Flying at high altitudes is cold. Very cold.
Come on Victor don’t be a such a spineless wimp.
Did you just insult me?
You’re in your warm house, sitting in a comfy chair, stomach satiated from eating a nice sandwich. I on the other hand had recently lost a significant amount of blood. My wound’s still ached, and I hadn’t eaten much since noon meal the day before. Call me a wimp again. Do you want me to continue with the blasted story or not?
That’s better. Like I was saying, flying at high altitudes is cold. Very cold.
You said that already.
I did. But since you interrupted me I had to say it again.
After our encounter with the Skaji balloon we decided to use the morning thermals to gain as much altitude as possible and glide to the capital city of Vassar. If we got high enough we would be hard to spot by Wyvern scouts, or so First Bowen hoped.
We circled up gliding higher and higher, soon I couldn’t feel my fingers. I pulled my jacket tighter as my head began to pound. I breathed in and out rapidly but found myself short of breath. Did I mention the air starts to get thin that far up?
My comm stone chimed. “Victor, are you alright? You look horrible.” First Bowen asked.
I pressed the stone and tried to find the breath to answer. “I… I am fine… no.”
“Bah sounds like he’s starting to get Deep Sky Sickness.” Smithson said without a speck of pity in his voice.
A calming voice came on, “Victor, listen to me. You need to slow down and take deep breaths; shallow ones won’t get you the air you need.”
I tried to do what she said, but the cold air burned when I tried to breathe. A few moments later I slumped over the saddle and just tried to hang on.
“Hang on Victor, we’ll fly to a lower height soon.” First Bowen said as Windrider followed behind the other birds.
I don’t remember what happened next. I blame it on my brain being deprived of air. Eventually I came to as we approached a gleaming city. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed.
The city’s walls, aqueducts, towers, trees, markets and colorful pennants shone in the mid day sun. Vassar was quite the sight, I’d only been to the city twice before. Never had I seen it from the air.
Raptor patrols circled lazily in the sky. When they noticed us two wings moved to intercept. Our comm stones chimed.
“Unknown Raptor flight this is Vassar patrol Arrow, please identify.” A deep male voice asked.
“First Class Rider Bowen, Hog Company, 202nd Aviation Regiment, 56th Airborne Division with two wingmen.”
“Why are you approaching Vassar? Shouldn’t you be with your unit near the border?”
Bowen took a breath, “The Skaji attacked, Tent City was all but wiped out. We escaped to bring word to the capital.”
The Lead Raptor rider approached gliding alongside our three mounts his white and brown bird was huge, half again as large as my mount.
“Wyvern raiders from Skajistan?”
“Not just raiders, this was a massive assault force. It wasn’t a skirmish. Tent City is gone. ”
“Acknowledged First Bowen, land at the main Aviary immediately.”
A few moments later we landed in a grassy field. Raptor crews met us on the ground. I dismounted and got a few rather strange looks. None of the crew said anything but I knew they weren’t used to seeing someone dressed in craftsmen’s clothes riding one of their birds.
I pulled the carbine out of its scabbard and slung it over a shoulder. I’d be dammed if I let a bunch of aviary boys mess with my weapons. I looked over at Rowen Bowen, he was doing the same.
A young gangly boy holding a coping tool kit used to clean and sharpen beaks and talons stared at me. He couldn’t have been much older than ten.
“I… never seen a rider like you before. You’re so big.”
I was tired and sore, what would it hurt to fool with him a little. “Well I’m part of the new Airborne Weaponry Field Sustainment and Repair Corps.”
His gears were turning in his head so hard I thought he might break something, “Really?”
“Yes I fly to the front and repair weapons for the Riders.” I said as I lifted up the carbine.
An older man barked something at the boy and he ran off with the other ground crew. They led our mounts away to be fed and groomed. I had a strange suspicion I wouldn’t see Windrider again. The Rider Masters would probably force me to give up my bond. I followed Carolyn, and the Riders. The wing that brought us in was already back in the air patrolling.
At the edge of the landing field we approached the weapon clearing stations. A few stumps with a large bucket of sand, set into the ground at an angle, and a couple smaller pails completed the station. I pulled the Vassar Mark 3 Airborne Carbine off my shoulder, cleared the powder out of the pan and tapped the muzzle on the stump. The conical projectile came out after a few taps and I tossed it into the nearby lead pail. The powder I brushed into a second one.
Pointing the muzzle of the weapon at the sand I pulled the trigger. Sparks flew and the odd leftover grain burned letting out a tiny bit of white smoke. When I was done I shouldered the carbine and proceeded to do the same with my pistol.
Carolyn finished unloading the pair of her pistols and leaned over, “Victor, I must warn you the Rider Masters will not approve of your bonding.”
“Even though it saved your life?” I asked, despite my thoughts along the same lines.
She nodded and absently moved a lock of hair out of her eyes. “Actually Victor you saved my life. The bonding just gave you the means by which to do it. Thank you. You could have flown off and saved yourself.”
I looked down at my leather apron. I didn’t know what to say. My thoughts drifted to the time we spent under Strongbeak’s wing. “I should be the one thanking you. The bond Windrider and I share is amazing, it’s a gift.”
“You shouldn’t thank me.”
“They’ll do whatever it takes to make you give up the bond.”
Visions of bloody torture instruments, buckets of water, and red hot pokers filled my head. “Whatever it takes?”
She sighed and leaned in closer, “Victor, the Raptors aren’t pets; they’re property, owned by Velderland’s Raptor Corps. They won’t let you keep him. Only Magii and Riders are allowed to bond with one of these magnificent creatures.”
My heart sank; I knew it to be true. They wouldn’t let me fly around with such an expensive animal. Not that I could have afforded to feed him on my craftsman’s salary, raptors ate a lot. The wings in Vassar alone required huge amounts of meat to keep them flying. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and buffalo were all raised in the valleys to supply meat for the birds.
The Raptors supplemented their diet with fish, deer and mountain goats. But hunting took a lot of time away from training and patrols, so the majority of their diet consisted of domesticated animals.
The Anti Airborne Alliance, known as Triple A, supporters in the senate brought these expense figures up regularly as unwarranted wastes of taxpayer funds. Each year as the Skaji raids forced meat prices up, Triple A took advantage of it pushing to reduce the size of our Raptor squadrons.
They’d been succeeding over the last several years. When I was a boy we had three times the number of Raptor Wings than we did now. How would we be able to push the Skaji across the Fey without skies of fighting birds?
“You’ve had your fun Victor, give him up, please.”
I wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know Carolyn.”
She pushed past me into the women’s changing room.
A while later.
After debriefing the Riders and Carolyn it was my turn to stand in front of the Rider Masters. Three graying men whose weather beaten skin and hard eyes told me they had earned their current positions though many hard hours in the saddle. They had killed Skaji air warriors and Wyverns.
“Journyman Armsmaker Victor Vaughnson, are you in possession of stolen Velderland Raptor Corps property?” the man in the middle asked in a voice meant to be intimidating. He did a pretty good job of it.
“No I am not.”
Carolyn looked at me from a bench off to the side, her wide eyes asked, Are you a daft fool?
“No?” the Master looked surprised.
“How do you explain the enormous falcon you rode in on then?” The slightly younger Master to the left asked.
“I did ride in on his back, but I did not steal Windrider.” I hoped I knew what I was doing, “He was given to me.”
“No matter, Magus Cooke…”
I didn’t listen to him after hearing her surname. Carolyn Cooke, I liked the sound of that. I absent mindedly wondered what Carolyn Vaughnson sounded like. Not quite as alliterate, but not too bad. Who was I kidding? There was no way in the seven hells that would ever happen. Most female Magii didn’t marry, they seldom had the time for children, husbands and the like. By the time they left the service they were usually too old to bear offspring. The old gray haired Magus, Sirenia who I called grandma didn’t have any children.
The Rider Master looked like he was finishing, so I figured I should pay attention, “…gave you the bond but she was injured and not in the proper frame of mind to do so.”
Carolyn spoke out of turn. “Master Thatchersen, I was injured but I was thinking clearly. My only chance to escape was to bond the nearest person and hope to be flown to safety.”
I felt like I had been kicked in the guts. She used me to escape that’s all she thought? I closed my eyes and could feel Windrider in the back of my mind; his talons were being worked on by the young aviary boy from earlier.
“Magus, do not speak out of turn or I will have you removed from this inquest.”
“Yes Master Thatchersen.”
“Armsmaker Vaughnson, notwithstanding the circumstances of your bonding you are not authorized to hold the bond of a Greater Raptor. Therefore you will be required to release the bond immediately.” Master Thatchersen said as he reached for a wax seal to stamp the paperwork that lay in front of him.
“Vaughnson, do you give up your bond to Windrider freely?”
All eyes in the room were on me. I’d never been one to enjoy large groups. Twenty people was a large group by my estimation.
I glanced at Carolyn, she was rapidly nodding her head to prompt me to say yes.
I looked back at the Rider Masters and swallowed the bile in my throat. “No.”
The air in the room became a bit thinner as most everyone gasped.
Thatchersen put his head in his palm for a brief moment. “Well Armsmaker I’d wager you’ll change your mind after spending a few nights in the Black Ward of Vassar prison.”
With a few strokes of a quill pen and a fancy splotch of melted ink my freedom was taken away. He banged the egg shaped gavel on the table.
Carolyn ran up to me. “Why?”
“When was the last time you heard of a bonded Rife Smith?” I repeated her words.
“Do you know what the Black Ward is?”
I nodded, “It’s the hardest to break out of?”
“It’s where they keep murderers, rapists, rogue Magii, and Skaji prisoners. Few people live longer than five years on the inside.” She balled up her gloved fists. “Stupid fool.”
Were those tears in her eyes? Unfortunately I didn’t have time to find out as I was clapped in irons and lead away by the guards.