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~ Previous Chapter ~
Back on the streets of Aquila town.
WHILE RECHAR SENT sent the regulars out one by one, a handful accompanied by a nakhound, Jaymes strung his bow, flexed his fingers and drew an arrow from his quiver. He scanned the area, alert and ready to shoot any suspicious thing that moved.
Nothing did. Only the last of the regulars as he dashed across the street, splashing through puddles to join his friends. Gudlo patted the tree he’d been standing behind and followed the rest, then it was Jaymes’ turn, holding his bow at the ready as he jogged alongside Bumble to join his lieutenant. Rechar finally brought up the rear and, as Imaino began slowly leading them through the town’s quiet, gloomy streets, Jaymes cast one last look up at the ridge.
High up there, out of sight behind the firs, Rhiddyl and the miryhls were watching. If trouble pounced, they would do all they could to rescue them, but for the most part they were to sit and wait until Jaymes sent up the signal. Only then, when everything and everyone was finally in position, would the real fun begin.
Until then, the miryhls and Rhiddyl had a nervous wait, while the humans and nakhounds made their wary way up through Aquila’s deserted streets, winding back and forth across the face of the mountain. Jaymes hoped the only eyes that were watching over them were of a friendly variety. Since there was little he could do to assure that, he turned as Rechar tapped him on the shoulder and kept his eyes attentive and his bow at the ready as he followed the others through the puddles and shadows to the end of one street and round and up another.
Just because Reglian had destroyed the last of the pirate fleet and the town was quiet and still, didn’t mean all their enemies had been dealt with. The nakhounds fanned out amongst the shadows, but Jaymes didn’t know how effective they’d be when they were trained to scent kaz-naghkt, not human. The citadel loomed darkly overhead, a promise and a threat of what was still to come, but first they had to clear the town.
A distant door slammed and Imaino held up his hand. The nakhounds paused and the regulars bunched nervously together while Gudlo padded up to speak with the lieutenant. Jaymes stroked the fletching on his arrow and flexed his fingers around his bow, head cocked, ears straining, watching the frozen nakhounds for any sign of movement.
The wind whistled through the streets, rattling window shutters and creaking doors. Many of the houses had been ransacked and left open to the elements. Windows had been smashed and furniture thrown into the streets. A broken chair toppled over and tumbled across the cobbles, making them all jump. A nakhound snarled, but nothing else moved.
No voices shouted, no arrows flew. The wind might have been active around Aquila’s streets, but that was all.
Slowly, Imaino lowered his hand and moved on again, this time with Rider Gudlo and a pair of nakhounds pushing on ahead. The rest of them kept a steady pace, weapons clutched a little more tightly, ears straining a bit harder. Each footfall became carefully placed, each puddle widely skirted. Everyone froze whenever a gust of wind blew, waiting for more noise, waiting to be spotted, waiting for an alarm call to be shouted.
Nothing. There was nothing.
Gudlo reached the end of the road and disappeared around the corner, only to reappear a heartbeat later, beckoning them all forward. Imaino picked up the pace, and they nervously trotted after him, all in a line, nakhounds keeping close, with Rechar grimly bringing up the rear. Jaymes turned sideways at the end of the road, looking back the way they came.
A flash of red caught his eye and his head jerked to a second storey window halfway down the street. His fingers flexed on his bow, but there was nothing there, not even a curtain blowing in the wind.
Maybe he’d imagined it. Jaymes stared at the window for a good long while, until Rechar tapped him on the shoulder, calling him on.
He turned to nod that he was coming and again saw a flash of red in the corner of his eye. He twisted on his toes just as a scarlet scarf tore loose from where it had snagged on a broken shutter. Rippling not unlike a distant dragon in flight, the woollen garment danced up and down on the wind before finally settling in the middle of the street. Bumble growled, taking a step towards it, but Jaymes hushed her and called her to heel.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he relaxed his grip on his bow and finally followed the others around the corner into the next street. One down, five more to go. Jaymes hoped his heart could take the suspense. A gust of wind rattled down the mountain, making the houses creak and groan. A shiver ran down his spine, but he shook it off as he eyed the windows on the opposite side of the street and jogged after the others. He’d come too far to be left behind now.
Rechar frowned at him as he rejoined the back of the group, but Jaymes just caught Lieutenant Imaino’s eye and nodded that all was well. Or as well as it could be for fourteen men and six nakhounds sneaking through an enemy-held town that may or may not be deserted. A low whistle sounded and Gudlo waved from the far end of the street.
Two down, four to go. Jaymes rolled his shoulders to ease some of the tension and kept moving.
* * *
IT BEGAN RAINING the moment Mouse emerged from the ragged cave mouth. He tried not to take it as a sign. The muddy ground beneath his bare feet felt soft and unsteady after so long walking around on rocks, but Mouse didn’t care. He walked into the rain and tipped back his head. The sky. Grey and shrouded by spindly pine branches, but unmistakably there.
He’d missed the sky.
“Fresh air,” Silveo sighed beside him. “Caves and tunnels have their uses, I must admit, but Maegla, it’s good to be back outside.”
Mouse smiled, his heavy mood lifting a little, and he turned to face his friends. Silveo, tall, skinny and steadfast; Haelle, smiling despite everything she’d been through; Greig, remarkably whole and healthy all things considered. Beyond them, Nightriver hung back in the shadows of the cave, Thunder and Vehro sheltering alongside him. All so different, all so vital. He was glad they were with him.
“So what now?” Haelle asked, resting against a tree to take the weight off her crutches for a moment.
“Now…” Mouse said, turning to look at the trees surrounding them, his skin prickling with the newfound perception that came from his deeper bond with Nightriver. “We head that way.” He nodded down the hill to where the glimmer of the great lake was just visible. The cave had let them out into the flooded valley that fed the river that flowed beneath Aquila’s famous bridge. Glancing to the right, he could just make out the mountain spurs through the pine branches, which was all that separated them from seeing the citadel. They were so close to home.
“Is that the lake?” Greig suddenly noticed what was right in front of them. “Blessed Maegla, I never knew I would miss the place. Nice to see it without snow.”
Chuckling their agreement, Mouse’s friends made their way down the hill towards the water. Mouse let them go, pausing to look back at Nightriver and the miryhls.
“Go on, my Mouse,” Nightriver murmured inside his head. “We will do well enough here awhile – and your friends are about to have need of you. Ah. They already do…”
Nightriver’s amused thoughts trailed away, just as a shout of “Halt!” sounded through the trees.
Eyes wide, Mouse leapt over a clump of dead bracken and ran after his friends, skidding to a halt moments later as an arrow point was aimed at his chest. Mouse held up his hands, staring at the empty hoods of the five figures in front of them.
“State your names and business on this mountain,” a stern voice ordered.
Mouse relaxed as Silveo lowered his hands and smiled. “Hullo, Captain Hylan. It’s good to see you again.”
The tallest of the figures shook off his hood and waved for the archers to lower their bows. “Student… Silveo, is it?” Hylan said, eyeing the four companions through narrowed eyes. His eyes lingered on Haelle’s missing leg for a moment. “I remember you, all of you, working in the infirmary. You’re some of Myran’s students.”
“Aye, sir,” Silveo agreed. “We are, and were all with the healers when the citadel fell.”
“Gods!” Hylan wasn’t the only one to huff out a harsh exclamation, no doubt remembering that last desperate day and the scramble to escape. “You’ve been here all this time?”
“Aye.” Mouse stepped forward, ready to move things along now that he realised what was happening. “We’ve been waiting for you to return. Welcome home, sir. Aquila has missed you.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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