Of family, friends and enemies of the citadel.
“WHAT IN MAEGLA’S name happened to you?” Stirla was the first to break the silence as the three returnees gathered around Taryn’s bed, staring down at her with tragic faces.
Feeling as if she was staring up their noses and hating the vulnerability, Taryn tried to sit up, temporarily forgetting that her right arm was still mostly broken. She gasped in pain, grunting as Mhysra rushed forward and pulled a pillow out from behind her, quickly repositioning it, so that Stirla could tuck his sturdy hands beneath Taryn’s arms and lift, propping her upright like a doll.
It was exceedingly effective, if completely undignified. Taryn grunted, half thanks, half complaint.
Smirking, Lyrai propped his hip on the opposite side of her bed, far too wise to fuss over her. Or perhaps his paralysed arm prevented him from doing so, she silently corrected herself, as Lyrai ran his right hand over the lifeless fingers of his left.
Finding herself in a similarly lopsided state, Taryn finally understood a little of what her brother must feel. He met her eyes with rueful understanding as Orla bustled back into the room with a chair for Mhysra.
Lyrai’s attention shifted to making sure his wife was comfortable, leaving Taryn to Stirla’s assessing stare. The man might have lost one of his eyes in the kaz-naghkt wars, but he was as perceptive as ever, sitting on the end of her bed and cataloguing each of her injuries with a professional gaze.
“How long were we away?”
Since Taryn couldn’t remember what day of the month it was, let along when they had left, it was fortunate he wasn’t talking to her.
Freshly seated, Mhysra brushed a wayward curl out of her eyes with a sigh. “Less than two months. A moon and a half at most.”
Stirla tsked and shook his head. “And look what you did in our absence.” He grabbed the toes of Taryn’s unbroken leg and gave them a playful tweak. “You said you’d look after the place, not wreck it.”
“The citadel still stands, doesn’t it?” Healer Haelle asked, entering the room to check on the patients. “That’s surely an improvement on some of the times you’ve been away.”
The older Riders – three ex, one current – shared a chuckle Taryn couldn’t understand. They’d all been here when Aquila was taken by pirates and kaz-naghkt. Healer Haelle had been trapped on the mountain the entire time, while the other three had travelled the Overworld, searching for help in regaining their lost home. They’d survived siege, invasion and war, not to mention the destruction and rebuilding of the citadel, and now they laughed about it. So many lives had been lost, so much pain had been inflicted – not a single one of them had come through the ordeal unscathed, yet here they were, telling jokes.
Taryn didn’t think she could ever do the same. Maybe time would help, but every time she closed her eyes she could feel the water sweeping her off her feet and throwing her face first into a tree. She could remember… she could remember…
She frowned, trying to remember what came before the trees. Something about the lake, about being in the lake. Something to do with Rhiddyl.
“Are you trying to outdo me in everything?” Lyrai’s amused voice broke through her thoughts, scattering them like pigeons.
She blinked at her brother.
“Not just your dominant hand, but your leg as well,” Lyrai teased, nodding at her bandaged limbs. “I’m flattered that you care enough to imitate, dear sister, but it is possible to take things too far.”
Healer Haelle snorted and picked her way to the side of Taryn’s bed, sliding cool fingers beneath her chin to tilt her head back. While her freshly-returned relatives began sharing stories of Nimbys and Silver Vale and the other members of their family that had been left behind, Taryn stared into Haelle’s blue eyes and obeyed each of the healer’s commands. It was no hardship. Haelle was possibly the most beautiful woman Taryn had ever seen, so at least there were some compensations for being trapped in bed all day.
Eventually, though, the checks were complete and Taryn was yawning, not really in the mood for company.
“Is she all right?” she heard Mhysra ask, full of concern.
“Are well as can be expected,” Haelle assured her gently. “Morri got to her quickly and he’s been working on her personally. He’s almost finished healing her arm, then he’ll finish her leg. She might even be ready to train by the start of the year.”
“Thank Maegla,” Lyrai breathed.
“Thank Nightriver, more like,” Stirla chuckled.
“She’ll be fine,” Haelle said again. “No lasting effects, we don’t think. If we can keep her resting and quiet, she’ll make a full recovery. Morri isn’t worried.”
“Then we won’t be either,” Mhysra ssid firmly, and Taryn could imagine the woman holding Lyrai’s hand, forcing her brother not to worry.
Which was when Taryn realised her eyes were closed. More words were spoken, but they were muffled and distant. Then sleep snuck up and stole her swiftly away.
* * *
VHEN SAT ON his bed and looked around the room he was used to sharing with five others. Except half the beds were empty and Caelo was snoring in hers, the cold she couldn’t shake still taking its toll. Zett sat on the bed next to Vhen’s, idly turning the pages of a book, not absorbing a word unless he could read a lot faster than most.
The bell rang, clanging from the tower, calling everyone to the evening meal. Neither boy moved. Caelo groaned in her sleep, rolled over and pulled her pillow over her head.
Vhen caught Zett’s eye and smiled. “Shall we?”
Zett shut his book and sighed. “Caelo needs to eat.”
“We’ll bring her something back.”
They left the sad emptiness of their room and slouched along the corridors, delaying the moment they left the quiet Rider wing for the more public areas where their fellow students mingled. The closer they got, the slower they walked, until by the time they actually stepped into the main thoroughfare, it had already emptied of the rush of hungry students. Vhen reached the door to the hall first. He paused to square his shoulders, took a deep breath, and with a shared nod of solidarity, he and Zett stepped inside.
Heads turned from every direction. Eyes narrowed. The whispering started.
Feeling Zett beginning to curl in upon himself beside him, Vhen clenched his jaw and summoned up the generations of arrogance that had been bred into him, the latest child in a long line of Sutheralli Sun Priests. He might not share his mother’s beliefs, especially with regards to the divine right of rule, but he was an excellent actor. In truth it didn’t take much effort to summon up a sneer for these petty fools. If they couldn’t tell the difference between an attack and a rescue they didn’t deserve to be saved. And they certainly weren’t worth his or any of his friends’ time or attention.
“Come on,” he urged Zett, stalking over to the board where food, crockery and the all-important desserts had been left for the Riders to serve themselves with. The handful of students standing there scattered at his approach, earning themselves a scowl. “Let’s get something for Caelo then we’ll head to the eyries.” They were always empty at this time of day and the miryhls wouldn’t turn them away.
Zett nodded and followed in silence as they filled up three plates.
“Traitors,” someone hissed, causing Zett’s hand to freeze as he reached for dessert. “They should have been the ones to drown.”
Vhen turned slowly, letting his eyes run along the table behind them until he reached Lenel, a boy he’d once thought almost friendly. Their eyes locked. Vhen didn’t glare, he didn’t sneer, he simply looked. Lenel couldn’t hold his gaze for long and turned his own glare onto his plate, fists clenching on his cutlery. Sitting beside him, Tenzi sent Vhen a mildly apologetic smile, but it faded as Vhen simply looked at her until she looked away too.
When the accusations were being flung and cruel remarks spat, Tenzi’s silence spoke volumes. Once she’d been his friend. She’d started her training right alongside him and Rhiddyl in the selection school of Zvenera in the Storm Peaks. It hadn’t been possible to shut her up in those days. Not that Vhen cared. He didn’t need a host of weak acquaintances who would offer up sad smiles and limp apologies that meant nothing. He had friends, real friends, who he trusted to support him when he truly needed them. Real Riders who risked their lives for each other and would never stand silently by while others wished him dead.
Turning back to the desserts, Vhen picked up two bowls and handed them to Zett. He added a third to the top of the pile, then gathered up three for himself. Quirking an eyebrow at Lenel’s table, daring anyone to comment, he marched out of the hall.
As soon as they stepped into the corridor, a wall of noise rose behind them, just as it always did. He rolled his eyes and saw Zett biting his lip.
“What?” he half-growled, in no mood to be lectured over baiting their idiotic year mates.
Zett shook his head, his rare smile spreading across his face. “You are such a bad influence. Three desserts each, Vhen, really?”
“Two,” Vhen corrected gruffly, a little embarrassed by his petty display. “Two of them are for Caelo.”
“All of them more like,” Zett laughed. “She won’t eat anything else once she catches sight of these. Cinnamon snaps are her favourite.”
“We’d best eat ours on the way then,” Vhen chuckled, and headed back to their room with a bounce in his step.
More next week.
Thanks for reading!