Blurb, cover and link posts to come, but no prologue this time, so let’s crack on.
The Upper Lake, Aquila
15th Fledgling Month, 795 Cloud Era
“SHE’S COMPLETELY CRACKED.”
Princess Nataryn, youngest daughter of the Stratys of Imercian and Rift Rider student, woke beside the lake. Which was not entirely surprising, since the lieutenants had chosen to take the second-year students camping in the valley above Aquila ahead of the new school term. Nor was it surprising to be woken by the scorn of her fellow flurry mates. Taryn and her friends were not popular and the other students rarely missed a chance to remind them of that.
Still, Taryn was surprised upon waking to find herself ankle deep in the lake without any idea of how she’d got there.
“A little early for swimming, student,” Lieutenant Dhori called from the shore, breaking through Taryn’s confusion. She turned to scowl at him. He smiled. “If you’re planning to bathe, might I suggest somewhere a little less public? You’re not really dressed for company.”
Taryn looked down and felt more confused than ever. She was wearing a shirt. Nothing else.
A gust of wind rippled the surface of the lake, making her shiver. Summer or not, the water wasn’t particularly warm and now that she was aware of it, Taryn didn’t feel too comfortable either.
“Is all well?” Dhori asked, as she waded quickly back to shore. She nodded. Not only was the man her commanding officer, he was a close friend to several members of Taryn’s extended family – not to mention an incurable meddler. Even if she had known what was going on, he was the last person she would tell. Dhori couldn’t keep a secret to save his life. Anything Taryn told him would reach her family back in Nimbys before the month was out, and then Lyrai, Mhysra and Stirla would all return worried about her. Taryn was fed up of people worrying about her. For once she wanted someone to feel proud of her.
Crossing her arms over her chest, she avoided Dhori’s eye and hurried back to the tents she was sharing with her friends. The lieutenant didn’t follow, he just sneezed and headed towards the fire where breakfast was being prepared.
It was a short jog up the hill to reach her camping spot, but it wasn’t pleasant. Partly because her damp feet picked up every bit of dirt, decaying pine needle, bark and bug they possibly could, but mostly because she had to pass the tents of everyone else in her year. Snickers and giggles followed her jog, along with a mocking wolf whistle or two. Taryn kept her chin at its haughtiest angle and ignored them as best she could.
At the highest point of the camp, tucked away from everyone else, the cheerful sight of three small tents greeted her. Along with a chorus of coughs and an explosion of sneezes.
Ah, it was so nice to be home.
Lips quirking, Taryn headed for her tent just as Orla emerged. The Ihran was neatly dressed, her bushy hair tamed into a pair of tight braids. No coughs or sneezes for her. She might have been one of the first to succumb to the summer cold sweeping through the camp, but she’d also been the first to shake it off. Three days of sniffling and she was as good as new. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Taryn was one of the few who hadn’t fallen ill at all. Although if she spent any more mornings standing in the lake with only a shirt on that probably wouldn’t last.
The two friends stared at each other at the entrance to their tent, one perfectly put together, scrubbed and ready for the day ahead, the other barely clothed and shivering, with feet covered in mud and forest debris.
Orla raised her eyebrows. “Welcome back.”
That was it. No questions, no sly remarks, no joking insinuations, no mockery. Was it any wonder Orla was Taryn’s favourite friend? Smiling, Orla stepped aside, allowing Taryn to dive into the privacy of their tent with profound relief.
“Was that Taryn I just saw?” Caelo asked loudly. “Sneaking back into camp wearing only a shirt? I wonder where -” The rest of her words were lost in an explosion of sneezes.
Thank goodness. Once Caelo got started on something, she usually didn’t finish until everyone else was begging for mercy. However, the summer cold was hitting Taryn’s boisterous friend particularly hard and making everyone else’s lives just that little bit easier.
“I hope we’re having soup for breakfast.” Zett’s voice was tinged with concern. No doubt the lad was supporting the weary Caelo, ever the best friend.
Taryn finished brushing the worst of the muck off her feet and wriggled into a pair of breeches, while the rest of her friends gathered outside, discussing the various merits of breakfast foods and cold treatments.
Sparing the briefest moment to pull a comb through the tangled thatch of her hair, Taryn made a note to cut it again soon and emerged from the tent. Five faces turned towards her with varying levels of curiosity.
Taryn looked back. Tallest of the bunch, handsome Vhen’s smirk was somewhat undermined by his bloodshot eyes and the handkerchief pressed to his nose. Beside him, the similarly tall Rhiddyl seemed confused by everyone else’s silence. Her pale skin and hair almost glowed in the woodland gloom, quite the contrast to Vhen’s darker colouring. Caelo and Zett were another pair of contrasts. He everything that was cool and calm; she all that was fiery and excitable. At least, they usually were. However, the summer cold was knocking everyone off their stride and these two more than most. While Caelo suffered in anything but silence, Zett fretted quietly over her while fighting his own chest-rattling coughs.
Which left only Orla, who was as healthy as a horsat and calmly surveying the scene. “Shall we head to breakfast?” she asked before anyone could start teasing Taryn.
Rhiddyl wrinkled her nose delicately. “I’m not certain that’s a good idea. Lieutenant Cayn’s cooking.”
The others groaned but stumbled down the hill regardless. Cayn’s idea of cooking was to char everything to a crisp and declare it done, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. But food was food and if they didn’t eat now they might not have another chance until nightfall. So despite their misgivings, the students made their way towards the breakfast fire and prepared to meet their culinary fate.
~ Next Part ~
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