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~ Previous Chapter ~
Will Stirla’s torment ever end?
HE WAS BURNING. Fire raged beneath his skin, flaying him from the inside out. He twisted and scratched to evade it, but stern hands reached out to hold him down.
“No,” he screamed. “No. Let go!”
Or at least he tried, but the words wouldn’t form. All that came from his mouth were feral shrieks and cries, more like a hunting hawk than a man. Or like a kaz-naghkt.
The nightmares took him. Flying in the darkness, leather wings at his back, above his head, wrapped around him. A dark forest, a swift descent. A shadow in the night, rushing towards him.
Then pain. So much pain. And burning, always burning.
He woke to find himself scratching, a frantic, desperate scrabble he had no power to stop. If only he could get down to the veins and open them up, he could bleed the fire out. It burned, so hot, so painful. He wanted to make it stop.
“Cease,” a stern voice spoke over him. “I did not exhaust myself for this folly, my Lord Rabbit. Lie back.”
Though he felt no touch against his skin, his body slammed back against the bed, his arms pinned by his sides. The burning grew worse. His fingers twitched, desperate to scratch. He tried to twist free from his invisible restraints, tried to see his torturer through the red haze across his vision, but there was nothing. Nothing but the flames inside him.
He screamed his frustration, his rage, his helplessness and pain, cursing and swearing and vowing vengeance, but there were no words. Only screams.
* * *
IT WAS DARK by the time they emerged from fra Koyl’s warehouse, with only the slightest hint of light in the sky. It came from the east, and Stirla’s weary body knew there wasn’t a chance they’d be leaving Kevian today.
Great Gods, he was exhausted. Who knew watching someone else shop could be so tiring? Especially when Neryth was bouncing as she walked, filled with elation at all her purchases.
As the afternoon had waned into evening, fra Koyl had closed the doors of his treasure trove, called all his assistants and taken the princess in hand. By lamplight, he’d brought out the finest clothes in his possession, then at a discreet cough from Derrain turned to a more practical bent. Which meant about four times as many coats, breeches, boots, shirts, belts, buckles, stockings, jackets, hats, mufflers, scarves, gloves, tunics, jerkins and other items of clothing that Stirla had never seen before, were rained down upon the delighted princess’ head for her perusal.
By this time fra Koyl had sent out for food, and he and Derrain conspired together while the delirious princess tried on outfits and paraded them for approval. Sullenly picking through his, surprisingly good, roasted doelyn, Stirla had annexed a bottle of wine to himself and wondered how much longer the torture could possibly last.
All night, was the answer. But eventually even the cooing, applauding, fawning assistants had started to flag, while Neryth had failed to hide her ever-increasing yawns.
Since by this point she’d already tried on about a third of the shop, it was easy enough for the her to decide what pieces to keep. Well, at least it should have been. Except that ever since Neryth had set foot inside the first shop of the day, she’d revealed a hitherto unforeseen tendency to dither. Big decisions, like leaving everything she’d ever known behind to chase the coattails of Stirla’s Riders, were made in a matter moments. Little ones, like whether to team a pair of black breeches with a brown flying coat, or to keep it all black – maybe all brown? Or what about the dark green coat? The blue one? – could take forever.
Thankfully for Stirla’s sanity Derrain had stepped in, told the princess they would all either darken to black or fade to grey in the end anyway – if she could get the mud stains off – had made the choices very simple. Neryth had stuck to the black and brown items, buying one dark leather flying coat, a very stylish black flight-jacket, several pairs of black and brown breeches, a couple of extra shirts, some very fine black boots, a second more practical brown pair, a couple of spare tunics for when they weren’t flying, and enough scarves, hats, gloves and mufflers to cause an avalanche.
Then, finally, they were done. Even at fra Koyl’s reasonable prices the total cost was enormous, but the princess didn’t bat an eyelid. She simply paid half and left a promissory note to be delivered to the Havian ambassador’s residence in the Kevian capital, Regis, and that was that. Stirla could practically hear the ambassador’s outrage already.
All that remained was to carry her haul back to their rooms beside the eyries. A task which even Neryth had to assist with, though she did so by wearing most of it. Then they had to try to figure out how they were going to pack all the extra weight.
Still, at least now Stirla could press ahead with their journey, mostly content that his royal charge wasn’t about to freeze to death. Not because of her clothes, at any rate. There were plenty of other ways it could all go wrong. Thankfully at that moment Stirla was too tired to think of them all.
“Happy now?” Derrain asked, as they shouldered their way into the large room they’d taken over for their supposedly short stay in town.
“Show me to my bed,” Stirla grumbled, “and I’ll be delirious.”
“Just don’t snore too loudly,” his student chuckled. “You’re not the only exhausted one.”
Stirla eyed him darkly. “If you’d offered to show us your friend’s place right at the start, we could have been back here last night. Or,” he added, when it looked like Derrain was about to protest, “if you’d stepped in at fra Koyl’s earlier, we could have wrapped up this farce before midnight. Don’t tell me you’re tired, Derry, because I don’t believe you.”
The lad rolled his eyes. “I could have done that, yes, but Neryth was enjoying herself.” They turned to watch the princess merrily stuff her new clothes into her pack without any finesse or folding. They winced, and Derry sighed. “I couldn’t take that away from her, sir. I know these next few moons are going to be some of the toughest I’ve ever faced. You know it too. But she hasn’t any idea what we’ll be up against. And I think that scares her. She’s quieter and more thoughtful lately. Not that she’s ever chatty. I wanted her to have some fun. Just one day, before we head into the wilderness.” Derrain turned and looked his lieutenant straight in the eye. “You can’t deny that fun from here on out will be in very short supply.”
Sometimes the boy was so thoughtful it hurt. Students weren’t supposed to be like that. Stirla rubbed his aching head and sighed. “No, Derry, I can’t.” He held up his hand before the lad could protest again. “And no, I guess when you put it like that I can’t deny it was good for her.” Before Derrain could look too pleased with himself, however, Stirla gripped his shoulder. “But next time, ask first. There’s far better fun to be had in any town than shopping.”
Derrain’s grin was wicked. “Ah yes, sir, but at least this way you’ll still remember where you are when you wake up in the morning. And no hangover.”
“Speak for yourself,” Stirla muttered, already feeling the effects of the bottle of wine that had kept him company in the depths of the early morning. “Right now I’m going to bed.”
“Bed?” Neryth looked up from her bulging pack, crumpled shirt in hand. “Now? I thought we were leaving today. Don’t we have to press on?”
Stirla blinked at the princess, scowled at the snickering Derrain and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Maegla preserve me from the enthusiasm of royalty.” He collapsed back onto his bed.
Neryth turned to Derrain, eyebrows raised. “Is that a no?”
“It’s a no,” Derrain agreed, kneeling beside the princess. “And before we both do the sensible thing and get our own sleep, how about I teach you how a proper Rider packs their bags?”
Studying the lumpy, bulging mess she’d created, with half the clothes spilling out the top, Neryth smiled wryly. “Sleep first, pack later?” she offered.
Derrain grinned. “We’ll make a Rider of you yet.”
* * *
STANDING ATOP AQUILA’S East Tower in the fading light of the mid-afternoon, Yullik stared over the icy emptiness of the Cloud Sea, silently daring the grey banks of yet another blizzard to approach. He could feel a hesitation in the air, as if the very gods themselves were waiting to see what he would do next.
Down by his side, the fingers of his left hand twitched. Scowling, he narrowed his eyes and placed yet more mental restraints around Willym’s fretting body. By the blood, that fool was definitely more trouble than he was worth. Not that this was news, but somehow Yullik had forgotten it when he’d put so much effort into saving his life.
Who was the fool now?
He smiled wryly, even as the insistent itch grew inside his mind. It was tempting to let the boy loose, to let him scratch as much as he desperately wanted. Except he wouldn’t be content until he’d bled the last of the kaz-naghkt blood out. Which would end in his own death, making everything Yullik had done for him utterly pointless.
Yullik was not used to working so hard for nothing, and he wasn’t about to start. So he tightened his hold and shoved Willym back over the edge into unconsciousness. Everyone was much happier when he was there.
The itching in his head eased and faded, and he let out a deep sigh, feeling the relief flow through his body, relaxing his shoulders and spine. Deep in the citadel his slumbering kaz-naghkt shifted and grumbled, lashing out at each other even as they slept, dreaming of the meat they would consume when they woke.
How simple they were. Almost innocent. The thought pleased him, and he turned his full attention back to the bank of clouds before him. “You are not welcome here.”
A bitter wind punched him, lifting his unbound hair and spreading it like wings behind him. He smiled and leaned into the force of the gale, daring it to try and remove him.
Aquila was his; no mere wind could blow him from his prize.
The tempest eased, showering him with a scattering of snowflakes. Yullik blew out a hot breath, melting them long before they could land.
“You are not welcome,” he repeated.
The grey clouds bubbled and roiled, but they came no closer.
Yullik smiled. The time for winter was over. Aquila was under his rule now. It was time he proved it to the world.
Rolling his head on his shoulders, he stretched out his arms and arched his back before taking in a deep, deep breath. As he breathed out he sent his mind searching into the world. He had a Wingborn to find and Rift Riders to punish.
Oh yes, it was his time now.
~ Next Chapter ~
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