Breaks passed with the ground rushing beneath Volarean wings. Elyna found herself staring ahead and watching the horizon or trying to pick out distant ships out along the coastline. They ate in the air, pulling open small pouches of dried fruits and nuts to stave of the temptation of hunger. Owen had been given the task of comparing their route to long established maps, ensuring that the correct landmarks remained in place below. This was a regular flight path for the Skyriders. Another excellent chance for the young man to practise his skills whilst airborne. Saunders remained as a fixed point at his side and Elyna and Emily took alternate turns to act as a scout, wheeling forward or behind in large spiraling arcs to break up on the monotony of the journey. It was the young woman’s favourite part of flying. The careful nudge with a knee that could send a Volarean in a sudden dip and curve to one side, circling lower. Or the movement of a foot which would see them spiral upwards instead. The Volarean they flew were easily responsive to the movements of their riders. Unlike Dust, who simply followed Saunders and his mount.
It was on a forward sweep that Emily called their attention to a large encampment on top of the hill. Ignoring Owens map Saunders pulled out a more recent sheet from his pack and studied it. There shouldn’t have been a settlement. The women exchanged glances with their Major. Signs of three of four fires indicated a large group. The circus wasn’t in the area and it was clear that the hilltop was too far from the road to be convenient for a caravan. Bandits? VII?
Emily dropped first, sweeping the area closer to the tree tops ready to bank if arrows were shot or a net cast out. Nothing. Above Elyna circled in slow sweeps before joining her friend to investigate, Herald the Volarean she’d been assigned dropped with each wing beat until finally they’d scoured the campsite and the local surrounds and found no sign of humanity, other than the still smoldering fires.
Saunders landed first and dismounted. Owen followed quick behind and took charge of the Major’s mount, securing the harness with a sturdy rope and clip. Saunders signaled for the remaining riders to join him. Uneasy, the young women exchanged glances once more. On the ground they would be easier targets. There were a lot of fires which meant a lot of people…and they were still smoking, which meant they weren’t far. No matter if they couldn’t be seen. A second more insistent shout from Saunders had them both landing. Elyna bracing herself with her hands on the saddle pommel, to prevent the jolt that a descent sometimes had.
Trees shook in the summer breeze and she attached the clip to Herald. It was then that the chaos began. As she had feared, a group of bandits emerged from the trees. The snap of a twig behind the Volarean, caused him to startle and she would always remember that Herald was a complete an utter coward. For a creature that could crush a man, or slice one from head to toe with a claw, he reared in fright. Yanked forward, Elyna struggled to keep her grip on the rope. Preferring to try and get back in the sky then fight a host of bandits.
It was then that the whip struck her back and the expose leather snapped beneath it’s kiss. Shouting with pain, Elyna released the creature and drew her sword instead. The whip curled around her arm and the woman who held it, tugged, trying to disarm her. Elyna charged, running forward instead of trying to wrestle free. A knife drawn in her other hand, it was the smaller weapon that slid into the woman’s side and dropped her. Hot blood pumped over the Skyrider’s hand and she spun.
Owen was in trouble, backed against a tree he’d also released the Volarean’s and all four creatures had returned, rider-less to the sky. Frustrated, with an aching arm and a back that felt like she’d been rolling in thistles, Elyna crossed to the younger man. Emily and Saunders fought back to back, defensive, taking their chances to jab at their attackers when they could. She had time to send a silent prayer that none of the bandits seemed to have weapons of any range, but then maybe it would have been better, they would have tried to shoot the circling Volarean’s from the sky and they never would have landed without backup.
Owen was surrounded by three bandits, all of them desperate scrawny people and armed with a range of knives, sticks and one long battered sword. She barrelled into them, knocking two of balance and spun. Dropping sweep the legs out of the first. Owen, back against a tree saw his opportunity and lunged at the taller of two women, holding a large stave and gripped it, wrestling with her. It left Elyna with the third, another woman armed with two knives.
The Skyrider spun her own blade slowly. Emily had fallen and Saunders was fighting the last of their opponents. With the Volarean’s screeching overhead anyone else was either still hiding or had run away. Elyna studied the woman and the thread-bare clothing. She didn’t seem like the standard bandit, nor like a member of VII. So who was she? What was such a large group of what seemed like mainly woman doing, attacking Skyriders less than a day’s flight from Andaris?
The woman struck like a snake in a quick, sinuous motion. Ely swept the blade aside, countering the motion and stepped in. She blocked the second knife with the hard plate of her brace and hooked a foot around the woman’s ankle before kicking aside. The woman dropped like a stone, expression frozen in surprise as she found herself pinned, face first in the grass and the knives safely removed. Panting, Elyna knelt on the womans’ back and kept her still, unwilling to take a life if it wasn’t necessary.
It was Saunders who approached and beckoned Owen forward to relieve her of her captive, “Emily is hurt,” he explained, “would you take a look?”
Elyna nodded, tripping in her eagerness to reach her friend. The Major had wrapped the woman’s arm in a sling. The blonde looked pale as she leant against a tree. Blood soaking through the bandages and Elyna sighed, “there’s always one Em,” she forced a grin and collected another bandage from the pack, “but why is it always you?”
Head lent back against the tree her friend chuckled and closed her eyes, “because you’re lousy at being injured. You complain too much.”