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~ Previous Chapter ~
THE TOWN HALL fell watchfully silent. Stirla clenched a fist and hoped his uncertainty didn’t show as he stared up at the stage, awaiting his fate. Except Rider Benyet and Baker Jensyn were smiling.
“Hackles down, Elly,” Benyet murmured, most disrespectfully to a woman so much on her dignity. “Stirla’s one of the good ones.”
The town leader looked at the two Aquilan men before eyeing Stirla like he was something the pyrefly had coughed up. A sandy-blonde eyebrow arched. “Oh?” she said. “I was not aware such a thing still existed in the Rift Riders at large.”
Behind Stirla’s shoulder, Neryth sighed. “You should do this in private,” she murmured.
“Not a good idea,” Derrain warned in the opposite ear, the pair of them like the opposing poles of his conscience. “They’ve seen you now. Hiding away will only make things worse.”
“Yes, but,” Neryth countered, ever the princess and authoritarian to Derrain’s ordinary lad, “airing grievances in public, without having any prior knowledge of what they might be will put Stirla on the spot.”
Derrain chuckled. “I’ve always thought he fights best when backed into a corner.”
“I am still here, you know,” Stirla grumbled, wishing they would both shut up and let him think. He stepped onto the stairs leading up to the stage, determined to take control of this unhappy situation. “Leader Ellysett, Rider Benyet, Baker Jensyn.” He nodded to the three figures before climbing another step and turning to face the crowded hall. “People of Restra, residents old and new, I know many of you, quite rightly, feel abandoned or put upon by the Rift Riders. You feel forgotten and neglected, mistreated and taken for granted. In some ways all that is true. So I stand here now in my garish red coat, with my so-called lieutenant stripes upon my shoulder, and I apologise, unreservedly, for the way you have been treated.
“But I ask, too, for your forbearance. You were never forgotten, just like the dead who lie inside Aquila’s tunnels are not forgotten. Just as those who died in the town and the citadel, in the air and in the destruction of the Miryhl Shadow are not forgotten. They are our heroes, our friends, our brothers, our sisters, our family. Their blood is our blood, and to that end we will not abandon them to the kaz-naghkt and the Wrathlen. To dishonour and defeat.
“This, my friends, is why we left when we did. This, my friends, is why I have returned. For while the Rift Riders have no home, we cannot afford to stand still. We will not rest until Aquila in ours again. And so, friends, I not only beg your forgiveness, I humbly ask for your assistance. Whatever you may feel towards the living, I ask you to help me honour the dead. I am travelling now to Nimbys, having already journeyed across the entire Greater West.
“Gentlemen, ladies, Riders, we are gathering an army. The greatest the Rift Riders have ever seen. Our wings will fill the skies above Aquila and our swords, bows and talons will not rest until the citadel is ours once more. You may have been left here to recover and grieve, while the rest of us forged on far to the west, but I ask you now, will you stay here still? Will you harbour your grudges, nurse your grievances and feed your anger, choosing only to watch while the Overworld takes back what is ours?”
Feeling the eyes of every person fixed upon him, Stirla climbed another step and lifted his head, proud of the insignia upon his bright red coat. Proud of his rank, of who he was, of being a Rift Rider, and willing to show it to the whole world.
“History is in the making,” he told them, his voice soft but confident. “Will you partake or will you just watch? When the scrolls of glory are written down, many, many years from now, will your names be amongst them? Or will your ancestors simply shrug and say it wasn’t your fight?”
He looked around the room, taking in the shining eyes, the clenched fists, the smiles and the frowns. Derrain watched him in silence, while Neryth looked impressed.
Breathing deep, Stirla turned to address the three people on the stage. “I have no time to spare on this journey, but this is not a decision to be made lightly. Think it over, talk about it, decide as individuals or as a town. Whatever happens, before the end, I will make sure this question is put to you again.”
He turned back to the room at large. “You are not forgotten,” he told them. “Whether history will remember you or not is up to you.”
With a final nod, he jumped off the steps and strode back down the central aisle, aware once more of the faces turning to follow him. He glanced neither right nor left, keeping his gaze fixed on the door, wishing it was closer.
Finally he was free, back outside in the gathering dusk, but he didn’t slow or stop. He couldn’t. Energy was coursing through him. He wanted to run, to shout, to start a fight, anything to get rid of this damn tingling.
A hearty slap landed on his shoulder. “Remarkable,” Neryth crowed. “You strode into a hostile room and within a few sentences had them all eating out of your hand. Such a stirring speech! If I wasn’t already clinging to your coat tails I would have pledged my allegiance to you then and there. All Gods, they should make a general out of you.”
Stirla’s mouth twisted and he glanced over his other shoulder, catching Derrain’s grimace.
Yes, he understood. But then he had fought with Stirla in the darkness beneath Aquila. He had heard the screams, seen the blood, felt the horror. He knew what it was like. What it was really like.
“That was glorious,” Neryth continued, more effusive now than Stirla had ever heard her. “Truly magnificent. If you’d asked it of them, I believe they would die for you.”
“Yes,” he replied flatly, knowing full well what he had done. “They will.” He finally stopped and faced the princess, letting her see the disgust on his face. “And I hate myself for it.”
He stared into the princess’s eyes, watching the excitement fade into confusion and disappointment. As Neryth started to frown, working through the implications, Stirla shrugged off her hand and walked on. He needed to get back to Atyrn; he needed his miryhl’s calm competence. He needed the skies and the bitterly cold air. He needed to get away from so many living, breathing souls who one day might end bloodily on his conscience.
“Gather our things,” he muttered to the silent Derrain. “It’s time to go.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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