The flying snakes were diving to get away from the explosions. Panic and survival instinct were taking over. They must have thought they were coming in unopposed, which made me wonder what happened to our scouts.
I fired my carbine into the mass of flapping leathery wings unsure if I managed to score a hit. I attempted to reload in the saddle but a gust of wind tore the paper pouch from my grasp.
“Victor, quit foolin’ around.” Smithson said as he fired a pistol into the winged mob.
A few of the snake riders had recovered from our initial attack and began firing up with their small arms. Balls zipped toward us; one round clipped the tip of one of Windriders primary feathers.
I pulled at the reigns, we pitched and rolled trying to become harder to hit. More shots were fired; I half expected myself or my mount to be struck. Somehow we made it through the lead maelstrom unscathed, I urged Windrider higher.
Managing to load a round in the rifle I rolled my mount upside down, aimed up, now down, at the lead Wyvern and squeezed the trigger. My shot went wide but clipped the beast’s wing causing it to falter and give up the chase. Unfortunately his wing mates continued to press the attack.
Why hadn’t I saved a bomb or two? We flew higher, perhaps we had been fools to dive, we held the high ground and had sacrificed a good part of it to take the fight to the Skaji.
First Bowen passed by me, “Victor keep up!”
I didn’t respond, I whipped the reigns and urged my bird higher, beads of sweat gathered behind my mask. I just hoped it would continue to supply me with air. We scrambled higher; the shots became more sporadic as our altitude increased. The Skaji below must have been struggling for breath by now.
Risking a look back I saw one of the Riders appeared to be slumped over in his saddle. “Rowen, I think the Skaji men are fainting.”
“Good keep going, let’s see how the snakes like the thin…” He was cut off as a rifle report filled the air.
I looked over at First Bowen, his hands clutching his chest, one fell away coated in blood.
“Rowen! Are you hit bad?”
I’ll remember the look on his face until the day I die. Eyes wide, his mouth moved but no sound came out. He looked down at his bloody gloves and smiled. Then he was gone.
“The worms killed Rowen.” Smithson said in an almost calm voice. He paused for a moment before letting loose a string of words so foul they would have made the most grizzled first Skaji war veteran blush.
“Die snake lovers!” He yelled as he jerked on the reigns.
“You’ll only get yourself killed!” I said as I urged Windrider higher.
“I’ll make them pay.”
“First Smithson, I need a wingman.”
It took a moment for the realization to sink in that with Bowen’s death he was now the leader of the wing.
“Yes Initiate you are right. Let us go home.”
We pressed on evading the Skaji, a few more long shots were fired at us but none found their mark. Strongbeak flew in formation behind us; I knew how the poor bird must have been feeling. His Rider, companion and friend lay slumped in the saddle, blood trickling down into his feathers.
Rowen Bowen, Rider First Class, but he was more than that, he had become a friend of mine. He was wise, strong and brave. He had saved my life more than once and now his life had been taken by a stray ball. It didn’t make sense.
The Raiders were disorganized by our surprise attack long enough for the Vassar Air Corp to scramble enough Raptor wings to route the flying snakes. When we reached the airfield a crisis team was on the ground waiting for us.
Rowen was cut out of his saddle; and several Magii began working on his lifeless body on the grass. I knew it was mainly for show, I had felt his thread of life being severed moments after he had been struck. I stood nearby and watched as the Magii worked with their draughts, elixirs and inked stones. I felt numb, breathing became difficult and I found I could hardly see through my tears.
After they gave up and covered his body in a blanket, Smithson and I were left alone with Rowens body and Strongbeak.
The short rider knelt down next to his wingman, peeled back the blanket and spoke to him like he was still alive. “I’m sorry… I should have been me who took the ball. You were always the better Rider than I.”
He knelt with only the wind to mask his quiet sobs.
I while later I knelt down across from Smithson. I looked into the empty shell that had once contained the soul of a great man. “Rowen, thank you for… saving my tail feathers on many occasions. May you find rest in the skies beyond.”
Strongbeak plucked a couple of feathers from his breast, closest to his heart and laid them on his Riders chest. I moved Bowens hands to cover the feathers so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind. I covered him again and said a few silent prayers to the Velder Lords. His body was carried away and the three of us were left standing on the grass listening to the wind.
“Call me Samuel.”
It was then that I realized I hadn’t known his first name. “Alright… Samuel.”
He sighed, “Back in Tent City, when I accosted you. I never apologized for that.”
We shook hands and slowly walked toward the aviary leading First Bowen’s bird. We lost three more Riders and five birds that day. Thankfully Strongbeak wouldn’t sit idle for long.
Why did he die?
I’ve asked myself that question many times.
Do you know why?
He was hit by a stray Skaji ball.
No, why did he die? Wasn’t there some greater meaning?
Sometimes people just die and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Yes but why?
Reader please, even after all these years Rowen Bowens death still holds a great deal of heartache for me.
I’m sorry for your loss.
Don’t be, he died defending Velderland, doing what he loved. It is much better that he died in the saddle than to disease or old age.
What happened next?
I’m sorry reader; I’m too overcome to continue. Please come back later and I shall continue the narrative.