I showered, this time by myself, thankfully. Instead of the shoddy prisoners garb I was given halfway descent workman’s clothes. No new boots but I would probably pick some up after I withdrew some emergency funds from the First National Bank of Velderland.
Carolyn met me outside the walls. Standing next to her was a beautiful Hawk I hadn’t seen before.
“New mount?” I asked.
“Yes, Sharptalon. He won’t ever replace Lightfeather, but he is wonderful.”
I felt my bird’s presence, “Windrider?”
“Here he comes now.”
He approached from across the valley, gliding gracefully. He landed with a couple of strong wing beats. I can’t describe my feelings as I saw him in flesh and feathers, wearing an empty saddle.
“Did I get you out?” she asked.
“I pulled a few strings with an influential senator.”
I stared at her, “How… how can I ever repay you?”
She frowned, “Victor, you misunderstand me. I didn’t bring him here to reunite you with your mount.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I brought him here and pulled you out of that hellish place so you could give him up.”
My spirit was crushed, I dreamed of climbing on Windrider’s back and taking to the sky.
“Listen to me Victor, please, let go of the bond. Give up your foolish dreams.”
She couldn’t have hurt me more if she had fired a pistol ball into my stomach. I held out a hand and he pressed his beak into my palm.
“If I refuse.”
She closed her eyes, “You’ll go back to the Black Ward.”
The sun hung low in the sky. I stared up at my magnificent mount; then back at the mine.
“I’ll give him back… on one condition.”
“We fly, once more.”
She smiled and mounted her bird. Her ankles flashed for a moment before her robes settled back into place over the saddle.
“Victor, it’s not polite to stare at a lady’s ankles.”
“Sorry, but I… you surprised me is all.”
What’s the big deal with ankles?
You modern people have become desensitized from all the loose women showing skin on your magic picture boxes. To me seeing Carolyn’s ankles was noteworthy.
We took to the air rising on the evening thermals. Once above the mountains I tapped my comm stone. “Carolyn?”
At that moment I thought about heading toward the setting sun and not looking back. But I knew in the coming conflict the Velderland Raptor Corps would need every bird and rider they could get to push back skies darkened by Skaji Wyvern.
We soared among a few wispy clouds; the air was clean, and crisp. The wind felt amazing as it tried to push me off the saddle.
Life was good.
I knew it couldn’t last.
After an hour of leisurely flight my comm stone chimed. “Victor, it’s time to go.”
“Only if you can catch us!” I replied and pushed Windrider into a stoop. We dove toward the earth dropping like a stone. I glanced back, Carolyn and Sharptalon were following close behind, but her Hawk was no match for my Falcon in diving speed.
As we approached the ground we leveled off and Carolyn formed up on our wing.
“You know what’s unfortunate about all this?”
“You really would have made an excellent Raptor Rider.”
I sighed, “You think so?”
“Yes, you have a gift.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I had a gift that was crushed because of my height and weight. I hung my head as we landed near the aviary.
I climbed off Windrider’s back for the last time.
A group of aviary boys came out to meet us. One wearing heavy gloves carried meat for my bird. I took it from him; he was reluctant to let it go. I noticed he was the same boy from before who I’d lied to about being an Airborne weapons maintainer.
“Let me feed him for the last time.”
“Yes, I’m giving him up today.”
The boy bit his lip and let me take the food.
I stood feeding my beautiful Falcon; soon we would no longer share dreams. I wouldn’t ride on his back ever again. Tears rolled down my cheeks as he finished the last morsel.
He lowered his head, and I rubbed his beak. On the side the crimson handprint of the Magus who had first bonded him glistened in the fading light. I placed my hand on top of the print, my fingers dwarfed those of the hand print.
“He was my first.” Carolyn said.
I turned, I looked away ashamed.
“It’s alright Victor, sadness is normal when one gives a bond away. Windrider is special to me. He was the first Raptor I bonded. Giving him up to a Rider was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.”
“How many have you bonded and let go?”
“I’ve lost count, but I’d guess around ten score.”
She nodded and slid up next to me. I took my hand off Windriders beak, she placed her delicate fingers on the handprint. It was a perfect match.
“Does it get easier?”
“What?” she asked.
“Letting them go?”
She sighed, “A little, but every one of these creatures is a blessing from the Elder Lords. It hurts to let them go.
She took her hand down and turned toward the Masters chambers “Come on Victor, it’s time.”
We left the birds in the hands of the aviary boys.
“Magus Cooke, you and the prisoner are late.” Rider Master Thatchersen looked displeased.
She curtsied, “Apologies Master Thatchersen.”
“Care to explain your absence?”
“Does it matter? We’re here.” I said.
The Master’s eyes widened, he looked ready to leap across the table and wring my neck.
“No matter. Let’s get down to business then.” He held up a hand and a young man was shown in. His leathers were new and bright, his hair cropped short, and his face devoid of wrinkles. He was even shorter than Carolyn.
“Fledgling Silversen please step forward.” The magus said.
“Thank you, Magus.” He said with a crisp bow.
The young Rider recruit held out his hand, I reluctantly took it.
“Do you Victor Vaughnson of Velderland give up your bond to Windrider of your own free will and choice?”
I closed my eyes, grit my teeth and clenched my fists. I’d much rather have kept him but I didn’t want to go back in the mines.
“Yes.” I managed through my teeth.
Carolyn removed one of her ever-present gloves. I gasped; her hands were a mass of scar tissue. Burns layered upon burns. Her eyes met mine for a brief moment. They seemed to say, ‘It’s alright, I chose this.’
She began an incantation in the tongue of the ancient Velder Lords. At first I didn’t feel any different. I stared at her heavily scarred hands. It all made sense. Every Magus I’d ever seen always wore gloves. Working with magic ink left one scarred.
She pulled a glass dropper from a vial on the table and let one drop of the crimson ink land on the back of her hand. It burst into blue flames as soon as it touched her skin. She didn’t seem to notice the pain.
Something departed my body it passed from me, through Carolyn, and into the Fledgling Rider.
We unclasped hands and I fell to my knees. One moment I felt Windrider perched on a branch in the Aviary, then nothing. A massive hole seemed to open inside my chest. I labored to breathe, feelings that came naturally without thought before had been wrenched away.
Carolyn knelt down in front of me. “Victor, are you well?”
I couldn’t speak, part of me was dead. She had her glove back on, hiding the angry burns.
“Victor, I’m sorry.”
I stared at the tile floor. Tears fell, splashing the white ceramic.
Rider Master Thatchersen grunted, “You’ll get over it.” He snapped his fingers, “Now get out of my chambers.”
Somehow I managed to rise and face the soulless man. “There is a special place in the hells reserved for you.”
“I could have you sent back to your friends in the Black Ward for uttering such blasphemy!” He stood and pointed to the doors, “Get out!”
Carolyn led me by the hand outside into the cool evening air.
“Victor, you’re a fool. You need to know when to bite that tongue of yours.”
I leaned up against the granite block wall. “Are you alright?”
She looked up at me her eyes wide. “Am I alright? Yes why do you ask?”
“Your hand was on fire.”
She punched my arm. It stung a little.
“What was that for?”
“Did that hurt?”
I rubbed it, “A bit.”
“A single drop of ink only stings mildly. Enough to cover the whole hand can be excruciating.”
“Why did you need it anyway? You didn’t need ink when you bonded me to Windrider.”
She walking toward the aviary, I followed. “You aren’t dead.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Windrider’s former Rider was killed by a Skaji bullet. All I did was imprint his empty bond to you. Transferring bonds between the living is more difficult.”
We walked in silence, the Aviary boys brought out Sharptalon and she climbed aboard.
“Am I to train to become a Magus?” I asked.
She hesitated, “No.”
“No? But you…”
“I’m sorry victor, the council thought it too irregular. You now have a black mark from your time in prison.” She brushed her dark hair from her face, “I tried to persuade them and failed.”
“Will I see you again?”
She paused for a moment, fished a small wood plank out of her robes and tossed it down to me.
I caught it and looked at it in the light from the aviary oil lamps. It was the same kind of token she had given me the first day we’d met. “In a week’s time come to the Vassar Magorum University, at noon.”
I stepped back to keep from being struck by her mount. He ran forward down the slope, spread his wings and leapt into the air. I watched her go until I lost them amid the clouds.
I sighed and walked toward the gates. The stone walls were relics of the last age. Airborne combat had changed the way wars were waged. Walls offered little protection from the sky.
A guard let me out and I made my way down the hill to Vassar city, bare feet padding along the cold cobblestones.