As they left the long tunnel of the cave mouth, the king and Vellery talking animatedly to one another, Nanye took to the air, muscles rippling as his lithe body sprang skyward, bright scales flashing myriad colours in the last rays of the dying sun. Skade watched him for a few moments, imagining the wind whipping past her ears, and the powerful undulation of Nanye's great wings as they soared higher and higher towards the heavens. Suddenly, the king's voice brought her attention crashing back to earth.
"You are aware of the situation involving the rebels, I understand?" he asked.
Skade nodded, "I am, Your Highness."
"And you are aware that there is a SoulRider among them?"
"It may not be a SoulRider, my lord," said Skade. "Not a true one anyway. The rider may possess a dragon - or something like one, at any rate - but without the ceremony they cannot have formed a true soulbond. After all, there are wild dragons, and I would not put it past some foolish bandit to try and use one."
"Hmmm," the king said thoughtfully, "you may be right. Either way, I want the Hunt mobilised. These bandits have been causing trouble for far too long."
"A Hunt? Are such measures really necessary?"
"We must be careful, Skade. We cannot risk endangering the people by underestimating our enemies. Besides, these are no ordinary outlaws, as you well know."
Skade nodded and let the matter drop. She was in no mood to argue.
"I will call a meeting tomorrow," she said. "And I will be sure to send some riders to scout the area at first light. I would go myself, but unfortunately I must see to the newest addition to our ranks."
The king smiled wryly. "I gather you do not think much of him?"
"He's bloody useless," said Skade, "which is, regrettably, exactly what we needed." She rubbed her temples exasperatedly, "Gods know how it happens, but that runt goes through riders like a horse swats flies. If the accident doesn't finish them off then they'll either be too badly crippled or go mad as moon-struck lunatics anyway." She sighed sadly, "I will have to speak to Handel's family, won't I?"
The king looked grave, "It is a sad thing to lose a young life in such circumstances. Still, I believe we have done our best. I don't think there would be many others willing to risk their lives to bond with Rhagtan Chanu Gwynt."
"Aryanna would," said Lady Vellery softly. "She speaks to me about it often."
The king smiled at Vellery fondly. "Yes, I have no doubt she would. She won't be happy when she finds out about this, will she Skade?"
Skade pulled a face, which made the king laugh. Aryanna was a close friend of Lady Vellery, an impetuous girl with a mind of her own. She had hardly ceased pestering Skade since Ragta's first rider had died. Though Skade admired her determination, her constant badgering was exceedingly annoying. What was worse, she knew that Aryanna was right - she would make a good rider, but Skade could not allow it. Aryanna, however, refused to accept that.
"Well," said the king, "we'll see what they make of tonight eh? Who knows, maybe Aryanna will get her chance yet if this Nikolai fellow can't cope."
Skade laughed along with Vellery and the king, but she felt as if she'd swallowed a mouthful of vinegar. That prat had better make it, she thought darkly, because if he doesn't I will be unamused. Very, very unamused.