Are you ready to become Riders?
(Eh, maybe not today. I’ll be over beside the fire, huddling in a blanket, thanks.)
ORLA LAY AWAKE in the darkness, unable to sleep for nerves and the cold. The fire in the small room had gone out long ago; Taryn must have forgotten to bank it again. Shivering, Orla stared at the shadows of the ceiling and tried to remember why she was doing this. Becoming the first Ihran Rift Rider sounded like a very grand thing, but the reality was a long way away and for now she was just a shivering girl sharing a room with someone who hated her in a city that was too far from home.
Someone hammered on the door, making her jump.
“Wake up, wake up, little students,” Captain Stirla called through the wood, with entirely too much cheer. “Training starts today and the weather is perfect.”
Orla sat up and immediately wished she hadn’t as freezing air rushed beneath her blankets. Across the room, Taryn groaned and rolled over.
“You have got to be kidding me,” the other girl muttered, and Orla almost agreed.
Still, sitting and shivering wasn’t going to help anything and her bed was too cold now to return to, so Orla pulled herself together, swung her feet onto the floor and fumbled for the matches. The soft glow of the lantern didn’t add any warmth to the bitterly cold room, but it made her feel a little better. Grateful for the tiny patch of carpet someone had placed beside the bed, she reached for the clothes she’d laid out on the chair the night before.
“Gods, why so bright?” Taryn continued to complain.
Orla had learnt to ignore most of what the girl said. It wasn’t much, but it was almost always a complaint or an insult. She reminded herself that Taryn was a deeply unhappy person and tried not to take any of it personally. She had enough things to be worrying about already without wasting time on her miserable roommate.
Dressing didn’t take long, as Orla was very keen to cover her shivering skin with as many layers as possible. With long stockings beneath her Rider-issued breeches her legs soon warmed up. A woollen shift was a welcome extra layer beneath her uniform shirt, and the jacket, coat and cloak that she pulled on top made her feel almost human again.
By the time she sat down to comb her hair, Taryn had only just sat up, still huddled in her blankets, blinking owlishly at Orla’s busy movements.
“It’s cold,” the other girl grumbled.
“It’s winter,” Orla reminded her, answering like with like.
Taryn scowled, threw off her covers and burst into activity in her own rush to get dressed as quickly as possible.
Orla tugged on her boots and checked the little bag her uncle had advised her to pack. Pens, paper, a scarf, hat and gloves for the walk to the training ground. Satisfied she had everything she went in search of breakfast.
* * *
IT HAD SNOWED during the night, and by the grimness of the sky it was likely to snow again before long as Zett made his way out into the bleak darkness of a Kaskad morning. Sharp rocks bit at his hands as he trailed the other students up the winding slope, climbing high above the ramshackle base to an open space on the mountainside above. It wasn’t flat, but it was perfect for the icy wind to blast them all right in the face.
“Heirayk’s fiery balls,” someone grumbled to Zett’s right. “The Riders’ll be lucky if any of us survive to reach Aquila.”
More grumbles of agreement rippled around the group as they huddled together on the edge of the clearing, no one wanting to be the first to venture out into the open.
In no hurry to expose himself to the wind either, Zett rubbed his hands together, grateful for his thick gloves and coat. The other boys had laughed when Zett had pulled it on that morning, accusing him of wearing a dress to training, but they weren’t laughing now. Zett’s dress coat might be a little worn at the edges, but it was as thick and warm as it had always been. It covered him from neck to ankle, fashionably nipped at the waist, but cut generously enough to allow him to move with ease. He had always loved this coat, but never more so than this morning.
“Faint hearts never won fair miryhls,” a rousing voice cried, and the first of the new students stepped away from the rocks, wading through a snow drift until they discovered firmer ground.
Zett smiled at the boy’s audacity, then blinked as the student turned around. Not a boy, a girl. He shook his head at himself for judging a person on the clothes they wore, for the girl was dressed in a jacket that was scandalously short by Havian standards. Unlike Zett’s, though, there was absolutely no tailoring involved. It hung on the girl’s frame like something she’d borrowed from an older sibling, leaving her legs clad in only the loose breeches that all the students had been given to wear. Zett stared, not because he was shocked by her lack of propriety, but because he couldn’t believe she could wear so little and not turn into a shivering wreck. She must have been freezing.
“You’re cracked, Caelo!” another girl called from the student huddle. “Not even a miryhl’s worth going out there in this.”
“Pah!” The girl in the clearing laughed, kicking up a pile of snow. “This is nothing. Just wait until the ice storms hit, then you’ll be mewing like babes. Come on, where’s your sense of adventure?”
There was a bit of shuffling amongst the group of thirty or so students, but no one else ventured into the open. Zett thought their sense of adventure was likely somewhere near his own – back in the base, bundled up in blankets beside a nice warm fire.
Still, he hadn’t come here to shiver like a starveling wolf. Princess Neryth had given him this opportunity for a reason. Time he embraced it.
Edging his way through the grumbling students, he took a deep breath and stepped away from the shelter of the rocks.
“Heirayk’s fiery balls!” It was his turn to swear as a bitter gust almost knocked him off his feet. Staggering in the snow drift, he hunched his shoulders up to his ears, trying to ignore the snickering from the students he’d left behind.
The girl in the clearing whooped. “That’s the spirit!”
Encouraged, Zett braced himself against the wind and stumbled through to firmer ground. The wind lessened a little and he was able to stand up straight and look the girl in the eye.
She grinned. “I love your coat.”
Shoving his hands deep into the lined pockets, Zett smiled shyly back. “So do I.”
The girl laughed and stuck out her hand. “I’m Caelo, pleased to meet the only other student brave enough to face the weather.”
“Zetlan.” He clasped her wrist in the Western way, giving a firm shake. “Zett.”
“We are going to be very good friends.” Winking, she turned back to the rest of the students huddled amongst the rocks. “Bock-bock-bock.”
“Hey!” someone protested. “Is she calling us chickens?”
“If the feathers fit,” Caelo shouted back. “Boooooock bock-bock bock-bock.”
The taunting did the trick, and slowly, in dribs and drabs, the rest of Etheria’s selection school made their way into the open, with much shrieking and swearing from all involved.
Clustering around Caelo and Zett, they returned to huddling like a forlorn flock of sheep and looked worriedly around.
“They did say to meet here, didn’t they?” a plaintive voice enquired through chattering teeth.
“Yes,” a commanding voice bounced off the rocks. “We did. Although for a while we weren’t sure whether or not you would make it.”
Over the hunched heads of his fellow students, Zett watched five Rift Riders emerge from the far side of the clearing, striding through the snow in glossy boots and thick flying coats. Zett smiled to see that his own coat wasn’t so very different, dress-like or not. “Good morning, students,” the leading Rider spoke above a howling gust of wind. “My name is Clayn, but you can call me lieutenant, sir or great and benevolent master. Welcome to the Etheria selection school. Let’s get to work.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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