What a lovely day to play in the lake…
“YOU BETTER NOT have pissed in this water, Caelo,” Taryn growled as she towed Orla over to where Rhiddyl was patiently treading water with Caelo clinging to her back.
“Why on the Overworld would you think that?” Rhiddyl asked the same question Orla had been thinking.
“Because the water over here is significantly warmer than the rest of the lake,” Taryn said.
Orla had been too busy trying not to drown to notice, but now that Taryn mentioned it the water did feel warmer. Not warm enough to be comfortable, but her toes no longer felt like they were about to fall off. Perhaps it was shallower?
“Don’t be disgusting,” Caelo said. “You’re supposed to be a princess. Anyway it wouldn’t work.” She paused for a thoughtful moment. “Would it?”
“No!” Rhiddyl squealed and dived, leaving Caelo spluttering and cursing at the surface.
The dragon resurfaced cautiously behind Orla, just as Caelo started splashing and flailing at Taryn.
“Look what you did! I could have drowned! Now my heat source is gone. Why are you always ruining everything?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Taryn protested, laughing as she passed Orla over to Rhiddyl and swam hastily backwards. “You were never in any danger of drowning. We’d never be that lucky.”
“You,” Caelo snarled, stopping splashing long enough to point a shivering finger at the princess, “are a thoroughly unpleasant person.”
Floating backwards, Taryn clutched her hands to her chest. “You say the sweetest things!”
Caelo growled and dogpaddled determinedly after her. Taryn was laughing too hard to make an effective retreat and was swiftly caught. Whereupon Caelo scrambled onto the princess’ shoulders and tried to drown her.
Fortunately, Lieutenant Thani intervened before Orla and Rhiddyl had to decide if they wanted to.
“As delightful as this is to witness – why, it’s like watching lambs frolic in spring – can you lovebirds stop flirting for a bit? We have important stuff to do here.”
“Flirting!” Caelo shrieked, utterly outraged. “Can’t you recognise a murder attempt when it whacks you in the face?”
Taryn slicked her hair back and sniffed. “She isn’t my type anyway. Too brassy.”
Caelo’s eyes seemed to glow as she reached for the princess. Lieutenant Thani sighed, planted a hand on both girls’ heads and dunked them under the surface.
Caelo emerged still growling, so down she went again.
Taryn merely looked wounded. “I didn’t do anything,” she complained, and quickly swam away before the lieutenant could duck her a second time.
Bubbles and spit heralded Caelo’s return to the surface and she scowled at the lieutenant.
“Feeling civilised yet?” Thani asked sweetly.
Caelo snarled. “I’m waiting for an appropriate example to follow.”
The lieutenant smiled and patted her on the cheek. “Such a sweet temper. I can’t understand why no one likes you.”
Caelo narrowed her eyes, but a sneeze cut off whatever imprudent thing she intended to say and she sank below the water again.
Chuckling, Lieutenant Thani clapped her hands to draw everyone’s attention. “Now that we’re all pleasantly warmed up -”
“Speak for yourself,” Taryn grumbled, as Caelo rejoined them with a splutter and a cough.
“- time to get to the point of this exercise. See that rock over there?” The students turned to where Lieutenant Honra was waving, some hundred or so paces away. “You have to swim there and back, on my command. Not just almost there, not just within sight of the rock. You have to make contact with your hand. Lieutenant Honra will be watching. Those who fail to hit get disqualified. And don’t think that gets you out of the water any quicker. Everyone stays in until we have a winner.”
A chorus of groans and a few less than polite names were uttered.
Lieutenant Thani smiled as if they’d lavished her with compliments. “Prepare yourselves, students. We’re going to have a race.”
“Oh goodie,” Caelo muttered, while some of the keener swimmers jostled their way to the front of the pack, eager to begin.
“Not so fast,” Thani called. “We won’t be doing this as a group. Why, how ever could Lieutenant Honra prevent everyone from cheating that way? No, we’re doing this in pairs. Winner goes through to the next round. Then the next, and so on. Until we have a winner.”
Teeth beginning to chatter, Orla exchanged horrified glances with her friends. How long would take? There were almost thirty girls in their year group. And they all had to stay in the lake until it was finished.
“She’s trying to k-k-kill us,” Caelo whispered, and the others agreed.
“Everyone understand the rules?” Thani asked, grinning. “Excellent. Then let’s begin. Ateyni, Valona, you’re up first. Get ready, and… go!”
* * *
RHIDDYL WAS EXCITED about racing, although she still wasn’t certain how she would hold herself back so she didn’t beat everyone too easily. When Lieutenant Thani waved her over, she went eagerly, towing Orla after her.
“Can’t swim?” the lieutenant asked the Ihran.
Teeth-chattering, face still white with fear, Orla shook her head.
Unusually Thani took pity and nodded over her shoulder. “There’s a rock just under the water behind me. Sit on that and you’ll be fine.”
Orla sighed with relief as Rhiddyl tugged her over to the rock and helped her get comfortable. “That’s better,” the Ihran said gratefully.
“You’ll still have to find time to learn, mind,” Lieutenant Thani said, her kindness only stretching so far. “Maybe Rhiddyl will teach you?”
Rhiddyl nodded, more than happy to do so.
“You can start now, if you like. You have plenty of time,” Thani continued. “You’ll have to sit this one out again too, Rhiddyl, I’m afraid. Can’t have you beating the others. It would damage their morale.” The woman swam off to break up a squabble developing between the bored and frozen girls waiting to race.
All of Rhiddyl’s happy anticipation turned to rocks in her belly and she sank up to her eyes.
“But what about your morale?” Orla grumbled from her rock. “Why doesn’t anyone ever think of that?”
Warmth brought Rhiddyl back above the surface again and she smiled at her friend, reminded of why she liked Orla so much. “It’s fine. I don’t mind.”
Orla’s raised eyebrows suggested she didn’t believe her. Rhiddyl didn’t believe herself either. She sighed again. “Can I start your swimming lessons another time? Since I’m not wanted here, I might as well explore the lake.”
Orla waved her away. “Take as long as you like. I’m not going anywhere. Have fun and be careful.”
“I always am,” Rhiddyl replied, diving beneath the cool surface before she could be accused of lying again.
She wasn’t a reckless dragon by nature or even particularly impulsive. She always tried to do the right thing. It was just she wasn’t always very good at doing it. Such as last winter, when she’d brought her friends up to the lake to play in the snow and ended up almost drowning the lot of them. The memory of breaking through the ice made her shiver and she sent a pulse of power through her body to warm herself up.
The water crackled around her in response to her lightning and she shot through the sun-dappled depths, revelling in the feeling of being a single century old again. Back home at Storm Heart, where all Clan Skystorm dragons were raised, she and her clutch mates had learnt to swim in the vast lake between the mountains. Old Tskeeik, the massive Seadrake who lived there had enjoyed a good game of hide and seek amongst the waters that had kept them safe when the Cloud Curse covered the Dragonlands too. But the Curse was long gone and the Dragonlands became the Cleansed Lands, allowing the few remaining kin Seadrake to return to the oceans. Except for Tskeeik, who preferred their mountain lake and the sanctuary that had saved them eight centuries before.
Those had been wonderful, innocent days, when Rhiddyl had been just a wingling testing out her powers for the first time. Before she became too powerful to trust and had to be sent away for the good of the Clan.
And here she was again, being sent away because she was too powerful to play with her human friends.
She sighed a stream of bubbles and shot for the surface, wondering if there would ever be a time or place where she could belong.
She arched above the surface, unaware she’d shifted into full dragon form, and leapt into the light, opening her wings to glide above the surface, shimmering in the sun.
* * *
ZETT WAS THOROUGHLY enjoying himself. He’d been one of the first to run into the water, uncomfortable at being half-naked in the open. The other boys hadn’t seemed to mind, but Zett always preferred being fully clothed. So he ran into the water and swiftly forgot his discomfort in the joy of swimming.
He’d always loved to swim. It gave him the same joy as dancing. The weightlessness of his limbs, the ease with which he could power through the water, was a sheer delight. It was also far too cold to stand still or simply tread water, so he swam and dived, rolled and rippled, loving the way the sunlight played beneath the surface.
So much nicer than the last time he’d been in this lake, when he’d thought he and Caelo were going to die. The cold today was nothing compared to the death chill of last time and he frolicked with happy abandon, determined to remove that memory from his mind.
Vhen was less happy, especially when Zett kept swimming circles around him. “You’re going to tire yourself out. What are you, part fish? Is this how people amuse themselves in the uncivilised wilds of Havia?”
Their fellow team mates, Jorgo and Lenel snorted. Kevians. So snooty, thinking their mining wealth made them better than the rest of the Greater West. Their money came from dirt and their homes weren’t much better. Still, Zett was having too much fun to care. He cupped a hand and poured water over Vhen’s head instead.
His Sutheralli friend didn’t shriek or yelp as many would, he glared. Zett could imagine steam rising off him and the other boys cackled.
“Oh, he’s a Sun Priest all right. Better watch your back, Zeze, or you’ll wake up as charcoal tomorrow.”
Vhen snorted water out of his nose and rolled his eyes.
Zett grinned, knowing the Sutheralli wasn’t that annoyed. He was just Vhen.
Lieutenant Cayn finally grew tired of leaving them to freeze and set out a series of challenges. The first involved Zett’s team protecting a rock fifty or so strokes from shore, trying to make sure no other team could climb up and claim it. A simple enough task when the rock was in the middle of a patch of weeds and the majority of the boys were complete cowards.
“Urgh, it’s all slimy!”
“I’m not swimming through that.”
“Argh, my ankle! Something’s got my ankle!”
Zett’s team sat on the rock, rolling their eyes, since they’d had to cross the weed forest themselves and had come through just fine.
Bored of the farce, Zett looked across the lake at where the girls were holding races and smiled sadly to see Rhiddyl swimming on her own. He nudged Vhen with his elbow.
The other boy sighed. “Cast out again. Poor dragon.”
A sharp prickle tickled Zett’s feet where they dangled in the water and he grinned at Vhen. “She’ll be fine,” he said, knowing that no matter how hurt Rhiddyl was at being excluded from their holiday activities, she was still a dragon, with two centuries of power beneath her scales.
Vhen swirled his feet in the water and smiled. “I wonder if she can warm the whole lake.”
“Probably not with us in it,” Zett said. “Unless we want to be cooked.”
Vhen smirked. “You could do with a new hair-do. Your braids are fraying.”
Of course, that had to be the remark that caught their team mates’ attention. The other boys oohed appreciatively and started teasing Zett about his neat habits and sartorial ways.
Scowling at Vhen’s rueful chuckle, he shoved his friend off the rock to the whooping approval of the others.
“Ha! Lover’s tiff. Does that mean you’ve dumped your boyfriend, Zeze? Caelo will be pleased.”
Zett whirled, ready to knock the other boys off too, but someone else beat him to it.
One moment Jorgo was laughing in Zett’s face, the next he was gone. Zett’s eyes met Lenel’s, both wide with confusion, then something slimy wrapped around Zett’s ankle and dragged him backwards too.
His nails skidded across the wet rock as he tried to hold on, but it was no use. He couldn’t stop. So he screamed with his whole heart instead.
“Rhiddyl!” The lake waters closed over his head and he plunged into darkness.
~ Next ~
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