This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. As we ran I slowed down to load another shot in Millersen’s pistol. The blasted thing had nearly cost my life. I’d have to see what caused the malfunction, perhaps the flint needed to be replaced.
The Skaji weapon on the other hand I just tucked in my belt. I didn’t have time to steal the dead man’s ammo pouches. I shuddered, I had killed another man. He was already out of the fight but I killed him anyway. I could have left him…
I pushed those thoughts out of my mind as I focused on keeping myself and the other initiates alive. We pushed through the trees toward the University, if safety was anywhere to be found it would be among the Raptor Riders and Magii.
Two initiates were huddled behind a tree, I called out to them and they ran and joined our group. I was glad to see Fish the little islander boy and Raven, the beautiful dark skinned clanswoman, just old enough to be a bride.
Raven, held onto Fish’s hand, “Vic, are we ecstatic to see you. What do we do?”
I pulled the ramrod out of the pistol and slammed it back in its keeper under the barrel. “We need to use these trees to conceal our escape to the University walls. Our Raptor boys should keep the snakes busy.”
A bomb exploded nearby knocking limbs and leaves off trees. We all instinctively crouched down. I looked up; a Skaji Wyvern was trying to flush us out of the grove. A firebomb shattered spreading Devils Fire among the trees.
“Run!” Fish yelled.
“Hold on, that’s what they want us to do. They want us to panic and run so they can drop a bomb on our heads.” I said as I put a hand on his shoulder.
The fire began spreading from tree to tree; our only consolation was they were still fairly wet as we were still in late spring, slowing the spread of the blaze.
We waited until the smoke became unbearable. “Hold on to each other!” I yelled, “Let’s go.”
We moved away from the burning trees crashing through branches, bushes and tripping up the steep slope. I heard rifle fire above us, but wasn’t sure if it was ours or the Skaji. We reached the edge of the forest; the walls of the university were about thirty rods away over open ground. We’d be easy pickings for Wyvern riders.
How long is a rod?
A bit over sixteen of your feet, so we had to cross almost five hundred feet of exposed ground.
Spoon’s breathing was fast and ragged, “We’ll never make that! We’ll be killed before we make it halfway to the gate.”
Raven pushed him; I was beginning to like this girl. “Shut up Spoon. Look at our cannons. The worms wouldn’t dare come this close to the walls.”
The air defense guns swiveled rapidly as the crews cranked the traverse and elevation wheels. Their long barrels fired sending up deadly clouds of grapeshot, and exploding canister shells.
Slim spoke up his voice squeaky and nervous, “Can’t we stay here and wait out the attack?”
I was about to reply when a Skaji bomb burst above us.
The next thing I knew I was lying in the dirt under a Velderpine, covered in branches. My ears were ringing so loud I couldn’t understand what Spoon was saying. He grabbed my arm and pointed to Raven, lying face down nearby. I turned her over her face was covered in blood. She had taken a piece of shrapnel in the scalp.
“Is she dead?” Fish asked, he sounded very far away, but he was tugging on my tunic.
I put my ear up to her mouth and felt a bit of warm air. “No.” I yelled over the ringing in my ears. “Is anyone else wounded?” I asked as I looked around out little group. They were rattled and bruised but the bomb must have been far enough away to miss us with most of the fragments. I pressed a folded up handkerchief over her wound, it turned red quickly.
I picked up the young woman and tossed her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “Run!”
I led the group of initiates toward the gates as fast as I could go. Halfway across they outpaced me. Bosque shrieked and I looked up, a Wyvern dove putting it between me and the others. Its leathery wings beat down keeping the beast hovering in the air.
The Skaji rider held a firebomb in his hand; his yellow teeth were twisted in an evil smile, yet his eyes full of rage. The other Wyvern Rider must have been his Wingmate. I would have to drop Raven to get my pistol; it was pointless since there was no way I’d be able to get to it in time.
As the Skaji pulled his arm back movement above caught my eye. It was a diving Raptor! It struck the flying lizard in the back knocking the Rider from his saddle, and pinned the great worm to the ground.
The Skaji’s firebomb shattered when he hit the ground engulfing him in flames. The Raptor bit through the Wyvern’s neck with its powerful beak severing the thrashing beast’s life.
I looked up at the man in the saddle, it was Smithson. I never thought I’d be so glad to see him again.
He nodded said, “Initiate Vaughnson.” Then was gone.
We made it inside and I rushed Raven to the infirmary. Two Magii in white robes put her on a stretcher and whisked her away. I was about to leave when Carolyn found us.
“Vic… Initiate Vaughnson, are you injured?”
I shrugged, “A little, but I shall live.”
She pulled at my tunic on the shoulder where I had been burned by Devils Fire. It hurt, bad. “What a poor liar you are.”
She led me away into an infirmary room and cut the shirt off my body. The burns were red and heavily blistered; she lanced them with a sharp needle and smeared burn salve on the sores. It hurt, bad.
“Don’t be such a child Victor.” She said as she pressed her fingers into my burned shoulder.
“You’re a hero.”
“No, I just did what I had to do. I only looked after my own hind end.”
She pressed harder than I thought necessary on my arm, “Nonsense, you could have abandoned those Initiates, but you didn’t.”
I sat on the edge of the infirmary bed and stared at my boots, “I… guess…”
She handed me jar of burn salve, lifted my chin with her hand and looked into my eyes. We didn’t say anything. She kissed me, her warm cherry lips felt good against mine. I knew at that moment I would do whatever it took to make her mine.
She looked away and slipped out of the infirmary room.
Since my shirt lay in pieces in the rubbish bin, I figured I needed to ask the quartermaster for a new one.
I wandered out in the corridor; one of the Med Assistants told me the Initiates had gone back to the barracks. Training was canceled for the rest of the day.
I appropriated a new tunic, which I was informed would be taken from my next salary disbursement. Then I headed to the barracks for a shower.
The younger boys were busy showering and hitting each other with their towels so I decided to wait until they finished and the hot water was replenished. I lay down on my bunk and picked up a well warn copy of “Guide to Raptor Flight.”
At some point I dozed off, reading about flight theory, wind currents, thermals, and air density was enough to put anyone to sleep. I didn’t dream, but replayed killing the Skaji rider with the butt of a pistol. I watched over and over as I smashed the brass end cap into the man’s skull. His face ended each time bloodied; empty eyes stared up at me.
I woke sometime later, eyes wet. I snuck off to the shower, blood, dirt and burn salve mixed in the water threatening to clog the drains. I began to get the shakes when I realized how many times today I’d almost been killed. Who was Carolyn fooling? I was no hero. Heroes didn’t feel afraid did they? The statues of the heroes of the last Skaji war didn’t show a hint of fright.
I dressed and came down the stairs to the common room. I was greeted by the other Initiates with smiles and thanks. Even Spoon begrudgingly muttered something approaching gratitude. Bosque brought me a mug of tea. I thanked her and sipped the near scalding liquid. After a while Fish came back from the infirmary.
“How is Raven?” I asked.
He had tears in his eyes, I feared the worst. “She’s sleeping; they pulled… a chunk of iron out of her head. The surgerists said they aren’t sure if she’ll ever wake.”
I called the Initiates together, Bosque lead us in the Prayer of the Wounded.
Lords of Velderland, we come to thee for those who cannot speak.
Our brothers and sisters this day who have fallen, have need of thee.
We beseech thee Lords to show mercy to those who stand in need of mercy.
If it so be the will of the Lords, bring them back to us.
Restore their health that they may stand by our side again.
May thy glory shine down upon the heads of thy children.
We plead for those who cannot plead.
We pray for those who cannot pray.
If they are called back to thee make their journey quick.
May we rejoice in their return to the Lords who made them.
Upon the wind, may their souls ride in peace to thee.
Velder Lords hear us pray, Amen.
Not a dry eye was found.
The next morning we resumed training. We went over flight basics, air combat tactics and mount temperament. I was itching to climb in the saddle again, but we had to wait until Bonding Day a few weeks hence before we got to put any of the things we learned into practice.
A few days later Raven was released from the infirmary, she had no memory of the day she was injured, but she would be allowed to continue training after a few days light duty.
Bonding day finally came. All those who had survived Flight School would be bonded to a Raptor. My skin practically crawled in anticipation, I longed to be bonded again, the emptiness came back with a vengeance.
When the ceremony came we stood in one long line on the parade ground, wearing freshly made flight leathers and packing drop chutes. We waited for the Raptors to be lead out. Some of us would be bonding with newly captured birds; others were given casualty birds, those whose former riders had been killed. It was a sobering thought.
Magii didn’t typically fly in dogfights but the front lines did need the talents of the Magii to power ward stones, refresh old Raptor bonds, and maintain comm stones among other things. With the war starting in earnest we all knew not all of our Initiate class would survive to see the end.
As the birds were lead from the Aviary toward the parade ground a small feeling tickled the back of my mind. A Magus led each bird toward us; they stopped in front of the initiate to be bonded. Carolyn led a large falcon that I recognized immediately, Windrider.
She approached, took my hand, and placed the other on the birds beak. “Initiate Victor Vaughnson do you take upon yourself freely the duties and responsibilities of one who rides our feathered brethren?”
I stood stunned for a moment unable to speak.
Carolyn began the words of the bonding in the ancient tongue of the Velder Lords. In moments I felt the bond restored, tears came to my eyes as I felt the joy of being bonded again. Windrider was glad to be bonded again, but I could feel his loss for his last rider, Third Silversen.
“What happened?” I whispered to Carolyn.
She shook her head, “He perished the same day you were burned, during an intercept mission. He was struck in the head by a Skaji rifle ball.”
I nodded as I ran my fingers through Windriders feathers. “My condolences to his unit and family.”
She nodded, “It is customary for the new Rider to write a letter to the family of the deceased.”
I paused, “I will require your assistance writing it.”
“Nonsense Victor, I hear you are quite the storyteller.”
A horn blew snapping us all to attention. Our flight instructors landed on the parade ground, “Riders! Are you ready to fly?”
“Yes sir!” We replied in one voice.
“Good, follow us!” They kicked their mounts and took off.
I hastily climbed up in the saddle and lowered my goggles. Windrider spread his wings and ran across the grass. In moments we were riding the wind again.