Sunday, January 2, 2011

Flight or Fight, Chapter 1

Trandafira Minka Evacska Hynter had been aware, from an early age, that her family owed their continued existence to the Tyrant of Europa. This had been her earliest catechism. Her family had never been one of the Fifty, but because they supported the Heterodynes, and later the Baron, they retained their lands. They served to hold the line in their mountain stronghold, providing signal relays and reports of movements through the pass. Now, it was time to call on the Baron's protection.
She huddled in a corner of the tiny courier ship's main deck, trying very hard to not attract attention. The crew was already annoyed at her for the extra baggage she represented, and the squad of Jägermonsters in the forward lounge on the deck above was bored and hungry. It did not help matters that she was in misery before the trip began, as she had to abandon all that she knew after the death of her father. The movement and smell of the airship were alien to her, and conspired to make her ill, but there was no other way. She must get the documents she carried to the Baron. After the attack on the sentry outpost that had been her home for all of her five and twenty years, there was no one else to take the task.
After three days on horseback, she was sure she not entirely pleasant to be with, either. Her small pack had carried the barest minimum of necessities, and there had not been time, when she arrived at the airship outpost, to set herself to rights before the captain had made to cast off. They had barely stopped long enough, with ill grace, for her to clamber up the rope ladder. There were no facilities to wash on board, either - enough drinking water for the crew, but little else. Still, they should reach the Baron's airship fleet in a day, and then the worst of her ordeal should be over.
Her emotional state was mirrored by the overcast day, with blustering winds on the ground and sub-optimal flying conditions, judging by the tense manner of the helmsman. The observers were on alert as well, the undertone of their mutterings lost in the drone of the engines. All the tension in the air made it difficult for her to relax enough to sleep. Besides, there being no berths, all she could do was sit on her pack, curled around the document tube hidden in her sash, and wait.
Dalibor looked out at the storm-clouds ahead and did not like the look of them. But he was not the airship's captain, nor a part of the crew. In his years, he had seen the development of flight from the beginning, when the madboys would fling themselves from the highest tower wearing what they thought would give them wings of eagles, only to smash their brains out on the courtyard flagstones, all in the name of Science. Yes, there had been advances made, but it was not just one madboy to make flight possible.
But even the madboys had not gotten around to controlling weather. Oh, fine - nice and impressive to call down lightning, but after you call it, does it behave? More often than not, no - and really, who needs lightning? Just the madboy; the farmers needed gentle rain, and the pilots needed sunny skies, never mind how they liked to impress the girls in the bar with their tales of flying through storms.
He didn't like flying through storms outside the stories, and the captain must be mad or desperate to reach the Castle to fly in this weather. Not that anyone told the Jägerkin anything other than when to hunt. And to leave the girls alone. The one they had picked up at the last stop wasn't too bad, even if she showed every mile of her trip. The others in the squad had dismissed her as a waste of time, but you had to respect the distance she had covered, if what the ground crew had said was true - fifteen leagues in three days, even on horseback, in the wastelands was quite a trip for a human alone. She did not look to have any air experience, if he was any judge. Bah, let the crew deal with her if there was something in the wind, he had to make sure the rest of the squad did not lose their hats because of someone else's stupidity.
Still, the squad was uneasy, restless - they scented a fight on the wind, and got the feeling they were going to be told to go knit again. The squad leader, a brick-like sort, started to hum one of the old drinking songs, and Dalibor decided it was time to check his gear. The others of the squad thought he was mad to carry about the extra pack that held nothing but what seemed to be a nightgown for a giant, but years of watching flight experiments made him appreciate what a prize he had gotten in that dice game with Captain Robrect. Also a good thing that air pirates underestimated the drinking capacity of the Jägerkin.
All right and tight, he was about to stow it back in the cupboard when the first mate arrived in the cargo hold, opened the unit next to him, and muttered, "The chair is beside the door".
Shock and anticipation - Dalibor had not heard the phrase in decades, but he responded with a diffident shrug, "Eh, no need to moof it if it gots only t'ree legs."
The first mate sighed in relief, and took a folio out from under his shirt, and handed it to Dalibor, who quickly tucked it into his waistcoat. "That, and Dama Hynter, are your charge. All the rest is expendable," he muttered in a quick undertone. He jerked his chin at the parachute in the soldier's hands, "and I hope that can carry two, because we have no spares." with that, he retrieved a chart from the cabinet, and returned to the pilot house... without closing the hatch.
A quick glance showed the bin to hold maps, very carefully organized in the manner of the Baron's ships, with the one for the Somme River Valley missing. The mate had taken one chart, but he knew from the mutterings of the crew they were headed for a rendezvous with the Castle, in-route from Strasbourg to Hermannstadt. He closed the cabinet with a nod, noting that the chart on the navigation table would be switched out in case of capture. That meant the first mate expected them to be boarded, and the Dama needed to be gone if they were.
At least the squad would get a good fight, and they could possibly win the day, but they were a patrol squad. Eight of the 'kin could reasonably be expected to handle a crew of forty, if you did not mind a few corpses and missing limbs. The first mate's comments made him think there could be more than that expected in the boarding party. He nodded to himself again, and began securing his patrol pack to the parachute straps.
Trandafira began to rouse at the tone of alarm in the voices around her, and seconds later was jerked to full wakefulness as she was bodily hauled to her feet, and someone was jamming her arms into the straps of her pack. She turned to face her assailant, to be confronted with a frowning Jägermonster. He began to buckle her pack to the straps of his parachute harness, causing her to squeak in alarm, "What are you doing?"
"Safing hyu hide, Dama! Now schtop dat und lemmee finisch!!" he growled. As the first explosion rocked the airship, he left off the buckles to grab the support beam behind her.
Continuing the task he had left, Trandafira muttered, "... this is insane, they will pick us off as we jump."
The Jägermonster chuckled, "Den ve are gunna haff to be schneaky. Dot meanz choozing an onegspected vay out." With that, he picked her up, and headed to the maintenance access ladder.
With the difference in their heights negated, Trandafira was able to make the buckles more secure. Her concentration on her task, and the battle preparations around them almost distracted her from the sensation of large, strong hands on her thighs holding her up. She locked her ankles behind him, to keep her legs out of the way, but it also helped to distract her from the thought they were going to jump. The hands were removed when they reached the ladder, and he said, "Ve're gunna haff to get two pipple und der packs t'rough dese passagez all at vunce. It's gunna be a tight sqveeze in vun or two plazez, bot ve can make it."
She nodded, and tried to make herself as small as possible against him as he slid down the ladder to the bottom level of the airship. The tail-gunner scowled at them and barked, "Garraddamyway!" as he reloaded. Trandafira was about to respond, when the Jäger laughed, "Chust pazzing t'rough, Gunnie!" and he opened a maintenance hatch.
Trandafira was distracted from the small size of the hole by the broad expanse of sky beyond the egress, "I-I-I suppose this would be a bad time to admit I have a fear of heights?"
He shimmied them through the hatch, which caused her to be distracted by unfamiliar, confusing and electric sensations. It was not abated with the feel of the winds whipping about them, when he murmured in her ear, "Hy keep hyu safe. Dun vorry, dis'll be fon!" and then he tumbled them off the nacelle cowling into the void.
Dalibor had not done a tandem jump since his first years with the Storm Riders, and this was one of his first where he was in control, but it was a glorious day for a jump. High winds, an airship battle behind them, a good chinstrap on his helmet, and a verra nice girl strapped to his chest - yes, this was turning out to be a fantastic day. He settled his goggles in place, and began the contract-and-stretch exercises to bring them out of the tumble his launch had started. The captain had been running at the ceiling of the small courier's capacity, so he had plenty of room to make them seem as if they were an inanimate ballast release. Seems as if it had worked; at least he had not been hit by anything, he could not tell about the girl just yet.
He had never before heard anyone scream in multiple tones, though. She was going to hurt herself if she kept it up, but it sounded like she might have a nice singing voice. He laughed, and began to sing in harmony with her screeching. Flinging his arms out for stability, he bellowed out the words of the hiking song from the village near his birthplace. "Mein Vater var ein Vanderschmann, Und mir schteckt'z auch im Blut; Drum vandr' ich flott, zo lang ich kann, Und schvenke meinen Hut!" She stopped screaming about halfway through the verse, and though he could not hear her over the wind whistling past them, from the vibration against his chest, she seemed to be joining in on the chorus. Good, he needed her relaxed for the chute opening; otherwise she might snap her neck. As he began to be able to pick out details in the landing area, he gauged it was time to think about landing. Dalibor noted her pack had not had a lumbar strap, so he made sure to support her hips with his free hand, holding her fast, and triggered the chute to open.
Frozen in fear, she shut her eyes and resisted clawing at her supposed rescuer as they tumbled from the airship, without any idea where or how they would land. She hoped the straps she had buckled herself to were parachute harness straps, but she was not sure. Ground forces equipment she knew, but they had no air support at the fortress in so long, she was not sure. She could have just hitched herself to a madman. When he started writhing she was sure of it, and yet, his curling himself around her triggered something in the back of her mind, but the forefront of her concentration was we're going to die we're going to die we're going to die! She had no idea what was on his alleged mind...
He's singing?!?!? He is enjoying himself! Trandafira thought, and the flash of anger made her realize screaming would do little good in their situation. The throbbing in her calf indicated she had either hit her leg during their exit or received a grazing shot there; she could not tell right now with the fright and anger roiling about in her. She was just wishing she had been wearing her riding helm while she had dozed on the airship, but she had been wearing it for days now. It would have been a good idea to wear it now, considering she had no idea how to land. She picked up the chorus when he reached the end of the verse, grasping at the single straw of normalcy she had found in the past days, and tried to ignore the fact they were hurtling towards the earth and relying on, as she understood it, a few ball gowns' worth of silk to keep them from death.
She was distracted from the next verse by the hand under her hip and the warm rumbling of his chest as he continued singing. Her heart leaped as there was a tremendous shock, and his hand supporting her head... and he kept singing....
Dalibor regretfully left off holding the dama after the chute had fully deployed. She was a nice handful, but he had to guide them into a safe landing. Not the easiest thing to do in the mountains, but he had done it before. Just that he had not done this with a passenger. And they were coming in too fast; he could handle a rough landing, but he was not sure she could, and he had been charged with getting her to the Castle.
This was going to hurt, but he was going to keep his charge safe. No help for it with the guide lines, he let them go in favor of trying to hold on to Dama Hynter. All things considered, he would have liked to be holding on to her without the prospect of hitting the ground too fast, when there was another pull from his harness. He looked up, to see a second chute deploying - hah, that Captain Robrect must have been a half-madboy himself to have a dead-man chute set-up. Dalibor was still laughing as he ran, and tumbling into the brush.
That stopped when he realized the girl had gone limp in his arms. "Dama? Hyu hokay?" Her eyelids fluttered as he felt for a pulse, but she was awfully pale and he smelled blood.  Quickly unbuckling her from his harness, he saw that she had been hit after all, but the leg would be all right with treatment. He tied a quick pressure bandage over the top of her boot, scanning the skies. No pursuit that he could see and night would be falling in a few hours. Best to get under cover for the night though, as she would need to be kept warm and a fire could be seen from the air at extreme distances. He gathered the chutes quickly, and refastened her to his harness for the hike to a likely bivouac.

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