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~ Previous Chapter ~
Rhiddyl, rain and readiness.
IT HAD RAINED all night and deep into the next morning, but Jaymes didn’t have much time to complain: he was too busy. After months of creeping around, staying out of sight and not drawing attention to himself or his men, it seemed like Lieutenant Imaino was finally ready to take back the citadel. And once he made up his mind, woe betide any who got in his way.
Jaymes wasn’t foolish enough to try and stop the lieutenant, especially when he was equally as eager to finally do something to regain Aquila, but he was unfortunate enough to be the one Rider who not only had his own miryhl to hand, but was willing to talk to dragons. Which left him very busy indeed.
After telling the handful of regular folk and his two surviving Riders to rest up for the night, Imaino had huddled down with Rhiddyl and started planning. It was Jaymes’ job to constantly run back and forth, checking the top of the ridge, meeting with messengers and mostly just keeping busy. By the time night fell, Jaymes was exhausted and ready to drop. Unfortunately for him that was the moment Imaino chose to move.
Up over the ridge, tramping in the dark with a noisy dragon and surrounded by grumbling miryhls, it hadn’t been Jaymes’ most enjoyable expedition. Everyone was tired and wet and cranky, even the nakhounds, and Jaymes had the added bonus of lugging Emberbright along with him. The dragonet stirred and muttered a few times, but still didn’t wake. Yet despite her weight, Jaymes found it comforting to carry her – and she was always beautifully warm.
By the time dawn poked sullen fingers through the murky rain clouds, Imaino had moved his small force into the dense conifer forest that clung to the mountain ridge directly to the west of Aquila, right above the town.
Then came the waiting.
Exhausted and still recovering from his recent burns, Jaymes had taken his own initiative and crawled beneath Rhiddyl’s wing before anyone could give him any more errands to run. Just because he was the youngest amongst them, and still technically a student, didn’t mean he was going to let them run him into the ground. He’d done and seen a lot in the last year and was no longer too shy to take what he needed when he could. So he snuggled into the warm crook at the base of Rhiddyl’s wing and let the deep rise and fall of her ribs lull him to sleep. With Emberbright cuddled against his chest it made for a lovely, cosy nest.
When Imaino came to ask Rhiddyl if she’d seen the student anywhere, Jaymes’ smiled as Rhiddyl said she hadn’t. Which was true, she’d pointedly looked the other way when he crawled under her wing, no doubt so she could say such things without telling any outright lies.
She was an excellent dragon.
Nevertheless, duty eventually called and drove Jaymes out of his delightful nest. Even in sleep, he heard the moment the rain stopped drumming on the thin web of Rhiddyl’s wing and knew his time of ease was over. Draping Emberbright over his shoulder and holding her steady with one hand, Jaymes slithered down Rhiddyl’s side and back out into the day.
Imaino was sitting nearby and shot to dragon a pointed look as the ruffled student emerged. Rhiddyl ducked her head, her scales flushing an embarrassed pink at having been caught out. Jaymes patted her on the shoulder in a silent promise to sort things out and left Emberbright in her capable claws, knowing the dragon would be better positioned to keep the slumbering dragonet safe. Only then did he amble over to where Imaino was watching him with a reproving frown. An expression that was slightly undermined by the amused tilt to his lips.
“Nice rest?” the lieutenant enquired.
“The best,” Jaymes said, stretching and yawning.
Imaino smiled. “You earned it last night.” He stood up and stretched too. “Now it’s your turn to earn it all over again. Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
The last of Jaymes’ warm contentment faded away, leaving a prickle of nervous energy in its wake. Ready? He wasn’t certain anyone could ever be ready for such a thing, but he was willing to go forward. Shaking his hands to dispel some of the tingling, he nodded. “It’s just like old times, sir.”
Imaino’s smile was wry. “Hopefully not just like the last time. I’d rather we didn’t have a tide of hungry kaz-naghkt coming after us, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Aye,” Jaymes agreed. “And I could do without the pirates trying to kill us too.”
The lieutenant touched his knuckle to his forehead in agreement. “Gods witness that,” he murmured, and looked around their ragged little campsite. “Riders and regulars, let’s move out.”
“You will be careful, won’t you?” Rhiddyl asked anxiously, as Jaymes stopped to bid both her and Emberbright farewell before belting a sword about his waist and slinging a quiver over his shoulder.
“As careful as anyone can be when sneaking into a citadel full of kaz-naghkt,” he promised, bending down to kiss Emberbright’s head. “Look after each other.”
“We will,” Rhiddyl promised, curling her silver claws protectively around the slumbering dragonet. “Don’t forget the signal!”
Reaching over his shoulder, Jaymes felt the fletching of the special arrow Argon had flown all the way to the Heights for the night before. It didn’t look particularly special, but that was hardly surprising since Goryal had made it, and they loved being underestimated. Curious as to what the signal would look like, Jaymes made sure it was secure in his quiver and fell in with the rest of Imaino’s regulars and Riders, nakhounds milling around their legs, a line of miryhls standing proudly at their backs.
“You all have your part to play in what’s to come. You all know your places,” the lieutenant said, standing in front of them. “It will be dangerous and there’s a very high chance we won’t survive to see tomorrow. If any of you choose to turn back now, no shame will fall upon you. We move fast and swift and decisively, there’s no room for hesitation here. If your heart is not in this mission, hold back and fight another day. But if your heart and will are decided, come with me.”
Imaino spun on his heel and marched off down the hill. Jaymes immediately rushed to follow, along with Riders Rechar and Gudlo, and the pack of nakhounds. They were Rift Riders, this was their fight. No one looked back at the regulars, neither encouraging nor shaming them into following. The choice had to be theirs and it had to be swift. As Jaymes followed Imaino down the steep hillside and around a jutting spur of rock, he began to wonder if any of the regulars would come. The town they were fast approaching might once have been home to the men, but they weren’t fighters. They were bakers and traders and farmers and smiths. Honest and hardworking, but unused to combat. Imaino was right – there was no shame in staying behind.
Yet as Imaino and his Riders paused just inside the tree line, staring out over the rain-washed cobbles of Aquila town, all ten of the regular folk who’d followed the lieutenant this far stumbled down to join them. Imaino was visibly surprised as he looked them all over with a smile.
Vettam the Smith, who had become something of a spokesman for the rest, gave a sheepish shrug of his shoulders. “We’ve come this far,” he said. “Might as well see the job through.”
“And keep away from that bloody dragon,” another man muttered, and was swiftly hushed by his friends.
Imaino’s smile faded into a grim line. “If you’re only here because you’d rather stick with me than with a dragon, I’ll tell you now, what we’re likely about to face will ten times worse than anything Rhiddyl or Nightriver could do to you, even if they weren’t always polite and helpful. This suspicion and prejudice has to stop. They are here to help us. If you cannot trust them enough to believe that, I don’t want you at my back.”
There was a lot of foot shuffling and one or two reproving thumps, but Vettam stood firm, pulling his broad shoulders straight and raising his chin. “We’re staying, and not because we fear the dragon. We’re here to fight. We’re here to win back our homes.”
Imaino raised a sceptical eyebrow, but this was neither the time nor the place for distrust or suspicion. He looked each of his men – Riders and regulars – slowly in the eye and nodded. “Very well. Keep your weapons handy and your footsteps light, we’re in enemy territory now. Stay quiet and follow me.” Drawing his sword, the lieutenant paused at the edge of the trees for one last glance down the rain-spotted street before dashing across the open ground towards the first house.
~ Next Chapter ~
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