“At Baylor’s Rift, you should have seen them,” Callus continued. “Flights in their hundreds, so they were —great armored beasties carrying baskets of six men each. Squadrons of long-wings; flocks of two-man lancers. They’d break our phalanxes on the ground with fire-pots, d’ye see, then – ah, then – it was the pursuit that finished us. Horse-born pursuit dies out after a couple miles: dragons…dragons’ll hound you till you starve to death running. Break against dragon-men, and you’re done. That’s what we learned, lad.”
I had heard the stories before, but I loved to hear Callus tell them again. His voice was comically gruff, worn ragged by battlefield din, and his scarred, pock-marked face was a horror of scowls and grimaces — and when truly furious — of cold, piercing stares. Retired now, and assigned my guardian, he had been first centurion of the ninth legion until Baylor’s Rift. Everyone — all the survivors at least — had lost rank after that rout. But that had been early days, well into Callus’ youth. Times had changed since then. It had been years since the dragon-riders had flown so far from their home-skies, or taken the field in such strength.
I could hear the sadness lurking in Callus’ croaking voice. His wife — a slave herself, and attached to the land-allotment he’d earned as centurion — had left when the land had been taken away. I had been with him so long that I could almost sense his inner-self the way I sensed the djinn, though with far less clarity. But I knew the true shape of him: a hard, armored man on the outside; a bewildered, doomed soul inside. I also knew he would take a crossbow bolt for me without hesitation, and kill the hand that fired it.
“We were lucky,” I said. The spice of Stalyn’s stew burned at the back of my throat, making my eyes water. “They were a long time over-taking us. Night saved us.”
“Aye: the price they pay for armor. “
“They’re pretty far north, scouting for merchantmen like us.”
“A flight of four? Could be anywhere. On an island mayhap. Maybe even a ship.”
I hadn’t considered a ship. A small flight of dragons and their riders could be provisioned and kept at sea for some time. I raised my eyebrows in contemplation, chewed my stew.
Callus regarded me speculatively, eyes narrowed. “What?” I said at last.
“Is that hair upon your chin?” He asked, as though he could scarce believe his eyes.
“Aye,” I said, mocking his tone as best I could.
“About bloody time,” he grinned. “When we make port, I’ll introduce you to Shareen.”
“Oh please,” I groaned. “Not the whores again.”
“Aye lad: the whores. Best thing for a newly-bearded man — even a djinn-singer. ESPECIALLY a djinn-singer, now that I think on it. You’re a freakish talented lot, but altogether too soft by half. Ground you, a whore will — anchor you to the world lest you fly away. By Gods, yes — we’ll take you to see Shareen — she’ll set you up proper.”
I chuckled at the thought. “Guardian AND procurer, Callus?”
“Mentorin’, lad,” he smiled. “Think of it as mentorin’.”
The long-wing had stayed with us all through the night. She circled far above us in the morning, a dark black speck against the robin’s-egg blue sky.
I took the Zephyr back up to a thousand feet to catch a strong breeze, and our sails snapped full of cool ocean air. The long-wing glided at five thousand feet — maybe higher — and we knew rider and dragon both could go much higher still. She was shadowing us, following us to port. We were safe for the time being: her flight of armored lancers had much-reduced endurance and had broken off the attack, leaving only the long-wing scout. Still, it was disconcerting to be followed, and marked, by an untouchable enemy.
Suddenly, the dragon spilled air from its port wing — rolling to its left and entering a leisurely dive. We could hear the riffling noise of the wings’ trailing edges – much like a pennant blowing in the wind. The rider pulled up a few hundred feet from our position — well out of range of our bows — and re-assumed course and speed off our starboard flank. We had no deck-mounted torsion bows that might have reached her, and even if we had, hitting a dragon with a single weapon is no mean feat, especially a mount as agile as the long-wing.
I regarded the creature through my glass, even as the pilot regarded me. Long, graceful lines, the long-wing had — as much neck before as tail aft, and a slender back that could only bear a solitary rider. Gorgeous colouring it had – head to tail – the scales shimmering and changing colour like the feathers of a peacock. The wings were fully twice as long, though not as broad as an armored lancer’s, and one rarely saw them flap or beat at the wind once air-borne. The long-wings used air-currents with sleek efficiency: our own vessel was hopelessly clumsy in comparison. We had enslaved the djinn, and muscled our way into the sky with grim determination: the dragons had been born there, and were welcomed by the wind like family.
The pilot was as lean, and slender, and sinewy-strong looking as her mount. Her face was worn brown and tough from the constant whip of the wind, though I could not tell how old she might be, and how much of the wear was simple age. She rode jockey-style, her knees bent, and her saddle was actually an elaborate pack device of ingenious construction. A canvas tent could be unpacked and rolled over top the rider for protection during long, cold nights aloft. Cannisters and bound packs crowded all around the safety-harness that buckled the pilot into her seat: these were the food, water, and other provisions the rider would need. She was utterly self-contained, self-sufficient in that saddle. I wondered at how she would relieve herself during long voyages, but assumed something had been devised for her. She and her dragon were marvels of nature and engineering both.
She stared at me with ocean-green eyes, and I could hear Callus moving into position in the mast-ring above me, bow in hand. Long-wing riders conducted reconnaissance and controlled flights, but did not, as a rule, mount attacks themselves. Nevertheless, these were desperate days for the Kyberi. One couldn’t become complacent about them.
I decided the rider was beautiful, in a hard, angular way. Crystalline she was: edged and fine.
We made Nandorin the next morning. The long-wing rose to five thousand feet and followed us into port.
The waters in the Bay of Nandorin are freakish clear – like stained blue glass – and one can see clearly the sunken hulks of long-ago warships littering the sea-floor like scattered toys. Though a man grown, I became a boy again whenever we made Nandorin, peering down into the pristine depths at the haphazard city of ghost-ships beneath. On the surface, stone towers stood like widely spaced square teeth across the mouth of the bay: their anxious sentinels craning their necks skyward to track our dragon-shadow.
From the helm, I gazed into the swirling blue of the djinn-orb, attached to the deck by a long brass stem. I began the deep-breathing protocol, clearing my mind, slowing my heartrate. As I relaxed, I felt the creature’s presence, felt its pain. Softly, I sang in a whisper to the djinn, urging it to take us down — slowly — and felt the breeze pick up as we descended from three hundred feet. I did not understand the language of the song I had been taught, but it shaped my thoughts such that the captive elemental might be directed. Not everyone who sings can be heard. It is a gift, to be able to command a djinn. A gift that will be the making of me.
I heard the windlasses on either side of the deck being furiously cranked ‘round tok-tok-tok: the wing-sails folding against our hull above the waterline. The captain approached, standing ready to retake command of his ship once it became a vessel of the sea once more. I felt the jarring blow of hull-contact with water; heard the great clapping noise of it, as of a whale slapping its flukes against the surface. The ship groaned as its weight settled, and all at once, the buoyancy of the water could be felt once again in our legs.
“From the air to the sea, Captain,” I said by rote to Salish Windhover, our pilot. “Please take the helm.”
“Thank you, sir: I accept the helm,” was his response.
Callus climbed down from the mast ring, his bow unstrung. Our things had been collected on deck. Captain Windhover worked the wheel carefully – avoiding the reefs, then the occasional up-thrusting mast or other piece of detritus that had been war’s lasting legacy. We sailed as though sliding upon ice, though the air was uncomfortably humid this far south.
“I don’t trust it,” Callus said, shading his eyes against the sun and trying to locate the long-wing in the cloudless sky.
“You don’t have to trust it,” I said with a shrug.
“Don’t be smug, lad,” Callus warned. “Long-wing riders have sorcery, so I hear. They do more than just watch.”
I smiled. There was more magic in our djinn ships than anything that happened on a dragon’s wing. It was unsettling of course to be shadowed, and nothing we could do would be a secret to the Kyberi. But all they could do was watch, and wait.
In the harbor, we could see the line of warships standing ready to depart, and pride swelled our chests. Massive, black-hulled behemoths bristling with deck-mounted torsion bows – weapons that could punch through dragon armor at three hundred feet, and so densely clustered as to make a hit all but guaranteed. Each ship with its own djinn, and a hundred marines and crew. Great doors in iron-reinforced hulls could be seen extending beneath the water line, doors that would be opened above Kyberi settlements and farms to allow the fire-death to rain down.
Slow moving, slow climbing, and not particularly maneuverable, such ships — when massed and coordinated — had broken the backs of the dragon-men, taking the fight deep into their heartland. They had had no choice but to fly up to meet us — not with our gigantic hulls filled with firepots by the ton. And there, in their home skies, they had died on the points of our deck mounted projectiles. Their grace, their altitude, their wing-powered flight had meant little when they had been forced to come to us. And when the best of them were killed, their young riders and immature dragons proved easier, and easier prey.
One day, I would be air-pilot aboard such a ship. The sixth son of a Tellamin weaver who might otherwise have lived out his days tending stall in the market, saved from that grimy fate by my precious gift. I had mastered the songs of the djinn, had practiced my craft on the Zephyr. I knew that I was ready.
I thought briefly of Callus, and what he would do when the fleet called me up. He was a dangerous man, but old, and though he would never admit it, I had seen him wincing when his back ached on cold nights; had heard him moaning in the throes of nightmare when asleep. The humiliation of Baylor’s Rift had robbed him of retirement lands and title. Leaving me, he would have little left for himself; would end his days in an alleyway, too proud to beg. If it were in my power at all, I would pay to keep him in my retinue. I promised myself that I would.
Just then, I thought I heard a tune on the wind. A melancholic melody so mournful, so beautiful, that I actually gasped. Callus glanced at me, and I hardened up: though he appreciated the utility of my sensitivity, he hardly understood or pandered to it. I looked to the djinn orb and breathed deep to see: the djinn lay in tortured stupor; it was not the origin of the song.
I looked up, and saw the long-wing winding in a circular path high above, the morning sunlight reflecting off the scaled underbelly, making the dragon glow like a silver/white spark in the sky.
It was the rider: her voice; my mind.
Not sorcery after all. No more sorcerous than I was. But I had a gift, and so did she.
She sang of the following:
Every dragon-lance that went down, a husband and wife perished; children orphaned. The two-man battle-wings were in fact married couples.
The shock and desperation at the first sight of our monstrous galleons. The useless, suicidal bravery of their riders. Scores of irreplaceable dead, to bring down just one of our ships.
The heartless mathematics of interception: meet us in the air, or die on the ground. Either way, we had them.
The roll-call of their legendary riders and dragon-mounts: all dead, the memory of their glory already dimming. As the Kyberi civilization crumbled, their history became smoke on the wind.
The powerlessness of…what was that, her name? Indra? Indira? Her powerlessness to prevent any of it, despite looking down and seeing us in the open. She would fly back and report our position and strength…but we weren’t hiding from her. We never hid. It did not matter.
It broke Indira’s heart to see our ships massed at harbor, and know that even more were coming. Her singing voice was so tired.
Pity. Pity for the djinn. None were left free: all now powered our warships and deep-sea traders. We had caught the wind; made the very wind itself our kite.
Suddenly, I felt a terrible vertigo – as though my body had taken flight without the ship. I seemed to look down at myself, and our order-of-battle, from a great height. It was thrilling, and terrifying.
I shook my head, blinking away tears before Callus could see.
“Lad?” He said, giving me one of his beetle-browed scowls.
I couldn’t answer. In my mind, I saw a vision of myself piloting a warship — climbing by inches into the sky…then rolling-over, crashing into the next ship in line — igniting both our fire-pot chambers and initiating a chain-reaction that would destroy each ship in turn.
Great orange fireballs swelling into the sky; ink-black smoke belching; the port itself destroyed.
I shuddered, felt Callus’ concerned eyes upon me. Were these thoughts my own, or had the long-wing pilot sang them there?
I did not know. Could not be certain.
“It is nothing,” I said to Callus, swallowing hard. “You had said something about a, uh, Shareen, was it?”
Callus smiled broadly. He could not hear the song on the wind. Most couldn’t. In the end, he was a simple man of war, wenches, and wine. “Indeed I did,” he chuckled. “Ground you, so she will.”
“Good,” I said. But what I meant was, I hope so.
© June, 2015 Kevin Cockle
Kevin Cockle is a writer based in Calgary. He is the author of numerous short stories, including "Hedgehogs" in the Exile Book of New Canadian Noir anthology and co-writer of the short film "The Whale" with Mike Peterson. His novel Spawning Ground will be published in 2016.