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.