This is a difficult chapter to split, so like a true evil-author have a totally unnecessary cliffhanger.
THEY SPENT THE next two days exploring every inch of Aquila they were permitted to enter. The western citadel was tucked up hard against the side of the mountain and piled upon itself. The great tower loomed high over it, but beneath it the citadel climbed four storeys and more as it snuggled into the crook of the valley. Dormitories took up the top two floors, providing space for students on one side, Riders on the other. Beneath them was the dining hall and the grand Maegla’s Hall, used for ceremonies and important moments in the citadel’s history. That whole part of Aquila had been almost completely destroyed in the recent war, but determination and a lot of effort had rebuilt it better than ever.
The infirmary sprawled along the curve of the lake, close to the eyries and the officers’ quarters, with the water on one side and green gardens on the other. There was a lot more open space to be found than Orla expected. The building was all weathered limestone, but every level seemed to have its own courtyards and gardens, the walkways often left open on the window side to let in light and air. It softened Aquila’s imposing edge and made it more accessible to the otherwise nervous students.
The eastern half of the citadel was all business. Practice halls, training courtyards, school rooms, libraries, if the west side was for living, the east was for work. Built lower and with far more space to sprawl, it crawl up the softer valley edge and over the ridge onto the far side. Orla and her friends explored the entire length, right up to the Heights, which had once been an outpost of legend. Now it housed many of the townsfolk whose homes had been destroyed in the war. The open ground between the wall and the forest had become a garden, the bailey a farm yard. Folk greeted them cheerfully enough, but it wasn’t quite what any of the students had expected when retracing the footsteps of war and glory.
Back by the lake, they walked the length and breadth of the shores, from the rocky spurs that separated it from the much larger upper valley, to the tumbled mess of rocks and masonry that had once been Aquila’s fabled bridge and eyries. The ruins had blocked the mighty river, causing the waters to flood much of what had once been Aquila’s lower levels. The dark lake was peaceful now, the roaring falls broken into a hundred little streams, each finding their own way over the drop.
“I bet you could walk the length of the falls and not even get your feet wet,” Caelo said, studying the broken bits of rock and debris poking up between the rushing waters.
“Probably,” Taryn said, shrugging. “But why would you want to?”
In full agreement with her friend, Orla didn’t pay much attention to the argument that followed. She was too focused on the dark depths of the lake. There was something in there, she was certain of it. Not only were there frequent splashes, but every so often bubbles would pop along the shore where they walked, almost as if something below the surface was following their progress.
“Go on, I dare you.”
Orla raised her head at those immortal words, frowning over her shoulder at where Caelo had her arms folded across her chest, smirking at Vhen.
“Don’t do it,” Keiva pleaded. “It’s too dangerous. What if you fall?”
“Rhiddyl will catch him,” Caelo assured them, waving her hand.
Orla looked around to see what Rhiddyl made of this, still uncertain how she felt about the news that one of her fellow students was a dragon. Not that it was a well known fact. Taryn had told Orla, with Rhiddyl’s permission, since she knew the dragon through her brother’s stories. It was clear her Storm Peaks friends knew too, while Caelo seemed to have guessed and shared it with Zett. Not wanting Orla to be the only one left in the dark, Taryn had quietly let her know.
At least now Rhiddyl’s odd silver nails made sense, as did her soft, flyaway hair with its most unnatural lilac colour.
Orla liked her. Rhiddyl was so sweet and endearing, not to mention an excellent guide around Aquila, that it was almost impossible not to. Although Orla wasn’t certain she wouldn’t change her mind once she saw the dragon in her original form. Rhiddyl was tall enough in human shape, making Orla feel exceedingly short indeed whenever they happened to stand near one another. A full-sized dragon would surely be even larger still. Orla was in no rush to see it.
Nor was she likely to now, no matter what Caelo assumed.
“Rhiddyl isn’t here,” Orla said, feeling as though it needed pointing out.
“Go on, you’ll be perfectly – What?” Interrupted, Caelo looked around, frowning at Orla. “What do you mean Rhiddyl isn’t here? She was right…” The redhead spun a full circle, didn’t find what she was looking for and planted her hands on her hips. “Well, that’s rude. Dragons. Never around when you need them.”
“Good!” Tenzi and Keiva said, holding onto one of Vhen’s arms each.
“Maybe now you’ll stay put,” Guto added. “Even if Rhiddyl were here, having been caught by her myself, I don’t recommend it. The fall isn’t worth the flight.”
It was the most Orla had ever heard him say in one go. She blinked. Surely Vhen hadn’t been seriously considering accepting Caelo’s dare. It was Caelo. Orla might not have known the girl long, but she already knew she had no sense.
“What a bunch of chickens.” Caelo tossed her head. “Time me, Zett!”
Before anyone could stop her, the redhead raced out across the falls, hopping from one piece of rubble to the next, wobbling precariously on the edge of the drop.
“Mighty Maegla, preserve us!” Tenzi squeaked, clinging to Vhen’s arm.
Keiva dropped to her knees, hands clasped tightly at her chest. “Oh gods, please don’t let her fall, please don’t let her fall.”
Orla’s heart lurched into her throat as Caelo paused for a moment to assess a larger-than-average gap. Clenching her fists, Orla’s nails bit into her palms as Caelo’s arms flew out to help her balance as the rock she stood on tipped and tilted under her weight.
“In for a copper, in for a crown,” the wild girl laughed and leapt across the gap.
She landed on the next boulder and slipped. Taryn, Zett and Vhen lurched forward as if they could catch her. Tenzi shrieked, Keiva moaned and Orla thought her palms would bleed from the pressure.
“I’m going to get help,” Guto growled and dashed away.
Surely it was too late for that. Caelo was halfway across the falls now, skipping lightly. A rock turned under her ankle and she swore, teetering on one leg, her other waving wildly into empty air.
Arms out, bending this way and that, the girl struggled to regain her balance. A strong gust of wind rippled the lake waters and actually seemed to help her straighten up. She put both feet down and shifted to jump to the next place.
“Bollocks!” The edge of the falls crumbled and Caelo dropped out of sight.
~ Next Chapter ~
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