“You heard the lady, let’s go.” I said as I climbed up in the saddle.
“Wait just one blasted minute, who died and made you a senator?” Smithson asked.
“You don’t even really know how to fly that bird do you?”
“Well we didn’t crash.”
The angry and still slightly inebriated Rider threw on his helmet, “Bah Raptors don’t crash unless their dead or dying.”
“We need to get out of here!” I pleaded.
Rowan picked up the injured Magus, “I’ll take her on my mount, we’ve got to escape.”
“What? We should be getting back into the fray to kill more giant worms!” Smithson argued.
“Smithson we have a new directive, protect the Magus at all costs. We can not let the Skaji have her.”
“You’re the boss.” He said as he climbed up on his speckled bird of prey.
“How’d you get him to go along?” I asked Rowan.
“Easy, I’m a First Class Rider, he’s my subordinate.” He smiled as he took the reigns.
I smiled back, that was the first bit of good news I’d heard all day.
“Let’s fly!” Rowan Bowen said as he whipped the reigns.
Moments later we climbed up the mountain face, heading into a canyon. Moonlight was all we dared use. I followed Bowen’s tail feathers, letting Windrider do most of the work. Once in the canyons the immediate danger was over. Six Wyverns were out there looking for us, but they weren’t breathing down our necks.
I began to feel weak and the pain in my shoulder jumped into the forefront of my mind. I found it hard to keep my eyes open. My head would nod, and I’d jerk back up trying to keep the feathers of the mount ahead of me in view.
Windrider was also getting tired; the stress of the earlier dogfight was still wearing on him. I could tell he didn’t have enough left for much more powered flight. Gliding was the only way he could stay airborne.
The Skaji just started the war. This was no skirmish; the attack was the beginning of an invasion. They had crossed the Fey River into Velderland with a massive force of Wervyn. Their supply train wasn’t using horses and camels, but powered balloons. Velderland Magii had been experimenting with powered flight, using steam boiler powered propellers but the weight penalty seemed too hard a problem to overcome to make the experiments worth it.
This strike force would be able to fly around all of Velderland without regard for a slow ground wagon train to keep their troops and animals fed. At least for short periods of time.
I tapped the comm stone on the pommel. “First Class Bowen, do you think this group of Skaji will make a raid on the capital?”
“I don’t know, but we need to hide out tonight. Strongbeak and Swiftwing are almost finished, they need to rest.”
A few minutes later we landed on a high mountain ridge. I looked down toward Tent City, it burned, orange flames licked the sky. The battle was over, Velderland forces had been routed. Our cannons burned, Raptors lay dead in the mud alongside their riders. Craftsmen, cooks, and carpenters were cut down by fire and claw.
The Skaji would pay. As I watched smoke and ashes fill the valley below I vowed to make it my mission to push them back across the river. How I longed to take the fight to their homeland, salt their fields, slaughter their cattle and burn their cities.
“Victor come on, they might see you up there.” Rowen called from below.
In the moonlight I lead Windrider down from the ridge by the reigns. On the backside of the mountain the wind was strongly reduced. There was a relatively flat spot where boulders had fallen and the earth had sloughed off.
“Smithson, take care of Windrider’s tack and saddle.”
The junior of the pair balked, “But shouldn’t the ‘rider’ take care of his own…”
“Victor’s in no condition to do it. Plus I’m not sure he knows how.”
Smithson took the reins, and led my bird over to where he could remove the leather from his back.
I looked over at Carolyn where she lay mostly covered by a Strongbeak’s wing. “What’s wrong with her?”
“The Magus? She must have cracked her head when Lightfeather went down. She’s got quite the lump on her head. I gave her a sip of some medicinal drought. She should pull through.”
I sat down on a rock exhausted. I wanted nothing more than to sleep.
“No you don’t Victor. We need to get that steel out of you right away. Here take this.”
He handed me a short but stout stick, roughly a spans length. “What is this for?”
He lit a field lantern and closed the focus cover to let only the tiniest sliver of light out. “That’s for you to bite down on.”
“Pulling this junk out of your skin will hurt. Let me help you with your coat.”
I knew there was no resisting. I was so cold, tired and weak I couldn’t argue. He peeled the clothing off my shoulder and covered everything but the wound site with Smithson’s blanket. He griped about that as well. Saying I’d better not get any blood on it. They laid me down on the ground and began hurting me.
The two Raptor riders began the awful task of pulling bits of cast iron out of my skin. I bit down on the stick like I’d been told. I tried to not scream, but failed. Tears streamed down my cheeks as they dug with their blades, hooks and pinchers.
I hadn’t been much of a pious man. Sure I went to services but I wasn’t one to pray and read holy writ for hours like a Covenanter. Pain has a strange ability to turn the hardest hearted fiend into a blubbering mass of whimpers.
I prayed to the Velder Lords harder than I had ever before. I prayed for death. When I discovered I wasn’t going to die I prayed for the Riders to die. It wasn’t very proper of me, but I now blame it on the torture I was undergoing.
I realized that if I was ever captured by the Skaji I would immediately spill whatever I knew to keep them from torturing me. If I ever had been captured though they probably would have tortured me anyway, because all I’d have been able to tell them is, “I build flintlocks.”
After what seemed like a good chunk of the night I felt something cold and soothing wash over my throbbing wounds.
“Don’t use all of it!” Smithson said.
The other rider dumped a few more drops on my skin. “If I don’t use enough his wounds will become corrupt and he’ll die.”
“Should we even care if he lives?”
“He rescued a Magus, and he built many of the arms we use. Is that not enough for us to thank him?”
“He stole Jorgen’s mount, he’s unworthy to bond. He isn’t one of us.”
“So he should have stayed and died on the ground, why because he was born with a body too large to be an ideal Rider?”
The junior flier didn’t answer.
“The Magus did what was right bonding the craftsman to Windrider. Jorgen was dead, their bond broken.”
“But that’s not how it’s supposed to be done!”
“Well it’s not supposed to be done in the middle of a burning camp while being shot at either.”
The other rider didn’t say anything else, he moved toward where the three birds were huddled on the ground.
The stick I had been trying to gnaw through didn’t taste too bad; it must have been maple. I spat it out and let out the breath I had been holding for too long.
“Oh sorry I didn’t know you were still awake. Most men pass out from such pain.”
“I wanted to.” I said as I tried to get up.
“Don’t move I’m still working on you.”
“What? But I don’t feel anything.”
“I poured most of our healing draughts into your wounds.”
“Why didn’t you do that earlier?” I tried to sound angry but it came out rather pitiful.
I felt a slight tug as he worked the needle. “Sorry Victor, but I couldn’t start accelerating your healing with the metal still in your skin. I’m not even sure I got it all out. I’m no surgerist just a field healer but I’ve seen my share of young men get these iron frags in their skin.”
When he finished and dressed the wound he helped me over to his mount. He made a couple clicks with his tongue and the bird lifted its wing. Revealing the sleeping Magus, she stirred slightly at the breeze but didn’t wake.
I hesitated, “It wouldn’t be proper…”
“What are you worrying about?”
“Lying next to her isn’t right.”
“Do you see a hostel or tent anywhere near here?”
“And I gather you’re very tired from nearly getting killed, and you’re an honorable man, you’re not going to do anything disrespectful right?”
“Yes… err no. I mean. What’s wrong with Windrider? Can’t I sleep under his wing?”
The Rider shook his head. “No, his wing was struck by a ball. I’ll have to bind some of his feathers together to keep him flight worthy. Get some rest.”
I lied down next to Carolyn. The large bird dropped his wing and feathers tried to smother us. I put my arm gingerly around the woman and tried to fall asleep. Despite being weak and exhausted my mind was running so fast I found answers more important than sleep.
How did our high altitude scouts not see the amassing of such a big force of Skaji with their telescopes? Had any of my workshop friends make it out alive? What was the Skaji’s next move? Would they find us here and drop bombs on our heads?
Eventually after I realized I couldn’t figure out any of the answers that night I let my eyes close and I listened to Carolyn’s breathing. It felt strange to be lying next to her under a Raptor up high on a mountain.
That night I had strange dreams. Some of them involved flying, falling and the like. But one involved me catching a large bovine and ripping meat from its throat. It felt natural, like I had done it my whole life.
At some point during the night I realized I was sharing dreams with Windrider. He was aware of me, and I of him. It was odd but somehow comforting.
I felt the weight of a man on my back; the world was full of noise, cannons, rifles, and the crackling of the burning camp. As I flew darting through the chaos I felt the weight on my back disappear. I tucked my wings and dove trying to catch my Rider. I was too late, he struck the ground. I landed next to him and saw the blood covering his leathers. My rider had been killed. My heart filled with grief and shock as the bond that joined us broke leaving half of it empty. I had been with Jorgen for a long time; he rode on my back every day, training for the time we would fight the flying snakes together.
I turned and saw myself holding Carolyn. It was strange to see myself through Windrider’s eyes. I felt the bond being forged between us. Somehow I knew that even though he was grieving for his former rider he accepted me as his bonded man.
After what seemed like an appallingly short time later I awoke to a soft voice calling my name.
“Victor. Morning Victor. Wake up.”
I blinked the sleep from my eyes and managed a classy, “Huh… wha?” My eyes focused and met Carolyn’s, deep azure eyes lit in the gentle predawn light filtered through feathers.
“Morning.” My shoulder felt like someone had taken out their frustrations on it with a hammer.
“I think I should let you know. I don’t normally lay with men the same night I meet them.”
I closed my eyes, “Sorry, I…”
“Don’t be sorry Victor, but I do have something to ask.”
“Could you take your hand off my chest.”
Ice ran through my veins. I looked down; during the night my hand had somehow found its way through an opening in her purple robes. “I… uhh…” said as I pulled my hand away like I had just been bitten. “Sorry I don’t know how…”
She laughed a cute laugh that made me feel worse. “You’re blushing.”
I could feel my face flushing with color, “I am sorry Magus Carolyn.”
“Like I told you last night, I’m not one for fancy titles.”
A muffled voice from outside our feathery cocoon said, “Well it sounds like you two are feeling better.” He clicked his tounge and Strongbeak lifted his wing.
“Good morning.” Bowen said. “Dawn will be here soon. I’d like to be in the air before the sun comes up.”