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Misfits of Aquila: Chapter 5, Part 3

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The next update comes with new characters and a new location, I promise, but first, there’s time to meet up with a few old friends.

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Free Fiction, Overworld, Writing

Mountain Blossom: Part 3

overworld-short-stories

This is a free short story featuring characters from the Wingborn series.
For more stories and info about the novels, please head here.

|| Part One || Part Two ||

In which Milli gains a little company. Warning: contains flirting.


SHE MUST HAVE fallen asleep, because a sharp yap made her jump just as a shadow passed over her face. Her head swam as she sat up too swiftly, telling Bumble to be quiet as the nakhound barked. A cool breeze swept over her and she looked up.

A miryhl.

Big, brown, impressive. There was a band of black around the eagle’s neck and two parallel stripes beneath each eye. Despite her upbringing, Milluqua wasn’t ashamed to admit that all miryhls looked alike to her. With two exceptions.

Her sister’s Wingborn, Cumulo. Big, brash, cocky and beloved.

And this one: Atyrn, bonded miryhl of Lieutenant Stirla.

The man himself dismounted and secured his reins so that they didn’t hang around the miryhl’s neck. He murmured something to his eagle before turning to face Milluqua, eyes bright and mischievous.

“The mountain meadows bloom early in Nimbys, I see.” Planting his hands on the rock beside her, he hauled himself up and took her hand, planting a kiss on the back of her glove.

She felt it down to her bones.

“Dodging your duties, Lieutenant?” she teased, looking at his smiling face and wondering how he could seem so fresh and awake when she knew he’d been up before dawn.

Stretching his long legs out alongside hers, he leant back on his hands and chuckled. “How long have you been sleeping up here, pretty flower, dozing in the sun? Ah, to be born to a life of such privilege.”

Though he meant it in jest, Milluqua had to look away, pulling at her violet skirts to neaten them. “I did not realise how much time had passed,” she admitted quietly, feeling ashamed of her idleness.

“I was finishing my patrol,” he explained, smoothing over the moment, “and as Atyrn skimmed over the ridge, what should I spy in the meadow below but the prettiest mountain blossom I ever did see.”

Keeping from rolling her eyes, barely, Milluqua turned back to him. “If you say one word about plucking, I shall be forced to hit you.”

The corner of his mouth curled up in a rueful smile. “Bit much, was it?”

The prettiest mountain blossom I ever did see,” she mimicked in a winsome voice, and he winced.

“You wound me, my lady, how you wound. Here I sit, a poor, lack-witted lieutenant, feeble brain scrambled by your beauty and you mock my words. You mock me. How cruel you are.” He rested a hand over his heart and looked woeful. “Especially,” he continued, pulling something from behind his back, “when I was telling the truth.”

He held out a bunch of mountain bells, each delicate, pale lilac flower smaller than his fingertip. Woven between them were sprays of white cloudlets, tiny cluster-blooms also known as morning kisses.

“How vain my lady is,” Stirla teased, as she took them silently, gazing at the sweetest bouquet she’d ever been given. “As if I would be so clumsy as to call you a mountain blossom. Though, since you mentioned it, I wouldn’t say no to a quick pluck -”

She hit him. What else was a girl of good breeding to do?

“Mind the flowers!” he cried, flinching unnecessarily, since he was so big that a swat from her would be like a fly bouncing off a miryhl’s beak. “It took me ages to gather those.”

Thumping him again, just because she could, Milluqua turned back to admiring her gift. They were unharmed, since she’d used her other hand to assault him, and they smelled fresh and sweet, like the high mountains.

“They’re lovely,” she said, for want of anything better. Stirla always had this effect on her brain. She should avoid him really. Except that he was quite handsome, in a roguish way, especially with that scar on his cheek. And he flirted delightfully.

“Mm, I thought so too,” he murmured, peering over her shoulder. Somehow she didn’t think he meant the flowers, though a glance down reassured her that she was still buttoned up and decent.

“You, sir, are a scoundrel.”

“And you, my lady, wouldn’t have me any other way.”

They smiled at each other. She did so love the way he said my lady, with the faintest hint of possessiveness. As if she was his lady in truth.

Reaching out, he balanced a tiny cloudlet on a callused fingertip. “They look like little stars,” he said softly, his breath teasing her cheek. “Delicate, perfumed. All that’s perfect about the night, brought out to dance beneath the sun.”

Knowing she should move away, that she should stop this, that it was improper to be alone together, sitting so close, meeting in secret, Milluqua closed her eyes and held still. One of his arms was behind her back, the other reaching around her to touch the flowers. His leg was close but not quite touching hers. He was so much taller and broader than she – he made her feel small and surrounded, but protected and safe. It made her chest hurt the way he treated her, like she was something precious. A gift. So much more than the daughter of an earl or a hefty dowry. He made her laugh, and when he wasn’t doing that it was because she was breathless.

Like now.

“Where I come from they’re known as cloudlets. Do you call them that in Nimbys?” His hand moved from the flowers to the patch of skin bared between her glove and the sleeve of her gown. He brushed his thumb over her pulse, once, twice.

She swallowed and nodded, her cheek brushing his.

He teased her heated skin with the whisper of his lips as he moved his mouth to her ear. “But they have another name,” he murmured. “Do you know it?”

She nodded as he breathed against her skin.

“Tell me.”

“Morning kisses,” she said, surprised at her languid, dreamy tone. She’d never sounded like that before. Her eyes fluttered open as he touched her chin, turning her face towards his. He studied her intently with his dark eyes, and for once there was no smile on his lips.

It was she who smiled, her eyes falling shut, drunk on the nearness of him. “We call them morning kisses.”

A puff of air ghosted across her mouth as he chuckled. Then her heart stopped beating, waiting for him to move closer…

Closer…

Ah!

A thump in the back shoved her forwards, banging her nose against the solid wall of his chest, while that firm jaw she had so often admired whacked her on the forehead.

“Heirayk’s balls… of fire,” Stirla cursed, one hand clamping her head to his chest, while the other rubbed his jaw. “Damn dog!”

Utterly unconcerned by his anger, Bumble used Milluqua’s back as a convenient step from which to lick Stirla’s face.

Milluqua giggled. It was all so undignified. She was half-turned towards him, her legs tangled in her skirt, cap askew, face crushed against his chest, with a nakhound balancing on her shoulders. While he was still trying to hold the offending pup off.

“Stupid mutt, get off, get off!” Obviously trying not to swear, Stirla shoved the dog away with one arm and finally succeeded in shifting her. Only then did he let Milluqua go.

She stared up at him, biting her lip, knowing she must look a complete fright. Stirla looked dishevelled too, but he was as unfairly gorgeous as ever. She’d never noticed how perfectly thick and long his eyelashes were until he kept his gaze down, refusing the look at her.

“Sorry,” he apologised gruffly, trying to straighten her cap. He poked a few escaped tendrils back underneath, but Milluqua could have told him it was hopeless.

The reason she didn’t was because she was trying not to laugh. He looked so mortified, but really, she found the whole thing ridiculous. And typical. And probably for the best.

She liked him. Too much. He was everything she’d ever wanted. Yet nothing her father would permit her to marry. Not high born enough, not rich enough, not even a captain in the Riders yet. He had no political ambitions and wasn’t even in trade to better his fortune. The thought was enough to strangle her giggles.

“There,” he muttered, tucking the last of her curls away. “It… umm… doesn’t look as it did, but… well… better, anyway.”

For two pins she would have pulled the cap off and redone it herself, but she couldn’t let her hair down in front of him. Unmarried ladies didn’t do such things. Especially not in front of men they had no business encouraging. It was enough to make a woman tearful.

“Here.” He handed her the bunch of flowers, now sadly squashed and broken. She still thought them more beautiful than the most expensive bouquet she’d ever been given.

“Forgive me,” he muttered. “I trust you are not hurt.”

Staring at the flowers, she shook her head and tried to straighten a crumpled mountain bell. “I’m well.”

“Good,” he sighed, paused, then sighed again. “Good.” Running a hand through his hair, he slid off the rock and headed towards Atyrn. “I’d best go. I apologise for any offence caused, Lady Milluqua.”

She raised her head and realised that he was walking away. He was leaving. After everything. He was going. Just like that. He couldn’t go. She wouldn’t let him.

“Wait!” Floundering against her tangled skirts, and cursing herself for choosing this particular garment with its stupid inserts on today of all days. “Stirla, wait!”

The more she struggled, the more entangled she became, especially as she only had one hand, the other refusing to drop her flowers. “Please!”

A warm hand encircled her ankle and she fell still. “Steady,” he soothed. “It’s all right. Let me.”

He stood in front of her, and in this position, with her on the boulder and he carefully straightening her skirts, taking excessive pains not to touch her more than necessary, they were almost the same height. Actually, if she wanted to be accurate, she was slightly taller than him.

How lovely.

He was being so careful with her, not looking up, expression grim, hands trembling. Part of her wanted to weep because this was her fault. She shouldn’t have encouraged him. Neither of them were stupid; they knew nothing could come of this…

She sat up straight and suddenly felt like smiling. “I shouldn’t have encouraged you,” she said, while he tugged her skirts to make sure the last of her entanglement had been removed.

“I came looking for you, my lady. As always, your behaviour was faultless…”

She ignored him. He was a man and he was being silly. “Neither of us are stupid.”

“… It is I who is to blame. I took advantage of your kindness, I…”

“We both know the ways of the world and we know nothing could ever come of this.”

“… shouldn’t have. I apologise. Please, forgive me, Lady Milluqua. You can’t know how much I honour and esteem you. I hope my actions have not ruined our friendship, for I value it more than anything -”

Since he wasn’t listening, she covered his mouth with her hand. When he finally looked at her, surprised, she smiled. “I value it too. Very much.”

And she kissed him to prove it.

Because she was a woman, and though she could be silly too, she also knew a good thing when it stood in front of her. She might not be able to have him for long, and he might not be able to keep her, but here, in this moment, on this rock, which made them both equal for the first time, anything could happen. Anything was possible. And if the daughter of an earl wanted to kiss a farmer’s son turned captain-in-training, well, no one was here to see.

Except for a dignified miryhl and a brainless puppy.

The latter of which joined in the fun by thumping Milluqua in the back again and shoving her off the rock.

Straight into Stirla’s arms. Which was where she wanted to be anyway, so instead of scolding Bumble she saved her breath. She had a better use for it.

Eventually, when she finally let Stirla go, deciding to rest her head against his chest again, she had the delight of feeling his chuckle rumble against her cheek.

“Well, well,” he murmured, nuzzling her loose curls, since her cap had been completely dislodged this time. “My little mountain blossom decided to -”

There was a light slap and a stifled laugh as she put her hand swiftly over his mouth.

“Don’t make me hit you again.”

His lips curled under her palm and, still holding her with one arm, he peeled her fingers away with the other hand. “You need to find a better way of stopping my mouth.”

Hauling herself up higher against his chest, she draped her arms over his broad shoulders and raised her eyebrows. “Do I indeed? I hope you have some suggestions.”

Threading his fingers through her curls, he pulled her closer and smiled against her lips. “Indeed I do. A recent discovery this, but I think you’ll find it effective.”

Unsurprisingly, she did.


Thanks for reading!

Free Fiction, Overworld, Writing

Mountain Blossom: Part 2

overworld-short-stories

This is a free short story featuring characters from the Wingborn series.
For more stories and info about the novels, please head here.

|| Part One ||

Milli and Bumble make the most of the fine spring morning.


 

THE DAY WAS beautifully fair, and Milluqua thought there might even have been a hint of summer in the air. From the heights of the noble district, she looked down over Nimbys, with its honey-gold buildings and hidden shadows. Contrasted with the granite grey and bronze of the mountainside, only just sprouting with the first hints of green, Nimbys shone like a jewel. And beyond, the world was all white and blue. The Cloud Sea was luminous today and it hurt her tired eyes to look at it.

Determined only to think of pleasant, wide awake things, Milluqua turned away from the city and headed deeper up the valley. Bumble strained at the lead, eager to go wherever they were going, as long as they went fast. Faster. Or over there. No, here. Here. Wait! Smells! It was a jerky, halting walk as Milluqua passed the dozing mansions of the rich and the noble, until they finally stepped away from the cobbles and onto the dirt path leading to the high meadows.

Once she reached the narrow woodland, filled with oak and birches designed to prevent the pastureland beyond from offending the eyes of the nobles, Milluqua untied Bumble’s lead and let her loose. Yipping with glee, the pup galloped off, nose to the ground, searching for squirrels and voles. Despite her pristine appearance, there was nothing more attractive to Bumble than mud. Milluqua had lost count of the times she’d scolded the pup for wallowing in puddles or rolling in fox sprays.

Even with the constant distraction of the pup – rooting through the undergrowth, growling at nettle patches, chasing squirrels up trees, eating doelyn droppings – Milluqua took time to enjoy the beauty of the woods. Buds sprinkled the oak branches, while catkins already draped the birches and showered the air with yellow pollen. Insects buzzed in the undergrowth and birds whistled in the trees. She glimpsed a nuthatch and had the pleasure of seeing it hop down a tree right in front of her.

Perfectly content with her lot, Milluqua called Bumble to heel as they reached the edge of the trees. Surprisingly obedient for so boisterous a pup, the nakhound trotted up, wafting her smell before her.

“Urgh, it’ll be the mews and a bath for you, my girl, before you come anywhere near my room again.”

Please with herself, Bumble huffed, her pink and black tongue bobbing as she panted.

“Glad we understand one another.” Smiling despite herself, Milluqua walked out of the shadowy wood into the bright sunshine. The gentle slope of the pastures rolled out in front of her, dotted here and there with horsats and doelyn, placidly grazing with only the occasional flick of a tail revealing any possible discontent.

Bumble lifted her head and pricked her ears at the nearest horsat, but a murmured “leave” was enough to keep her at Milluqua’s heels. Which was a relief, since it would be undignified to run headlong through the pastures, hollering at the top of her voice. It had happened once or twice, but since Bumble had attempted to nip a bullwing and earned a hoof in the ribs for her trouble, she’d lost her taste for chasing big animals. Squirrels, rabbits and voles were more her kind of thing these days.

As Milluqua and Bumble hiked up the increasing slope, she waved at a young messenger fetching in his horsat, looking exceedingly smart in his uniform.

“Morning, milady.”

She smiled back. “Going far?”

“Off to Tipfirth,” he replied, grinning at the chance to fly over a thousand leagues to the end of Imercian. She hoped his message was worth it.

“Fast winds and clear skies,” she wished him, but the boy had already caught his mount and was returning to the stables, eager to be away. She watched him go, wondering just what the appeal of flying was. Not even in her childhood at Wrentheria, the greatest feather-winged breeders in the Overworld, had she understood why so many people risked so much to become airborne.

“Give me solid ground any day of the moon,” she told Bumble, who, unsurprisingly, wasn’t listening.

A horsat snorted nearby, the source of Bumble’s distraction. It cropped another mouthful of grass, then raised its head, staring at Milluqua and the dog. One of its big, bat-like ears pointed towards them, while the other swivelled warily behind. It twitched, leathery wings half-opening before resettling on its back. It was a sweet looking chestnut, but Milluqua didn’t like the way it watched Bumble, so she patted her thigh for the dog’s attention and hurried along.

At the top of the field, a second pasture flattened out. Not so big as the first, but not so awkward either, even if it was littered with rocks. Here was the bullwing herds spent each night before being taken to work at the docks or in the quarries during the day. Big, muscular and stupid, the females were docile and easily led, but the males could be a handful. Especially the bulls. Pausing at the fence, Milluqua scanned the grassland. Seeing only females and calves grazing, she opened the gate and carried on.

Her ultimate goal was the scrubland above the pastures, where the grass was fit only for sheep and goats. The ground was covered with rough grass punctuated by tenacious thorn trees and gorse clumps, the perfect playground for young rabbits to scamper about. It was Bumble’s favourite place to visit, and though it took some effort to reach, once they arrived Milluqua need do nothing more than sit back and watch while the pup wore herself out.

There was nothing in sight when Milluqua climbed a small slope to her favourite rock, but Bumble yipped and ran off anyway, soon sending rabbits fleeing down the mountainside. A shower of pebbles and dust rattled in the nakhound’s wake, but otherwise the spot was peaceful, undisturbed and beautiful.

Milluqua took off her pelisse, spread it over a nice, flat boulder and lay on her back, staring up at the sky. Wispy cirrus clouds were all there was to be seen and she folded her hands across her midriff as she watched them drift slowly apart, fading into nothingness under the warm sun.


|| Part Three ||

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