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Riders

We're going to lose this war… The thought flashed through Samwick's mind, not for the first time. Now another trailed behind: and I may not live to see it. His right arm dangled, blood pulsing from the shoulder. How could he, one-handed, guide Aumersa—herself wounded—to any kind of safe landing?

 

At least we'll go down together. Rough consolation.

A ripping sound, too close: another crossbow-quarrel. Shock clarified his thoughts: one-handed, defenceless. He couldn't reload a crossbow one-handed; in theory he could hurl a spear, but poorly. Even with his right, he wasn't the greatest spearman; his skill was with the bow. And as a flier, of course.

Defenceless—but he sensed that the battle was shifting, or that Aumersa's limping flight was carrying them clear. He glanced over his shoulder. Pain flared and vision misted. "My bloody bollocks!" he muttered through teeth clamped tight.

Cautiously, Sam looked the other side: bad, but endurable. He saw only dancing specks among the clouds, behind and above. That last close shot must have been a long-range one, flight already arcing downward. Wise grounders kept indoors during aerial battles. A quarrel plummeting from a thousand fathoms was as lethal as one loosed at point-blank range.

Aumersa banked. Sam glimpsed the River, a jade-green ribbon, still far below. Then he realised she hadn't banked by choice; her left wing was scarcely more use than his right arm. They were spiralling like a falling leaf. "We're a pair, aren't we, girl?"

To last four years on active duty with scarcely more than scratches for him, scorched coverts for her, was exceptional. All down to skill, he'd often jested, but he knew they owed much to sheer luck. Perhaps it had finally deserted them.

He tried shifting his weight toward the good wing, but movement sparked new agony, hollowing his bones. The world darkened.

When vision cleared, they were much lower. The fuzzy band hemming the River resolved into individual trees. The water was half a league wide: no chance of making it across again. What lay below: friendly territory, or the enemy's side? 

Guess I'm about to find out… They flashed past the turrets of a fortified steading, shockingly close. Cries of alarm, upturned faces, then trees rushing up to meet them.

 

*  *  *

The Kingsbeast plunged into the orchard, one wing trailing, the other flailing apples from the trees. 

Everyone else ran to the Rider, who'd been flung from the saddle. Only Fendry, it seemed, thought about the Beast. Some said she cared more about horses than about people. It wasn't true. At least, it wasn't only horses.

Expert in inconspicuousness, she faded back as others pressed forward. No one spared a glance as she slipped between two trees, scurried along behind. No one was looking as she sidled back again, emerging just beyond the Beast.

Then she had no eyes for anything else.

It lifted a head as large as her entire torso. Fendry froze, hands low, every fibre of her embodying I'm no threat. After a minute, she advanced a single pace.

A membrane flickered across the Beast's eye. Just like a big lizard, she thought. Aye, something in that: the scales of head and neck glinted the same way, colours fickle in the orchard's dappled light; blue and matt in the shadows, shimmery green where caught by sunlight, elusive flickers of lordly purple when the Beast moved.

She stepped again. That great head tilted slightly, eyes in their shadowy sockets never leaving her. Whether it was the calm gaze of a predator sizing up a morsel, like a buzzard looking at a shrew, or mere curiosity, or something unfathomable, she knew not.

Dense silence enveloped her. She heard only the pounding of her own heart, a low hissing breath from the Kingsbeast. If the head resembled a lizard's, the body was more like a bird, feathered, not scaled. The colours were just as shifty, though, as on a magpie's wing, the head of a mallard-drake.

"Well," she said softly, "Here we are." She didn't know why she started talking; it just seemed the thing to do. It worked with horses. She was good with horses, they said; had a hand with them. The stablemaster and the other grooms had been slow to admit it, but they knew it now.

Another step. "I'm Fendry. Don't s'pose you can tell me your name, can you? How shall I call you then, Sir Beast?" She hardly expected it to start talking back, but who really knew?

The Beast's injury was becoming clearer. Its right wing was tidily furled, but the left hung loose, sprawling across grass and scattered apples. Don't reckon anyone'll be gathering today. She swallowed a laugh. She was close now. If it wished, the Beast could simply stretch its neck, send her flying with a quick swing of its head. Somehow she didn't believe it would.

"I see you're hurt," she murmured. "Would you let me take a look? Exhausted, too, ain't you? And hungry, thirsty? I'll see what I can do for that soon, too."

She had no idea if the Beast understood her words, but surely it understood something. Her tone, the way she moved, the look in her eye. Maybe even her smell.

Some claimed horses understood everything you said; others asserted they didn't understand a single word. The truth, surely, lay somewhere between. Horses did recognise certain words, beyond doubt. Some might understand more; some horses were smarter than others, same as people. And, even if it was mainly tone of voice, the words mattered to you. The right words helped you form the right tone.

If Kingsbeasts responded like horses, she had a chance.

She sidestepped, approaching the injured wing. The Beast watched with one unblinking eye, big as a cooking-apple. It gleamed the gold of winter bracken, bottomless green of a calm backwater. Its dark centre held a tiny reflection of herself.

There was intelligence in that eye. Something in that gaze was like a horse, and she'd often thought that horses were smarter than some people—kinder too, sometimes. She was sure of it. She'd stake her life on it. The thought lurked that she was staking her life on it. She was in reach of those great claws, talons gleaming dully like pewter. They could rip her open if the Beast chose.

She felt the heat of its body now. Draff, it's hot. Was that normal? With a horse, heat, in cannon or gaskin, could reveal much, and Fendry's small hands were adept at gauging it. But, straight after a ride, a horse would be warm all over; and this Beast had been in the air mere minutes ago. She could only tell that it seemed to be hot everywhere.

She ducked down to examine the underside of the wing, saw no obvious wound. She wasn't tall enough to survey the upper side. Fendry rarely minded being small. It was just how things were. When necessary, she'd stand on an upturned bucket or fetch a ladder. Neither were handy here; she might shin up a tree, but she'd only get a distant view.

"If you was a horse, I'd kneel you. Don't s'pose that's a word you know, is it? Ah, what the hell, worth a try. Kneel?"

The Beast tipped its head toward her. She almost laughed. "If you was a horse, I'd say you was trying to tell me somethin'. How about it, Sir Beast?" She tried again, trying to sound like she meant it. "Kneel. I need to see your wing. Kneel…"

To her utter astonishment, the Beast slowly folded scaly, strangely angulated, legs, and sank to the ground.

*  *  *

"Half-awake, if that. Keeps mumblin' somethin'; a name, happen. Amersa, mebbe."

"A woman, doubtless, though it's no name I ever heard."

It's Aumersa, ye clods, and she's no woman. Sam intended speech, but no sound emerged. Half-awake, if that, he thought… but alive, at least. He tried to move, but achieved only agony. His body recoiled, flinging him back into darkness.

He woke later. Much later, he realised. The window-light betokened evening.

Then the tawny light dimmed: a shadow at the window. A head peered in, then a small figure vaulted the low sill, landing silently. Sam raised his head to see better. That brought no dire retribution, but when he tried to sit up the pain undid him.

He was flat on his back again, but only moments later; the light hadn't changed. The newcomer, leaning over him, was mocha-coloured, like most upriver folk, liberally freckled, hazel-eyed. Narrow chin, broad cheekbones, dark hair bound back. "I'm sorry, Sir Rider."

"Sorry? For what?" His voice sounded powdery. "Was it your arrow pierced me? Or hobbled Aumersa?"

"Aumersa? Is that your Beast's name?"

"Aye, lad, it is." A flicker of expression, enigmatic, but other matters pressed: "How fares she?" The lad had said 'is' not 'was', but he needed certainty.

Instead of answering, his visitor was laughing. Silently, to be sure, but full of mirth. "Reckon we're even," he said finally.

"What d'ye mean?"

"I've been callin' her him… and you called me lad."

He stared. "Ye mean… ye're not?"

'Draff, I don't try that hard to pass!"

It was his turn to laugh, though it made him wince. "I beg forgiveness, m'lady. Perhaps ye'll make allowance, since I'm barely wakened."

Narrow shoulders shrugged. "Don't bother me."

"Nonetheless, I apologise. But, please, ease my mind… Aumersa: she lives?"

"Aye, that's why I'm here. They said you wasn't to be disturbed, but I had to ask. So I came this way."

"We're on the ground floor?"

"Nay, in the West tower… but it's easy. Walk along the herb-garden wall, climb the vine. If you're small like me, you can climb inside it, properly hid." Watching his face, she flushed, a subtle coppery bloom. "But you don't need to know all that. You want to know about the Beast… Aumersa."

"Aye, if ye please."

"It—she's exhausted, if I'm any judge… but it's horses I know, not Kingsbeasts. I've given her water, and she's taken some, but I don't know what to feed her. And I've cleaned the wound, best as—"

"—What did ye say? Ye've cleaned the wound?"

"Aye, I—"

"—She allowed it?"

"Aye, sir. It was—"

But there were footsteps outside, and his strange visitor darted away through the window. Before the door even opened, he was wondering if the conversation had been a delirium-dream.

*  *  *

Fendry crouched within the vine, below the sill. Pothecary Vairth's voice carried easier than the Rider's soft tones. Hard to speak out when flat on your back, but she reckoned he'd be soft-spoken anyway. The biggest surprise was that he'd been so young, possibly younger than herself, lacking even the shadow of a beard.

She could tell the Rider hadn't given her away. Why should he? she thought; but she didn't know how a King's Rider might think; and her visit was certainly irregular. She'd eyed the climb before, but never had excuse to essay it. It was satisfying to confirm she was equal to it.

Couldn't have done it in skirts… I don't try that hard to pass, she'd said. But neither did she dress like other women. Skirts would be a constant liability: only think about mucking out, the mess your boots got into. And how would you ride? She'd watched fine ladies, on their side-saddles, some never venturing above a trot. It had to be a strain for the horse, unbalanced like that.

 Of course, mere practicalities never strictly required her to bind her breasts, to tuck her braided hair inside her shirt. She'd observed that the other hands, the Stablemaster, were easier around her if she didn't too blatantly remind them she was a girl—but 'not reminding' wasn't the same as masquerading as a lad, or so she'd thought.

Finally the old Pothecary said, "Rest, Sir Samwick. I'll have some broth fetched in an hour. Don't try sitting up before. Too easy to reopen that wound."

The door closed, steps descended. Fendry slipped back within. "Sir Samwick, is it, then?"

"Not strictly. Squadronmaster Samwick, if we're formal. Just Sam, if we're friends. And how do I call ye?"

"Fendry."

"That's a name, but who are ye, m'lady Fendry?"

"I'm the one trying to care for your Beast. And if I'm to do more afore dark, I can't dally. I've cleaned her wound but I can't see any way to bandage it, and I don't know what to feed her."

"It's nigh impossible to bandage a wing. If the wound's deep, we'd caul it."

That took some explanation, and availed nothing without the right supplies. The only other option was that she'd keep cleaning it, 'every chance I get'. They could but hope wound-ill would not set in.

Food was simpler. "Meat. Lightly seared, ideally, but she'll take it raw. All ye can manage.

Kingsbeasts eat like ye'd not believe. Ye've noticed how warm she is? It's like they burn hotter than other creatures; wiser men than I say it's how they have strength to fly. It's asking a lot, when ye consider. Not just their own weight, but Rider, harness, weapons."

"Well," she said, "I'd better shift if I'm to feed her tonight… Will she be all right out in the orchard? She don't need shelter?"

"Long as it don't rain, she'll do well enough."

Turning, she saw it was near twilight already; scant need to worry about concealment on her way down. "I'll return in the morning. First chance I get."

*  *  *

Fendry was a good listener. Or perhaps she couldn't get a word in edgeways. Once she'd reassured him on Aumersa's condition, he could hardly stop talking. Maybe it was relief; maybe the apothecary's latest draught had loosened his tongue.

Still, she seemed genuinely fascinated, and that was flattering. Maybe he had retained of a man's vanity than he'd thought; but he'd been raised to be a gentleman, and a gentleman did not talk ceaselessly; a gentleman also asked questions, and attended to the answers. "Are there many females in your stables?" he managed at one point.

"Aye," she said. "Plenty. Mares and fillies." He took a moment to get the joke.

Still, mostly, he talked and she listened.

"We're losing the war," he couldn't keep from saying. "Slowly, to be sure; most don't see it, don't want to see it. Happier if the criers can still blather on about 'inevitable victory'." To Samwick it was all too obvious, and he sensed his wingmen saw the truth too. Hard not to. Crucially, they were losing the battle in the air. Their battle.

In contemplative moments, usually when he and Aumersa were alone above the morning mists, he'd wondered if the race of Kingsbeasts had declined somehow. Certainly, no king had ridden into battle for many generations. Tales of monarchs leading squadrons sounded like legend today.

The present King, like his forebears, had trained with the squadrons, mastered the aerial arts, though he only made short flights on ceremonial occasions now. Let the heralds proclaim him the finest Rider of his generation. No harm singing that tune, in public.

"Truth is, he was a decent Rider. He made the grade, fairsquare. But he wasn't the best. I was too young, myself, then… but if we'd ever met on level terms, I'd be better. Nor am I the only one."

Fendry nodded, perched on the windowsill, ready to slip out instantly.

I'd be better. Sam didn't need to hear the heralds proclaim it. He knew; his wingmen knew; and so, he suspected, did the Beasts. Mayhap, deep down, His Majesty knew it too.

He shrugged "It's immaterial now. He got too heavy, that's the end of it." A Prince couldn't limit his growth by extraordinary means. "They reckon the limit's a hundredweight."

"What limit?"

"Rider-weight. So your Beast can climb, manoeuvre freely. It's hard for any Rider to keep below that beyond seventeen, eighteen." Impossible for some, cut or uncut. And then what were you, as a cut-man?

She eyed him consideringly. "I'd've reckoned you more than seventeen."

"Aye, m'lady. I'm a lucky one. Seen twenty summers. But it's a struggle, and lollygaggin' here ain't helping."

There were always eager boys. At sixteen, many were impressively fearless; but 'fearless' brushed wingtips with 'reckless'. "A reckless Rider don't only imperil himself, he risks his beast too. 'Course, beasts can be replaced—same as boys—though ye'd have to be heartless not to mourn the waste of life. What we're always lacking is trained Beasts, and Riders. Truly experienced Beasts, like experienced Riders, are rarer still."

*  *  *

Samwick had fallen silent. After the spate of words, that was almost shocking. Even more disconcerting, he was gazing fixedly at her. In Fendry's experience, when men stared, it was rarely good news.

Then he spoke, and it was merely puzzling. "Your pardon, m'lady, what age have ye?"

"Two-and-twenty."

"Two-and-twenty. Shreds! There's scarce one in a hundred still Riding combat at two-and-twenty. They might still ride 'em for training, build up their strength." He gazed at her again, a curious smile slowly spreading. "I know ye're skilled, caring for horses… But do ye ride, also?"

"Not as often as I'd like."

"Why not?"

"Hands only get to ride when the stable-master reckons a horse needs exercisin'. When their owner can't ride for a few days, say." She sighed. "Then, he reckons, they get more exercise with a heavier rider. Meaning every other hand afore me."

"Just like us, in the Combe. Heavier Riders for training…"

She doubted he'd really care to listen to her grievances… but she'd listened to him plenty, hadn't she? She rarely got the chance to vent her feelings; just a little, carefully, with Eldreth. "I've tried sayin' they'll get the  same result if I ride a bit further, or faster, or use a heavier saddle… might as well talk to a wall. The horses pay me more heed. It's a good week if I get to ride more'n'once."

"And it's riding ye like best?"

"Course! Ain't it for you?"

"I suppose it is." His grin faded, and she suddenly thought she might have hurt his feelings. Hadn't he just said it was rare that a Rider lasted past two-and-twenty? She might only ride once a week, but surely she'd be able to continue for many years.

Samwick was staring again. "Well, m'lady. Doubtless your Lord's letter will have reached the Palace today. Likely we shall have a visitor tomorrow. Perhaps more'n one."

"Other fliers? Other Beasts?"

"Well, the men cannot fly here on their own."

*  *  *

He was pleased it was Rookin. They'd schooled together, shared many desperate moments, had as much in common as any two Riders. If anyone would entertain his crazy notion, Rookin would.

Still, it didn't start well. "They'll never consider it."

"What's the alternative? This… or defeat. We compromise our holy principles—or we lose the war."

Rookin frowned, silent. "Look at us. They said they'd never let our kind fly, and look at us now."

"True enough. But still… a girl?"

 

"Girl, Rookin? She's two-and-twenty. "

 

"Girl, woman, what's the difference? "

 

"Even for the likes of thee and me, that's a daft question."

 

"Maybe. But most Riders start at twelve. We'd start 'em younger if they could look a Beast in the eye."

 

He leaned forward, ignoring a stab from his shoulder, milder now anyway. "That's the point, Rook, don't ye see? Two-and-twenty. She's full grown. Ten years hence she might be no heavier." Rookin said nothing. Perhaps light was dawning. "Ten years, Rook. No worries about her getting too heavy before she's twenty, that risk we take with every new lad. Ye and me, still flying after more'n four years—we're the exceptions."

"True enough."

 

"And… yes, she'd need training, but not from scratch. She's already a rider. Is a horse any easier to control than one of our Beasts? And she's won Aumersa's trust."

 

Rookin sat up. "She has?"

 

"Aye. Walks right up to her, when no one else durst go near, and within ten minutes Aumersa's let her examine the wound. Imagine if she hadn't; imagine if that wound had festered. We could have lost her."

 

"She did all that?"

 

"Aye—and climbed up to my window to quiz me about her care."

 

Rookin leaned out of the window, turned back with a thoughtful expression. Riders could not fear heights, but healthy respect was ingrained. "Perhaps I should meet this girl—sorry, this lady. What did ye say her name was?"

 

"Fendry."

 

*  *  *

"I assume Samwick's told ye what's been overheating his fevered mind?"

 

"Master Samwick has said many things, sir. I'm not rightly sure which you're meanin'."

 

Rookin smiled. "I think that means he hasn't…" He glanced at Sam, smiled archly. "Will ye tell her, or shall I?"

 

"And steal the credit for my inspiration? I think not." Sam faced her, then paused. Fendry waited, bemused but patient. "It's like this, m'lady. I've mentioned our problem; by the time Riders have truly mastered the air, most are grown too heavy. For all our sacrifices, Rookin and I and the others, we still grow.

 

"But here are ye, two-and-twenty—and less'n a hundred pounds, I'll be bound. Yet ye can ride a horse, and I wager any grown horse outweighs three of our Beasts."

 

Only then did she grasp his notion. His next words were lost to a roaring in her ears, like the River in Spatemoon. 

 

Finally she found her voice. "You think I could be a Rider?"

 

"No one knows till they try," said Sam.

 

"There are trials," said Rookin. "Normally, before they'd even let ye close to a Beast. But I hear ye've already been close to one…"

 

"I can handle horses pretty fair. And, like Sam says, horses weigh plenty more than your Beasts. A horse can carry a man from here to Rowanfell 'tween breakfast and lunch. A man, even the strongest, can't carry a horse across the yard. Horse is stronger, but the rider's in charge. It's not about strength, it's about…" She stopped, struggling for the word.

 

"Communication," suggested Sam.

 

"Aye, and trust."

 

On home ground, defending tried abilities, she spoke confidently; but when she recalled what they were proposing, certainty ebbed. She gazed at Sam, Rookin, Sam again. Shook her head, hunting for words. "Just s'posin'… supposing I agree… what then?"

 

"Our Commander's arriving tomorrow," said Rookin, "To thank your Lord for caring for Sam here—and for Aumersa."

 

She merely rolled her eyes, but Sam saw, and smiled. "Aye, it's amazing how his Lordship's found time to change my dressings, mop my brow, spoon broth into me. Why, he's hardly left this chamber…" Fendry almost laughed aloud.

 

"Protocol…" said Rookin, grinning. "But we'll make sure the Commander knows the truth. I'll drop a message to his boat on my way home."

 

"Aye," said Sam. "Make it a good tale."

 

Rookin shrugged. "Truth tells its own tale."

 

Sam, pensive, didn't answer. He met Fendry's eye. "He'd need to see ye ride, too."

 

Fendry frowned. "How'm I to arrange that? I'm not one of the fine folks. Don't have a horse of my own."

 

"So ye said…. Hm. That could be a problem."

 

"Should I have a word with the stable-master?" said Rookin.

 

"Not sure how he'll take it. Might not be so keen if he knows you want to take me away." Fendry laughed suddenly. "Six years back, 'twas all I could do, gettin' him even to give me a try. Now… might be a different tale."

 

Yes, that could be a problem… but she'd dealt with obstacles then; she'd find a way now.

 

That she might get to fly… that was beyond anything she had ever dreamed. It still seemed more a dream than any true prospect.

 

And there was another thing. That she might see Sam every day, work—maybe even fly—alongside him… that thought was interesting, too.

 

*  *  *

Inevitably it became a grand occasion. The Lord himself (who'd never set eyes on Aumersa before, to Fendry's knowledge) walked with the Commander, his retinue straggling behind, wives and daughters in skirts so stiff they'd almost stand up on their own. It must be hard over rough grass, scattered apples, when you couldn't see your own feet.

 

Her own best blue skirt seemed feather-light by comparison. And if it was plain, even—to critical eyes—shabby… She shrugged; it wasn't that bad. It was five years old, but she probably only wore it five times a year.

 

Brawny Hullock, who saw more with one eye than most did with two, was pushing Samwick in a wheeled chair. Hard labour for the pusher, a jolting ride for the passenger. They were maybe twenty paces away when Aumersa suddenly came to quivering alertness, her eyes—her entire being—focused on Samwick.

 

They stopped about five paces short. Sam levered himself from the chair and Hullock handed him a cane.

 

"Pilots," said the Lord, "May I present, ah, Fendry, our… stablemaid, who has been the… foremost… carer for your noble Beast."

 

Foremost? You mean only, my Lord. But she had no time for indignation. Too much was happening; the reunion between Samwick and Aumersa on one side of her, and on the other, the Commander of the King's Flight… bowing. To her. "Miss Fendry. I commend ye. The King's Flight owes ye a great debt."

 

She fumbled a curtsey. "It's been my pleasure, sir." Conventional words, but sincere. She wondered if he could guess just how heartfelt.

 

Then Sam was before her, and he too was bowing. "My lady. Honoured to make your acquaintance." Face and tone were solemn, yet Fendry sensed merriment bubbling within. "I can only echo my Commander's words, and append my own heartfelt thanks—and, more important, those of Aumersa."

 

Then his face whitened, and his good hand clasped the Commander's arm. Fendry saw Aumersa stretching anxiously forward. "It's all right, girl," she said, her tone all reassurance.

 

When she looked away from the Beast, she found the Lord himself facing her. He bestowed a stiff nod, a terse 'well done', before turning away, speaking softly to the Commander as Sam sank back into the chair. Fendry returned her attention to Aumersa.

 

"You mustn't mind my father," she heard a moment later.

 

"M'lady," said Fendry, making another curtsey.

 

"Draff!" said Eldreth. "I can scarce cope with you in a skirt, never mind curtseying to me."

 

"Your sisters would be scandalised if I didn't curtsey."

 

Eldreth's smile was clear through her gauzy veil. "But my sisters, when they deign to ride out, expect the personal attention of the stable-master himself."

 

"While you has to make do with likes of me?"

 

"Please, Fendry, don't be catty. I thought we were friends."

 

"Sorry, Eldreth. It's all a bit…"

 

Fendry was floundering, lost for the next word, but Eldreth had mercy. "Please, would you introduce me to… what's her name? Amersa?"

 

"Aumersa." At the sound of her name the Beast turned her gaze towards them.

 

"Aumersa, this is Lady Eldreth, our Lord's youngest daughter, and the finest horsewoman in—"

 

"Flattery, Fendry?" said Eldreth in a quick aside, before stepping forward and bowing her head. "Lady Aumersa…"

 

The Beast looked her up and down, released a soft whoof, a whiff of cloves. "She likes you."

 

"Can you—" Eldreth broke off as a page appeared, bowing before he'd even stopped, a gawky tangle of limbs. "My Lady, your Lady mother commands me to… ah, remind you… that your presence is required in the solar."

 

"Please inform my mother that I need no reminding of my duty. I shall be there directly."

 

"My Lady, I—she…"

 

"What? She commanded me you to drag me by my hair?" The boy blushed. "I'm perfectly capable of making my own way there. Run along and tell her so." I'm glad you never take that tone with me, thought Fendry.

 

They watched the boy scurry off. "It's not his fault, m'lady…"

 

Eldreth's gaze crackled with umbrage, but then she shook her head. "Oh, fiddlesticks, you're right. And I suppose I must be away. I hope you'll grant me a longer visit soon, my lady Aumersa. And I shall certainly see you, Fendry."

 

She was already turning away when Fendry suddenly saw a possibility. "M'lady… Eldreth…" The Lord's daughter swung back, slowed by her cumbersome skirts.

 

She'd known Eldreth since she was a wisp of a girl who'd made even Fendry feel tall. She was sure that was why Eldreth had liked her, initially; she must have thought, if Fendry could ride a full-size horse, so could she. Yet now, bafflingly, she was shy.

 

"What is it? Mother really will have something to say if I don't hasten."

 

"I'm sorry, m'lady. I… you said we were friends, didn't ye?"

 

"If I recall accurately, I said I thought we were friends."

 

"I think so too." If they'd been nearer equals, they might have been truly close. As things were… But Eldreth was fretting. "I don't believe I ever asked you a favour."

 

Eldreth looked surprised, then thoughtful. "Don't suppose you ever did, really." She laughed, out loud, not covering her mouth. Not proper ladylike, but then only Fendry, and Aumersa, could see. "But I reckon you've done me a handful…"

 

Fendry sighed in relief. She'd been counting on Eldreth's essential honesty, but you never quite knew…

 

"Come on, Fen, I really have to go."

 

"Would you… would you please tell the Stablemaster that I'm to exercise Tamsed in the morning?"

 

"Don't you always ride her for exercise?"

 

Fendry shook her head, her braid sliding from confinement. "I'm lucky to get a ride more'n once a week, and then it's pot-luck which horse."

 

"You mean it could be any of those others taking her out? I wouldn't trust some of 'em with a plough-horse!"

 

They're not that bad, she almost said. Like Eldreth, she liked to speak truth: another thing they had in common, perhaps. But it wouldn't help her cause now.

 

"Fendry," said Eldreth, "I'll gladly tell the Stablemaster that you're to be Tam's preferred rider every day, if you wish… But why now? It must have been so for years."

 

There was nothing for it but the truth. "Because they—Samwick and the Commander—want to see me ride."

 

"They do? But why?"

 

Fendry drew breath. Eldreth must have seen that she was working out what to say. "No." Her voice carried the decisive air it had gained recently. "If it's a long tale, not now. When we have time… then I will have it all. I'll send word to the Master."

 

She lifted her skirts a few inches and walked away.

 

*  *  *

"Madam," began the Commander.

 

'My lady' had been strange enough. 'Madam'… she durst not catch Sam's eye.

 

"The King's Flight—and therefore the Kingdom—owes ye much for your care of our precious Aumersa. For that reason alone, I would give fullest consideration to any request advanced by ye or on your behalf.

 

"Furthermore, ye've gained her trust in remarkably short order. Many Riders might struggle to match ye there."

 

His grave, measured delivery gave no hint of the verdict he had in mind. Sam, catching her eye, gave a minute shrug: he didn't know either.

 

"And now we've seen ye ride… better than any of us, I dare say… At least on horseback." The flinty features softened, hinting at a smile. Apparently he'd made a joke.

 

"All very impressive. Ye're no ordinary young woman. So be assured I've given this proposal deep thought. It has been no slight decision. But such is the burden of my position; I'd be no use to the Flight if I shirked hard choices.

 

"If my decision disappoints ye, I truly regret that, but I must consider many things."

 

It was all so polite, so respectful, she hardly grasped what he was saying. By the time it bit home, he was already rising. He bowed, began to turn away.

 

I never even spoke, she thought.

 

Sam, however, wasn't satisfied. "A moment, commander."

 

"Squadronmaster."

 

"With respect, sir…" She saw, suddenly, how young Sam really was, how hard it must be to challenge his superior. "Ye've said fine things about the lady. But if she merits 'the fullest consideration', does she not merit the fullest explanation?"

 

"Perhaps…" The Commander relaxed his stance. "Madam… I must consider not only tactical and operational implications, but strategic ones…

 

"Of course, none can say that ye would succeed as a pilot. There are many challenges and tests. Be assured, however, I do not assume ye would fail. No, I deem it truly possible that ye would succeed. However, I judge ye not only impressive, but also… exceptional. Bringing ye into our ranks would entail significant disruption. There are… logistical issues. Can I really justify all that to gain just one Rider?"

 

"As to that," said Fendry, finally seizing the chance to speak, "I never thought myself… what'd you say? Exceptional."

 

"Your modesty does ye credit. Yet… I saw no other females working in the stables."

 

"That's true… but…" Better not mention Eldreth by name. "I ain't the best rider here. Best female, I mean." It's almost the same thing, in truth.

 

He arched heavy eyebrows. "Are ye saying there might be another… another potential aspirant?"

 

She could guess what 'aspirant' meant. She could also guess how Eldreth might receive the notion… but that led nowhere. Eldreth's father might accept the loss of a 'stablemaid'; surrendering an eminently marriageable daughter would be another matter entirely.

 

"I can't say that, sir. I'm only sayin' I might not be as exceptional as you're thinkin'."

"Hm. In any case, there are other considerations. Not least, what people might say." Sam stirred, prompting a restraining gesture. "Ye may think it trivial, Squadronmaster, but, in wartime, morale is never trivial. Think of the men ye command, the importance of maintaining their spirit. Consider, too, the morale of the broader populace. Think… exactly what message is conveyed if they learn we are admitting females to the Flight?

 

"Frankly, some will find it laughable. That's something in itself; I won't have my Riders become a laughing stock, face mockery whenever they leave the Combe. Others might say, if we're taking females, we must be desperate. Perhaps that we're losing the war."

 

"With respect, sir, we are desperate. We are losing."

 

"Nothing makes defeat more certain than the belief that we're losing. Against which ye offer a gamble, not a certainty."

 

"Sir! I say we're losing and ye don't contest it. But I make a suggestion that could, maybe, turn the tide… and ye say we can't act because some people might think we're losing? Am I hearing aright? Because… way I'm seeing it, you're turning away hope to hide the truth that we're already losing."

 

"Enough, Squadronmaster." The tone was hard as iron. The Commander held his gaze a moment, then turned to Fendry. "My respects, madam… and my regrets." Then he was gone.

 

"Hellfire!" Sam spat as the door closed. "I should have known… never get him to change his mind that way."

 

"Was there ever a chance?" she asked despondently.

 

"Hell, yes. If I know my Commander, he truly did give it full consideration. That's an achievement in itself."

 

"Still, a miss is far as a mile, they say."

 

"Perhaps. But…" His face brightened. He pressed her hand briefly. "I have an idea."

 

The warmth of his touch lingered long.

 

*  *  *

It was nothing like mounting a horse. Aumersa lowered her head and Fendry had to straddle it—a high straddle for her—then sort of shuffle rearward, onto a saddle unlike any she'd ever seen: a mere sketch of a saddle really, little more than a leather disc. Harness and reins were some kind of webbing, like coarse canvas: lighter, she supposed.

 

She slipped feet into stirrups, observed the extra straps designed to cage the foot securely. Surely she wouldn't need those just to walk Aumersa down to the landing…?

 

Her confidence vanished as Aumersa rose, unfolding her legs before lifting her neck. For an alarming moment Fendry's seat seemed to tilt vertically. Even at full gallop, even over jumps, she'd never felt like this on a horse—and on a horse you always had those broad withers before you. Aumersa's back simply tapered into her neck. The reins seemed useless: she clamped her thighs around the neck and clutched at the scales behind the head. 

 

She'd ridden bareback, of course; the hands dared each other to it, when Gedrin was away. She remembered the reassurance of two good handfuls of the horse's mane. Her fingertip grasp on  those scales was far less secure.

 

It was a vertiginous moment—but only a moment. She stayed on. And then she was up.

 

She clicked her heels as Sam had coached her, as you might on a horse, and Aumersa began to pace; Sam, though scarcely limping now, needed five strides to the Beast's one. The rhythm was like nothing she'd ever experienced: surging, hesitating, surging forward again. She'd have to reassess everything she knew about riding. And we're still on the ground…

 

Beyond the orchard, Aumersa could spread her wings fully, flexing and testing them, the left in particular. She raised them up and back, swept them forward and down. Fendry felt herself go heavy as the Beast's body rose beneath her. Had Aumersa's feet actually left the ground, or had she merely lifted onto tiptoe?

 

Sam was running forward, trying to get in Aumersa's eyeline, but Fendry didn't wait. She leaned forward precariously, kept her voice low and—she hoped—steady. "Easy, girl. That wing's not ready yet." And I sure as hell ain't.

 

Aumersa twisted her head around; facing forward, she'd barely be able to see the rider on her back. The Beast released a soft, breathy, hiss. Somehow Fendry understood. "Pissed off? So'd I be. But it needs time to heal. That's why we're goin' on the boat. Goin' home. Your home, anyway."

 

Aumersa hissed again, then turned her gaze forward and resumed her pace. Sam dropped back, apparently satisfied.

 

On a horse, she thought, I'm tall as anyone. On Aumersa's back, I'm twice as high. How must it feel to be in the air?

 

*  *  *

Samwick slipped between two trees, out of Aumersa's sight, then sprinted forward. His shoulder flared a protest, but he kept going as best he could, reaching the staithe just ahead of Beast and rider. He slipped through the gawkers, close enough to see everything, ready to spring forward if needed. No one heeded him. He heard startled murmurs, caught Fendry's name.

 

Fendry brought Aumersa to a tidy halt opposite the gangplank. Her dismount, he observed approvingly, was already more elegant than her mounting. Holding the reins in one hand, she faced the Commander. The corners of her mouth tweaked slightly. Sam knew she was suppressing a grin.

 

He sidled between a thickset fellow and a woman scarcely less hefty, thankful for his own slight frame. He needed to hear.

 

"…give up easily, do ye?" the Commander was saying.

 

Fendry smiled. "Leastways now I'll always be able to say I've ridden a Kingsbeast."

 

"Ye surely have, madam, ye surely have."

 

For a moment they were both silent. Sam, knowing his Commander, willed Fendry to stay mute. She never caught his eye, but she seemed to catch his thought: or else she just had sufficient good sense.

 

The Commander sighed. "In days of yore, only men-entire could be Riders. We weathered that change. Had we not, it's possible we'd not be speaking now. We might already have fallen under the yoke of the North. Perhaps we must risk much to win all…

 

"Madam, I make ye no promises. I must consult with higher authority. But… if your Lord will release ye, will ye travel to the King's City with us?" Fendry's face lit up. "I repeat, Madam, no promises."

 

"At least I'll see the City. And ride a riverboat. I never thought I'd do either."

 

*  *  *

Moonlight on the water, a strewing of pearls. She found Sam at the front—the bow—leaning on the rail. He turned at her approach, smiled. Between moonlight and lamps, his expression was clear.

 

She leaned too, alongside him. "Sam…"

 

"Madam?" he said, deadpan, before grinning wickedly.

 

"That better be the first and last time you call me that."

 

"As ye wish, m'lady." She scowled furiously. "Ye had something ye wished to ask?"

 

"Somethin' I need to ask…" He cocked an eyebrow. Finally she found the words. "What did he mean about… about 'men-entire'?"

 

Unreadable expressions flickered across Sam's face. "Fendry… had ye not realised?"

 

"Realised what?"

 

"Many Riders are cut-men. Ye know what that means?"

 

"Explain, please."

 

"Hmm… In terms ye'll find familiar… if we were horses, we would be geldings." He watched her  closely. "Ye did not know… yet I'm sure we mentioned 'cut' more than once."

 

"Happen you did. Happen I heard but didn't understand." Didn't want to understand, likely. "I should've asked, but there was always somethin' else."

 

"Aye." He essayed a laugh. "There's been much to think about, has there not?"

 

"Sam…" she said. "Why?"

 

He braced himself to her gaze. "It's believed that cutmen gain less weight than entires."

 

"You say 'believed'. Is it true?"

 

He shrugged. "Hard to be certain. It seems cutmen do…last a little longer, retire a little later, than entires. But then… some say entires are bolder fighters—or more reckless… We have many such discussions, often impassioned ones." He laughed. "There'll be many more, I foretell, about the wisdom—or folly—of bringing women into the Flight."

 

Doubtless that was true, and she would have to face it, but it was hardly her prime concern just now. "Sam… when…?"

 

"When was I cut? I was twelve."

 

She considered that. "And you were willing?"

 

"Willing and eager, if it meant I could fly."

 

Fendry thought she could understand that. She too might sacrifice much for the chance to take to the air.

 

But… "There must be feelings you've never…"

 

He shrugged. "Doubtless. But it's hard to miss what ye've never had."

 

Fendry wondered; had she discerned some difference in him all along? She had always felt easy with him. Perhaps that was all it had ever been, the rest mere imagining.

 

"I did think…" She balked, then opted for frankness. "I did think… I imagined… when you suggested I could come to the City, try to be a flier… that perhaps… that you wanted to be with me."

 

His eyes turned dark, wounded, hard to face. "Oh, Fendry…" he said at last. "They cut my balls, not my heart." She could not answer. After a moment he shook his head. "Aye, there may be some feelings I've never experienced. But there are many more that I feel just as strongly as any other man—or woman. Do ye think that a cut-man cannot care for someone?"

 

She stared at him, wretchedly shamed, lost for words. Sam too said nothing, but must have seen something in her face. He moved his hand on the rail. A paler hand over a darker, both silvered with moonlight.

 

A long silence; beneath it the rippling of water against the bows of the boat. Finally he drew a slow breath. "A few days ago, I imagined myself moments from death—mine and Aumersa's. Two more lost to the Flight, another small step toward defeat."

 

"And now?"

 

"And now?" A soft sound; Fendry realised he was chuckling. "Now, I have absolutely no notion what the future may hold."

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