Final Flight

It has been ten years since the Remenon Estate Incident. Ten years since the accusation of murdering my family and burning our manor to the ground. Ten years of being wanted by the Varscodian Enforcers—hunted, ostracised and forced to filter myself through a mire of aliases and masks. Ten years of running. And I’m tired of it.

I’ve known for a long time that the whole affair was a villainous plot instigated by the Varscodian aristocracy to mark me as the transgressor to cover their involvement. Though, why I was singled out, I’ve never been able to find out. Perhaps because I was the rebellious, untempered one in the family; the wild red-haired girl who bucked against the standards of propriety and custom, all for the love of adventure and freedom. As a girl, I rode wild Keecoon birds bareback and notched down unripened apples with my brother’s throwing knives instead of attending dance lessons or improving myself in the beauty arts as expected of any seventeen-year-old heiress.

If my uncurbed nature created the reason for setting me up, it could only mean one thing: an inside betrayal. The Varscodians would have never known of my personality quirks otherwise. My antics were outrageous to be sure, but my mother always made sure they remained undisclosed from all public eye and scrutiny.

And then there was the way the local authorities dealt with the case—the mishandling of evidence, the tainted objectivity, and the poisonous whispers of false witnesses. The whole thing reeked of treachery, and no one gave a damn about uncovering the truth. Whenever I think about it, I imagine silhouetted rows of Varscodian noblemen standing behind all the parties involved, holding marionette strings above their heads. It leaves a bitter silent laugh in the back of my throat every time.

My innocence never stood a chance.

And so, I ran away and ended up joining the Grey Wake Mercenaries. That course of action probably made me look all the more guilty. But I was a child, paranoid, foolish, and desperate to erase my traumatic past. It only made matters worse that I severed ties with close friends and acquaintances. Those with the power to help me, had no way of finding me, and even if they did, by then it was too late. I didn’t trust anyone from my old life anymore, and every bridge I crossed, I burned.

And the Varscodian dogs continued to hunt my shadow, tarnishing my name as they went.

Wanted in fourteen provinces, I have an 800,000 Sand Gold bounty on my head. How I’ve managed to keep out of the Varscodian Enforcers’ filthy hands for this long is simple: I never stay in the one place too long, I never use the main roads, and I make sure to keep informed of the Varscodians activities. Keep your friends close, and you enemies closer, they say. Well, I made sure to live by that as though my life depended on it. And, it pretty much does.

Tonight, however, I’m unsure how my situation stands. No close encounters in over three months. Most would consider that a good sign. But I don’t. Something feels off.

A glance into my half-empty glass reveals the murky reflection of my face staring back at me, prickling with the bubbles from the oxidised beverage. My eyes look hollow, my face taut. Gone is the spark of life people used to admire in my gaze; that spark of freedom that glinted like shards of sunlight dancing over a tumbling stream of sapphire blue. Some of my acquaintances—few as they are—have become incredulous and angered by my diminished spirit. They constantly debate the retellings of my wild adventures, reminding me of how many places I’ve visited, and the wonders I’ve seen. Every kingdom on the continent has been my home, visiting realms which others could only dream. I guess, in their eyes, that makes me the most free and spirited person they’ve ever known.

The truth is, though, there is nothing free about me. In body I may roam the lands, uninhibited by duty or calling, yet in spirit I am the equivalent to a wild animal trapped in a snare. My cage is not one of bars or locks, oaths or bonds; it is a grim and unyielding arrow, trained ever at my back. This life of constant running, constant uncertainty, constant strife … this is not the wild, romantic freedom I longed for as a child. This life is the slow, painful grinding of a millstone. And now, that stone has passed through my bones and begun grating at my soul.

I don’t want to run anymore. But I don’t want to surrender either. I’ve reached the edge of a precipice, but don’t know how to keep from falling over the edge.

A raucous outbreak disturbs me from my brooding. I turn my head toward the table on the far side of the commons room. As usual, the tavern is crowded and noisy, but the din from some men in particular holds my attention. Drunk and slovenly, they pound the table with their hands and tankards, their poorly pitched voices raised in song.

Lo, see our brothers standing strong,

When come the break of crimson day.

To make right what was turned to wrong,

They call to arms and ride away.

For freedom sing,

For freedom fight,

For freedom give all sword and soul.

Never shall we bend our knee,

Come days of terror or nights of woe.

Nay, never shall we bend our knee,

Or yield to our offending foe.

For freedom sing,

For freedom fight,

For freedom put your faith in whole.

Nay, never shall we bend our knee,

Or yield to our offending foe.

They finish with a series of blubbering shouts and cheers, and receive a general round of applause from other patriots. The rest of the gathered, including the tavern employees, are less than impressed. One of the serving girls hurries over to try and settle the men down. Their wariness I understand all too well. If Varscodian soldiers were to walk in and hear traditional Elkshaan war odes sung in public, they would likely arrest the offenders on the ridiculous charge of inciting civil rebellion and slam the tavern with a severe fine. It wouldn’t matter that the men are Elkshaan citizens, drinking Elkshaan-brewed mead, in an Elkshaan tavern.

Ever since Elkshaida’s Duke Farveign signed the so-called “peace” treaty, the Varscodian armed forces have unrestricted authority within Elkshaan borders. The Duke was likely encouraged to consent to the nonviolent takeover with an ultimatum. Probably something along the lines of: submit to the terms and conditions, or watch your kingdom burn. Farveign must not have wanted Elkshaida to end up stained red with the blood and flames of war like Korsha and Murgren.

The cost of defiance is high, and leads down a terrible, bloody road of violence and sacrifice. But in the end, the cost of conformity is higher—especially against a conceited and heartless kingdom like Varscodia.

I give the singers my own gesture of approval, raising my glass and glancing up at the ceiling. ‘Just another day in paradise, then.’ The words emerge a little scratchier than intended, but the old man two stools down from me seems to approve.

‘I’ll drink ter that, sister,’ he mumbles before tipping back the rest of his booze with clumsy enthusiasm, dribbling on his whiskery beard.

I start to take a final swig from my drink, but catch my breath as a strange, cold sensation rushes through me. My world becomes small and isolated, as though everything has been swallowed by a compressing darkness, except for the commons room of this small rowdy tavern. Claustrophobia creeps in, and I instinctively slide off my stool and point my feet toward the nearest exit.

The front door bursts open, and Felix Cressen staggers over the threshold, gasping as though he’s sprinted ten miles. His dark hair is slick with sweat and matted over his face, while his yellow eyes have a wild glaze about them as they madly scan around the room before training on me.

‘Hey!’ shouts the burly bartender, ‘Can’t you read the sign? This is an exclusive tavern. No Murgrenite mongrels allowed.’

Felix flattens his lupine ears, but otherwise pays no heed to the bigoted demand and makes a beeline straight to where I stand. ‘Adeline, the Varscodians—they–they know you’re here! They’re planning a–an ambush. Leave, now! Get out of the city and as far away as possible.’

I grab his shoulders and snare his gaze with mine. ‘When did you hear of this? How long have they known about me?’ I struggle to hide my panic, but I’m sure it’s not convincing. The heat rushes to my cheeks, and the muscles on the back of my neck twitch as they do when my anger or anxiety becomes uncontrolled.

Felix shakes his head, still gasping for breath. ‘I found out less than an hour ago, but they’ve been planning something for days. I’d bet a sack full of Sand Gold they know exactly where you are, which is why you need to get out of here right now.’

‘Hey, dog,’ growls the bartender. ‘Didn’t you hear what I just said?’

Lips curling, Felix looks past me and hands the man a death glare. ‘Shut up, Elkshaan,’ he snarls. ‘If I were you, I’d get the hell out of here, too. The Varscodians don’t give a damn about colour or creed. They’ll blow a hole right through you as easily as they will me if it’ll get them this woman.’

The bartender flaps his mouth, but nothing audible emerges. His bug-eyed stare is incredulous.

I’m about to ask Felix to calm down, when the sound of smashing glass has me jolting back and snapping my head toward the row of windows along the front of the building. Fractured glass scatters through the air, and a black, metal sphere rebounds off a tabletop and rolls onto the floorboards with an ominous clang.

Cover your ears!’ I shout and slam against Felix, forcing him down. We land in a heap with our hands plugging our ears, and the next instant, a ferocious pulse of energy sweeps over us, shattering glass into dust and blasting patrons off their chairs.

In the blinding dust and choking smoke, I scramble to my feet, pulling Felix with me. My mind is racing in shutter-like propulsions, and my heart is hammering like a rabid animal fighting to break out of its cage. People are splayed across the floor, moaning and screaming, their ears red with blood. Chairs, tables and all their contents are splintered to pieces, and glass from every window in the building floats through the air in a fine, crystallised haze. And I’m just standing there, staring at the devastation, wasting precious time. I snap out of my daze and turn to Felix.

He’s staring at me, his eyes burning with guilt. ‘I’m so sorry. I came too late!’

‘Forget it!’ I snap, annoyed that he would consider blaming himself. I cringe. He could have taken my angry tone as indication that I did hold him responsible. But there’s no time to correct the misunderstanding. Shaking my head, I grip my fingers around his and pull him into a run. We leap over the counter and race down the corridor, through the kitchens, and on toward the back exit.

Only I don’t plan to use the back.

Felix obviously shares the same train of thought for he coughs out, ‘Wait! Don’t go that way. They’ll be expecting it.’

‘I know!’ Abruptly, I take a left down a different hallway and run its length. Several doors branch off on either side. I choose one at random and charge into the room beyond. It’s some kind of storage area, but I take little notice of the crates and their contents. My eyes fix on the tall, glassless window on the opposite wall.

‘Clever girl,’ Felix growls through his jester-like smirk and proceeds to pull his mechanical crossbow out of the leather case strapped to his back.

My right hand goes up, prepped to grab my throwing knives, and I keep my arm primed even as I leap out the window and execute a double side-step which brings me upright with my back against the wall. My eyes dart back and forth along the side alley. Shouts come from the other side of the building, and screams from random citizens fleeing the chaotic scene.

Felix crashes on top of me, his crossbow spitting noisily with the rapid-fire of electrically charged bolts, his aim directed at the rooftops of the buildings across the street. Several armour-plated silhouettes duck for cover before my legs kick in, and I sprint toward the Keecoon stables where I’d left my mount, Cloud-claws. Thanks to the greater powers I felt paranoid enough to leave him harnessed and saddled.

My ears ring with the booms of energy-fire and the thundering gallop of the Varscodian’s steel-hoofed steeds. Felix is right behind me, his shouts rendered all but inaudible by the shrill shik-shik-shik-shik-shik of his crossbow. No time to waste working out any cunning, evasive action. The Varscodian Enforcers are closing fast, and the best—and probably only—option for us is to run.

As soon as the stable entrance appears, I run straight toward Cloud-claws’ stall, calling his name. His large feathery head pops over one of the side partitions. His quicksilver eyes are sharp and staring. He lets out a high, crisp kaww-ree, kicks the stall door right off its hinges with one of his huge, clawed feet, and struts toward me, clearly sensing the urgency in my tone. I swing up into the saddle and pull the reins hard to the right, turning him around before urging him forward until he draws up beside Felix.

I lean over and extend my arm. ‘Come on!’

Felix glances at my hand, then up at my face, and a flicker of surprise dawns in his eyes before his brows tilt into a frown. He shakes his head. ‘No way I’m weighing you down, Adeline. I’ll give you cover so you have a chance at breaking through. Now hurry. Get going!’

‘I can’t leave you here! The Varscodians will tear you to pieces!’

‘Adeline, I can take care of myself. It’s you they’re after. Get the hell outta here. Let me draw their attention away from you.’

My throat constricts with rising emotions. ‘Felix, if they catch you—’

‘—They won’t.’ He smiles his wide, jester smile. That stupid, annoying, adorable smile. Tears sting my eyes as he runs back toward the stable entrance. He ducks his head around the corner, then immediately pulls it back and sets a new clip into his crossbow. ‘Go!’ he barks. ‘I’ve got your back!’

Damn it, but who’s got yours, you reckless fool?

No choice. If I linger any longer, it’s a guaranteed death sentence for us both. My legs react like lead as I throw them out and dig my heels into Cloud-claws’ sides. The usual rush from his powerful, lurching strides becomes a twisted, tight lump in the pit of my stomach. I can’t help but train my eyes on Felix as he sprints into the open the moment we race from the cover of the stables.

My narrowed focus immediately scatters.

Mounted Varscodian Enforcers charge from both directions. Their formations tight, until the electrical discharges from Felix’s cover-fire sends the massive equine mounts into a panic. I urge Cloud-claws through an opening, though Varscodian pulse guns must be aimed at me. The crackling whoosh of funnelled energy fills the air. Static wind screams past me, tossing my air and whipping at my clothes. Pulse guns have only a short range of effectiveness and aren’t terribly accurate. But Varscodians are master marksmen. They can hit me, even though I’m a moving target.

I force Cloud-claws into a zigzagging motion to make aiming more difficult. I lean as low into the saddle as possible and throw a final, desperate glance over my shoulder. Felix disappears down a side alley, fearlessly continuing to fire at the riders charging after him. A second is all I can spare to dwell on his fate. Don’t let them catch you, Felix!

I face forward as I reach their disordered lines. One Varscodian lurches his beast sideways to block my way. A fiery recklessness envelops me, and I kick my heels into Cloud-claws’ ribs and shout for him to charge. Hissing, he extends out his long, thick neck and snaps at the mount’s face in passing, causing it to throw its front legs back and scream. We shoot past, untouched, and sprint down the street with increasing momentum.

Angry shouts and steel-plated hoof beats fill the air behind us with a noise as dense as thunder. Crackling whooshes of energy nip at our backs, blasting us with snarling winds. We need to slip ahead of their weapon range if we’re to have any chance of escape.

I pull Cloud-claws hard to the right and bank down a different street. As soon as another intersection comes, I take it. The buildings become my barriers, and for the first time the Varscodians can’t keep me in their line of sight long enough to take a shot. But scrambling around the city won’t save me for long. One wrong turn and I could end up trapped with no escape route. These compact, labyrinthine streets are as much deadly obstacle as they are blessed shield.

My best chance is the open countryside. While those steel-hoofed behemoths may have the strength behind their gallop, Keecoon birds are built for endurance. Cloud-claws will outlast them.

The road on which I had entered the city materialises, and I give Cloud-claws’ reins a sharp flick and spur him on with the anticipation of freedom. ‘We’re almost out of here, Cloud! Can you taste that open air? Run for it, boy! Come on, run your way to freedom!’

His body trembles beneath me, surging with a new wave of adrenaline. He opens his beak and lets out a high, pitchy kaawww-ree!

From behind, the air crackles with violent propulsions. I suck in a panicked breath. The wide and straight road leaves me completely exposed, but the funnelling wind never reaches me. A glance back shows we’re safely out of range. Even so, that doesn’t stop the Enforcers from continuing to fire. Perhaps they think the sheer noise will heighten my fear, and cause me to make some critical error. Well, there’s no way that tactic will work on me.

The moment we pass through the archway of the outer wall, I take Cloud-claws off the road and onto the dewy grass of the open fields. His sure-footed claws adapt better to uneven surfaces, putting us at a much-needed advantage. My Varscodian pursuers persist in shadowing my movements, but they will not be able to keep pace for much longer.

The cool night air rushes against me, and the smell of salt sends my nostrils tingling. On my right, gently rolling hills sink toward a cliff that follows the coastline for miles, its sheer drop slicing into the sea. To the left, the land flattens into settled curves of pasture and tilled farmland. Ahead to the north, the land ascends into steep slopes and rocky tors, while father still looms the mountain passes dividing the borders.

That rugged, silhouetted range will be my salvation. Cloud-claws will take the steep angles and jagged outcrops with ease, while the Varscodians and their steel-hoofed beasts will be left panting and scrambling far behind. We can cross the border then, into Bervinia, and lose them for good. The picture rises clearly in my mind, and it rekindles my smothered hopes.

We bound down a valley and over the next rise. I survey the moon-bathed landscape, and my blood runs cold. A garrison of mounted figures wait on the crest of the next hill, the pearl-red sheen of their armour glinting with an eerie light.

They’ve been waiting for me outside the city this whole time.

A flash comes from the midst of their numbers, accompanied by a hollow boom that carries all the way across the distance. A fiery sphere soars into an arc and comes screaming toward me. An involuntary cry bursts from my throat as I yank Cloud-claws hard to the right. Less than thirty paces away the ground erupts into a pillar of soil and flame. Cloud-claws screeches and then stumbles. I pull up on his reins and urge him onward.

More flashes prickle at the corner of my vision. Explosions light up the slopes to my left, puncturing the ground with flaming holes deep enough to swallow a man. I fight to keep a panicked Cloud-claws under my control. The Varscodian Enforcers have dropped back and spread out in order to flank me from the south should I try to turn back toward the city. I’m being coerced according to their pre-emptive desires; herded like a wretched animal, until I’m either cornered and forced to surrender, or incapacitated by a hit from their missiles. Cloud-claws sprints toward the coastal cliffs, too terrified to properly obey my commands. My knuckles whiten from the strain on the reins. If I don’t get him under control, he’ll take us over the edge.

My mind spins. It can’t end like this—plummeting to my death and to sink beneath the ocean waves forevermore, all my memory and struggles washed away like meaningless sea foam. No. Not after all these years of running and fighting for my right to live. My right to be free.

It can’t end like this.

Unexpectedly, a song drifts into my head, the song from the patrons at the inn. But it’s not their voices singing. It’s the voice of a girl, a young, seventeen-year-old, singing in a tone free of fear and hurt and spite. She sings as though she has never known suffering at the hands of the Varscodians. She sings as though the Remenon Estate Incident never happened.

For freedom sing,

For freedom fight,

For freedom give all sword and soul.

Never shall we bend our knee,

Come days of terror or nights of woe.

Nay, never shall we bend our knee,

Or yield to our offending foe.

A missile whistles overhead and lands between Cloud-claws and the cliff. The explosion of earth and fire creates a temporary wall and sends Cloud-claws leaping sideways, allowing me to regain some control and force him from his suicidal path.

Mechanical shrieking fills my ears as a violent force engulfs me. Screeching, Cloud-claws lurches and trips forward. I fly from the saddle like a ragdoll and hit the ground hard. The world reels around me. My ears throb with a deafening ringing. A sharp pain stabs up my right leg and through my ribcage. Smoke and dust blur my vision. Dazed, I roll over. A large, feathery clump is heaped on the ground just out of reach. My stomach gives a sickening heave and fills my throat with bile.

Cloud-claws!

Ignoring the shooting pain, I scramble to my charred and bloodied friend and spread my fingers through the feathers on his head. His quicksilver eyes are clouded … empty. My body begins to spasm, wracked by a grief I can’t suppress. Cloud-claws has been by my side since the beginning. My faithful, ungrudging carrier and unshakably loyal friend. Through all the dangers and hardships, he’s been there, bearing them alongside me—my beautiful, brave Cloud-claws. ‘I’m s-so sorry, Cloud,’ I sob. ‘You didn’t deserve this. F-Forgive me.’

Something on my insides turns hollow and cold, and an awful taste builds in my mouth—a taste of bitterness, anger and regret.

My thoughts flash to Felix. Had he managed to escape, or … I choke on my breath, unable to consider the alternative. I never asked for his help, dammit! But he willingly—even enthusiastically—put his neck on the line for my sake anyway. That’s what true friends do for each other. And here I am, having never realised our spirit of kinship until now. It’s a revelation that comes like a cold and haunting echo, too late to reciprocate. Maybe I’ve lost him, too.

I stagger to my feet, and slowly back away as hoof beats thunder toward me. Through the thinning veil of dust, the large silhouettes of mounted riders close in. The Varscodian Enforcers gather in a wide semi-circle, cutting off all escape routes.

One of them slides from his saddle and approaches in slow but fluid strides. I step back and rest my hand on the leather holder containing my throwing knives, despite the blades having no hope of piercing reinforced armour. The Enforcer ceases his approach and waits a moment before removing his helmet. Long, blonde hair unfolds from a loose head knot and tumbles around his angled face. His eyes are like semi-transparent emeralds, otherworldly in their gaze. His look is that of a heartless beauty, conceited and cruel; the facade of every Varscodian.

‘Adeline Ve’duer Remenon, you are hereby under arrest by right of the imperial Varscodian Enforcers. You are to come with us without further resistance, or you will be forced into submission by whatever means required. So enough running. Let us end this without further strife.’

So, this is it. I am to surrender to these beautiful demons and give them the triumph they have long pursued. They will have the last of the Remenon bloodline to do with as they please, and my freedom will be gone forever. The thought makes my blood boil. All I wanted was to be free. Was my life, all these years, simply a vain striving after a wind that was never really there? I don’t want to believe that … I can’t believe that.

Again, that song sung by the Elkshaans echoes like a long forgotten memory.

For freedom sing,

For freedom fight,

For freedom put your faith in whole.

Nay, never shall we bend our knee,

Or yield to our offending foe.

And then, understanding. The years of running, of hiding, of fighting, it was all for the sake of freedom. And not just for my own, but for everyone who has ever suffered at the hands of the warmongering Varscodians. Surrendering now would not only ensure my own personal defeat, it would, symbolically, declare the defeat of freedom itself. Surrendering was not an option.

‘I will never yield.’ I breathe the words in a sharp, quivering whisper.

‘Did you say something, Remenon?’ The Varscodian watches me with a repulsed interest.

Clenching my fists, I stab him with a glare. ‘I will never yield to you!’ I turn on my heel and run in the only direction open.

‘Stop her!’ The Varscodian shouts, his tone frantic. ‘Don’t let her jump!’

The air vibrates as pulse guns fire. Funnelled wind rips past me, tossing my hair and whipping at my clothes. The ocean spans out before me like an eternal horizon, and the ground comes to a sudden end. A burning sensation slams into by back, turning my body numb. But my feet have already kicked from the edge.

Felix, please stay safe.

The wind enfolds me in a cold melody. The dark and foamy ocean reaches up to catch me in its sweeping embrace.

Finally, after so long … I feel free.

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