Flying, I’d dreamt about it when I was younger. I’d wager most children look up at the sky, watch the birds in flight and dream about spreading their own wings. Well I didn’t just dream about it. One day when I was eight I climbed up on top of the Vaughnson family barn and spread my wings.
I spent a week fashioning them out of sticks and pilfered bed sheets. I looked down at the cows below, they looked small. Just as I spread my wings and was about to soar across the farm and into the history books my mother came out and screamed.
I still blame my crashing on the shrill noise she made. Had I been able to jump and flap I might have landed without serious injury. Unfortunately she startled me and I wasn’t able to control my descent. I had just enough time as I fell to think. This is going to… I hit the ground before hurt. And hurt I did.
I spent the better part of the next year with my leg in an iron brace. Thankfully the local Magus felt pity on me and used all too much ink to help mend my bones. My father forced me to spend the rest of my summers weeding Magus, Sirenia’s garden. She was a kind grandmotherly woman who made cookies as well as enchantments. It wasn’t all bad; she had helped me learn some of the symbols of the Pictorus, and improve my Velder script.
“Victor, lad do you know what separates us from the savage Skaji?” she asked me one day as I was pulling some pokey noxious weeds.
“Umm, no Gramma Sirenia what?”
“Our command of our language, both word and the script.”
“So the Skaji don’t read?”
She ran a gloved hand through her grey hair. “Most of them don’t, only the elite Skamages do. But even they don’t have a love for it. Their writing is sharp and harsh, while Velderland script flows like water down a mountain.”
At the time I didn’t understand what she was trying to teach me. Years later when I began my apprenticeship in the rifle works I understood. She was trying to teach me to love our language both its words and writing. Too many people learned just enough to get by. Maybe she had been trying to prepare me for becoming a Magus?
I blinked away the old memories I never thought I’d be riding on the back of my very own Raptor, one bonded to me no less. How had this happen? I thought about the events of last night, the death, flames, and noise. One good thing had come to pass; I had my very own greater bird. Something I’d dreamed about for forever.
Carolyn came around Windrider adjusting his harness. She looked upset, I looked over at Bowen and Smithson they were busy feeding the other two Raptors dried meat.
“Carolyn, what’s wrong?”
She looked up at me, in the dim light I caught a glimpse of a tear in her eyes, “Nothing, I’m fine.”
I put a hand on Windrider’s reigns, “Carolyn, I may be no adept like you but I have sisters. It’s the loss of your mount isn’t it?”
She nodded. I put an arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Your Raptor died in the service of Velderland, he will have a place in the skies of the Lords.”
“Lightfeather was a hen.”
“Oh.” I had assumed, “How long were you bonded to her?”
She took a deep breath. “Nearly ten years.” She was my first Greater Bond.
I was becoming used to the bond between Windrider and I. When I closed my eyes I could feel where he was. I couldn’t imagine how it must feel to have a bond of several years severed in an instant.
She turned away as she put her goggles on, her dark brown hair pulled back in a tight tail.
“I want you to have my bond with Windrider.”
She took in a sharp breath, “You would freely give up your bond?”
“You don’t understand do you?”
“How unlikely it will be for you to ever bond with a Raptor again.”
I didn’t understand, I looked down at my dirty boots, the rubber soles were starting to split, I’d have to mend them soon.
She brushed Windriders mottled white and brown breast feathers. “When was the last time you heard of a bonded Rife Smith?”
She had a point. “Never.”
“No Victor, I want you to keep your bond with this magnificent bird. Besides, you’re too heavy to ride double.”
“Did you just call me plump?” I wasn’t the leanest man on the planet, but since I stood a head and shoulders taller than the others it made me outside the ideal weight to become a Rider.
After I had been rejected by the Rider’s Training Wing I starved myself and exercised for hours every day to lose weight. I returned nearly two stone lighter, roughly twenty of your pounds, yet they still turned me down. When I pleaded to know why, the Rider Master shrugged and said. “You are just too tall lad, sorry. Find some other way to serve Velderland.”
I was crushed; it had been my dream to Ride among the clouds. Now was my chance. I’d be a fool to give it away.
First Class Bowen climbed up in the saddle and extended a hand to Carolyn. “Ready Magus?”
She nodded and climbed up behind him. “Let’s fly.”
I pulled on my craftsman goggles, they weren’t as fancy as the ones the Riders wore but they helped keep the bugs out of my eyes.
Moments later we were riding the wind. I followed behind and to the right of the leader; we made a tiny “V” shaped wing. I started out in the rear of the formation. Bowen explained that flying in this shape helped the birds use less strength than flying alone. I wasn’t sure how it worked but he was adamant I stay in formation.
After several minutes my comm stone buzzed. “Victor?”
“I want you to take the lead.”
“Yes, Strongbeak needs a rest.”
“But I don’t.”
“Nonsense, do you see the tallest peak to the north?
“That’s Snow Top, point Windrider at it, and keep us low. Don’t climb over the canyon rim.”
“Yes First I’ll try.”
“Victor, do not try. Do.”
Now you may be wondering why we didn’t use our comm stones to warn the military in the capital to the attack. Comm stones only work over short distances, of not much more than a league or two under ideal conditions.
As the sun began to rise so did the thermals. I had learned as a boy about rising heat from the ground that made it easier for birds to gain altitude.
We soared toward the mountain; I kept our flight as low as possible to obscure us from any Skaji Wyvern or balloons. After a few minutes Smithson took the lead position and I fell in behind him. We kept up this rotation for a long time. My back began to hurt. Sitting on a giant bird while he flaps his wings puts a strain on ones back and legs. It’s kind of like riding a horse, but if you fall off a horse you don’t normally end up with your insides on the outside.
We glided down canyons, used thermals to gain altitude to keep the flapping to a minimum. Our mounts were still hungry after the small meal. They really needed something larger, a goat, cow, or a couple wild dogs maybe.
We were about to change flying positions when a Skaji balloon crested the canyon rim fifty rods in front of us.
How long is a rod?
I keep forgetting how hopeless you are with measuring. A rod is about the length of the average canoe, a bit over sixteen of your feet. So the balloon was relatively close, and had a good altitude advantage on us.
Where was I again?
The Skaji balloon.
Oh right, well if you’d stop interrupting I wouldn’t lose my place and I could get on with the narrative.
So there we were staring down a large Skaji balloon, its bulbous grey fabric undulated like the belly of a queen ant squeezing out eggs. The small platform beneath it belched smoke and its twin propellers spun giving it forward thrust. Two Wyvern clung to perches on its sides.
I could just make out Skaji frantically moving about on the small deck.
“Scatter!” First Bowen yelled through the comm stone.
I jerked the reigns, kicked my feet in the stirrups, sending Windrider into a steep dive. My stomach found a new home in my throat and I began seeing red. I pulled back on the reigns to keep from crushing my brains out.
Light cannons fired, probably shooting grapeshot I didn’t take the time to look. Other shots were fired, flintlock carbines and shotguns no doubt. I tried to maneuver my Raptor like the Riders, but hardly knew what maneuvers to do. But Windrider did, I held on as he pulled some aerobatic maneuvers that made me sick.
A lead ball zipped by too close for my liking as the top of a tree covered mountain loomed close. I heard something burning and looked back, the balloon was shooting fire out the back. It lurched forward much faster than I thought an airship could go.
“What is it doing?” I asked the air.
Carolyn answered, “Combusting engines. I’ll explain how they work later if we don’t get killed.”
Smithson growled, “Stop yapping, we need to put this mountain between us and them!”
I took a quick glance over my shoulder; the Wyvern launched and dove.
Windrider and I made it over the tops of the trees, putting several tons of rock between the cannons and us.
The other two Raptors followed. We had only moments before the balloon and the flying snakes would be shooting at us. I looked down, farms and ranches lay spread out at the foot of the mountain below like a giant quilt.
“Climb!” First Bowen ordered, “They’ll chase us into the dirt. Weapons at the ready!”
We began circling, riding the air currents. I could feel the air running over and under Windriders wings. I’m not sure how I knew, but our bond somehow let me know how to use the air to our advantage.
I pulled out the flintlock carbine from its scabbard. I glanced at it. It had my proof mark stamped in the walnut stock, with a matching one on the lock. It made me feel a slight bit better. I wouldn’t let a weapon leave the shop that I wouldn’t trust my life with. I thumbed the hammer back feeling it click.
We circled above the mountain just as the two Wyverns crested the ridge. They hadn’t expected us to gain altitude; they probably thought we would be halfway down the mountain.
“Fire!” First Bowen yelled. I could hear him even without the comm stone.
I took aim at the lead snake beast; it was back flapping in surprise, presenting its belly. I pulled the trigger and the weapon I created belched smoke like the mouth of a mythical dragon. The stock bucked against my shoulder as the heavy ball struck the beast where the wings met the body.
I had done it! All that time practicing had paid off. The Wyvern crumpled and dropped like a stone. Its rider leapt free and pulled his bail cord. His drop chute deployed seconds before he hit the mountain. He ended up hung up on a clump of high pines.
Rowen scored a hit on the other beast but it didn’t go down. I shoved the carbine back in its scabbard and cinched the retaining strap. I drew my pistol. I wasn’t sure if its short barrel would be able to launch the smaller ball fast enough to pierce scales. Smithson came around as the snake began to dive. He fired winging it.
Carolyn and I both fired pistols. I couldn’t tell if we hit it or not. It ended up crashing into some snowy rocks and slid halfway down the mountain before coming to a rest; snake and rider quite dead.
I realized the hung up Skaji Rider had one thing I didn’t up here in the sky, a drop chute. If I fell from my mount I’d be a goner.
I reloaded the carbine. Doing so while flying made it go slower than I would have liked but in moments it was ready to fire again.
As I sat in Windriders saddle I had a revelation. I looked at the paper package. It contained powder and a ball. What if I could craft a metal container that held it all together? It would make handling and loading faster. Unfortunately that design wouldn’t be without its problems. How would the ignition source get to the powder through the metal, and would it make ramming the cartridge down the barrel harder?
I didn’t have time to solve the questions bouncing around in my head because the Skaji balloon flew by beneath us.
I fired into the gas bag; it didn’t seem to affect it. Bowen dove skimming above the balloon, as he passed over the top of it he dropped a glass flame bomb. In moments it was engulfed in flame. Some of the Skaji crew jumped to their deaths screaming. Others rode the burning airship to the ground.
I almost had pity for them, almost.