Lessons and dreams.
THE MIRYHLS STAYED until dusk, at which point the lieutenants sent the eagles back to their eyries, much to everyone’s disappointment.
“Can’t they stay until morning?” Tenzi asked, a fellow student and occasional friend to Orla’s group. “We’ll all be good.”
Her plea was echoed by many others, along with even rasher promises, but the lieutenants were unmoved. “You still have lessons tonight,” Dhori reminded them all. “The miryhls have distracted you enough for one day.”
Everyone groaned. While most of the daily lessons were fun in some way – tracking and hunting, building fires, preparing food, even identifying the safely edible plants and fungi amongst the vegetation – the evening ones were always dull.
“Can’t we have a night off, for Maegla’s sake?” someone was unwise enough to whine, unfortunately not just within Orla’s hearing, but in Lieutenant Cayn’s as well.
“Wanting a night off are you, Givellen?” the lieutenant asked with the kind of sympathy that made wise students wary. “Tired of learning your history?”
Alas for the rest of them, Givellen seemed oblivious to the lieutenant’s tone or the way his friends had shuffled away from him. “Honestly, sir? Yes. Why are we still learning about kaz-naghkt? No one’s seen one for five years. They’re dead and gone. We’ve nothing to fear from them anymore.”
“Have we not?” Cayn asked, his voice deceptively soft. He smiled at his fellow lieutenants. “D’you hear that? Seems we can rest easy now, everyone, safe in the knowledge that Givellen here’s been all over the World’s End mountains, removing any trace of our old enemy. I daresay he routed out every last nest and roost, making sure they were all dead and gone. How lucky we are!”
No one laughed. Least of all Givellen, whose mouth gaped like a fish. “But that’s not what I – I didn’t say – I didn’t mean – Sir!”
Cayn narrowed his eyes. “Sounds like you don’t know what you’re talking about, am I right?”
Givellen shook his head numbly, shrugged and finally hung his head. “You’re always right, sir,” he mumbled the lieutenant’s favourite response.
“I am,” Cayn agreed cheerfully. “And until the day you’ve explored every last inch of the Overworld, crawled through the deepest caves and climbed the highest peaks, neither you nor anyone else can definitively say that the kaz-naghkt are gone for good, can they?” He looked at the students, eyebrows raised expectantly.
“No, sir,” they answered.
“We’ve thought them defeated before, but they always came back, didn’t they?”
“So it’s not impossible that they might turn up again, is it?”
“Then I guess we’ll be sitting down tonight and every other night the rest of the lieutenants and I choose to learn about the old enemy, won’t we?”
“Anything else to add, Givellen?” Cayn leant forward, smiling at the lad.
While Givellen might have been a little slow on the uptake earlier, he and the rest of the students had spent enough time with Cayn to know there was only one answer to that question.
The lad licked his lips and kept his head down. “No, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, sir,” the subdued students chorused.
Cayn smiled and spread his arms as if to hug them all. “Then settle down, my lambs. It’s time to begin at the beginning once again.”
Orla joined her friends in a huddle towards the back of the group. Other students might vie for positions close to the fire – or as far away from Cayn as possible – but it wasn’t so very cold. Nor could Cayn be trusted to remain in one spot. The man positively revelled in tormenting the students whenever he could, and was often known for standing behind any who were foolish enough to show they were trying to avoid him. Taking the space between Taryn and Zett, Orla rested her back against a sturdy tree and stifled a yawn as Cayn stalked around the students while the other lieutenants set up an easel with a familiar set of boards.
“Blast and burn Givellen, the loud-mouthed duck-brain,” Caelo grumbled into her handkerchief, pausing in her complaints to sneeze twice. “We were supposed to be learning North Point folklore tonight, until that slack-jaw flapped his daft tongue right back to kaz-naghkt. Again. Because learning about them last night wasn’t enough.”
“Sounds like you know plenty about them,” Cayn’s voice emerged from behind Orla’s tree making them all jump. The smirking lieutenant stepped out of the shadows, rubbing his hands with glee. “Care to take the lesson tonight, Caelo?”
The girl growled, sniffling into her handkerchief, and stood up. “Kind of you to ask, sir. I’d be delighted.” She stormed off before Zett could grab her. Even Cayn looked startled as he chased her towards the rest of the lieutenants.
Seeing her approach, Dhori stepped forward. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked. Silence fell as everyone waited for whatever drama Caelo would cause next. Thanks to her cold it had been a while since her last performance, but perhaps this new start proved she was finally shaking it off. Orla hoped so. As ridiculous as Caelo could often be, Orla didn’t like seeing her as listless as she’d been over recent days.
Coming to a halt directly in front of Dhori, Caelo sneezed and tilted her head back to glare at him. The taller lieutenant also sneezed as he looked down at the stocky student. “Well?”
“I am going to -”
“Sit back down,” Cayn said, finally catching up to her and placing a hand on her shoulder. “A fine joke, Caelo, but get back to your friends. These lessons are serious, not one of your comedy plays.”
Caelo whirled towards the lieutenant, her fiery hair writhing with the angry movement. “Do you think Rift Riders were the only ones who suffered from the kaz-naghkt? Are Riders the only ones who learned about the enemy? Are Riders -”
“Peace, Caelo,” Dhori murmured, resting his hand on her other shoulder. “No one is saying that. But now is not the time. Tonight we’ll learn about the enemy from a Rider perspective. Perhaps tomorrow we can trade stories and survival techniques?”
Caelo eyed him over her shoulder, sniffed and shrugged both lieutenants off with a toss of her hair. “I’d rather learn North Point folklore, as we were promised,” she told them, marching back to her friends.
“Perhaps we’ll find time for both,” Lieutenant Honra said, ever the peacemaker, and calmly drew everyone’s attention to the board, where a picture of a kaz-naghkt shone in the firelight.
Part human, part dragon, the kaz-naghkt looked precisely what it was: lethal.
Orla and her friends paid little heed to it as Caelo stomped back to Zett’s side, sat with a thump and promptly broke into a sneezing fit.
When she was done, Zett handed her a handkerchief. “Feeling better?”
Caelo glared at him.
“Wipe your face, love, you’re all snotty,” her friend advised, making Orla and the others bite their tongues or look away to suppress snickers.
“A pox on all of you,” Caelo grumbled into the handkerchief, and emerged with a rasping cough. “The sooner we leave these accursed trees and return to Aquila, the better.”
“We’ll be home soon,” Rhiddyl promised soothingly. “Half-Year is only a month away. They can’t keep us out here too much longer.”
“Want to bet?” Vhen grumbled.
“Autumn is coming,” Orla pointed out, because it felt relevant.
Rhiddyl shot her a smile and nodded. “I can feel the change in the air. The weather is shifting.”
“Great,” Caelo muttered, blowing her nose. “Rain’s just what we need. Because this trip hasn’t been fun enough already.”
“They’ll take us home when it rains,” Rhiddyl said confidently.
Orla wasn’t the only one to cast the dragon a sceptical look. Rhiddyl was sweet and surprisingly idealistic for someone over two hundred years old. Sweet but completely unrealistic. Even after more than a year of living amongst humans, she continued to think the best of people. Which was pretty miraculous when Cayn was around.
“Rain or no, we should probably start paying attention,” Orla warned, nodding towards the fire at the front, where Honra had handed over teaching duties to Thani, and Cayn was once again out of sight.
The friends sat up, casting wary glances over their shoulders in case the missing lieutenant had snuck up on them again. A sharp yelp on the far side of the gathering indicated they were safe for now, but one could never tell with Cayn. He did enjoy springing out of nowhere and demanding answers to questions no one had asked.
The safest way to guard against such attacks was to pay attention to the lieutenants. Stifling a yawn, Orla propped her cheek on her fist and focused on Thani’s description of kaz-naghkt weaponry and fighting styles. When her eyes grew heavy, she fought off the lure of sleep, even as Caelo started snoring softly, but eventually she too succumbed. The crackle of a footstep in the undergrowth startled her awake, but it was only Rhiddyl draping blankets over her friends.
“Sweet dreams, Orla,” she whispered, covering her heavy limbs with warmth.
“Sweet dreams,” she mumbled, closing her eyes and surrendering to the dark.
* * *
There was nothing sweet about this darkness. It was deep, cold and all encompassing. It wrapped tight around him, weighing him down, dragging him deeper. He was in the lake.
And he was drowning.
It wasn’t just a dream; it was a memory. From the winter, when he and his friends had flown to the lake to play in the snow and he and Caelo had fallen through the ice.
Caelo! Where was Caelo? He had to find her. He had to save her.
He thrashed in the cold, kicking his way into a turn. All was dark, all was heavy. It crushed him, squeezing his burning lungs and gripping his heart.
He sank deeper, unable to move, unable to swim. Unable to save himself. He sank into the darkness.
And heard a voice. Singing. Beautifully clear. It called to him, called him to come down, to join with the dark. To sink.
Zett opened his arms and fell —
Ice cold slapped his face and he woke spluttering, water in his face, his eyes, his mouth. Drowning! He was drowning! Panic stricken, he flailed, hands and feet striking something hard.
The lakebed, the shore. He planted his hands and pushed, lifting free of the shallow water and thrusting back onto his knees. Shaking, he wiped water from his face and squeezed handfuls out of his hair.
Night lay over the lake. Stars burned in the sky. There were no clouds to obscure the glare of the full moon shining down on him. Silver shimmered over everything, turning the colours of daylight to a blue and grey scene. Gilt-edged ripples spread across the water, betraying the breath of the wind. Bats flittered overhead and somewhere in the distance an owl shrieked.
He jumped, twisting to find Caelo behind him. At least he thought it was Caelo, but she was hidden beneath so many blankets she more closely resembled a giant grub.
“Can’t sleep?” she asked, then shifted her blankets to cough against her covered hand, muffling most of the noise.
The wind sighed over the water, shimmering in the moonlight, and Zett pushed to his feet. “I was just admiring the view,” he said, forcing himself to smile, unsure why he lied. Except Caelo had been so sick of late and he didn’t want to worry her. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s cold.”
Caelo cast him a knowing look but thankfully didn’t press any further, and Zett was grateful for the silver-edged darkness that hid the evidence of his unplanned dip. The last thing he wanted was Caelo fussing over him. She wasn’t very good at it.
“Here. You look like you need this more than me. We wouldn’t want you relapsing.” The grub shed its outermost layer and draped a blanket over his shoulders.
Perhaps she was better at fussing than he remembered.
“Thanks, Cae.” She shuffled closer and tucked her arm through his, resting her head against him. “You’re welcome, Zeze,” she snuffled, and they headed back to camp in comfortable silence, dreams and unplanned dips forgotten.
~ Next ~
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