing everything that mattered.
He remembered the old Rider’s words: “Great men are not nice people, lad. To do great deeds, you have to forget about the everyday ones. Don’t expect too much, and you won’t be disappointed.”
At the time, his bright-eyed younger self had dismissed such dismal notions as sour grapes. Yet standing here at this moment, he could see more than a little truth in the old buzzard’s words. After all, the nicest Rift Rider officer he’d ever encountered was Captain Fredkhen – a kind man, definitely, but sadly not great. Captain Hylan was more of an exception, but while he was excellent at his job and very popular with his men, he would be remembered more for being a man to get things done than for doing great deeds.
Captain Myran was different again, a man capable of greatness, and with rumours of such deeds in his past, but one who kept very quiet about them and himself. Not that anyone would foolishly describe him as nice either. In fact Stirla would be the first to admit that Myran was rather scarce with both his praise and his smiles, but his men respected him, and few captains had more loyal Riders. He might not always be nice, but he was always fair, and over the years Stirla had come to value that trait above all others.
Looking at the man before him, and remembering their previous encounter, Stirla didn’t think anyone would ever describe Dreffen as nice or particularly fair. Especially not in the years since he’d risen from wing-commander to general.
Oblivious to all this inner turmoil, the general patted the crumbling stonework again. “No one knows how old this structure is,” he said, his voice a little dreamy. “There are no records of its origins. Not even the dragons can say. All we know is that it was old before the clouds came. When it was young there were no such things as miryhls. No such men as Rift Riders.” At last he looked at Stirla, blue eyes full of strange emotions. “Can you imagine such a thing, Stirla?”
Unsure what was expected of him, Stirla decided to be the practical one in a conversation for once. “No, sir. It is quite beyond me.”
General Dreffen studied him for a long, uncomfortable moment, and sighed. “Yes,” he agreed, almost sadly. “I suppose it is.” He turned away again, this time to pick up a satchel hidden in the shadows by his feet. “Here, this is what you have come, is it not? Letters, messages, death warrants and fool’s errands.”
Stirla accepted the heavy weight with raised eyebrows. “Are you quite well, sir?”
Dreffen’s mouth quirked into a lop-sided smile. “Not yet, Stirla, but I will be. Mornings are for memories and maudlin meanderings. I’ll be better once the sun rises.”
Stirla blinked, yet again uncertain quite what this conversation was really about. So he stuck to the trite phrase he’d so long ago learned and vowed never to use. “Very good, sir.”
The general laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit, lieutenant. It always pays to humour those in power. We’ll curb that wild-streak of yours yet.”
Even as Stirla watched, silently protesting that he’d never had a wild-streak – a wildly inappropriate streak, yes, and a frequent tendency towards ill-place humour, but he’d never been reckless – the general’s expression went distant again.
He turned back towards the view, hands resting on the ancient stones once more. “This tower stood long before the Riders rose and will remain here long after we’ve fallen. History laughs at our struggles, Stirla, never forget that. After every battle, whether we win or lose, the only winner is time. In the end we all turn to dust. Even this tower.” He raised his hand and sprinkled the pale grains to the wind. “History laughs loudest when high prices are at stake. I can almost hear it now.”
As the general fell silent, apparently forgetting he had company, Stirla gathered the messenger bag to his chest and backed slowly away.
“Take care of the princess, lieutenant,” Dreffen called, just as he reached the door. “History has plans for her. All our futures hang in the balance, but some weigh more heavily than others. We must be careful where we let certain players fall. And tell Myran to be ready. Our stage is almost set.”
Grimacing at this hitherto unknown hint of the general’s theatrical nature, Stirla saluted the great man’s back and bid a hasty retreat. The sooner he got away from the strange air at Kaskad, the better for everyone. The last thing the Overworld needed was him turning into a philosopher. It seemed to have more than enough of those already.
~ Next Chapter ~
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