Read Windhaven Page 2

  “The Landsman will be ready whenever you are rested,” Gina said, touching Maris tentatively on the shoulder. Maris pulled away, thinking, Yes, to you it is enough to serve the flyers. You'd like a flyer husband, Coll perhaps when he's grown—and you don't know what it means to me that Coll should be the flyer, and not I. But she said only, “I'm ready now. It was an easy flight. The winds did all the work.”

  Gina led her to another room, where the Landsman was waiting for her message. Like the first room, this was long and sparsely furnished, with a blazing fire crackling in a great stone hearth. The Landsman sat in a cushioned chair near the flames; he rose when Maris entered. Flyers were always greeted as equals, even on islands where the Landsmen were worshipped as gods and held godlike powers.

  After the ritual greetings had been exchanged, Maris closed her eyes and let the message flow. She didn't know or care what she said. The words used her voice without troubling her conscious thought. Probably politics, she thought. Lately it had all been politics.

  When the message ended, Maris opened her eyes and smiled at the Landsman—perversely, on purpose, because he looked worried by her words. But he recovered quickly and returned her smile. “Thank you,” he said, a little weakly. “You've done well.”

  She was invited to stay the night, but she refused. The storm might die by morning; besides, she liked night flying. Tor and Gina accompanied her outside and up the rocky path to the flyers' cliff. There were lanterns set in the stone every few feet, to make the twisting ascent safer at night.

  At the top of the climb was a natural ledge, made deeper and wider by human hands. Beyond it, an eighty-foot drop, and breakers crashing on a rocky beach. On the ledge Gina and Tor unfolded her wings and locked the struts in place, and the tissue metal stretched tight and taut and silvery. And Maris jumped.

  The wind caught her, lifted. She was flying again, dark sea below and rumbling storm above. Once launched she never looked back at the two wistful land-bound following her with their eyes. Too soon she would be one of them.

  She did not turn toward home. Instead she flew with the storm winds, blowing violently now, westerly. Soon the thunder would come, and rain, and then Maris would be forced up, above the clouds, where the lightning was less likely to burn her from the sky. At home it would be calm, the storm past. People would be out beachcombing to see what the winds had brought, and a few small dories might be casting off in the hope that a day's fishing might not be entirely lost.

  The wind sang in her eyes and pushed at her, and she swam in the sky-stream gracefully. Then, oddly, she thought of Coll. And suddenly she lost the feel. She wavered, dipped, then pulled herself up sharply, tacking, searching for it. And cursing herself. It had been so good before—did it have to end this way? This might be her last flight ever, and it had to be her best. But it was no use: she'd lost the certainty. The wind and she were no longer lovers.

  She began to fly at cross-purposes to the storm, battling grimly, fighting until her muscles were strained and aching. She gained altitude now; once the wind-feel left you, it was not safe to fly so near the water.

  She was exhausted, tired of fighting, when she caught sight of the rocky face of the Eyrie and realized how far she had come.

  The Eyrie was nothing but a huge rock thrust up from the sea, a crumbling tower of stone surrounded by an angry froth where the waters broke against its tall, sheer walls. It was not an island; nothing would grow here but pockets of tough lichen. Birds made their nests in the few protected crevices and ledges, though, and atop the rock the flyers had built their nest. Here, where no ship could moor, here where no one but flyers—bird and human—could roost, here stood their dark stone lodge.


  She looked up at the sound of her name, and saw Dorrel diving on her, laughing, his wings dark against the clouds. At the last possible moment she turned from him, banking sharply, and slipped out from under his dive. He chased her around the Eyrie, and Maris forgot that she was tired and aching, and lost herself in the sheer joy of flying.

  When at last they landed, the rains had just begun, howling suddenly from the east, stinging their faces and slapping hard against their wings. Maris realized that she was nearly numb with cold. They came down in a soft earth landing pit carved in the solid rock, without help, and Maris slid ten feet in sudden-mud before coming to a stop. Then it took her five minutes to find her feet, and fumble with the triple straps that wrapped around her body. She tied the wings carefully to a tether rope, then walked out to a wingtip and began to fold them up.

  By the time she had finished, her teeth were chattering convulsively, and she could feel the soreness in her arms. Dorrel frowned as he watched her work; his own wings, neatly folded, were slung over his shoulder. “Had you been out long?” he asked. “I should have let you land. I'm sorry. I didn't realize. You must have been with the storm all the way, just in front of it. Difficult weather. I got some of the crosswinds myself. Are you all right?”

  “Oh, yes. I was tired—but not really, not now. I'm glad you were there to meet me. That was good flying, and I needed it. The last part of the trip was rough—I thought I would drop. But good flying's better than rest.”

  Dorrel laughed and put his arm around her. She felt how warm he was after the flight and, by contrast, how cold she was. He felt it too and squeezed her tighter. “Come inside before you freeze. Garth brought some bottles of kivas from the Shotans, and one of them should be hot by now. Between us and the kivas we'll get you warm again.”

  The common room of the lodge was warm and cheerful, as always, but almost empty. Garth, a short, well-muscled flyer ten years her senior, was the only one there. He looked up from his place by the fire and called them by name. Maris wanted to answer, but her throat was tight with longing, and her teeth were clenched together. Dorrel led her to the fireplace.

  “Like a woodwinged idiot I kept her out in the cold,” Dorrel said. “Is the kivas hot? Pour us some.” He stripped off his wet, muddy clothes quickly and efficiently, and pulled two large towels from a pile near the fire.

  “Why should I waste my kivas on you?” Garth rumbled. “For Maris, of course, for she is very beautiful and a superb flyer.” He made a mock bow in her direction.

  “You should waste your kivas on me,” Dorrel said, rubbing himself briskly with the big towel, “unless you would care to waste it all over the floor.”

  Garth replied, and they traded insults and threats in laconic voices. Maris didn't listen—she had heard it all before. She squeezed the water from her hair, watching the patterns the wetness made on the hearth stones and how quickly they faded. She looked at Dorrel, trying to memorize his lean, muscular body—a good flyer's body—and the quick changes of his face as he teased Garth. But he turned when he felt Maris watching him, and his eyes gentled. Garth's final witticism fell limply into silence. Dorrel touched Maris softly, tracing the line of her jaw.

  “You're still shivering.” He took the towel from her hands and wrapped it around her. “Garth, take that bottle off the fire before it explodes and let us all get warm.”

  The kivas, a hot spice wine flavored with raisins and nuts, was served in great stone mugs. The first sip sent thin lines of fire down her veins, and the shivering stopped.

  Garth smiled at her. “Good, isn't it? Not that Dorrel will appreciate it. I tricked a slimy old fisherman out of a dozen bottles. He found it in a shipwreck, didn't know what he had, and his wife didn't want it in the house. I gave him some trinkets for it, some metal beads I'd picked up for my sister.”

  “And what does your sister get?” Maris asked, between sips of kivas.

  Garth shrugged. “Her? Oh, it was a surprise, anyway. I'll bring something from Poweet the next time I go. Some painted eggs.”

  “If he doesn't see something else he can trade them for on his way back,” Dorrel said. “If your sister ever gets her surprise, Garth, the shock will kill all pleasure. You were born a trader. I think you'd swap your wings
if the deal was good enough.”

  Garth snorted indignantly. “Close your mouth when you say that, bird.” He turned to Maris. “How is your brother? I never see him.”

  Maris took another sip of her drink, holding on to calm with both hands. “He'll be of age next week,” she said carefully. “The wings will be his then. I wouldn't know about his comings and goings. Maybe he doesn't like your company.”

  “Huh,” said Garth. “Why shouldn't he?” He sounded wounded. Maris waved a hand, and forced herself to smile. She had meant it lightly. “I like him well enough,” Garth went on. “We all like him, don't we, Dorrel? He's young, quiet, maybe a bit too cautious, but he should improve. He's different somehow—oh, but he can tell some stories! And sing! The land-bound will learn to love the sight of his wings.” Garth shook his head in wonder. “Where does he learn them all? I've done more traveling than he has, but . . .”

  “He makes them up,” said Maris.

  “Himself?” Garth was impressed. “He'll be our singer, then. We'll take the prize away from Eastern at the next competition. Western always has the best flyers,” he said loyally, “but our singers have never been worthy of the title.”

  “I sang for Western at the last meet,” Dorrel objected.

  “That's what I mean.”

  “You shriek like a seacat.”

  “Yes,” said Garth, “but I have no delusions about my ability.”

  Maris missed Dorrel's reply. Her mind had drifted away from their dialogue, and she was watching the flames, thinking, nursing her still-warm drink. She felt peaceful here in the Eyrie, even now, even after Garth had mentioned Coll. And strangely comfortable. No one lived on the flyers' rock, but it was a home of sorts. Her home. It was hard to think of not coming here anymore.

  She remembered the first time she'd seen the Eyrie, a good six years ago, just after her coming-of-age day. She'd been a girl of thirteen, proud of having flown so far alone, but scared too, and shy. Inside the lodge she'd found a dozen flyers, sitting around a fire, drinking, laughing. A party was in progress. But they'd stopped and smiled at her. Garth had been a quiet youth then, Dorrel a skinny boy just barely older than she. She hadn't known either of them. But Helmer, a middle-aged flyer from the island closest to hers, had been among the company, and he made the introductions. Even now she remembered the faces, the names: red-headed Anni from Culhall, Foster who later grew too fat to fly, Jamis the Senior, and especially the one nicknamed Raven, an arrogant youth who dressed in black fur and metal and had won awards for Eastern in three straight competitions. There was another too, a lanky blonde from the Outer Islands. The party was in her honor; it was seldom any of the Outers flew so very, very far.

  They'd all welcomed Maris, and soon it seemed almost as if she'd replaced the tall blonde as the guest of honor. They gave her wine, despite her age, and they made her sing with them, and told her stories about flying, most of which she'd heard before, but never from such as these. Finally, when she felt very much part of the group, they let their attentions wander from her, and the festivities resumed their normal course.

  It had been a strange, unforgettable party, and one incident in particular was burned golden in her memory. Raven, the only Eastern wing in the group, had been taking a lot of needling. Finally, a little drunk, he rebelled. “You call yourselves flyers,” he'd said, in a whiplash voice that Maris would always recall. “Come, come with me, I'll show you flying.”

  And the whole party had gone outside, to the flyers' cliff of the Eyrie, the highest cliff of all. Six hundred feet straight down it plunged, to where the rocks stood up like teeth and the water churned furiously against them. Raven, wearing folded wings, walked up to the brink. He unfolded the first three joints of his wing struts carefully, and slid his arms through the loops. But he did not lock the wings; the hinges still moved, and the opened struts bent back and forth with his arms, flexible. The other struts he held, folded, in his hands.

  Maris had wondered what he was up to. She soon found out.

  He ran and jumped, out as far as he could, off the flyers' cliff. With his wings still folded.

  She'd gasped, run to the edge. The others followed, some looking pale, a few grinning. Dorrel had stood beside her.

  Raven was falling straight down, a rock, his hands at his sides, his wing cloth flapping like a cape. Head first he flew, and the plunge seemed to last forever.

  Then, at the very last moment, when he was almost on the rocks, when Maris could almost feel the impact—silver wings, suddenly, flashing in the sunlight. Wings from nowhere. And Raven caught the winds, and flew.

  Maris had been awed. But Jamis the Senior, the oldest flyer Western had, only laughed. “Raven's trick,” he growled. “I've seen him do it twice before. He oils his wing struts. After he's fallen far enough, he flings them away as hard as he can. As each one locks in place, the snap flings loose the next one. Pretty, yes. You can bet he practiced it plenty before he tried it out in front of anyone. One of these days, though, a hinge is going to jam, and we won't have to listen to Raven anymore.”

  But even his words hadn't tarnished the magic. Maris often had seen flyers, impatient with their land-bound help, draw their almost-open wings up and shake out the last joint or two with a sharp snap. But never anything like this.

  Raven had been smirking when he met them at the landing pit. “When you can do that,” he told the company, “then you can call yourselves flyers.” He'd been a conceited, reckless sort, yes, but right at that moment and for years afterward Maris had thought herself in love with him.

  She shook her head sadly, and finished her kivas. It all seemed silly now. Raven had died less than two years after that party, vanished at sea without a trace. A dozen flyers died each year, and their wings usually were lost with them; clumsy flying would down and drown them, long-necked scyllas had been known to attack unwary skimmers, storms could blow them from the sky, lightning hunted out the metal of their wings—yes, there were many ways a flyer could die. Most of them, Maris suspected, just lost their way, and missed their destinations, flying on blindly till exhaustion pulled them down. A few perhaps hit that rarest and most feared menace of the sky: still air. But Maris knew now that Raven had been a more likely candidate for death than most, a foolish flashy flyer with no sky sense.

  Dorrel's voice jarred her from her memories. “Maris,” he said, “hey, don't go to sleep on us.”

  Maris set down her empty cup, her hand curved around the rough stone, still seeking the warmth it had held. With an effort, she pulled her hand away and picked up her sweater.

  “It's not dry,” Garth protested.

  “Are you cold?” asked Dorrel.

  “No. I must get back.”

  “You're too tired,” Dorrel said. “Stay the night.”

  Maris drew her eyes away from his. “I mustn't. They'll worry.”

  Dorrel sighed. “Then take dry clothes.” He stood, went to the far end of the common room, and pulled open the doors of a carved wooden wardrobe. “Come here and pick out something that fits.”

  Maris did not move. “I'd better take my own clothes. I won't be coming back.”

  Dorrel swore softly. “Maris. Don't make things—you know that—oh, come, take the clothes. You're welcome to them, you know that. Leave yours in exchange if you like. I won't let you go out in wet clothes.”

  “I'm sorry,” Maris said. Garth smiled at her while Dorrel stood waiting. She got up slowly, pulling the towel more closely around her as she moved away from the fire. The ends of her short, dark hair felt damp and cold against her neck. With Dorrel she searched through the piles of clothes until she found trousers and a brown woolweed sweater to fit her slender, wiry frame. Dorrel watched her dress, then quickly found clothes for himself. Then they went to the rack near the door and took down their wings. Maris ran her long, strong fingers over the struts for weakness or damage; the wings seldom failed, but when they did the trouble was always in the joints. The fabric itself shone as soft
and strong as it had when the star sailors rode it to this world. Satisfied, Maris strapped on the wings. They were in good shape; Coll would wear them for years, and his children for generations after him.

  Garth had come to stand beside her. She looked at him.

  “I'm not so good at words as Coll is, or Dorrel,” he started. “I . . . well. Goodbye, Maris.” He blushed, looking miserable. Flyers did not say goodbye to each other. But I am not a flyer, she thought, and so she hugged Garth, and kissed him, and said goodbye, the word of the land-bound.

  Dorrel walked outside with her. The winds were strong, as always around the Eyrie, but the storm had passed. The only water in the air was the faint mist of sea-spray. But the stars were out.

  “At least stay for dinner,” Dorrel said. “Garth and I would fight for the pleasure of serving you.”

  Maris shook her head. She shouldn't have come; she should have flown straight home and never said goodbye to Garth or Dorrel. Easier not to make the ending, easier to pretend that things would always be the same and then to vanish at the end. When they reached the high flyers' cliff, the same from where Raven had leapt so long ago, she reached for Dorrel's hand, and they stood awhile longer in silence.

  “Maris,” he said finally, hesitantly. He looked straight out to sea, standing by her side, holding her hand. “Maris, you could marry me. I would share my wings with you—you needn't give up flying entirely.”

  Maris dropped his hand, and felt herself go hot all over with shame. He had no right; it was cruel to pretend. “Don't,” she said in a whisper. “The wings aren't yours to share.”