Qui-kel wasn’t too old. She told herself that with each step she climbed, and with each annoying twinge from her knees. She’d been a holy terror when she was young, and the only thing becoming Keeper had changed was that she had to place more emphasis on the ‘holy’ than on the ‘terror’ part of her natural tendencies.
It was a difficult balance to hold sometimes though and rising into the surface world was definitely one of those occasions.
“Are you okay?” Iana asked.
Qui-kel hadn’t been paying enough attention to notice that the human girl had been walking behind her. Allowing someone, anyone, to sneak up on her was the sort of deadly mistake that Qui-kel was never allowed to make. To her credit though she didn’t take the human girl’s head off her shoulders. It was proof that with age came wisdom, or at least skill at self restraint.
“My people are at war again, and we are fleeing from a very nice home,” Qui-kel said. “Before we can rest comfortably again, there will be blood and death. Theirs and probably some of it ours.”
“Why?” Iana asked. “Why does it have to be a fight to the death with these Shadowfolk?”
“It’s their nature,” Qui-kel said. “They’re remnants. Experiments tossed aside by the gods when they were crafting the Mindful Races.”
“We had creatures like that in the Green Council,” Iana said. “Hateful things that existed only to inflict misery. Or that’s how I was taught to think of them.”
“Then you know the sort of foe we face,” Qui-kel said.
“I don’t think I do,” Iana said. “I slaughtered a lot of monsters in the Lost Glades, but I never once tried to speak with them.”
“You can’t speak with animals,” Qui-kel said. “That’s what sets the Mindful Races apart from the creatures below them.”
“Animals and monsters don’t have language, but they are closer to us that people here seem to think,” Iana said.
“No matter how similar the Shadowfolk are, they can’t help but be killers too,” Qui-kel said. “We tried to reason with them. To bargain and live in peace. They don’t value those things though. They only understand the edge of a claw.”
Iana was going to reply but one of the sky carriage drivers stepped forward before she could.
“We’re ready for you now,” he said, indicating the carriage which the Wind Steeds had pulled up to meet them.
Inside, Jyl, Che-Chara, Daloth and a handful of others were already being seated.
“Looks cozy,” Qui-kel said.
“We have the most comfortable carriages in all of Gallagrin,” the driver said.
“I’ll ride outside.” Qui-kel said. Being exposed to the open sky made her whiskers twitch, but Qui-kel was certain that maintaining her dignity as Keeper was going to be immeasurably harder if people were around to see her struggles with traveling by air.
“It’s much safer in the carriage,” the driver said.
“That’s why I’ll right outside,” Qui-kel said.
The driver looked at Iana, who in turn looked at Jyl, who shrugged in acceptance.
“The packages and gear will be loaded atop the carriages,” the driver said, “But there’s room at the reins if you’d like to sit there?”
“That would be acceptable,” Qui-kel said.
Climbing up onto the driver’s bench of the carriage roused a few complaints from Qui-kel’s tired bones but she shushed them and settled in, making sure she had a good hand hold on the side of the bench in case a gust of wind tried to pitch her off.
Despite the speed of their liftoff though, no gusts troubled her.
“The air feels so still?” she said, glancing over at the driver.
“It’s part of the enchantment on the carriage,” he said. “We fly high enough and fast enough that no one would be able to hang on, or breath, without the carriage being surrounded in a bubble of stable air.”
“And what happens if the bubble pops?” Qui-kel asked.
“There’s a reserve screen that will deploy,” the driver said.
“And if it fails as well?” Qui-kel asked.
“Then we’re probably under attack and it will be up to us to manage accordingly,” the driver said.
“I confess I do not see how one could fight at all without ground beneath their feet and, ideally, walls and a ceiling to limit the avenues of attack.”
“I’m not sure I can see how someone could fight if they were all hemmed in,” the driver said. “In my world, you need room to dodge and places to escape to.”
“Our worlds are similar then. I am Keeper Qui-kel.”
“My name is Grun,” the driver said. “I hear there might be some people following you?”
“Creatures more than people, but I do not believe they can follow us here,” Qui-kell said.
“That’s one of the joys of sky carriages, there’s no limits in the sky,” Grun said.
“And no places,” Qui-kel said. “This isn’t somewhere that we can stay.”
“Not forever,” Grun said. “But you might be surprised how long you can be up here if you try.”
“You enjoy being in the sky?” Qui-kel asked, careful not to look down. The notion of voluntarily traveling through the air when it wasn’t a crisis situation was foreign to her. It was always possible to manage a long fall, but possible was very different from easy or certain.
“I do,” Grun said. “I’ve always felt like the sky is where I was meant to be.”
“But it’s so dangerous up here,” Qui-kel said.
“It’s dangerous everywhere,” Grun said. “Up here though I can see the dangers coming from far away.
“But can’t they see you too?” Qui-kell asked.
“They can, but the intelligent ones at least can also see that I fly for the queen,” Grun said.
“And if that doesn’t stop them from attacking you?” Qui-kel asked.
“Then we’re definitely under attack and it will be up to us to manage accordingly,” Grun said.
“That prospect doesn’t seem to worry you,” Qui-kel said.
“I’d like to say that the only thing that’s ever worried me is whether I’d be able to make it as a flyer,” Grun said. “The truth though is that there’s always a ton of things to worry about. Being up here helps with that. It takes the edge off of the rest of the worries. Makes them seem a little more distant.”
“I find it is sharpening mine,” Qui-kel said.
“That’s because you don’t feel like you’re in control,” Grun said. “Here, take these.”
He handed her the reins to the wind steeds.
“No! What I am supposed to do with these?” Qui-kel said, trying to hand them back.
“Nothing really,” Grun said. “The steeds know to stay on the currents and if things get rough they can find a smooth path for us to follow.”
“Why have reins at all then?” Qui-kel asked.
“To talk to them,” Grun said.
“Talk?” Qui-kel asked.
“The steeds know how to run. They know how to fly. What they don’t know is where we want them to go. That’s what the reins are for,” Grun said.
“To force them to follow the path you wish to travel?” Qui-kel asked.
“You can’t really force a wind steed to do anything,” Grun said. “They’re a lot bigger and more powerful than we are. Or at least than I am. And they don’t like to be forced. A driver that leans on the reins too much will have a bunch of very grumpy Wind Steeds to deal with at the end of the ride, and that is not fun, let me tell you.”
“But aren’t they yours to command?” Qui-kel asked. “I thought they had to be specially bred to bear a sky carriage into the air?”
“The breeding part is right,” Grun said. “Natural born Wind Steeds don’t take to the load of a sky carriage well. It spooks them too much. Our girls up there though, they’re braver than a Pact Knight biting on the edge of a berserker.”
“So it’s not fear of a whip that bends them to your will then, interesting,” Qui-kel said.
“Fear’s a terrible thing to put into a wind steed,” Grun said. “The last thing you want is to pass by a storm cloud and have one of the steeds lead the rest into a panic.”
“If not fear then what technique do you use?” Qui-kel asked. “I don’t see any suitable bribes to compel their behavior with?”
“Bribes only get you so far,” Grun said. “If you make it all about the treats then the canny beasts learn to demand one for every little thing. No, part of training a good steed is building up a rapport with them. They want to run like this, and the carriage isn’t much a burden at all. A good flight lets the steeds get a workout and enjoy the company of their friends, which includes the driver.”
“And they don’t mind the reins forcing them to go where the rider wants?” Qui-kel asked.
“They’re wind steeds, they don’t have anywhere in particular they want to be, except running in the sky,” Grun said.
“Why don’t they just stay up here then?” Qui-kel asked.
“Sometimes they do, the young ones at least,” Grun said. “We don’t use those on passengers carriages.”
“What happens to the drivers who get stuck with a young one like that?” Qui-kel asked.
“They get to enjoy a long ride,” Grun said. “Not much a driver can do if a steed gets it in their head to hie off to the farthest cloud they can see.”
“That sounds inconvenient,” Qui-kel said.
“It can be,” Grun said. “Kind of funny too though. The poor beasts will run until they’re out of magic and then descend to the ground and start looking around for home. Like their stable was loping along after them. That’s when a driver can really make a bond with them though.”
“How so?” Qui-kel asked.
“Well the youngling that races off for adventure inevitably finds itself alone, and hungry, and lost, but there’s still someone they can turn to who can make things right,” Grun said.
“The driver can lead them back,” Qui-kel said, seeing how the scene must usually play out.
“And feed them,” Grun said. “The silly things don’t think about their stomach until it’s empty.”
“It seems like the carriage bred Wind Steed are fortunate creatures,” Qui-kel said.
“They’re not the only ones,” Grun said. “It’s a real privilege for the drivers and trainers too. We learn as much from them as they learn from us.”
“What do simple animals have to teach you?” Qui-kel asked.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to put it into words before,” Grun said. “They look at life differently than we do, and if you’re around them long enough they’ll tell you about it.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Qui-kel said.
“It’s like, for a Wind Steed, the world is more immediate than it is for us,” Grun said. “They’re always right here, in this moment, observing the world as it is. People tend to drift away more than that. We do things like worry about what’s at the end of run instead of watching the winds around us and the land we’re passing over. I’ve missed the most obvious things until one of my steeds pointed it out.”
“How do they communicate with you? They don’t have language do they?” Qui-kel asked.
“They do, just not like us,” Grun said. “What they want to say, they’ll express with their body language, or their whinnies, or by resisting an instruction. The biggest mistake fledgling drivers make is not listening to their steeds when the steeds are unhappy.”
“What happens then?” Qui-kel asked.
“It depends on what the steed’s noticed that the driver hasn’t,” Grun said. “Best case, the whole team will just come to a standstill until the driver fixes whatever’s wrong or gives them another path to follow.”
“And the worst case?” Qui-kel asked.
“Well, it’s not common, but if the driver’s really bad, the team can always roll the carriage over,” Grun said.
“What happens to the driver then?” Qui-kel asked.
“They fall. But like I said, that’s not common. Even the worst drivers know not to push their steeds that far,” Grun said.
“It seems like a self-correcting problem,” Qui-kel said.
“It is to some extent,” Grun said. “Still there’s always a need for good drivers. Too many people out there want to fly and only look at the Wind Steeds as a tool to make that happen.”
“If only they could speak,” Qui-kel said.
“That’d be nice but I think it’s more important for us to learn to listen,” Grun said.