Altan and Kibrath spent their first night on the bank of the southern fork of the Barleyn River and a lazy morning waiting for the air to warm enough for thermals to form. He sprawled against his packs drinking tea, relishing growing warmth from the sun moving up the cobalt sky. The sound of the river flowing noisy and icy cold out of the craggy mountains to the West carried away thought. They weren't far from the southern pass through the mountains to the Coastal Holdings.
The energy of Adalta beneath him was tangible, the gentle force that always pulsed through him. He pulled on it and pinched a tiny mix of Earth and Air to form a ball of fire between his fingers. He set a water shield and played with the flame, passing it back and forth between his hands, rolling it from the fingers of one to the other, keeping it small as a match flame. He let it go after several minutes, and it floated away, fading as he withdrew the tiny tendril of his talent connection. He rolled to kneeling and spread his hands flat on the ground in front of him. He stayed that way for a long time, feeling the power curl through him.
Kibrath looked up, his beak stained from tearing at clumps of succulent green grass. ~Let's go, lazy one. It's warm enough by now.~
Altan laughed and stood, grabbed the saddle and tossed it up on the Karda's back, practiced at keeping all the straps and buckles in order. Packs loaded and Altan strapped in, Kibrath loped up the river bank, took off and found a thermal that lifted them high. Altan didn't have to think about moving with the vigorous surges of their takeoff; he'd been flying since he was big enough to fit the small saddle his mother had made for him when Kibrath appeared and announced Altan was his. It was second nature and left him free to think. Not that he wanted to think right now. Contrary to what he had told Eiryk, and much as he didn't want to, he was going to have to resign himself to giving up his freedom and finding a life mate before much longer. He could put it off a few more years, but the pressure was increasing.
Every time he turned around his mother was behind a curtain pushing Jessa Me'Nowyk at him She was pretty enough if a little short for his taste. Her family connections would be a tremendous asset to Toldar. Me’Nowyk had brought her to Toldar Prime for the month to meet him, hoping for just such a match. He blew out a hefty sigh. Summer had brought a plethora of visitors with young girls in Toldar Prime starting with Spring Planting Festival. He shuddered.
Jessa was intelligent enough, he supposed, and her political connections were an advantage. Her witty comments about people, too often aimed at the other visiting Holder's daughters, cut a bit deep. He hadn't found her remark about the new Mi'hiru's sinewy arms and 'mannish' uniform funny.
His mind wandered to the way Marta looked in it, the freedom with which she moved and the grace with which she danced. The clean herbal smell of her hair. Lavender. He rubbed his arm. Those strange shocks when he had first touched her. What had they been? It hadn’t been ordinary static, and it never happened again.
When rotations put them together on patrol, she kept a professional distance. He couldn’t get serious about her. No political connections. No advantages to Toldar. And her lack of interest in a more casual relationship was so evident it glared at him.
Jessa could draw a little power, and her Air talent dominated. Probably why her humor was so barbed. Sarcasm and hot temper plagued Air talents with not enough Earth for balance. When the tendayly dinner and dancing was over last night, he was relieved. She pouted when he told her he'd be away for the next tenday or so and complained to his mother. Jessa spent a lot of time with his mother.
~Yes, it probably should,~ said Kibrath.
Kibrath waggled his wings, and Altan had to grab the pommel.
~You were about to fall off.~
~Sorry. Wandering thoughts. And I never fall off.~ He felt the big Karda rumble with a laugh.
~ You're not supposed to listen to my thoughts, chicken head. Do you know your beak is green? What have you been eating?~ Altan retorted. He sucked in a long, deep breath and let it out slowly through stuck-out lips. ~I'm afraid she expected a declaration of undying love last night. And I haven't done a thing to bring that on. I've been more than proper with all of them. Why is it when you finally reach the age of freedom-from-parents there is so much pressure to mate? For women and men alike?~
It wouldn't do to raise expectations or hurt anyone. Or cause political problems. His mother was already pressuring him to choose.
Altan sighed again, and Marta wiggled into his thoughts. She was currying her Karda in the stall across the aisle. Auburn hair hung loose down her back and brushed against her tall, lean body as she moved, reaching up to groom Sidhari's shoulder, small breasts straining against her sweaty work shirt. He blinked the vision away, frowning.
Embarrassed, he could feel Kibrath's laugh through the saddle again.
~If you don’t want me to listen to your thoughts you need to stop thinking so loud.~
He and Marta were thrown together often. Altan spent a lot of time in the mews, caring for Kibrath, flying with his wing of the Karda Patrol, checking with the Mi'hiru about rotations and the Kardas' readiness to fly. He'd assigned Marta to his patrol several times since she arrived to deflect attention from his efforts to avoid her.
~Oh, so that's why you've been doing that.~
~Stay out of my head, you overgrown turkey. That's not funny.~ She ignored any attention he directed her way. Almost to the point of being rude. Unlike too many others.
I wonder if I'm wearing a sign on my back that says Open Season on Altan. There have been at least ten willing and unwilling young women visiting the Keep with their parents in the last six months. He laughed. He'd become proficient in acrobatic conversation, keeping to the thin line of courtesy without straying into the broad spaces of particular interest. Marta intruded again. Last night he caught her laughing at a sharp interchange between Jessa and Ryba when all the Mi’hiru came to Toldar Keep for dinner. Her eyes met his, and her mouth quirked up into a smirk before she looked away. Was it disdain or amusement? He shook his head, half angry at the thought, determined to think about nothing but the enjoyment of flight.
He and Kibrath scanned the countryside below as they rose further into the mountains. The trees hadn't begun to lose their leaves yet, and the rising foothills below were a riot of red, gold and russet punctuated by spires of dark green conifers. It was the dry season, brief as that was, and the air was crisp and fresh. The thermals were strong, and Kibrath took one up so close to the bottom of the low clouds mist beaded on his feathers and Altan’s clothes and face. A pair of Karda glided into view below them flying low, hunting, a small sorrel male with a bigger female gold. They skimmed the foothills, wings moving only to adjust direction and altitude.
He started to comment to Kibrath when the couple veered up, startled by something below them in the trees. The sorrel Karda screamed and tumbled over and over to fall in a tangle of legs and wings into the top of a tree. A branch speared through one wing, and his head hung limp and twisted to one side. He didn’t move. The female followed him down, wings drawn close in a stoop, her cries high and sharp—kee, kee, kee. Her flight faltered. Kibrath screamed and jerked. She pulled up, beat her wings to gain altitude in an awkward spiral, one wing not moving right.
Altan saw several men ride through the trees toward the fallen Karda. One of them raised something long and narrow and pointed it at the big female. She jerked again, faltered, and kept climbing, heading into the mountains. Kibrath screamed again.
~Drop down, Kibrath. I need to see who those men are.~ Fury flooded Altan. ~And I need to kill them.~ But Kibrath refused, and flew after the gold, wings pumping furiously. Altan yelled at him and jerked his body to the right, trying vainly to turn the Karda to go after the men, but Kibrath ignored him, intent on the female.
Altan hoped the male Karda was dead and not dying for lack of help. What in the world killed him? He'd been flying too high for a crossbow bolt to reach him. Who were those men? Raiders? Who would kill a Karda? He'd never heard of that happening before, not for centuries and never a human. Karda were revered.
They flew for most of an hour; the beautiful gold labored more with every wing stroke. Kibrath positioned himself ahead of her, reducing the wind resistance, easing her flight as much as he could. Altan realized they headed toward Mounts Diriga and Adjuna above the valley where his cot stood. She was tiring. One wing couldn’t fully extend, forcing her to adjust her path constantly. But she labored on, relentless.
Altan pulled all the Air he could, pushing it up under her wings, hoping to help her stay aloft until she reached wherever it was she was headed with such desperate determination. His heart burned with pain for her. His body ached with the effort of pulling so much Air.
Finally, she started a glide toward a steep-sided, flat-topped quartz and sandstone spear rising eighty meters high at the head of a valley near the base of Adjuna mountain. He recognized this place. He'd planned to scale the tall rock this trip. His small cot was in that valley. He released the Air he pulled and took several deep breaths.
She glided, wings unsteady, toward the open bowl isolated on its top. The wind twisted trees that circled the clearing restricted its size. The Karda began her approach. It would be a short, tricky landing.
Kibrath screamed in his head, ~She's too low. She's too low.~
He circled, uttering short, sharp cries, as they watched her falter and fall mid-landing in the center of the small meadow. She didn't get up. There wasn't enough room left for them to land; the gold lay in the center blocking the short landing space.
Then Altan saw the large nest of sticks under the trees at the edge of the tiny clearing. He could see at least two nestlings beating their immature wings, bashing themselves against the walls of the nest again and again. He couldn't help staring.
No one had ever seen young Karda. The nesting grounds were secret and hidden, the Karda's homelands a mystery. They came into inhabited Adalta fully grown and of their own free will. He couldn't imagine why the couple had built the nest here so close to the edge of the mountains. The birth must have been early and unexpected.
The babies' shrill screeches reached him as he and Kibrath circled. The gold Karda raised her head and looked straight at Altan as Kibrath flew low over her, calling to her with soft cries, so close the air from his passing fluttered her mane. Her large, pleading eyes watched them. She was communicating with Kibrath, and Altan couldn't hear their speech.
Then Kibrath sheared off, folded his wings and dropped in a stomach-lurching stoop for the valley below. They landed with a flurry of wings and a very short run.
Altan dismounted and looked at the steep sides of the tall mesa. Twisted trees wedged themselves into the rock in several places. Isolated tufts of wiry grass grew here and there in crevices and on narrow ledges. If he couldn’t heal the mother, if she died, and he had to, he could lower the babies from one ledge to the next. It would be grueling, especially because he’d have to do it twice, but he could do it. He thought could find or make enough hand and footholds. What other choice did he have?
Kibrath butted his head against Altan's back. ~You need to hurry. She's lost too much blood. You won’t be able to heal her. The nestlings will be helpless up there. They're far too young to fly.~
The nestlings would starve in the time it would take to get help from Toldar Prime. At their age, they’d be growing fast and as voracious as baby birds. He couldn't bear that. He wished he knew something about how Karda raised their young; what to expect if he went up there. Kibrath was reluctant to talk, even now. Altan had never known him to be this distressed.
Kibrath butted him again, pushing him toward the steep mesa. "Ok. I won't try to climb up. I can drop off of you on the fly like we practiced when I was younger. And stupider. We haven't done it in a long time, but I think I can still manage. I'll have to climb back down. If I can leave enough food and I can heal the mother then maybe we'll have enough time to go for help. It must have been the father who died back there. I wonder what kind of weapon brought him down from that far up." He knew he was babbling while he decided what to do. He'd worked at dropping off Kibrath from a hover for a long time when he was younger, but he hadn't done it for several years. He was a good deal bigger now. Could he do it without breaking a leg?
Kibrath looked toward the top of the mesa, making agitated clicking sounds with his hooked beak. ~She's almost gone.~ Kibrath's distress was palpable. ~You'll have to bring them down.~
He unbuckled his packs and the large packets of dried meat from behind the saddle and dropped them to the ground, sliding off behind them. He emptied one pack and stuffed it with some of the meat, a couple of packets of dried vegetables, two long coiled ropes, a small hammer, thirty pitons, his traveling med kit, and two blankets. ~I'm glad I'd planned on some climbing on this trip,~ he pathed to the worried and impatient Kibrath. He started to fasten it shut, then stuffed in two water bottles, his largest pot, and a ball of stout cord. He hoisted it up and secured it behind the saddle, then unclipped his sword from his belt, leaving it propped against his other pack, checked that his belt knife was secure and mounted Kibrath.
The Karda took off. Altan didn’t bother to buckle himself in, just gripped Kibrath tight with his legs, wedged his knees under the horns of the pommel, and grabbed the handle with both hands. Kibrath’s body rose and fell, wings beating hard and fast in a steep ascent to the top of the mesa.
Altan unfastened the six-meter length of knotted rope he kept coiled and fastened to the saddle out of old habit. As Kibrath spiraled up to the top of the rock formation, he tied one end to the handle, dropped the coil and watched it whip out behind them. They'd done this many times before. Kibrath wasn't going to let him fall. His confidence in the great Karda was absolute. They flew a slow circle over the small meadow.
He dropped his heavy pack as close to the nest of the agitated fledglings as he could and looked for the best place to drop himself. The softest place, though soft wasn't likely. At least there didn't look to be too many rocks. Finally, Kibrath made a last slow approach and Altan readied himself. He slipped off the saddle, balancing with one foot in the stirrup, both hands on the knotted rope. Kibrath backwinged and hovered close to the ground as he could, and Altan let himself down.
Kibrath hovered. Altan swung and twisted round and round on the rope.
~Now!~ said Kibrath.
Altan swung his legs and body back and forth to stop whirling, then, on a forward swing, he let go and dropped, tucked his shoulders and rolled to an uncomfortable stop in the long grass. It knocked the breath out of him, and he lay on his back, recovering, and watched Kibrath circle back up above him.
He got his breath back and ran the short distance to the big Karda laying with one leg twisted wrong. Blood soaked her breast and one golden wing and ran into the crushed and stained grass. Her great head was down. Large soft eyes held his for a long moment, judging him, measuring him. Then she sighed. Sharp pain jabbed his chest, and he stretched his hand toward her. Absence swamped him as her eyes closed and she died.
Kibrath screamed above them, diving down to swoop low then making tight spirals up above her. He did this for a long time, diving down and spiraling up high into the clouds in an aerial dance, tolling deep, wild, melodious cries, his mind closed to Altan.
The nestlings were frantic with fear and wild grief, their keening loud and shrill. They shoved again and again against the sides of the nest, a tight barrier of interwoven sticks filled with a thick pile of soft dry grass. Altan recovered his pack, poured water into the pot and cut small hunks of dried meat into it to soften, then tossed the bits toward their open beaks, hoping food would calm them. Hoping they would eat it. At first, they balked at the strange taste, spitting the pieces out, but they were hungry, and their hesitation didn't last long. They stopped keening, pushing at the high sides of the nest to get closer to him and the food. They didn't settle until they had eaten almost all the meat. He cut more to soak. They needed the moisture. He couldn't let them get dehydrated.
Kibrath flew small circles above them, uttering low, intense calls Altan had never heard him make. Altan kept his movements slow and careful and climbed over the side of the nest. They were unafraid, almost as though they looked to him for rescue. He reached out and scratched the head of the nearest, its—her, he noticed—golden feathers soft and unfinished under his fingers. Her body was long and gangly, not much bigger than a newborn foal. She held her stubby wings out as she maneuvered closer to him, making soft, crooning noises. I can feel the grief in her. The smaller brown male held back a little, not quite so willing to trust this strange un-winged creature on only two legs. Finally, worn out from fear and grief, the two settled down close together on the soft grass of the nest, their eyes moving back and forth between Altan and Kibrath above.
Altan walked over to the edge of the meadow. The sides of the tall mesa looked steeper from the top than they had from the bottom. How, by the grace of Adalta, am I going to get them down?