rosiphelee: (Nimbus)
[personal profile] rosiphelee
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four

Final part, so you're safe from spam for a while ;)

Title: Dandelion and Thistledown (4/4)
Words: 4471




They had to get out. She looked around frantically, trying to remember how to reach the back from here. She grabbed his arm and dragged him across the room. He took a few steps and then stopped and said, “No.”

She glared at him. Didn’t he understand?

“Aylili? Was this why you running tonight? Were you running for me?”

She cast her eyes down, cursing him.

He gripped her shoulders tightly. “Look at me. Aylili! Look at me.”

She lifted her head reluctantly.

“I am Saisorhi. We do not run. Do you understand? We do not run.”

What did he think he had been doing for the last six months?

“They need me. To stand by, unknowing, when I could not fight – it is not the same thing. Now, I know and – and it does not matter if I am afraid.”

She shook her head furiously and he said, “You should understand, featherling. You are brave.”

She was?

“You came back,” Nimbus said quietly. “You turned round and stopped running. How can I do less?”

She went cold. What had she done?

“Come,” Nimbus said. “We will not make them come to us.” He walked out of the room, back straight, wings arched. Aylili scuttled after him.

Back in the atrium, Nimbus lifted the broken doors out of their frame and stepped out into the night. Aylili stayed at his shoulder.

The party were coming up the drive. They paused at the foot of the steps, looking up at them. The torches flickered and danced in the wind and Aylili flinched at the glow of flames on these walls. Nimbus lifted his head and waited, all arrogance.

“Lord Nimbus,” the lead man said, his voice unhurried. “You have led us a merry chase.”

“General Tarain,” Nimbus said crisply.

The general shifted uncomfortably. “Well. Good to see you again. Are you well?”

“I am in good health.”

“Excellent. Good. And your young friend there?”

“My ward. Aylili gar Tiessa gar Evasta. Aylili, General Tarain, commander of the walls.”

Aylili bowed her head in greeting. She wanted to hate him but when she looked at him all she could see was an old man with tired eyes.

“Delighted,” he said perfunctorily. “Enough of this. Nimbus – we need you back on the walls. Isola needs you.”

“I am well aware of it,” Nimbus said. “Fear not. I shall not hesitate in my duty. Am I not the hero of the gates, the incomparable, the magnif-”

“You haven’t changed,” the General said dryly. “Are you fit to return?”

His wings flared and he lifted his chin to say haughtily, “Absolutely.” But Aylili, so close she could smell his wings, could see how he was shaking.

“Let us go, then,” the general said wearily. “I have already been too long away.” And he turned to walk away down the drive, his guard going before, bearing the bright torches.

Nimbus followed him down the steps. As he reached the ground, Aylili shook herself out of her shock. She tried to call his name but all that came from her unpractised throat was a formless cry.

He looked back, the torchlight limning his dark hair and wings with gold. He met her gaze and said, “Do not fear for me, featherling. If I should meet my death, it should be upon the wing, carried on the glory of the wind. It is nothing more than flying free at last.”

Aylili shook her head weakly but could not find the words to argue.

“Fly without fear, featherling,” he said softly and then he was gone, leaving her on the steps of her fallen home.


*



She returned to the roofs, for she knew no better place to go. She was honest enough to deliver the fish where Nimbus had promised it, but then she withdrew. She was no fishmonger; she had no skill for it.

Instead, she began to roam the roofs again, as she had done in times gone by. The days were lengthening and the air was growing warmer. She blamed the season for the grey mood which had settled upon her. Too often she faltered as she ran, close to tears. Too often, she found herself staring at the walls, wondering, wondering.

She could no longer eat fish raw. The feel of it made her stomach turn. So every night she sat patiently by her brazier, watching for the fires at the walls and flinching at every crash and boom as the Fire came down.

She was so tired. However much she slept she woke the next day feeling sick and sluggish. Sometimes she lacked the energy to run and found herself sagging onto the shingles, sick with sleepiness. Sometimes she tried to sleep but the sunlight and her imagination warred with her weary body, casting her into half-waking nightmares which gave her no respite. At last, too stubborn to give in, she threw herself into activity. If her legs failed her, she tried the exercises Nimbus had taught her, pulling herself up until her shoulders burnt.

The week she saw the first cherry blossom on Silver Street the bombardment intensified. Every night her dreams were broken by the roar and rumble from the walls. Sitting hunched on the roofs above the market square, she heard the whispers of casualties, of the growing lists of the dead. And she feared and fretted, her tired thoughts tangling.

At last she went to the palace. She presented herself at the gate with a tile scratched with Nimbus’ picture and waited patiently while the guards conferred and sent runners deeper into the palace. At last they ushered her in, escorting her up through the faded corridors to Liaven’s tower.

As she stood in the doorway, Liaven glanced up from where she sat hunched over a desk. In a moment, she was on her feet. “Aylili?! Are you ill? Sit down.”

Aylili shook her head. She thought the lady looked less well than she did. Her face was lined and there were great shadows under her eyes. Her hair had come down in curling wisps around her face.

“What’s happened? Do you need help?”

No. She just needed to know. She sketched the shape of wings in the air and Liaven relaxed slightly.

“Nimbus? He’s alive. A few singed feathers last week. Nothing worse. I saw him three days ago and he was bemoaning the smoke dirtying his wings. He asked after you. He seemed to think you might need help.”

Aylili drew herself up furiously. Just because he was her parents’ friend, it didn’t give him the right…

“He’s worried about you,” Liaven said. “Caring gives us the right to worry.” And she raked her hair away from her face, as if it hurt to think.

Aylili took a few steps forward and laid a hand on the woman’s arm. Liaven smiled at her and said, “I’m all right. Just trying to solve another impossible problem.”

Aylili quirked her head in query.

Liaven gestured at the maps spread across the table. “They’ve been using the Fire more and more these last weeks. We think they have some new way of producing it – they’re not bringing it in from Rastan any more. Nimbus has been in the air everyday, trying to find it. Before we could rely on them only using it in certain weather. Now they have it to waste and we cannot stand. We cannot stand.”

Aylili leant against the table, puzzling over the maps. She had flown with Nimbus. Surely it was not impossible to find such a thing from the air. She was sure he could prevail – it was not in his nature to forsake such a task. She shook her head back and pushed away from the table.

And dizziness hit her, setting the world aswirl around her.

Liaven caught her and lowered her into a chair. “Aylili! Guardian Light, child, you’re like an oven. Stay here! I’m getting a medic.” And she went, in a swirl of grey skirts.

Aylili struggled to her feet. She didn’t need help. It was just a spring fever – she had had them before. She didn’t want to be fussed at. They’d make her stay inside. She needed the sky. She had to see the sky.

She had enough sense left to stop running when she approached the guards at the gate. She slipped through gently and hurried along the street, stumbling as she looked for the way back to the roofs. As she began to climb the pipes and sills blurred before her eyes and several times she almost lost her grip, reaching for a hold that was not there.

She was weeping by the time she dragged herself onto the roof. She needed the sky. She needed to be under the sky. She could not let them find her. She scrabbled and struggled across the roofs, seeking somewhere high and safe.

At last she found an abandoned garden, on the roof of a crumbled tenement. She sank down on the thin soil, shivering. There was cold in her bones, creeping along her limbs until all she could do was curl up in the sunlight and shake.

The warmth of the sun soothed her and soon she slipped into sleep. Nightmares gripped her. She dreamt she was surrounded by snow, cold and suffocating and then that she had slipped into fire, to burn unmourned. Feathers fell through her dreams, black and cream, clinging to her sweat-slick skin until they filled her mouth and covered her eyes.

She woke then, crying out, and wished she was still sleeping. Everything hurt: her back and shoulders ached and sweat washed over her. Her head ached and she was hot, though it was night now and the moon watched over her.

She wrapped around herself, clinging to her knees to ease the cramps that wracked her body. Desperately, she willed herself back to sleep, reaching for the nightmares gratefully. She dreamt of her parents, her mother burning, the shimmering heat of the air. Time and again she saw feathers flaming into ash, lithe dancers screaming as they fell.

She woke again, under sunlight, her body clenched with hunger, and tore the wild vegetables from the plot, gorging on beets and potatoes until fatigue seized her again and she collapsed. She ate again, under the moon, and after that the fever took her and she lost track of time. Sun and moon, stars and clouds all blurred together. There was only the heat and rippling pains that ran through her, the dreams of falling through endless, fiery skies.

She screamed for Nimbus, but he did not come and she knew he must be dead. If he lived, he would have come. And then she had no voice to scream and no energy to weep. She passed through dream into a dark and silent sleep.


*



When she woke her thoughts were clear for the first time in weeks. She was warm, pleasantly so as she had not been since she last slept in a bed, and the tiredness was gone. Her shoulders still ached, and her body felt heavy and a little slow, but she could think again.

She pushed herself upright and hunched her shoulders, trying to work the ache out. There was a haphazard breeze which brushed past her. She was still hungry so she dug out the last vegetables and chewed on them as she looked out over the roofs and thought.

There was no real reason to stay on the roofs. She had left them several times now. She needed to find a purpose for her days. Still thinking, she crossed the roof to dip a drink out of the water barrel. She was unsteady on her feet, her balance wrong, and she scowled. She must have grown again. Dipping her face down she lapped at the water and then splashed her face, washing the last sleep away. While the water dried on her face she tugged her hair forward over her shoulder and combed it neat with her fingers. As she plaited it she gazed at the smoky horizon and a plan formed in her mind.

She might be growing, much to her distaste, but she was still light enough for Nimbus to carry. If he couldn’t find the place where the Dark were brewing Fire, perhaps she could. Two sets of eyes could see more than one. Her parents had fought the Dark – why shouldn’t she?

She made her way along the roof, slowly at first, as she tried to find her balance again. Soon she was running and at the end of the row she leapt lightly over the alley to the next roof. The wind must have gusted as she leapt for she was carried further than she expected and stumbled on landing.

The next leap was longer and she bent her knees and shoved her shoulders back to propel her forward as she jumped.

The wind lifted her, casting her into the bright sky. She shrieked and brought her arms forward, tensing to land. Instead she was thrown higher, gliding over the roofs. Twisting in disbelief, she tried to look over her own shoulder and went tumbling out of the sky.

Instinct made her swing her legs down to land undamaged, though she grazed her knee with the force of the landing. Kneeling there, breathless, it was a moment before she realised her hand was hidden under creamy feathers, feathers the very same hue as her hair. She slid her other hand back over her shoulder, to where Fideli’s clothes left her back bare.

She felt bone and sinew where there had been only smooth skin and then, soft against her fingertips, feathers.

She leapt to her feet, shrieking with glee and disbelief. She threw her shoulders back, rolled them, hunched forward and felt her wings flare and dip. Then, wild with delight, she raced along the ridge of the roof and threw herself into the wind, swooping down to the next roof in stuttering flight.

It took her three days of soaring over the silver city before she felt safe on her wings. She played in the air, gliding and diving, banking and circling, copying every trick she ever seen Nimbus perform until her shoulders burnt and her back ached. Only dusk brought her down each evening, and she found she was ravenous, eating three times her usual ration.

Looking east on the third evening, she was tempted to fly there now, seek Nimbus out and see the surprise on his face. Sense intervened – she needed to eat and she did not know the way in the dark. So she settled to sleep, her wings folded over her to ward the cold away.

She was awake long before dawn, excitement dancing through her. The clouds were heavy and the morning grey and dim. As soon as there was enough light she cast herself off the roof, flying towards the dawn.

As the day brightened, she glided over parts of the city she had never seen and revelled in the brush of the wind and the amazed shouts from the streets below as she passed over. As she neared the walls the air began to darken around her, and she could smell acrid smoke. She tilted her wings and found a thermal, trying to rise above it.

There were houses missing below her, mere heaps of rubble, like the embassy. As she approached the walls whole streets were gone. Then, there were no homes below her now, only rubble and charred bricks. She had thought the embassy the worst devastation she would ever see, but this was the same destruction writ over and over, as far as her eye could see. Odd buildings still stood, deserted and cold, but they looked bowed with despair.

She could smell salt. When she looked down she could see the walls, battered but not broken and a wide strip of grey water, fouled with ash and dead, bobbing shapes she slowly realised were bodies. Beyond the water the shore was dark. There were bonfires there, row on row of them casting smoke into the air. She could smell meat roasting and swallowed bile as she realised the Dark were burning their dead.

She needed to find Nimbus. Hovering, she looked down on the wall, trying to spot his wings. He wasn’t there and she felt her heart clench with fear. Had he really died while she had been too ill to know? She had dismissed it as a fever dream, but now she was afraid again. He couldn’t be dead. Not now when she could fly with him.

She swung north, following the line of the wall. There were archers there, stationed two cubits apart down the entire length of the wall. At every turret a larger device was mounted, attended by a whole team and surrounded by bubbling cauldrons.

The sixth turret she passed over had no such device and she focussed on the group standing there. The bald pate of the man was familiar, and as the woman turned Aylili recognised her profile and dived. She landed on the tower top with a soft thud and everyone spun to stare at her.

“What in –“ the general began but Liaven gasped, “Aylili! Aylili!”

She smiled at her shyly and unfurled her wings again, showing off.

“Wonderful,” Liaven breathed. Then, “He knew! He knew, didn’t he?”

Aylili shrugged. She didn’t see how he could have known but she had learnt not to make assumptions. Then she realised how lightly Liaven had spoken and knew he could not be dead.

“Out there,” the spymistress said. “He found the factory. He left with the dawn. If he had get close before the bombardment –“

The air screamed and tore. Liaven knocked Aylili to the floor as fire went screaming overhead. Aylili felt the rush of heat on her back and clenched her wings close, flinching. Beside her Liaven was swearing dimly.

Aylili crawled to edge of the turret and stared out over the straight. On the shore she could see the catapults bending back. The sky was full of roaring fire, scorching the very air. Dark-garbed soldiers came running forward out of the smoke to throw rocks into the channel and then fade back into the smoke. As the catapults roared again, arrows went hissing out from the walls of Isola in great sheets, to throw those shadowy figures to the ground, screaming and weeping.

“Where is he?” Liaven hissed, crawling up beside her.

Aylili shrugged. She didn’t know where he was meant to be.

“The factory’s over there,” Liaven said, pointing. “All he needs to do is drop the spell-ball and come back to us.”

Aylili quirked an eyebrow.

“Alchemy,” Liaven said. “Mixed with magic. Of the young Queen's making. It should react with the Fire – raze the place to the ground. If he can drop it. Come on, you brainless bird.”

Nimbus was out there. Out in the burning air. Alone.

Aylili watched the fireballs arch through the air, plotted their trajectory and then considered the ground before the wall. Then, before Liaven could stop her, she threw herself up and into the air. She arched over the path of their own arrows and then dived steeply, below the range of the mangonels. She darted between the catapults even as their crews shouted and bugled an alarm. Then she threw all her strength into the climb, throwing herself out of the range of spears. They would not hurl fire into their own lines.

An arrow whistled past her wings and she screamed and beat her wings faster, shooting into the clouds of smoke, wheeling to confuse their aim. A few more arrows hissed around her but she could hear confused shouting in a strange, discordant language. She couldn’t see them, or the ground, but kept the roar of the catapults behind her. The smoke stung her eyes and caught in her throat, but she breathed through her teeth and kept a steady pace. She glanced around as she flew, searching for Nimbus, and shivered to see how her pale wings blurred against the smoke.

Then she understood why the archers had not pursued her and grinned exultantly. They could not see her through their own smoke. Heartened, she speeded up, hoping she was still following Liaven’s directions.

The ground below her was quieter and she suddenly worried that she had overshot the army. She dipped carefully, until only a thin veil of smoke separated her from the ground below. There were still soldiers down there but they were less numerous and they did not look up as she coasted over them. Ahead of her a group with a spear-hurling catapult were hunched in concentration, gesturing at something ahead of them. She followed their gaze and glimpsed black wings drifting through the shadows, a bare ten cubits above the ground.

She powered into a dive and screamed, “Nimbus!”

Below her the catapult thrummed and she snapped her wings back and hurled herself at him.

They went rolling through the air as the bolt buried itself in the mud. Nimbus pulled free and used the ground to push himself higher, roaring, “Up!”

She obeyed, forcing herself after him, clawing her way up into the concealing smoke. He wheeled, still pushing upwards and she followed until they broke out of the top of the smoke, into sunlight.

Nimbus caught the wind and she pushed herself up beside him. He turned to grin at her and she grinned back. Behind them, another bolt appeared through the smoke, arching up towards the sky.

“Excellent timing, kiarria. Superb. Did Liaven send you after me?”

She shrugged, as best she could whilst in flight.

Nimbus whooped with laughter. Then he sobered and gestured to the leather ball he carried. “Did she tell you my mission?”

Aylili nodded.

“I cannot near the place. I have been circling since dawn. They are watching for me. Every time I approach they block me. And I cannot dive from here without missing it entirely.”

Aylili held out her hand.

Nimbus stared at her blankly and then said, “No! No, no and no.”

She pointed at her own pale wings, now dirtied by grey ashes, and then at the billowing smoke below.

“No!” Nimbus said again and then, thoughtfully, “Unless…?”

She quirked her head.

“I play decoy and you go in through the smoke.”

She nodded gravely, and he passed the ball across to her, looking troubled.

“Be careful, featherling. If you can’t get close, come away. Don’t take any risks.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Aylili!”

“Nimbus!” she said back and blinked at the sound of her own voice, throaty and soft.

He beamed at her proudly. “There’s a welcome sound. Now, let’s see where we are. Stay on this path.”

He dipped below the smoke.

After a moment there was a roar of thunder and fire exploded up through the smoke, followed by a clutch of arrows. Aylili turned but Nimbus was shooting out of the cloud cover a few lengths ahead. He swooped up to join her and said, “Not quite there yet, featherling. Quick, quick before they shoot at random.”

Aylili darted after him. A few minutes later he dipped below the cloud again, with worse results.

“A few more cubits,” he said breathlessly. “Get as close to the centre as you can, drop it and get out. Now!”

And he dived, whooping out a war cry. Aylili hurled herself forward and down, bursting out of the smoke above great clay chimneys.

“Isola!” Nimbus howled behind her. “Isola and the Light”

She could hear bowstrings twanging, flame roaring, men shouting. She dared not look. Instead she swooped forward, weaving between the chimneys, searching for a good target. Behind her there was a boom which shook her in the air.

When her ears cleared she could not hear Nimbus. She swung back in horror, trying to see him, and an arrow clattered off the chimney beside her. She startled, crashing against the chimney and went spinning. Another arrow hissed past her and she shrieked and grabbed the rim of the chimney, pulling herself up. It seared her hands and she screamed again but managed to hurl the ball over the rim and throw herself away, out of sight of the unknown archer.

Streaking away from the chimneys, she screamed, “Nimbus! Nimbus! Nimbus!”

There was a whoop from below and he came skimming through the clouds below her, trailing the distinct stench of singed feathers.

“Fly crooked!” he roared at her and began to zigzag, without losing speed. “Did you drop it?”

“Yes!” she screamed back, zagging in the opposite direction.

“Then fly faster!”

She sped up, trying to keep pace with him until her lungs burnt with the effort.

Arrows shot up between them and Aylili gave up chasing Nimbus to listen for them. She could only see them as dark spots in the air but she could hear the hiss and whistle of their approach.

She veered and banked, whipping her wings out of the path of another arrow and arched up, thrusting forward until ripples of pain crossed her back. She could see the walls of Isola before her, so close-

The world ripped apart, with a boom that threw her into silence. A hot blast swept her up, battering her wings and hurling her helplessly forward. She saw pale feathers fly past her eyes and winced in outrage.

The walls were below her and she glimpsed archers hunched behind the ramparts, shields over their heads against the blast.

Then she was plummeting towards the rough ground. She twisted in the air and managed to spread her wings enough to control her fall. Still, she hit the ground heard enough to knock the breath from her lungs. When she had finished gasping she staggered to her feet and looked around.

Nimbus was climbing over the rubble towards her. He was smeared with ash, criss-crossed with burns and cuts and had lost several feathers and part of an eyebrow. He was grinning with glee.

“We are magnificent, featherling! We are glorious! Incomparable! The city will cry out our names to the stars! We will be honoured! We-“

Aylili, bruised and breathless, stared at him, speechless. Then she managed to say weakly, “Nimbus?”

“Rejoice in our victory! We must – yes, featherling?”

She managed a smile, which widened slowly as she thought of what she had done and then faded as she wondered what more there was to do.

“Aylili?”

She could speak again. The words were no longer locked in her throat.

“Speak, child. I am intent upon your words. I yearn to listen…”

It was obviously a problem Nimbus had never suffered. So, her face widening with glee, she said, “Nimbus – hush!”

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rosiphelee

February 2012

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