A black fist, as unsettling as it is foreign, hangs from the flag-poles over Heart-Home. Heart-Home, the city of my youth, the city of the candle flame, the city of the kite-riders, the city conquered by an unknown enemy. But even that black fist sign of the city’s fall fails to distract from the inevitable, because no matter how many times I find myself hanging from a kite coming over the last ridge of the Alps toward Heart-Home, I always have the same thought:
That’s a really long drop.
That thought bubbles up through the haze of concentration on shifting weight, wind pressure and the movements of clouds, the subtle balance of my body against canvas wings. It flashes across my mind just as the wind I’m riding dies and the valley of Chevalier’s Folly drops away beneath me, taking a little bit of my stomach with it.
Straight, flat and tantalizingly green, the valley floor runs straight to Wallkeep fort and the thousand stairs that lead to Heart-Home’s eastern gate. It’s a great place to ride horses and a potent defense for the city. The commanding valley walls give the defender’s cannon vantage to destroy anyone foolish enough to assault from the east, and serve as the launching point all the kite orphans training, racing, or merely taking their fun.
The strength of that defense is one of many reasons it’s strange to see the foreign banner flying from Heart-Home’s towers. A black gauntleted fist on patches of black and gold – colors of the Holy Roman Empire but I don’t know the sigil. Gone is Heart-Home’s native green and blue candle-flame flag, and no kite orphans fly from the ramparts over Chevalier’s Folly. Well, except me.
Plumes of smoke billow on the gusting mountain wind. They catch the evening sun that grows a shadow among the streets and alleys. Not chimney smoke, too black. Remnants of battle. The outer wall’s intact and I see no evidence of siege engines outside Wallkeep or on the thousand stairs. Hard to imagine how Heart-Home might have been taken, with the high Alps on all sides, the eastern approach guarded by the river Isère and the western by chevalier’s folly. Harder to imagine how it might have fallen so quickly – the messengers calling on my liege for aid in Heart-Home’s defense arrived only a few hours before the news that the candle flags had been lowered.
Hard to imagine someone would dare to break the Pax Celticus for isolated, wind-swept little Heart-Home.
Hard to imagine. So my liege doesn’t imagine. He sends me.
I’m losing altitude. I’ve left behind the mountain breeze which lifted me over the last ridge. I hang, seeming stationary, just above the level of the city wall with the green of chevalier’s gap a narrow ribbon below. The city waits, just out of reach.
I lean, dive, and the wind rushes.
Flying a kite is a constant balance between momentum and angle. Ascent costs momentum, descent loses it. Go too fast and I lose control, go too slow and I fall from the sky. But unlike the great celtean war-machines, my kite has no engine. I’m always losing momentum unless in a dive and I’m always losing altitude unless in a thermal. To earn either back, I need updrafts. So I watch for the places the wind spirits dance over heated earth, or rush up mountain ridges. They don’t mind sharing a dance with a mortal, if he knows the steps, stays respectful and is properly attired.
The taste of smoke. The tarred roofs of the city spread beneath me, seeming like the embers of a vast fire in the evening light. But nothing burns. The smoke comes from courtyards near the merchant’s quarter. Maybe it isn’t battle damage.
Guards on the walls point my way as I sail overhead. Some will have gonnes or other shot weapons. Hitting a flyer with shot is nigh impossible if the flyer has a good speed, but if they get enough shooters trying then one of them will get lucky. Too many of my friends have died from such a lucky shot or from the daring maneuvers meant to evade them. Too many hands I’ll never hold again. But there are no shooters yet.
I sail above regent’s way, the main boulevard that runs from the east-gate to the west. The trees in the street center still wear their summer colors. I walked with Elen on those paving stones, when we were engaged but didn’t yet know each-other. His yellow blouse caught sunlight through the leaves. He stole an apple from a street vendor and then slipped a silver ring a thousand times the apple’s worth into the vendor’s pocket, all without being noticed. As he grinned at the prank, I thought of the whip-scars on little Mary Windsor, my sister orphan of the kite, who had stolen from that same cart. I thought of little Mary Windsor, who we called Rabbit, huddled under my blankets with me whispering secrets, and I tried to smile to Elen.
Now a corpse-wagon moves along the boulevard’s stones, mostly empty. The driver’s lad scours alleys and gutters, looking for anything left behind by the fighting. The bodies in the wagon’s back are covered in hay, but one hand hangs from the cart-back and the sun glints off a ring on its finger.
The buildings along the way are intact. The corpse wagon is mostly empty.
The boulevard opens into armory square, before the gates of the keep. Rows of columns once held the many banners and colors of Heart-Home’s knights. Now there’s only one banner and only two colors: gold and black behind that closed black fist.
The square should honor all those who participated in the action of taking the city, but it can’t have been only one house. I know of no house in Europa powerful enough, except perhaps the Pendragons of Celtea, but that is not their banner.
The gusting wind over the mountains carries smoke across the keep’s face from left to right. I turn into the smoke and the wind pushes me up. Momentum turns to altitude – I spiral around the keep’s tower and wrought stone rushes past on my right. The keep roof, heated by the sun, makes a thermal I know well and have used a thousand times.
A lone figure watches from the tower parapet – a knight in full armor, but too wrought, impossibly heavy. His colors are gold and black. As I flash past, I glimpse a thin face, beardless and unscarred.
My speed runs out as I pass the tower’s new pennant. The snap of its cloth in the breeze sounds like a battle. Then I turn back on my tail and ride the drop into the city streets.
My route carries me west of the keep to chandlery way – where the wax-workers make the city lights. Still no sign of fighting. No scars. No burnt buildings. No parading troops in foreign color, but the smell of smoke mixes with the cloying acridity of the waxworks.
A flicker of fast movement catches my eye. Someone runs along the street, keeping pace with me. A shadow only. The narrow street comes in and out of dark as the sun nears the western hills. I’m spooked by my own shadow.
But my shadow shouldn’t be below me.
To a kite rider any mistake can kill. I was never the best or quickest flier, or the neatest at tricks. After ten years and ten thousand hours riding the wind I am still alive because I plan meticulously, scout my courses, and avoid unknowns. I know this city, its winds, my kite, its limits, and the measures of my ability. I know I’m flying at about thirty knots, a speed a good horse might match on open terrain, but certainly no runner. But I also know that a westering sun does not cast a flyer’s shadow onto the ground straight below her.
The skies are clear of any other flier.
With my heart beating a cautious retreat, I turn from my planned path along chandlery way to gain altitude in the warmer air over the white, sun-heated roofs of the merchant’s quarter.
Another gold and black knight watches me from the roof of the merchant’s guild, kit identical to the other. I’ve never seen two knights with identical armor. A good kit is so expensive that those who can afford them prefer to have something unique. Maybe these are some kind of honor-guard.
The haze hangs thickest over pauper’s square. The garden there was Elen’s favorite. Swaincop’s jewelry is at the west side of the square. Swaincop made our wedding rings, and his wife made the engagement feast. Elen’s patron, my liege Octane, has a dozen chefs, but Mrs. Swaincops pies humbled them all. Swaincop’s four chins and ready smile bore testimony to that. A fat, happy man of modest skill and tremendous heart who always gave a double helping to the kite orphans.
The trees have been felled in pauper’s square, leaving broken dirt worked with ditches. The windows of Swaincop’s jewelry are intact, but the storefront next to his has a smile of broken teeth.
A hundred figures labor there. They wear heavy outfits, their faces covered. Pots above fire pits bubble and smoke. Frames like siege engines but smaller support casts made of clay. The industry is unfamiliar to me. Bronze smelting maybe.
Then I’m past the gap in roofs and on over the maze of the lower ward.
I need to know what they’re doing in Pauper’s Square, and my mission will be incomplete if I cannot bring at least some estimate of the number of troops quartered in the city. I tilt and dive toward the great boulevard. The lurch of my heart and the rush of the dive bring me firmly back into the moment.
Whistling air wraps its welcome hand about me. There’s a peculiar singing in my heart as the pave-stones sweep close. I am weightless as the wind and pointed as a dart. The flap of canvas, the creak of leather, the press of my goggles against my eyes, the familiar pressures of lean and turn, all are me. My life. My freedom.
My Leige asked me to put up my wings no less than a week ago. In his retiring room, as an evening council ended and the others went to bed, he asked me to stay. His white hair was dented from the weight of the circlet he finally let hang from the hook by the fire.
“It is a miracle,” he said, “that you still have all your limbs. It speaks of your skill and the mercy of God. Keep them! I will not order you to put away your wings, but I ask it of you. My ward wants children, and they deserve a mother who is whole of body. Train the young riders, sit at my privy council, and you shall not have to risk your family against the winds of war again. Think on it.”
Then, as the sun rose this morning, he sat at the edge of his throne with a crumpled message in one hand and exhaustion in his grey eyes as he issued the order that send me here. I’m almost grateful for the crisis. This is my city, and my duty, and it may be my last flight.
Columns whistle past and the pavestones are a blur. I’ll turn down the alley by the merchant’s guild and pass through Pauper’s Square at a low altitude for a better view, then-
The knight comes abreast of me, running like a rabbit, each step a dozen yards. It must be my shadow. The gate approaches, with the merchant’s guild to my right. It is not a shadow. It’s a person. My heart bucks like a powder magazine exploding. I have to turn now, my wings are too wide for the gate- But a knight runs alongside me at forty knots. My insides try to jump out my naval and my heart turns to a cannon barrage. The black and gold helmet pivots to look at me from less than five yards distance. The eyes behind the slit are green, female, and shining like emeralds in sunlight.
A laugh issues from behind that visor, high timber and clear.
The knight falls back a pace.
The Merchant’s Guild whips past. The shadow of the seventh gate falls on me. Too late. I have to go through it. I rise an arm’s length so I may fold my wings to fit. For a wrenching moment I’m hurdling like an arrow in flight, the stone of the gate all around me, blocking the wind and sun.
Then I’m out the other side. I spread my wings. Pavestones scrape the leather of my harness. My left knee bounces from the ground and explodes with pain. I grunt, turn my wings up, scrape their tails against the ground, and lurch into an ascent. The climb tops out only a few yards above the guard-house and wall; too much momentum lost skipping off the ground. One of the guards points at me with his mouth open. A pretty trick, passing through the gate. My knee shoots a web of pain up to my hip and down to my toes.
The knight passes the gate and skids to a halt, his helmet – her helmet – pivots, searching for me. I try to dive back over the wall, but too late – I’m seen. The merchant’s yard flashes by as the knight bounds after me.
I twist as metal-gloved fingers reach for my ankle. I need more speed, but the winds aren’t magic, they give what they give.
Forget Pauper’s square. My heart thunders. I’ve fallen into madness. I must escape. I have to get home. Elen.
It’s a steep downhill run from armory square to the eastern gate, and the Isère bounds white and foamy beyond it. I falcon my wings for speed. I’ll race the six remaining gates to the Isère and ride its breezes toward Grenoble, then let the crosswinds along the ridges of the Alps carry me home.
But striking the ground has cost momentum I may yet fail to recover.
The knight keeps pace behind me. One stride bounds a wagon, lands one foot on the gate’s roof and launches her to an arm’s length from my feet. She moves with her hands clasped behind her back.
I cannot go faster. I have no altitude left to sacrifice. I lost this race the moment I struck the ground. Elen’s eyes turn hard as he frowns. He’ll be angry. He expected better.
It ends in a few more seconds. The knight catches my belt. I’m slowing as grieves scrape stone. My knee bangs against metal and I can’t hold back the cry of pain. Pavestones and shadows of canvas. The smell of armor-grease and something very strong – like moss and grass and cave-mud. We slide to a halt. I’m caught in a metal trap.
The knight holds me in both hands, one clamped around the harness across my chest and the other to my belt. The pavestones show white claw-marks where her feet slid.
“Is your knee alright?” The voice is indeed a woman’s, muffled by the visor. At her words, that moss and grass scent grows suddenly furious, and then recedes. Her accent is cultured but local.
My head swims and the world tilts. Nothing is making any sense. For a moment, the sky seems below me, the ground above. It passes as the pain in my leg grows.
I lift my head to look into the eyes behind the visor. There’s an intelligence in them but not that piercing light I saw before.
“It might be a small injury,” I confess.
“Nonsense. Your leg’s bent at a very uncomfortable angle.”
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed.”
She laughs. “Good! And that was fine flying. By your colors, you’re of the Western Malta. Octane is your liege?”
“Yes Sir. Sir Castor is my name.”
“Sir Castor?” She emphasizes the honorific before my commoner’s name with surprise. “Knighted for your flying then?”
“Sir has the truth of it.”
“Octane has been kind to you.”
“We will see you returned to him, as you desire.” Her fingers shift against my chest. With my weight resting on her hands it’s a little hard to breathe. My leg is a jumble of confused sensations, like my skin houses a bunch of broken pottery.
“Sir might have permitted me to return without interference. That is where I was going when she caught me.”
With my leg broken, flying home at night may now be beyond my ability.
“True,” she says curtly, “but then we would not have had such a merry chase. Come. The keep’s physician has felt betrayed that he has no work and longs for an injury to treat. We shall fulfill his desire. Will you swear to follow me to the keep, and stay as my guest until I discharge you to return to your country?”
“As your guest, Good Lady? Forgive me but our houses are not allies.”
“No, but we may soon be. You will be treated as my friend. Will you trust me?”
“If I try to escape, Sir will catch me again.”
“She did not seem overmuch taxed to catch me the first time.”
“True, but surprise is a strong ally. I expect you could now escape me, given a chance. But I’ll trust your oath if you give it. If you won’t swear, then I must carry you to a prison instead of a guest-room. Choose. I have given you my word you will be well treated and allowed to depart, so unless you are a scoundrel-“
“By my wings I swear to follow to the keep and to there stay until discharged.”
“So be it,” she declares. Something in her armor clicks, then hisses like a snake. She takes a deep breath and the bright green light returns to her eyes. She turns and, like a javelin thrower in the great games, takes two swift steps and hurdles me into the sky.
As a child, we would fly every day. It was training – the duty we undertook as orphans adopted to the Kite. But it was also my love. On some grey days in autumn or spring, when the sun is muted, the earth cool and the winds over the Alps still, there are no thermals or ridge-winds. A kite cannot fly. In those rare days our obligation to train would be lifted. But some few of us couldn’t let it be. I and little Mary Winder, the Salizar brothers, and Seamus of MacLorry, all orphans with no family but our canvas wings and each-other, would load ourselves into the old trebuchet and let the others fire us out over Chevalier’s Folly.
The sudden, neck-breaking surge of the trebuchet will tear your arms from their sockets if you launch with your wings out. Then the weightless hurtle tries to stop your heart and all you want to do is open your arms as you feel the world whirl past. But first you have to level out. Remember to breath. Face into the wind. Only then do you open your wings and fly.
The knight’s throw is worse.
“Bite down.” Grimwerd the castle physician has his beard tucked behind his leather mask to keep hair out of the delicate matters of his profession – in this case, the frame suspending my leg and the many screws he’s tightened to position my broken bones just so.
I bite. He twists a screw. Another shot of shifting agony tilts my world.
“Good,” he says. “This will be the last time.”
He’s said that more than once.
I lay on my back on a cheap blanket atop a pile of pillows. An apron spreads beneath my leg to catch the drips. His tools look like a torturer’s set, spread across a leather fold on the floor and tended by his assistant who hovers over them like a covetous crow. Carved panels of the white pine wood local to Heart-Home line the walls, with a crisscrossing pattern meant to seem like flames. A high window is dark except for the glimmer of moonlight, and a fire in the big hearth casts flickering orange across the room, which stinks of alcohol.
The door opens as I stare at the ceiling. The lady enters, clothed in her black and gold armor. Its helmet hangs from her belt next to a sheathed sword with a gallowood hilt. Her black hair’s cut off above her ear. Her skin’s golden, her eyes green. She has a sharp nose that’s been broken before and high, hellenic cheekbones, smoothed by impacts much as the jousting knights’ are. Her hands clench her sword-belt, folding it in half.
Twist. Agony. I try not to shout. The leather I bite tastes of salt.
“Still working, Master Grimwerd? Was the injury so severe?” Her accent remains cultured and local, no hint of a Celtaen lilt or even a Saxon consonant. I continue to expect one, or some other hint she must be from those lands or have spent time there.
The way she chased me makes me remember thunder and fire raining from the sky, a wide street burning as buildings fall, and a knight leaping through the smoke like a an archangel alighting from on high. Not today. Long ago. Not her. It couldn’t have been.
Her boots are black, where that one’s were greened bronze.
“Extremely severe, Warden,” the doctor’s saying. “The joint was broken like the green wood of a juniper. It continues to twist out of place under its own weight and I am unable to position it, but even if I could, the split muscle and bone will corrupt. It would be safer to remove the leg mid-thigh, than risk corruption.”
She shifts her weight off her left leg. She hasn’t told me a name.
“To return to her liege without a leg would be a disgrace. I should not wish to burden her so, Doctor. Do your best.”
I spit the belt from my mouth. “If I may, Lady, the Doctor knows his art. I have known kite riders who flew for years after worse injuries than this because of his skill. I will trust him.”
Her eyes glitter. She studies my face as if waiting for something.
“It is no matter, My Lady,” I assure her, watching as she pinches her belt again. “I have wings, and do not need to walk.”
Elen loves to dance. He has been teaching me, since I proved untutored at our wedding. His smile is often warm, but never so delighted as when I do well. It claws at me to take this from him.
“Very well,” The knight’s voice is conversational but her face seems a weathered stone.
The doctor reaches for his tourniquet and saw.
She stays to watch, and when my struggles overturn the doctor’s assistant, the metal of her hands holds me still.
I awaken laying by the embers of a fire, with warm leather under my bare backside and a bearskin fur covering me. Something’s missing.
The line of my right leg disturbs the drape of the fur. The line of my left does not.
My throat’s raw and my hands weak, but a pitcher of water waits on the table next to me. I sit to pour myself a glass and almost fall – weary, unbalanced, light-headed. I’ve been sweating and my lips are dry.
Elen will be angry. He won’t berate me but he’s often said that should I crash and harm myself, he would not push my wheelchair. He’s meant it as a playful encouragement not to crash, but I’ve always answered that a crash is inevitable, to which he replies with a playful twinkle in his eye: “If you’re too broken to hold me, don’t bother returning home.”
That day will come. The other Kite Orphans are long gone. Little Mary Winder, with the small hands and the eyes that always tried to swallow me, crashed in the Eiffel when a downdraft swept her suddenly into a tree-top. I remember her truncated cry. The younger Salizar was caught by grape-shot as he scouted the Roman navy. The older never returned from an evening patrol. MacLorry crashed on a routine courier flight. I picked up his commission and so had to search his body for the parcel he was to deliver. I couldn’t figure out what had happened; the sky was clear and he knew the route. He just crashed. Those were my close friends. There are others, a constant parade. I still try to learn their names, but kite fliers don’t last long. Except for me. At twenty, I’m the oldest I’ve ever known.
I think Elen knew our marriage wouldn’t be permanent, at least for him. He can do better than me and he will when I’m gone.
Tears drip from my chin. Perhaps it’s unseemly, but there’s no-one here to see.
I finish the glass of water. They did not leave me a crutch. I’m sure Doctor Grimwerd expects me to rest.
The room still stinks of alcohol, especially the stump of my leg. A chest in the corner holds linen shirts and I take one. It’s long enough to reach my knees. This must have been Gurstwalt’s room; the chancellor’s champion is the only man so tall who lived in the castle.
In the corner a broken spear-shaft half-hides behind a tapestry of hunting. I practice with it as a crutch. It stabs my armpit, and it’s hard to balance on, but after a few falls I find the confidence to go out, and set off down the hall.
They put me in Gurstwalt’s room instead of the Kite’s quarters. It’s strange to wake up in the area reserved for the upper table, but nothing about the castle has changed since I left it for Octane’s keep.
A servant in white linen enters the hall from a side way. He stops when he sees me and fails to hide his surprise. A young boy: dark haired, tall and thin as a pike. The freckles under his eyes spread as he blinks at me.
“Lady? May I assist you?” His voice breaks.
“You look like Teren Baker,” I tell him, studying his face.
“Um… yes?” he says. “Teren is my mother, M’lady. Though her name is Butler now.”
“Butler?” Even woozy, the idea strikes me as odd. “She married old Skornwurt?”
“No M’lady,” he says the honorific with increasing suspicion that it may not be appropriate. “Skornwurt Butler died of a sudden and my father, that would be Hesten, was named Butler.”
“I don’t remember Hesten,” I try to say, but a bit of turbulence in my head tries to knock me over.
His hands hover before him. He hesitates, afraid to touch my person.
“Grab a loop, lad. This line needs all hands.”
“B-begging your pardon, Sir,” he stutters, as he ducks under my arm.
“No pardon necessary. Thanks.”
“Shouldn’t m’lady be, perhaps, resting?”
“But m’lady has lost a leg.”
“An inconvenience to be sure. I need to get to the Kite’s quarters for some proper clothing, and then there’s a knight I must visit, a Lady Knight.”
“The Warden, Sir.”
“Yes, the doctor called her that. The Warden. So she’s been named warden of the city? What is her land, her family?”
“Sir, perhaps you might sit while I fetch the clothes you require?”
“What’s the matter, afraid to talk about the new lords?”
“N-no sir. But- s-sorry sir.”
The hall ends in a colonnade whose arches open into the great hall. There the chancellor’s table runs forty paces and forty chairs beside a row of hearths and barrels of ale. The seats are all empty now, and the hearths cold. The high thrones are covered with black velvet and the table’s bare. The skin of my legs goosebumps in the chill. Odd. I’m getting goosebumps on a leg I don’t have.
A chandlery maid, caught in the act of replacing a candle in a wall sconce, glances over her shoulder at the sound of our voices echoing in the big room. She studies us a second, then goes back to her work.
“Will the Flight Master let you walk out with a kite-riders raiment?”
“If he would give it to you then he’ll give it to me in your name,m’lady.” The honorific is becoming more of an afterthought. He might be a little impatient.
“Fine then,” I tell the boy. “But I’ll not sit at that table. On the chest there. Give me a ball of wax and I’ll make my mark to show him.”
He scurries away, my mark in hand.
The servants remain though the keep has fallen. A change in colors, but life goes on. No occupying warriors drink the chancellor’s ale. The halls are silent but for the echoes of the staff murmuring to each-other. Even they sound quieter than usual. The guards wore black and gold instead of the chancellor’s purple, but they may well have been the same people as before.
Perhaps they were. I flew by too fast to tell.
“You there, chandlery maid.” My voice startles her, and she freezes in the midst of scraping wax from the bottom of a candle-bowl. “What’s your name?”
“Serai, m’lady,” she lowers the scraping spoon and turns to give me a curtsy.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Yes, Sir,” she drifts closer, with the long table between us. “You’re the flyer the Warden caught. We all watched from the windows.”
Of course they did. It must have been quite a sight.
“I am Sir Castor of the Western Malta.”
“Oh!” She gasps and her eyes widen. “I’ve heard of you sir!”
“I expected you might have. I was once of Heart-Home.”
“They say you were an orphan of the kite m’lady. Is it true?”
“Yes, that is true.”
She grins and a light shines in her brown eyes. The candle-spoon hangs forgotten in her hand, with wax clinging to its surface like peeling skin.
“Is it true you flew to Athens in one night and they knighted you for it and you went off to Malta and married a prince?”
“Is that what they say?”
“Yes M’lord. That and other things.”
“Well it’s not quite true but close. I was knighted at the battle of west-gate for bringing word of a Sultanate flanking force to Octane of Malta. It was at night and there were other difficulties, but it wasn’t quite so far as Athens.”
“And your husband, m’lady? Forgive my asking.” She clutches the spoon in both hands and wrings it like a wet rag.
“Lord Octane requested my hand for the Lord Elen Orleans, a ward of his court. I was honored to accept and he honors me now with a place in the court of West Malta.”
“It is said he saw you flying and fell for you, and that you love him very much.” The maid’s eyes search my face with an earnest excitement.
“Well I suppose that’s true.” I clear my throat to warn off any lingering tears, but none come. “Serai, what can you tell me about the invasion?”
The light goes out of her eyes to be replaced by cold nerves. She looks over her shoulder.
“You have nothing to fear,” I coax. “This place was my home. I want to know what’s happened here. What became of Chancellor Torrus? He was always kind.”
She bites her lip and looks at the table where the wringing of her spoon has dropped spots of wax.
“The Chancellor’s gone off to Prague with all the other lords. Them that survived.”
Of course. Those that didn’t escape into the hills will have been made to surrender. In Prague they’ll either swear to the Holy Roman Emperor or be held for ransom. It surprises me to hear the Chancellor’s still alive.
“What of his daughter Mereg?” I almost don’t dare to ask.
“She’s well, m’lady. She went to Prague as well.”
“Also to Prague, sir.”
“Who fell in the battle?”
“Sir Fencworth, Sir Tallow, Sir Jestings, um, sorry m’lady I don’t know them all. There were two dozen and one, and about a hundred of the town guard.”
“A hundred- so few? Did the Chamberlain surrender?”
The city streets were clean, the gates proud, the towers tall, the river was unblemished by dam and the stairs uncluttered with refuse of battle. Yet they had called for aid. Yet they had surrendered.
“That’s not for me to say, m’lady.” Her weight shifts from foot to foot, and she glances at the door she came in by.
“The occupying army… did it leave? Which direction?”
“The army. Where is it?”
“Army? Oh, there was no army, m’lady.”
“Then who killed twenty-five knights and a hundred armsmen?” Exasperation loudens my voice.
Her eyes widen, though she still stares down. “The warden killed them.” She manages a whisper. “It happened at night, sir. It was confusing. We thought there must be an army. There were gonnes in the keep, the thunder… I was very scared, sir. But it was all her. It was just her.”
“Thank you Serai,” I pity the fear in her face. “I won’t make you relive it anymore.”
But the gates are open.
“I was hiding during, but after we had to clean up. Sir Tallow, by the front gate, his arms had come off and his body was behind them, all the way over by the well, all – all jumbled. And Sir Fencworth – we couldn’t find his head at all.” She fixes me with a desperate stare. “What is she sir? What could do that? Do- do you know?”
Her last syllable drains from the echoing hall leaving it empty of answers.
I’ve seen men’s heads torn from their bodies by cannon fire or by a runaway horse. I’ve seen mangled bodies littering battlefields ridden with bullets. While delivering a missive to a Spanish Cardinal, I watched the legendary Celtaen air-ship fleet rain fire on Barcelona. Their lighter-than-air ships made me feel like a butterfly below a flight of hawks. I’ve been as far east as Lennai, where the spindle towers catch the moon and the magi make wings out of carpets, and as far south as the Sinai, where ghosts of wind and fire carry red-eyed warriors across oceans of sand.
But I’ve never heard of a lone knight sacking an entire city.
The silence grows too heavy. This young girl needs an assurance. I speak my thoughts as they come to me.
“In Espania, I was charged to deliver a missive to Cardinal Delgado during the Celtean rebuke of Barcelona. You may remember that the Duke of Barcelona had been remiss in his tithe. I watched from the Cardinal’s balcony, about a mile from the city and under the Vatican banner – far enough we weren’t at risk, but close enough to see the bodies in the streets. The Celtaen fleet opened fire on the city. It was as terrifying as the rumors say; great ships the size of buildings floating high in the air, their guns thundering like the Almighty at Gomorrah. Like rain, but each drop a cannonshot. Men died by the dozen, ran for cover, hid in basements only to have buildings come down on top of them. No soul staid still. But in all that chaos, one stood out like a mountain in a stormy sky. I saw a knight, dressed with a red dragon on a field azure. He leapt a tall building at a single bound and walked along the wide street as though the fire and thunder of the bombardment were as comfortable as his cloak. I remember thinking: The cannon weren’t necessary. That Knight could have rebuked the city alone. I learned his name was Sir Gwenywaid, and he was a Knight Round.”
“Knight Round!” The maid gasps, and the walls echo her voice.
“Perhaps this warden was once one of those knights,” I finish but the story’s already had its intended effect. The fear disappears from her eyes, replaced by a glimmer of wonder breathed to life by a thousand too many tales. Her mouth falls open.
“Do you think?” She wrings her spoon. “But they’re from Celtea, and they were so long ago!”
“Celtea, yes. They serve the Celtean Empress, but their order is not extinct-“
“Why, it’s no wonder she’s been so kind! The Chancellor should have surrendered right away!” She blinks, surprised by her own outburst.
“You should get back to your work.” I smile.
She nods, her eyes shining. “Yes, yes thank you!”
She curtsies and backs away, leaving me to dark thoughts.
“Knights Round! Here!” She disappears out the door, leaving her whisper’s echo and one candle sconce empty.
The new raiment of a kite rider of Heart-Home chafes under my armpits. Thick lamb-wool lining, soft and warm against the chill of high currents, waxed leather outside to stream the wind, and all the clips needed to carry kit and stay secure to the kite. I’d had my Maltese kit two years until Grimwerd cut it off me to get at my leg. I was just starting to wear it in and get used to the Maltese white and red. Heart-Home’s green and blue feel just as strange now. Teren’s boy tied the left leg in a knot so it wouldn’t trail. He even brought me a couple of crutches.
My head still swims, and my stomach slowly revolves, issuing a gentle warning that food will not be made welcome.
I wait in the antechamber to the Chancellor’s apartments. No steward stands by the door, and I’m not certain how to proceed.
It’s ten minutes before a servant enters on some errand and sees me. He pauses.
“I seek an audience with the Warden,” I tell him.
“She does not bed here, sir. She’s taken the Princess Mereg’s quarters. I can help you there if you’re expected-“
“No need. I know the way.”
Princess Mereg’s quarters is near the keep’s bottom, with its own door into the gardens and easy access to the stables. The Princess loved to ride. I never spoke with her, she was the chancellor’s daughter, but I would often see her and her entourage riding along the high paths of the Alps. She would wave to me as I passed and I would loop. It became a game. She would wave and I would loop. Sometimes her laugh would carry on the wind.
Her retiring room is draped in folds of forest green cloth. Layered carpets spread across the white pine floor. Several spindly and finely carved chairs sit near the fire and I wait in one, which groans like my wings in a cross-breeze. The panels of one wall have been decorated with a mural – the shapes of the Alps under a patchwork of clouds. The painting is inexpert in quality but resplendent with tiny details – the work of years. A set of paints sits on a little table beneath the mural. A bow and quiver hang from hooks above the hearth, painted in detail by the same hand. The quiver looks half-full.
I study the mural as I wait. The artist drew the hills full of knights, banners, ladies in costumes from past and present, and even a masquerade on a dance floor on the edge of a cliff. The sky of the mural is full of kite riders doing loops.
The door from the gardens opens and the Warden enters. I had expected her to use a different door. It’s gotten late and the moon silvers the door-frame.
I rise on my crutches and do my best to bow. “I beg your pardon, Warden, for calling so late in the evening.”
“Sit Sir Castor, God’s blessing but sit, it’s I who owe you the apology.” She closes the door behind her. The firelight makes the black of her armor like a shadow and the gold of its gilding shine. She seems a scarecrow made of shining briars. I did not expect she would still be armed at this hour. “When the servants said you wished to speak with me I went to the room we’d left you. Now I’ve made you wait as well as cost you a leg.”
“Sir has cost me nothing. The leg I cost myself.” I wait until she’s sunk onto a chair before I sit. The crutches make the action awkward.
“You seem well. One would think you had lost your leg years and not hours ago, by how you balance and move.” Her chair groans but holds.
Her greaves have leather soles set with tiny spikes. The articulation of the joints is extremely refined. I don’t recognize the black lacquer, but it isn’t scraping off at the joints where the metal plates meet. This is the finest armor I’ve seen. It shames Octane of Malta’s five-thousand florin harness, which took a half-dozen fine smiths two years to make.
“My Lady honors me.” I can think of no better reply and so turn my attention to the fire to gather my thoughts.
“You wish to return to your country.”
I clear my throat. “Yes. This night, if it please you.”
“So quickly? To fly at night seems a great risk, even were you not injured.”
“I know the route well. The ridge winds will carry me and the moon is good. I have been testing my strength. I believe I am able.”
A log in the fire pops and shoots out sparks. The wind whispers at a window.
“It seems I am a poor host,” she stands to go to a little table by the fire where a bottle of wine waits. She pours two goblets. “Will you drink with me?”
The armor leaves dents in the carpet – footprints that cradle tiny tears from the spikes. She turns back, offering the silver and jeweled goblet full of wine. I take it, but do not drink.
“If I am to fly My Lady, I- I do not often partake of wine, it dulls my balance. I’m sorry-“
“Do as you will.” She sips but then sets her own goblet down.
“The Warden is most gracious, but the wind is my wine-“
“And flight your song,” she finishes, and the heels of her grieves click together.
My brow furrows. To keep our heels together is our first and most thorough training. She must have interviewed other kite riders. The silence lasts a breath too long but I’m not certain how to proceed. Weighted words have never been my domain. I prefer the voice of the wind which understands only the conversation of action and reaction.
“You study my feet,” her voice has quieted and holds a note like sadness, “as though my face were above your station. Are you not a knight, as I am?”
I lift my eyes. I hadn’t realized I was doing it. Her eyes glint in the firelight. Her hands rest on the arms of the chair, making the metal of the gauntlets seem like manacles.
“Begging my Lady’s pardon,” I stammer, “but she has not offered me a name.”
She nods, expecting the question. “I am one of the thousand Paladine of Charlemagne. We surrender our names when we enter that order and so I have none to give you. But when I must be distinguished, I am called Rabbit.”
I blink. Gears in my thinking which had stood too-long frozen grind back into motion. Paladine of Charlemagne. I had not heard the order was renewed. To renew a chivalric order in these late days, when gonne, cannon and ship have ended the age of heavy horse and heavy armor, would seem at best a bit of pomp – a prize to gild the chests of political favorites. But if all the Paladine can move as she has moved, then they will be the first legitimate challenge to the Knights Round in five hundred years, since the age of Arthur the Great.
A thousand of them. The Knights Round famously have never more than one hundred and forty-nine. I see now why she caught me in broad daylight before the eyes of the city. This was proof. This was a message all would remember. Not a night action of blood and chaos as it was when the city surrendered, but a clear and undeniable demonstration of her awesome power.
Then she took me prisoner, called me friend, and treated my wounds. The action is clear: resist and you will be crushed, surrender and you will be treated fairly. There is no escape.
The Holy Emperor intends to challenge Celtea.
She sits before me with the flickering light gentling her features, but in the metal of her hands I see the continent drowning in a rain of fire.
“You think deeply Sir Castor.” She wears a half-smile and her eyes seem bottomless.
“Octane’s keep will be your next step. From there Grenoble is in reach and from there Lyon. Before or just after, a separate force will move into the Friesian Seelande to challenge the Pax Celticus more directly but here, along the French border, the Templar stronghold at l’Écluse will resist to the last. That will be a bloody action even for you, but if you are lucky then the Celts will be too busy in the Seelande to directly intervene. Your Emperor must hope King Philip of France will capitulate. I do not think that hope is vein. France has no airship fleet and no weapon like the Paladine or the Knights Round. His only action can be to wait, try to play both sides and pay tribute to the victor. By Christmas the Holy Emperor’s flag could fly from every tower between Toulouse and Lodz.”
“I cannot speak of my Emperor’s thinking,” she says carefully. “But your assessment of my order’s significance honors me.”
“Perhaps The Warden will forgive an impertinent question-“
“I will answer what I can, but it would please me if you would use the name I have given you.”
I blink and struggle for a moment. “My Lady Rabbit-“ it sounds ridiculous.
“Just Rabbit, Sir Castor.” Her eyes twinkle but she doesn’t smile.
“Sir Rabbit?” I ask but it still doesn’t sound right.
“If you must.”
“Sir Rabbit,” I can’t do it. “It’s a strange name, forgive my saying.”
“Have you known no-one named Rabbit?” Her head tilts slightly.
“Well, no My- uh Lady Rabbit. I- there was a friend once… We as kite riders sometimes give each other familiar names. I had a friend, Mary Winder, whose body was very small. Her kite would buffet her and she would bounce suddenly up or down. We called her Rabbit for that but it wasn’t…”
I’ve trailed off.
The room’s stone walls close like the fingers of a fist. Firelight makes the clouds in the mural drift and the hanging drapes seem dark sails in a moving world. The smell of the wine in my hands makes my head spin. I can nearly smell the pine smoke over the Eiffel and see the fires of the Roman encampment. She’s harder and her nose angled by old injury. A slight dent mars where her left cheekbone was broken. The armor makes her seem larger than she is but she still fit in the spindly little chair. The close-cut hair… I should have seen it. I should have seen it right away, but I was afraid to look her in the face. It’s been five years.
I clear my throat but it doesn’t stop my eyes from watering. “…her name, your name is Mary Windor.”
The wine cup seems too heavy. I set it down but it takes extra care – my left leg’s absence almost unbalances me.
When I’ve straightened she’s still not spoken. Her fingers grip the chair-arms as if afraid she’ll fall out.
The gap stretches on and the wind whispers at the window. Her truncated cry tears my ears. The snapping of pine branches.
She clears her throat. “You married Elena of Malta.”
I have to pry my answer from someplace deep like a scrap of cloth from a patch of briers. “I did.”
“Had you met her?” A fierceness underscores her question.
“I had not.”
“Do you love her?”
“I do.” The last answer is heavier than the first.
She searches my face for a moment before turning her eyes to the fire.
“One of the Paladine trainers saw our flight over the Eiffel and was impressed. He sent a squire to see if I had survived the crash. I had, though my body was broken. I should have died except for secrets the Palladine keep. I was offered the same choice that we faced on joining the Kite Orphans and I made the same decision.”
The curtness in her tone speaks of a pain she’s tried to swallow but hasn’t entirely sat in her stomach. I cannot tell if that pain is old or present.
“To forsake your country-“ the anger in my voice surprises me.
“To live,” she cuts me off as her eyes flash like cannon. “To have a place, and the chance to earn the skill by which I might own some measure of control over my destiny. We made the same choice in joining the Kite Orphans. I do not apologize.”
I shake. Her eyes try to swallow me.
“We held vigil for you.” It comes a whisper. “We lit the candle lamp.”
“One of countless you’ve sent into the sky. How many? One a month?”
“Not so many as that.” It hurts to talk, but not in my throat.
“The training with the Palladine was not so dangerous.” She turns her eyes to the fire. “I was respected. They tried to call me Fearless, but I would answer only to Rabbit.”
“That’s why they sent you here. You knew the city. Even with your power you would have needed to know the keep’s byways and doors.”
Her eyes twinkle, reflecting the fire. “Shall I tell you a secret? Like we once did?”
Countless horrors surround this tiny room. My past is conquered by my enemies, my future will be flames, but her smile kindles a warmth in me I haven’t felt in many years.
She leans forward. Her lips turn up, baring teeth which, on the left side where her cheek was broken, are knocked slightly askew. “There were ten of us. Ten came at night, wearing the same armor. We moved quickly. When the city surrendered the other nine left – all before dawn. It was a trick, you see.”
I cover my face with my palm. Fencworth, Tallow, Jestings, and the others who fell – none were friends precisely, but all were pillars of my childhood. Those mighty figures in their armor were the defenders of my home. We served as their eyes, they served as our sword and our wall. We were the wind, they the fire.
I’m surprised to find metal touching my palm. My left hand, which hangs from my armrest, is wrapped in the metal fingers of her gauntlet. Articulate plates pinch my skin. She’s slid forward, going to one knee so she could reach my hand. The metal of her gauntlets is dry. Her eyes are not.
“They believe it was me.”
Some barrier in her eyes gives way. The amused smile on her lips cracks like porcelain. She lets go my hand, but I catch her by her wrist. She starts to rise but I hold on and she sinks again to her knees.
“You did what you had to,” I tell her.
She blinks and looks to the fire. “They shouldn’t have fought-“ Her tone curls like a broken lute string.
“They had to,” I say.
She glances at her hands, where her fingers have made fists.
“I’m glad it’s you here. It wasn’t hard you know. Killing them. But now I can’t sleep. Sir Tallow sponsored me my first wings, did you know that? Sir Tallow gave me my first wings.”
Tears come. She covers her face with a metal-gloved hand.
I slide from my chair to put my arms around her. She tugs at the loop of my harness. “Downdraft,” she whispers. “Fart cannon. You’ve made me cry in my armor. You’ll get your leg-blood all over it.” But she doesn’t let me go.
We rest our foreheads against each-other, and her gauntlet cools the back of my neck. No words need be spoken. Breath and whispering wind converse with the crackle of the fire. She turns her face so her lips brush mine.
Elen. Who won’t push my wheelchair.
I take a deep breath.
“Forgive me for having lost my leg,” I jest. “I hope its oozing isn’t a minor inconvenience.”
Mary smiles and lets me go so she can lean back on her hands. Mary who danced with the high wind, who threw her tiny body from the cliff face with a trebuchet, and who would sleep with her hand in mine to keep the shadows away.
“I convinced myself that you must have perished by now,” she says. “I never expected I’d live to have you sitting in my lap.”
Indeed, I sit across her legs.
“It’s not the most comfortable,” I admit.
“We train to sleep in this steel but the sleep is never deep.” She shrugs, something I’m amazed the metal permits. “But it takes two to remove it and for the appearance of the thing, I have come without even a squire.”
“There’s a good song in that,” I muse, “The fall of Heart-Home to a lone knight unaccompanied even by a squire.”
“I hope so.” Her eyes are flat. “That was the plan.”
“A plan which required you to attack your old home-“
“It would have been much worse had I left it to the others.”
“-and then stay here alone, sleeping in your armor until your squires arrive?” I finish, frowning.
“Yes. I expect them in a few more days.”
I shake my head. “You keep many mysteries.”
“There’s a woman under this armor,” she answers, her head cocked to the side.
“A woman who can throw me with the strength of a catapult?”
“If you swear not to return to Octane, I may satisfy that question.”
Though spoken softly, her declaration hits me like a sudden headwind.
My left pant-leg is tied in a knot which makes the stripes of Heart-Home’s green and blue criss-cross. Under those colors, the bandages were white. My wound offers no threat of marring her armor with my red or white humors. That was a jest. This is not. The war is not. Elen is not. Octane is not. Octane’s keep will fall. I should return to them to bring word of what I’ve seen. They’ll surrender. They must. If I don’t return, they’ll have no word but rumor – rumor they won’t believe. They’ll fight and soldiers who might otherwise live, will not.
She should want me to return. It will save her a battle.
I see nothing in her face but tear streaks, scars and reflected firelight.
“Taking Heart-Home had a cost,” she admits. “Taking Octane’s keep won’t, if you’re here.”
On the mural behind her the winged figure loops over and over again. Among the dancers in the painted masquerade, one wears a kite rider’s raiment.
“Say yes,” Mary urges very quietly. She rests on her hands with her shoulder-plates nearly touching her ears. “Stay here. Doctor Grimwerd has already begun work on a new leg for you. He went on and on about proper balance, to not impair your flying. He feels as I do that you’re a symbol of Heart-Home. You belong here.”
I meet her eyes and my head shakes of its own accord.
I will, cries my heart.
“I can’t,” say my lips, my duty, my husband.
Dawn breaks over the Alps and I stand on the keep’s pinnacle balcony. I watch the golden fires of morning spread through a low hanging haze that boils between the hills and makes white waves over the peaks. The haze makes a rout I know well seem foreign.
I test the flex of my wings. They’re unharmed. I’ve checked thrice.
Fear boils in my gut. I’m not sure I know how to fly. I’ve seen it happen. A flier survives a crash but their body forgets how to balance, how to do the things it once did without thinking. There’s no good reason for the loss, except fear. If they don’t conquer the fear, then they have to learn again as if for the first time. Few survive trying.
A hand holds the loop at my back, keeping me balanced on one leg – assisting with the weight of my harness and wings.
“You’re ready,” she says – not a question. An assurance.
“Yes,” I answer without confidence.
She does not say “please stay.”
Sudden acceleration. I tumble, angle my head down. The wind claws at me. Rocks rise like a great hand. My wings spread, catch, cut the wind. I wobble. The balance is wrong – like I wear a badly packed messenger bag. Muscles strain to angle my weight in compensation. I level – turn away from stone fingers. I’ve never flown under a worse burden, but my wings carry me.
I pass the outer wall. Chevalier’s Folly opens below. My heart tumbles away down that chasm.
A thousand times I’ve left the city. I’ve even moved away with no thought to return. Never have I felt I was leaving it behind.