65th Zi’Da 716Even with the suns in the sky, it was a cold grey day. Crisp air burnt the ends of her fingers and the frayed woollen gloves. Snow dusted the edges of the log and the Skyrider found herself inching towards flickering flames. Between her knees she balanced a strip of thick leather, it was softened with use and age and smelt of Volareon, hay and home. The fire spit and Elyna moved her foot backwards, dodging the flying ember that landed and sank through the latest layer of snow with a hiss.
The young woman turned the needle, spinning it between her thumb and fingertips and trying to warm it. It was a thick piece of steel in comparison to the delicate needles she would use for embroidery. Over an inch long it was ground into a sharp point that had already drawn blood from stiff hands. Still, the saddle strap needed to be fixed before morning, or one of her Skyrider’s wouldn’t be able to fly and she was unwilling to leave anyone behind.
First things first, she pushed the needle into the shoulder of her own woollen jerkin and caught it, so it wouldn’t slide away and vanish in the powder beneath her feet. Wriggling her toes to keep them warm, Elyna drew a knife form her belt and edged it along the torn piece of leather. Dragging the tears and slicing them away in clean sweeps. With the worst stripped away, she held the strap upright and looked along the length. It wasn’t quite straight, so she bent again, balancing the strap against the log and correcting the edge until she was satisfied. Beyond the wall of trees, day light was fast to fade. She heard the cooking pot rattle and Emily announce that dinner was ready. Emily was a good friend and an even better Sergeant, Elyna stretched out her legs and continued to work, they’d save her something.
The band of Skyriders rose up like lumpy shadows in her peripheral vision. It was cold and miserable so far from home. Zi’da was fading like the sun and their determination to hunt Qe’Dreki was waning with the moon. There’d been no sightings for over a score of trials, no matter how hard they searched or how late they flew. A second unit of ‘Riders had joined them and still, the Qe’Dreki had disappeared as though they were made from the snow itself. Her ‘Riders moved like wolves, crunching through snow with a mood as grey as the clouds above. It was going to snow again, they all knew it. They could smell it on the air, just like they could smell the burning pine and the pot of boiled meat that had been their breakfast, lunch and dinner for the last ten trials.
Elyna bent to her task, mindful of the dying light and squinted at the strap once more. Satisfied that the weaker part of material was removed, she slid the blade back into its strap and reclaimed her needle. Because it was so large, they eye was bigger and it was easier to thread. A thick weft of silk, coated in wax struck through the centre and pulled through. She knotted it, because sewing leather was a pig of a task. She rubbed her hands together, trying to ease the pain in her fingers and pressed the strap back against the bark.
It was damp, flaking away beneath her touch and she lent hard against it, pushing the leather taught against the knots and branch stubs. It took strength and skill to force the needle through the fabric and the thread hissed as it whipped through. The knot caught and she turned the leather over and pinned it hard against the base of the saddle. They’d been lucky that the other half of the strap had snapped of clean, otherwise they’d have been left trying to knot the saddle onto a buckle the next morning. It was a compromise that could work over short distances, but the team was due to start a sweep of the Northern edge and it was going to take a lot longer than the knot could last.
Elyna stitched, forcing the metal through the resistant fabric. Frost started forming on the saddle that didn’t face the fire and the sky drifted through shades of grey and approached the black density of a starless, moonless night. Sometimes it felt as if they’d been abandoned by the stars themselves, the Immortals turning their back and the remnants of the army far away at the coast. She pulled the thread through, running it between her palms between stitches to stop it freezing before she was done. The needle snagged and bit deep into her palm, she swore, eyes shut and pulled her glove up. A bead of blood lifted from the skin and she licked it pressing her lips against the wound and holding until the taste of iron faded. The last light had gone and the saddle flickered with shadow fires; it was mocking her. Another failure?
Teeth grit she yanked the woollen mitten down once more pressed the needle back into the leather, forcing it through with less skill. The thread started snagging on each of the neat stiches and the woman groaned, took a deep breath and started again. This was a job that needed doing, but it couldn’t be rushed. She let the air out of her lungs and it clouded instantly. A bowl was set on the ground beside her and the Captain nodded her thanks, focused on the task at hand. She could smell the sweet rise of venison and rabbit, there wasn’t anything green in the broth because they’d run out of supplies a few days back. What they had, was anything they’d been able to hunt. They weren’t starving, but with the snow covering the land in a thick blanket of powder atop impossible ice, they weren’t exactly eating strawberry’s and summer peas. Her stomach growled and she was forced to pause.
The young woman devoured her meal in a few large spoonful’s that would have horrified her Noble Mother. Then a lot of what Elyna did would have horrified her Mother, and Father and Lover. The thought was enough to see her set the saddle and strap aside, needle hanging limp from its thread. She opened the bag propped up behind her log and peered at the scroll within. A faint golden light lit the edge of the parchment and she tilted her head to the side.
With care, she pulled the scroll out of her bag, words scrawled across the centre and she couldn’t help but smile. An order to return home, to Andaris and her baby. Elyna looked up and found Emily hovering nearby.
“Em’?” She gestured for the slim woman to approach.
“A message?” Emily stretched out a hand and read the scroll herself, the words lit the expression on her face and she grinned, “we’re heading back?” she wanted confirmation.
“First light,” Elyna agreed with a grin of her own, “better get this strap finished.”
Emily went to spread the good news and the atmosphere in camp lifted, despite the falling snow.
Elyna pushed the needle through the leather and then worked it back. The second row of stiches was easier because she could use the holes she’d already made. It was less risky forcing it through the fabric and meant that she bled less into the hide. She wriggled the needle back and forth to make the holes a bit larger and completed a third pass, pulling the thread tight through and exaggerating the loops to strengthen the stiches. Were three passes going to enough? Looking up she saw her crew and bent her head once more to her task. The numbness had lifted from her fingers, but her toes felt icy despite the glowing embers. The snow on her boots had melted and sank into the fabric, through her socks.
The Skyrider was tired but excitement won over exhaustion. She was going home to her baby. She pushed the fourth row of stiches back through, this time pausing to knot the thread after every stitch, sending a silent prayer to Pre, that her Skyriders could be kept safe a little longer. After all, she was doing everything she could to protect her small band. She was proud of the work they’d done, even if it felt as though it had been fruitless. No one could fault the efforts they’d gone to in their search for Qe’dreki. If they wanted to, then they could speak to the tip of her sword, or better yet, the end of an arrow.
The final row of stitches set, she snipped the end of the thread and tugged at the saddle, gripping the join on both ends and tugging with all the strength that she could muster. Then she summoned Rafa and Kit and had them pull at the join until she was satisfied that the leather had shifted as much as it would and it wasn’t going to snap in midair.
Elyna curled up beside the fire and pulled the blankets high over her head. Sleep though, was hard to find. She was going home.