The Welkin: WingLeader

Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

Edel landed on the ledge and Halley slowly dismounted. Every bone in her body ached. Two turns ago, at first light, they had taken to the skies with their WatchWing. It felt like two cycles ago.

Time does not change, though I too am weary. My poor wings feel like we’ve been in battle. Edel sounded dejected.

You’re still a juvenile—I am wondering if they assigned us too soon.

Auger’s voice echoed through her mind. The only way juveniles become stronger and build endurance is by flying for long hours as they learn to navigate treacherous air currents and maintain flight formation.

She grabbed one of the Almath jars off the shelf. Agreed, but we have done much more than that. Remember the rogue herd of Pangors?

Of course, Kyrie was proud of your WatchWing and ours–together we turned those beasts away from the people of the land. Crops and dwellings were saved, but more importantly, lives were spared!

I know, Auger, but it didn’t stop there. The storm over the Cristhma Seas… we helped rescue all the people of the sea from their Dimtha’s before they capsized.

You and Edel are learning quickly and doing very well.

Auger’s presence left her mind. Halley finished the deep rub of Edel’s strained wing muscles, thankful the salve absorbed quickly. The young Aigle’s snores filled the cavern. She left him and made her way to the cleaning pool. 

After she’d washed the sweat and filth off her own body, Halley hunkered down under the blankets on her sleeping platform. The next shift would begin soon. Sleep came, deep and dreamless, silencing her thoughts.

~~~

It seemed only a few heartbeats before first light woke her. She scrambled into a new uniform and ran towards Edel’s cavern. The young Aigle was waiting. Three heartbeats later, they flew towards the assembly area atop the Keep’s cliffs. 

Edel landed close to Calum and Talyn. Halley saw the weariness on the faces of her WatchWing. 

All WatchWings feel as we do.

I can see that.

WingLeader Castin’s flame-red hair stood out in the circle of WatchWing Leaders as they shared information and made last-minute plans.  

Ryvka and Presage are here.

Edel’s thought registered a breath before they landed. The Elder dismounted and made his way to the WingLeaders. A mere hundred heartbeats later, the clifftop gong sounded, and all chatter ceased.

Ryvka stood upon a natural rock platform next to the gong. “WatchWings of the Keep, I have summoned you to face and fight the worst threat to Byzahn. The people of the land surrounding the Amphitheatre sounded their alarms after an intense series of rumble, and light bolt tempests rolled over the area. They could not count the number of light bolts striking the ground. Raging fire twisters have set crops and grasses alight. We must act quickly to quench the uncontrolled burning before there is any loss of life, livestock, or crops.”

A roar of human and Aigle voices filled the air. The hairs on the back of Halley’s neck stood on end. She had never felt the overwhelming fear and anxiety that washed over her in waves. At first, she thought the emotions were hers alone. As soon as that thought passed through her mind, Halley realized she was feeling all the emotions from every Welkin and Aigle in the Keep!

Steady… breathe. Auger’s thoughts pierced through the waves. We have battled flame and fire twisters before. 

I know, but the vastness of land affected and the potential for loss far outweighs anything our historical records hold.

We will write a new chapter!

Halley nodded and waited until her WatchWing’s turn came. The Aigles launched into the air in perfect flight formation. Castin and Firth led the way to the large lake atop the highest peak. There, other members of the Keep had worked from moonrise to sun’s first light. The massive leather keeves were full of water.

Edel, load keeve!

She wrapped the riding straps around her leather-covered forearms a half-breath before he dove toward the lake. Edel’s timing was perfect! His wings broke their descent: talons outstretched, slid through the keeve’s leather bands, and hauled it and the massive amount of water it carried upward. They kept in unison with Calum and Talyn as they took their places. The WatchWing flew in perfect formation as Castin and Firth lead the way.

The amphitheatre was barely visible through the dense black smoke. Halley kept her eyes locked onto Castin. The WingLeader knew their assigned release point. Amber flames burned bright, devouring the land below; the land she’d been born on. The heat was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.

Edel banked suddenly to the right as he followed their WingLeader toward a large fire twister that was searing everything it touched. Firth released first, followed in rapid succession by Brack, Argo, and Talyn. 

Release!

The leather band slid off his right talon, and the water exploded on the dwindling twister. Each rider had hit their mark. Smoke billowed upwards and covered them. Halley instinctively held her breath as Edel’s wings pushed them upwards. They had to get above the smoke. She could not see the rest of her WatchWing.

Firth, Brack, Argo, and Talyn—follow my voice and the image Edel is sending. We have broken through the smoke and are now above. We cannot see you.

Edel circled the area as he sent what he saw to the rest. Halley’s head was on a swivel, searching. Finally, when she thought her heart would fail her, Talyn’s beak broke through the smoke. Calum’s arms were wrapped around his neck!

Argo came next with his rider Jensen tied on by his straps. He was not conscious. Brack followed with Gebrel in the same condition. The WatchWing assembled behind her.

Edel, where is Firth!

He does not respond. Can you hear him?

I have not heard his voice since they went in for the first release.

The other Aigles in her WatchWing confirmed the same thing. Brack’s right wing bore extensive burn marks. He was flying erratically. 

Brack, can you stabilize?

They fell. I saw them disappear into the fire.

Halley realized the Aigle was in shock. She directed Talyn to brace Brack’s injured wing. Calum was upright again. He nodded as Talyn turned and positioned his left wing under Brack’s right wing. 

To the Keep! 

She projected the image of the assembly area atop the cliffs. Edel turned, and the others fell in behind. They flew carefully, with Halley checking in with each Aigle at regular intervals. She kept her voice calm, even when the sight of the cliffs created an urge to rush. 

Steady! Hold your speed. Wait until Edel has landed. Argo, you land next… Talyn, I want you and Brack to land side by side. His damaged wing must not touch the land.

Edel landed and hopped out of the way, turning so they could watch the others. Argo landed softly; healers ran to Jensen, placed him on a canvas stretcher, and raced back to the tents for treatment. Brack and Talyn approached the cliffs slowly. Talyn synchronized his break in speed with Brack’s, and the two Aigles landed roughly. Brack’s injured wing remained on top of Talyn’s. Healers ran to the injured Aigle and his rider. 

We failed. Our WatchWing Leader is dead…

Talyn, stop that thought this heartbeat! You have done well! Without your help, Brack would not have made it. You and Calum saved them!

Calum raised his right fist in salute as he got down to inspect Talyn for injuries. Halley did the same. Edel had singed a few feather tips, but nothing that required treatment.

Auger landed a short distance away. A few heartbeats later, Kyrie approached. “I need your report.”

Halley told him what happened, or at least as much as she could recall. Kyrie listened and then went to speak with the others.

Return to your chambers, Halley. The next few runs are all that’s required to extinguish the remaining fires. Tend to Edel, you both need rest.

Halley nodded, acknowledging Auger’s command. She remounted, and Edel took off. The shelves in his cavern had ample jars of Almath salve, thanks to members of Supply. Edel fell asleep as she rubbed the salve into his singed feathers and sore muscles. Halley left him to sleep on his platform.

She went straight to the cleansing pool and eased her aching body into the warm, fragrant waters. She kicked once and dove deep. Halley welcomed the muted sounds and calmness that surrounded her. She grabbed a hand of cleansing sand and quickly scoured the soot from her skin. The heat of the flames had been intense. 

Thoughts of Castin and Firth falling into the middle of that twister brought a surge of grief. She broke the surface of the pool, covered her mouth with one hand, and sobbed. After the tears subsided, Halley crawled into the blankets on her sleeping platform. She fell asleep and dreamed of fire, heat, and falling Aigles until the rays of first light caused her eyes to open. 

~~~

She donned a new uniform and walked down the hall to check on Edel. The Aigle was still sleeping. Halley gathered up the remnants of her seared uniform from the cleansing pool area and placed them outside her chambers. She closed the door and made her way to the Klaven. 

The usual chatter was subdued. Halley grabbed her repast and sat at the empty table she usually shared with her WatchWing. Calum entered a few heartbeats later and joined her. They ate in silence, waiting for the others to appear, but no one did.

The sound and vibrations of the gong brought both riders out of their thoughts. Ryvka stood at the front. “Welkin of the Keep, I want you to know that we have succeeded. All the fire twisters and grass fires have been quenched thanks to your efforts. One farmhouse burned to the land, and some crops also perished, but the people of the land did not lose a soul.”

A cheer began and rose to a very loud crescendo. Halley and Calum joined in. Ryvka allowed the interruption. As the sound ebbed away, he continued. “Sadly, it is not the same for us. Welkin and Aigle have perished together in the flames. Many of you are sitting at tables with missing Wing mates. I share your grief and remind you they all left this world doing their duty.”

The Welkin rose to their feet, crossed their arms over their chests, and bowed once. “Duty above all!”

“One Welkin pair went above and beyond when their WingLeader and Aigle fell. Without Halley’s quick thinking and instant relay of information to her Wing mates, they would have fallen. The remaining WatchWing followed her instructions and successfully helped Brack and Gebrel return. I am happy to report the remaining members will make a full recovery.”

The Welkin rose to their feet and cheered again. Ryvka motioned for Halley to join him. She made her way to the front, feeling the redness on her cheeks deepen the longer they cheered. Once she stood beside The Elder, the cheering subsided.

“Halley, your gift saved the lives of your Wing mates. I commend you and Edel for your bravery and leadership. You are a great asset to this Keep. It’s my honour to promote you from FifthWing to WingLeader, effective immediately.”

She stood rooted to the floor, stunned. The Klaven erupted in cheers again, but all she could think about was the long flight home. The things she had seen and experienced during her vision on the day of her Choosing had now come to pass.

You are of the Air!

Auger’s affirmation and the echoes of agreement from the other Aigles brought tears to her eyes.

Edel, we’ve been promoted.

I know! This juvenile now carries a WingLeader…

Don’t let it go to your head!

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