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~ Previous Chapter ~
Nice and early this morning. Getting in before I go off in search of more standing stones – which I hope won’t be blocked by frisky giant cows this time! (They had calves, there was nothing to hide behind, some were friendly, others were… not. Wasn’t worth the risk.)
Anyway… Onto the important things, with one important question:
Where is Stirla leading them?
“THIS IS NOT what I expected.”
Mhysra looked up from watching the heels of the person in front, having been following blindly while thinking over her farewell to Cumulo that morning. Still sulking, he’d ignored her until she had to leave, then engulfed her under one wing before shoving her away. Silly bird.
Shaking her head, she shifted the heavy pack on her shoulders and trudged along the uneven tunnel. It was wide enough for four people to walk abreast, though they marched in pairs, the way winding up and down and side to side, without any clue as to where it was heading. Lieutenant Stirla liked being secretive.
“Are you listening?”
Mhysra blinked at Corin beside her. “Sorry. Thinking.”
“We could tell,” Silveo said, turning to walk backwards, his heels no longer available for Mhysra to follow. “It looked painful.” He winked. “What did you expect, Corin?”
“To fly,” she said, which considering the remoteness of Aquila made sense.
“Even without the miryhls?” Jaymes asked, walking beside Silveo, his red hair looking purple in the lamp light. The small, rough cut crystals emitted a strong blue glow for almost twenty strides and Mhysra had never seen their like before. They flickered into life when someone approached and pulsed in a slow, steady rhythm until the last person passed, then faded into darkness again. Dragon-made, Lieutenant Fleik said. A gift on the founding of Aquila.
“Gods, can you imagine us leaving on miryhls?” Silveo chuckled. “A quarter would fall off before we got two bells out.” He shook his head, silvery hair glowing blue. “You’d all be fine, no doubt, but I assure you I am not ready to die yet.”
“Maybe you should practise more,” Mhysra teased.
“I will when you start getting top marks in arithmetic,” Silveo challenged, ducking as his head brushed the ceiling.
“That’s asking for a miracle,” Dhori murmured from behind, his grey eyes an eerie violet in the glow.
“So is Silveo flying long distance,” Jaymes quipped, sidestepping his friend’s arm punch.
“Children, please,” Corin scolded, and tripped on a loose stone. “This place is unsafe.”
“We’re in the Riders,” Mhysra said. “Why should we be safe?”
“Yes, acclimatisation with danger is of vital importance.” Silveo shrugged at their raised eyebrows. “It is.”
“Anyway,” Corin said, trying to regain control of the conversation. “I expected us to go somewhere by skyship, not end up in a tunnel.”
“Why not?” Dhori asked. “The mountain is riddled with passages. We go down into the caverns every day to bathe.”
“But still,” Corin protested. “Do we know where this tunnel is leading? And aside from the caverns have any of you ever gone inside the mountain?”
“No.” Mhysra wrinkled her nose, shivering in the steady draft that grew cooler the deeper they went. “But there’s probably a good reason for that.”
“Which we’re about to find out. Hopefully. Soon.” Derrain had been trudging quietly alongside Dhori and was behaving far from his usual self. His dark skin looked waxy and he was clearly sweating.
“Are you all right, Derry?” Mhysra asked.
He took a shuddering breath and dragged up a smile. “Fine.”
“He’ll be all right,” Dhori assured her, and she frowned. Derrain was her best friend; if he needed looking after it was her job. She hadn’t known he was unnerved by small spaces. He was fine in the caverns.
She looked at Derrain again, but he was too busy watching where he was going to meet her eyes. “We’ll be out soon,” she murmured.
He nodded tightly without looking up. Since none of them knew where they were going, there was no possible way she could have known such a thing for sure.
“He’ll be all right,” Dhori repeated firmly. It was strangely comforting.
“Good,” she murmured, facing forwards again. Corin and Silveo were still bickering about why they were walking through the mountain. She rolled her eyes and shared a rueful glance with Jaymes. It was never easy being the quiet friend to talkative people.
Dripping water sounded up ahead, loud enough to be heard over forty-odd pairs of feet, as the tunnel curved down and around to the left. Derrain groaned and Dhori whispered to him. Mhysra couldn’t make out the words, but his voice was soothing, matching the tread of feet, the pulse of the lanterns and the splash of water as the path sloped steeply downwards.
“I hope we don’t have to climb out of here,” Corin grumbled, and Derrain cursed.
“Careful, students!” Sergeant Loyek called from somewhere up front.
“Watch your step!” Lieutenant Stirla passed on from the middle.
At the back of the group, Sergeant Rees grumbled something that was too far away to be decipherable. Which suited Mhysra just fine. Her brief smile vanished when she put her foot in a puddle. Her yelp was drowned out by a shriek further forward, followed by more shouts and yips to the rear.
“That’s cold!” Corin squeaked on finding a puddle of her own.
“Better watch your step then,” Stirla chuckled, keeping Mouse company a short way ahead. “We did warn you.”
“He didn’t say anything about freezing cold water, though,” Corin grumbled.
Mhysra hummed consolingly, grimacing as her boot squelched with every other step.
Other tunnels branched off their route, but they stayed on the main path, skirting a subterranean lake, before their way began to climb again. It was just as steep and tiring as Corin had feared, and soon no one had any breath left to talk. Except Dhori, who maintained a soothing murmur for Derrain’s benefit. The higher they climbed, the warmer the breeze became and stronger too, until it was almost as fresh in the tunnels as a walk in the citadel. Derrain’s breathing evened out and, as the tunnel flattened, high spirits returned. Corin swapped places with Jaymes so she and Silveo could bicker more comfortably.
“A perfect match,” the redhead chuckled. Since Silveo was about a foot taller than Corin and pale everywhere she was dark, they couldn’t have looked more different. But they were happy in their arguing, making Mhysra smile.
“Just so long as they don’t unite against the rest of us.”
“Gods save us,” Jaymes groaned.
Then there was light up ahead, natural light, shining from a westward sun with the warmth of mid-afternoon. But Mhysra only managed a brief upward glance before her attention was wholly distracted. Even Derrain, rushing past to breathe in great gulps of unconfined air, registered only dimly. Stopping at the mouth of the tunnel, Mhysra stared.
Flanked by two high, steep and uncompromising cliffs, the valley opened out before her, comprised of long, uneven terraces stepping jaggedly down to the edge of the Cloud Sea. Green and grey and white. Bullwings, sheep and doelyns grazed in high paddocks, nestled on narrow ledges around the cliff face, while small huts and hideaways were carved from the rocks. Crops flourished along the terraces and fruit trees bordered some edges.
A farm. Aquila had its own farm. Tucked half a mountain away from the citadel. Secret and perfect. Dhori and Jaymes stood by her shoulders and she grinned at them.
“A farm?” Mouse questioned, while Lieutenant Stirla counted heads to make sure no one had been lost along the way. “They brought us to a farm for Midsummer break?”
“Well, we can’t have you getting out of shape, can we?” Lieutenant Fleik said, his smile wicked.
Mouse and Jaymes groaned, as only farm boys who had thought themselves freed from the chores of childhood could.
“I can’t wait.” Mhysra laughed, loving the chance to work in the green again after so long in cities and citadels.
“That’s because you’re weird,” Corin said, looking around with the horror of a city girl.
Chuckling, Lieutenant Stirla shooed them away from the tunnel and into the warm sunshine. “She’s not the only one, Corin. I’m looking forward to this too.”
“That’s because you’re cruel.”
He grinned, just as wickedly as Fleik had. “But I’m the nice lieutenant, remember?”
“Gods save us,” the students muttered as one.
Stirla laughed, shaking his head pityingly. “Too late for that, my lambs. Far, far too late. You’re in my clutches now. Ah, what fun awaits.” He clapped his hands, making Mouse and Corin jump. “Come on, tents to set up, food to prepare. Wouldn’t want to sleep in the open tonight, would we? It might rain.” Chortling, he strode off, leaving them staring uneasily after him. “Merry Midsummer and welcome to Buteo, everyone!”
“He’s enjoying himself far too much,” Derrain said.
The others nodded, following after Stirla to begin setting up their tents. Knowing their run of recent luck, it would rain if they didn’t. Merry Midsummer, indeed.
~ Next Chapter ~
Thanks for reading!
~ Previous Chapter ~
Back again, and this time I’ve brought along a familiar character or two to help things along.
This is my kind of end of year exam!
Aquila in Summer
21st Sun Month, 787 CE
ALL WAS QUIET as Lady Mhysra Kilpapan, Wingborn and first-year Rift Rider student, crept down the bank. Around her, evergreen trees stood in silence, blocking out all but the strongest light. They marched up the mountainside in haphazard style, over all terrain – steep, shallow, rocky. Nothing stopped them from growing or shedding a pungent carpet of needles.
Mhysra was taking advantage of that carpet now to keep her footfalls quiet as she slithered from tree to tree. The woods might look and sound empty, but she knew better. They were out there. Waiting. Watching. Ready to take her captive.
Crouching behind some thick bracken, she edged sideways, senses alert. The bank was steep, but nothing that she couldn’t handle as she slipped down it, cursing the pebble avalanche rattling in her wake. Flattening herself against the nearest pine, she waited.
A branch snapped. The entire wood seemed to hold its breath and Mhysra hid behind a stand of ferns. They were over six feet tall but she didn’t dare crawl in amongst them: the slightest movement would give her away.
“See anything?” a voice muttered from the top of the bank.
“No. Could be a deer.”
The first person snorted. “How many deer have you seen up here?”
“I saw two herds last year,” the other retorted, sounding young and sulky, but then he was only a second-year. “These woods are littered with deer tracks. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?”
“Next you’ll be warning me about bears and wolves,” the first student mocked. “Let’s move on. There’s nothing here and I want to bag myself a couple of firsties.”
“Still sore over your capture last year?” his companion chuckled.
“As if you weren’t getting caught right beside me.”
Mhysra stayed in her crouch as the sounds of a tussle reached her, before the second-years continued in a more dignified manner. Even when they were out of hearing, she remained still, waiting for her heart to calm. Under the thunder of her pulse was a tingle of exhilaration. She was still in play, still in the forest, evading her hunters. This wasn’t so hard.
Grinning, she eased around the ferns and continued. She still couldn’t believe she’d almost completed her first year at Aquila, training school and home of the Rift Riders. That was why she was running around the mountainside, dodging other students. Because rather than sit the pupils down for dull examinations, Aquila preferred to assess their progress in more practical ways. Thus the hunt.
With most of the first-years still learning how to fly, not to mention handle their weapons, their role in the hunt was simple: prey. They were taken high into the valley above the citadel, where an enormous lake was surrounded by a thick pine forest, and turned loose. Two bells later the second-years were released to pursue them. The goal for the first-years was to reach the end of the valley without getting caught. The second-years’ task was to capture as many firsties as possible. It was up to each individual whether they worked solo, in pairs or teams.
In order to monitor everyone’s progress, and ensure that there was no foul play, instructors, officers, attendants, servants, tutors and off-duty Riders were scattered through the forest. Even ordinary folk from the town came up to keep watch. It was an annual event.
And the hunt was just the start.
The sun blazed hotly down as Mhysra reached the bottom of the ridge and the canopy overhead thinned. Here the undergrowth was littered with scrub, gorse and the occasional birch sapling. It made hiding easier, but each step was more perilous. With silence now impossible, she pushed on regardless. The end of the valley was in sight and a flock of miryhls waited beyond the finish line. They looked bored and irritated: their day had been nothing but dull so far.
Determined that would soon change, Mhysra sought out her Wingborn amongst the giant eagles and sighed with relief. Cumulo was close, his head raised, looking for her, knowing she would come. A group of Riders laughed and played cards in the shade while they waited for the first-years to arrive and claim their mounts. They also ensured that the birds remained under cover, away from the burning sun, while keeping away the worst of the midges. Swearing under her breath, Mhysra waved the flies away from her face and wished she’d stayed away from the water a little while longer too.
Fast approaching footsteps made her freeze. She darted her head around and threw herself into the gorse bushes, stifling yelps as the prickly branches seized her with glee. It was as good a hiding place as any since surely there weren’t two people on this mountain foolish enough to jump into gorse bushes.
Wriggling down to the ground and welcoming the respite from the midges, Mhysra crawled on her elbows until she could see the miryhl enclosure and watch the commotion.
A student – slender and red-haired – was sprinting as though a pack of pyreflies was after him. It was Jaymes, Mhysra’s regular sparring partner. His russet hair was dark with sweat, his shirt clung to his back and he was panting hard. Mhysra silently urged him on as four second-years broke from the woods, whooping at the chase.
One of them paused long enough to draw his bow, using a blunt arrow marked with paint. They didn’t fly very far, or very well, but Mhysra had already seen two students taken out by them. The second-year loosed, but Jaymes started running in lunges from side to side and avoided it with ease. The other boys fumbled at their packs and pulled out little cloth bundles, lobbing them towards the fleeing figure. Only a stumble saved Jaymes from the first, which burst in a shower of red dye, while the second missed altogether.
The drowsy miryhls looked up as the Riders gathered by the finish line, cheering the students on – some for the hunters, some for the prey. At Jaymes’ approach they unlatched the rope, while the second-years cursed and threw more bombs.
Jaymes lurched on, stumbling, one hand pressed to his side. The end was in sight. Less than six feet from the line a bumble sailed over his shoulder. It struck a Rider, who rolled his eyes good naturedly and caught Jaymes as he tripped into safety.
The Riders slapped him on the back and offered him water, while the second-years begrudgingly congratulated him before trudging back into the woods. No traps were allowed within fifty feet of the enclosure, in order to give the first-years a fighting chance. Mhysra estimated that she was just about within that distance. Still, it would be better to wait for the second-years to leave. No point making life difficult for herself.
With the hunters gone and Jaymes recovering, Mhysra wriggled out of hiding. Sneaking around a copse of silver birches, she debated whether to sprint for it or continue creeping and hope she didn’t alert anyone.
A distant crashing in the forest startled her and she sprang forward.
“Here comes another one,” a Rider chuckled.
“And more,” another agreed. “It’s all go now.”
The crashing behind grew louder and closer, but Mhysra didn’t dare look. The ground ahead was covered in clumps of grass, rocks, tree roots and shrubs. Moving quickly over it and keeping her feet was tricky.
Something whistled over her shoulder and she threw herself to one side as the bundle struck a rock, exploding in a burst of red dye. Rolling over her shoulder, she came easily back to her feet and ran on, checking for signs that she’d been hit. Her clothes were clean, or as clean as they could be after a day crawling through the forest.
“Duck!” a familiar voice yelled, and she bent down as a painted arrow bobbled overhead.
Using a hand to push herself upright again, she shook the sweat from her eyes as the cheering Riders opened the enclosure. She stumbled over a loose pocket of ground and swore. Another bundle flew over her head and yet another landed off to her right.
Each stride sent a jolt up her left calf, but she hobbled on, yelping as a strong hand seized her arm. It threw her across the line and she landed with an undignified thud. Her saviour thumped down beside her, chuckling as a bundle hit Mhysra’s knee and showered them both in red dye.
“Too late,” her rescuer panted, rolling onto his back. “You all right?”
Sitting up, Mhysra flexed her ankle and winced. “Just about,” she said, and smiled. “Thanks for the help, Derry. Appreciate it.”
Derrain fra Canlen, her broad-shouldered, good-natured, best friend grinned. “You were so close. Seemed a shame to let you lose.”
“Don’t get too comfy,” a Rider warned, offering them a drink. “Fun’s not over yet.”
Groaning, they accepted the water and crawled over to join Jaymes. He smiled weakly in welcome. “Did you two work together?”
Emptying the remains of his canteen over his head, Derrain shook himself like a dog. “No chance. I lost sight of her around midmorning. She moved too fast for me. I was with Mouse and Haelle. Haelle tripped an arrow trap around noon, while Mouse ran smack into a second-year just after. His leg was starting to play up, so he wouldn’t have stuck it much longer anyway. I’ve been running since.” He looked at Mhysra and raised his eyebrows. “What happened to Corin and Greig?”
She sipped from her canteen, shaking her head. “Corin got hit by an arrow, tried to keep going and ended up shouting at Lieutenant Stirla. Greig was so busy joining in that he missed a net dropping on him. I only escaped because I fell down a gully.” She pushed up her right sleeve and showed them the graze running the length of her forearm.
They hissed in sympathy and one of the Riders went to find something to clean it with.
“How about you?” she asked Jaymes.
“I was with Silveo,” he said, to no one’s surprise. The two North Point lads were born in the same village and had been inseparable ever since, even if Silveo was intensely studious while Jaymes was more active. The only time they didn’t pair up was when the instructors and teachers separated them. “He grew bored around midmorning and started cataloguing the different species of fern. Last I saw of him he was smearing his shirt with red dye and talking to Captain Fredkhen about gorse.”
They chuckled tiredly, while Rider Theryn arrived to patch up the worst of their scrapes and bruises.
“Has Dhori been through yet?” Mhysra asked him as he washed her graze.
Theryn grinned. “First in and skipped off before the third-years even left the eyries.”
“I don’t know why he even bothers pretending to be one of us,” Derrain grumbled. “I could have sworn he’d done all this before.”
“And then some,” the Rider agreed. “If he wasn’t so young, I’d think him a captain.”
The students thought about it, then Jaymes shrugged. “At least he’s on our side.”
“True,” Theryn chuckled, with a last swipe over Mhysra’s arm. “All done. You can go.”
Though it was tempting to remain beside the lake, Mhysra’s day was only half done. “Come on,” she said to the boys, batting away a cloud of midges. “Time to make the third-years work.”
The amused Riders wished them luck and returned to their card game.
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Thanks for reading.