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Bonus Story

Here is another bonus story from “Coming Home“.  Please let me know what you think, and if you’ve read the entire book, please leave me a review on Amazon.


The Flying Beast Who Did Not Eat His Breakfast

 

The pilot, a young woman with a slender build, an easy smile, and a set of flashing blue eyes, patted her winged beast upon his feathered neck. He was of one of the smaller varieties of such animals, suitable only for short trips with light loads. The creature’s blue and white scales were brilliant in the light of the torches the maintenance gnomes had arrayed around his bulk so that they could see as they conducted their pre-flight rituals and checks. Downy winter plumage moved in the wind that even the large stone building next to him could not block completely.

“Are we ready?” the pilot asked the chief gnome, who stood close to the beast to warm himself with the heat radiating from the creature’s middle. Both were dressed in multiple layers of wool and fur, but even this could not completely protect them from the wind’s sharp edge.

The gnome looked up from his tablet, upon which he had written each of the tasks needed to prepare the beast for flight, and replied in a squeaky voice, “Everything is prepared, but I’m worried that he hasn’t eaten enough.”

“Oh?” the pilot, whose name was Elbee, said. “Will he have what he needs to get us there?”

“It says here he ate heartily at your last stop. I wouldn’t worry if it weren’t for this blasted weather!” the gnome said. He glared at the beast, who regarded him with half-lidded eyes the size of the small man’s head. “You’ll have to be careful to not drive him too hard or fight the wind too much.”

“We’ll manage,” Elbee said, giving her steed another pat on the head. This drew a deep purr from the beast as he nuzzled under her arm. “Besides, we’ve made it through worse weather, haven’t we, boy?” She scratched the small dragon behind the horns, which turned the buzz of his purr into a loud hum that almost drowned out the howl of the wind around them.

The gnome shook his head and walked over to the crew that was polishing and sharpening the long claw at the end of the beast’s right wing.

Gods save me from crazy pilots, he thought darkly. I just hope you don’t end up falling out of the sky while I’m underneath you.

The pilot watched him go, then shivered as a gust of icy wind raced across the plain of ascension to buffet both her and the beast. “Ready, boy?” she asked her steed. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

 

Ruarin, Lady of Eyre and wife of the Minivandian, stepped through the door to the passenger cabin strapped to the blue and white beast’s back. She wore her healer’s cloak over a robe of fur and wool to ward off the winter’s cold, but even that only cut the chill from the night’s air. Around her, other passengers shivered as the wind whipped through the doorway, but memories of never-ending snowfields and frozen rivers made it easier for the Eyrischwoman to bear the discomfort.

She looked down at the ticket in her hand, then made her way to the seat at the very back of the compartment. She normally tried to sit closer to the front, but the summons to meet with other healers at the mouth of the Great River had arrived late the night before, and she had been lucky to find a suitable conveyance at all on such short notice.

After stowing her healer’s bag above her seat, Ruarin strapped herself in. She hoped that the message she had sent to her husband had made it through the storm. Lightning could wreak havoc on the connection between mages, and she did not want DaddyBear to worry when her flight back to the Port of Gnu was delayed several hours while the storm raged.

She had just finished saying her prayers to ask for protection against the weather when the curtain behind her parted. Snarglefist the She-Orc, resplendent in her blue and white robes of hospitality, stepped out and walked to the front of the cabin. After making sure that the appropriate number of passengers were on board and in their seats, she turned and smiled at her guests.

The flash of a nearby lightning bolt reflected off her long, sharply pointed teeth, drawing similar grimaces from nearby passengers. She was lovely, for an orc, with her broad, fuzzy chest, skin the consistency of rich, supple leather, long, well-muscled arms, and a head of course, dark hair that her mate had shaved on one side to reveal the intricate tattoos emblazoned upon her scalp. The rest of her mane had been knotted and braided so that it stood up into a crest of spikes and plumes.

Truly, Snarglefist was the most beautiful of orcish maidens.

After waiting for all of the other creatures aboard her winged beast to stop their chatter and turn their attention toward her, she called out, “Me, Snarglefist, beautiful youngest daughter of GLURG THE DESTROYER!” When Snarglefist said her father’s name, she shouted it out like the war cry it was while she pounded one knobby fist into the seat in front of her.

Her pond-green eyes flashing as if another bolt had descended from the heavens, Snarglefist continued, “Me, maiden of hospitality! You sit! No do stupid or me beat you like elf caught on shelf! Listen me when we crash! Me bring food and fizzy sweet water once we no touch earth. You pray now! Enjoy trip!”

Her duties complete, she walked back to her seat behind Ruarin and strapped herself in. Soon, the rumbling of her voice filled the cabin as she grasped at the charm around her neck and prayed to the gods of the storm for safe passage.

The Lady of Eyre chuckled to herself as she took in the shocked looks on the other passengers’ faces.

She always finds the best way to get her point across, Ruarin mused as she closed her eyes and began to recite the traveler’s prayer.

 

Elbee wiped the frozen rain from her goggles as she guided the winged beast to the end of the runway. The maintenance gnomes had been able to get a few potions of energy down his throat, but he had turned her nose up even at the barrel of salted fish they had offered him. Elbee had considered cancelling the flight, but after consulting with the mage of meteorology, she had decided they could manage the flight if she could find a way to stay out of the path of the strongest winds.

The beast paused for a moment at the end of the plain as he took several deep breaths to prepare himself for the exertions of taking off in such conditions. He stuck his nose into the wind and began a long, loping run as he tried to gain enough speed to drag himself up from the field. At the very end of the runway, he leapt into the air, beating his leathery wings against the shrieking gale to claw his way into the sky. With a roar of triumph, he cleared the high fence that separated the place of landing from the neighborhood in which the local folk slept.

Elbee cheered him on as he fought to gain altitude while frigid winds tossed them first one way, then the other. Pellets of ice quickly replaced the cold rain and snow, and they beat a tattoo against his hard scales as they soared upward toward the mountains. The downy feathers covering his body rippled in the breeze as the muscles in his wings and back fought against the wind to drive him ever upward.

 

Snarglefist peered out the window as another bolt of lightning, this one close enough to make the wiry hair on her knuckles stand on end, ripped across the sky. In its glare, she saw dark clouds towering up into the heavens, looking as if someone had released a cohort of titans to batter the winged beast back to the earth far below.

With a shrug, she rose from her tiny seat and began to hum to herself. The She-Orc pulled a basket from one of the cupboards above her head and walked down the narrow aisle between the seats in which her terrified guests sat. While even the bravest of her passengers looked worried, she kept a serene smile upon her muzzle. Where some of them swayed with the motion of the cabin, she kept a steady foot upon the floor as she walked to the front of the compartment.

“Stay sit!” she shouted over the din. “No untie from chair! I bring food! No worry! Stay sit!”

As she walked back to the rear of the cabin, she gave each of her passengers a small packet of dried bread knots from the basket and a tiny flask of fizzy drink from a pocket in her tunic. The young Chanani woman sitting two rows in front of Ruarin stopped her as she went.

“Might I have wine instead?” she asked, her voice pitched to be heard over the rattle of the cabin as the wind tried to wrestle it away from the winged beast. “My nerves are frayed from all this.”

“No booze!” Snarglefist snarled in reply. “Trip too short! Drink sweet fizzy! Make you pretty like me!” She shoved an extra flask into the surprised woman’s hand and moved on with her task.

Ruarin accepted her snack from the She-Orc with a gracious smile and shouted thanks, then settled back. She had attempted to read one of the many scrolls she had brought with her from the conference of healers, but the detailed description of a malady afflicting the people of the Aztlani highlands made her stomach do flip-flops and her head scream. She put it away for another time and lay back to try to sleep through the worst of the flight.

 

Elbee looked down, trying to find a landmark to guide her, but the ground below was masked with darkness and mist. Finally, she saw the bright blue light of the signal fire upon Widow’s Peak, and tugged at the reins to turn the winged beast more toward the north.

“First checkpoint!” she shouted into the tube next to her saddle. “It’s not going to be quite as smooth for the next little bit. Make sure the passengers are comfortable!”

 

Snarglefist took the tube from her ear and nodded. “Time for magic,” she grunted as she touched the switch controlling the mystical elven box of cooking. A few moments later, the sound of a silver bell told her that the treat she had prepared for her charges was ready. Taking care to not burn her delicate fingers or singe any of the whiskers on her chin, she took a tray of fragrant rolls out of the magical oven and walked back down the aisle.

One by one, she gave each of her passengers one of the rolls, which were filled with rich chocolate, along with a small flask of apple brandy from the second pocket of her tunic. This was received with great joy and relief by some who wished to distract themselves with something pleasant, while others looked at the treat as an ominous sign of things to come.

“Stay sit!” Snarglefist admonished the passengers. “Chalk’lit and fire apple water make happy!”

The Chanani woman took her share with trembling fingers and immediately drank her entire flask of brandy. Snarglefist reassured her with a gentle thump on the shoulder, saying, “We get through storm soon. Eat good food, for soon you stand at feet of storm god!” The young elvish woman looked up at her in shock.

Across the aisle from Ruarin, a matronly old woman dressed in blue silken robes rose to retrieve something from her bag. Snarglefist roared as she reached out and gripped her by the shoulder. With a heave that almost caused her to drop the last of the chocolate rolls, the She-Orc tossed the matron back into her seat.

“I say stay sit!” she squealed at the older woman. “You want die?” The lady in blue looked up in shock at her reaction, then quickly strapped herself back into her seat. Snarglefist humphed at her once more before distributing the last of her treats. Finally, she returned the now-empty tray to the oven and sat down in her own seat.

 

Elbee frowned underneath her thick woolen face covering. Her beast was taking in huge gulps of air, then breathing them out in long streamers of smoke and steam. She could feel the heat of the creature’s exertions rising from beneath her seat, and even more worrying, small tongues of orange and blue flame occasionally blew from his nostrils as he exhaled.

“Too much, boy?” she shouted, reaching down to pat his neck. The dragon lifted his head a bit to look back at her, then returned to straining against the wind.

We’ll never make it over the mountains like this, Elbee thought. Time to take the other path.

She squeezed down on the beast’s shoulders with her knees and tugged hard to the right with the reins.

“Come on, boy!” she whooped as she felt her steed slip lower and wheel downward. “Tonight, we fly the Tail of the Dragon!” Sensing her excitement, the beast roared into the wind as he descended toward the mouth of a narrow canyon far below.

 

Snarglefist nodded knowingly as she felt the front of the compartment dip and the shriek of the wind outside changed in tone. After glancing out her portal to confirm her suspicions, she looked up at the heavens and smiled.

“Tonight,” she muttered in the sonorous tones of cultured orcish, “we fly between the legs of the storm god!”

The Maiden of Hospitality reached down and used her thumbnail to cut through the cord holding a box made from sturdy pine shut. “EMERGENCY USE ONLY!” was burned into its wood in several languages. Inside, she found thirty spun glass flasks containing a clear liquid that seemed to glow like star fire in the gloom.

“Good news!” she bellowed as she picked up the box and made her way to the front of the cabin. “We no go over mountain!” Several passengers, who probably thought that this meant a safe return to the place of embarkation, cheered at her words.

With an exultant sigh, Snarglefist turned to regard her charges. “We get big honor tonight!” she roared. “Elbee take us between mountains. Only best flyers do this on good days!”

Ruarin realized what the She-Orc meant a moment before the Chanani maiden did. “Do you mean we are going to fly through the canyons?” the she-elf demanded in a high squeal.

Snarglefist grinned broadly as she handed the first bottles of moonshine to the young couple seated in the front row. “Yes!” she shouted back. “Drink deep and pray to wind goddess! We ride Dragon’s Tail while she rend sky!”

Ruarin closed her eyes and intoned a prayer for protection and forgiveness of sins as Snarglefist passed out corn liquor to the rest of her passengers. When she reached the Lady of Eyre, she lifted the last flask as if it were a holy offering, then whispered, “Drink deep, lady. This give you strength for what come soon.”

Ruarin nodded in thanks and uncorked the flask. She had taken her first swallow of the harsh, raw whisky when the beast wheeled over to the left and flew between the two tall rocks marking the entrance to the canyon. Snarglefist barely had time to strap herself in before the cabin floor bucked up, then slammed down as Elbee guided the dragon through the first of the mountain path’s obstacles.

 

Lightning flashed high overhead as Elbee hauled on the reins to turn the beast away from a jagged rock that seemed to leap out from the canyon wall. Beneath her, she could hear the beast grunting as it fought to overcome the shrieking wind at their backs, but the heat from his fires was lessening beneath her saddle.

Praise the gods, she thought as she squeezed her knees to urge the dragon downward to avoid a stone bridge spanning the canyon. He’s not as tired as he was before.

We’ll need everything he’s got, she added grimly as she again wiped the sleet from her goggles.

Thunder boomed as a bolt of lightning split the canyon face immediately behind them, throwing the beast and the air around it into a ball of white light that temporarily blinded Elbee as they plunged deeper into the canyon.

Elbee whooped in glee as she felt the beast rise beneath her, catching his claws for a moment on an outcropping before leaping off into the darkness once more. The beast answered her call with a roar as he spouted blue-white flames from his nostrils. Their cries echoed from the walls, chasing the thunder as they flew onward up the canyon.

 

Ruarin felt her stomach turn over again as the cabin shuddered around her. She clutched the empty whisky flask as if it were a talisman, while around her the other passengers cried out in fear.

Over the noise of the wind and the shrieks of the terrified, she could hear Snarglefist singing at the top of her lungs in a flat baritone:

Over mountain we go!
Through the wind and snow!
Wind no drive us from the sky!
GLURG people never die!

Suddenly, their flight smoothed as if they had passed through some barrier beyond which the winds held no power. For a moment, everyone gaped at the lack of tumult and noise, then their cries began anew.

“We’ve died!” the Chanani maiden sobbed, burying her head in her delicate hands. “That maniac has ridden us into the side of a mountain!”

“We no dead!” Snarglefist said cheerfully, clapping her hard on the back. “Captain Elbee just get us through mountains. We almost home!”

Indeed, out her window, Ruarin could make out the lights of a city far below them. Thin wisps of cloud slipped past them as she felt the dragon gently wheel downward toward the place of landing.

Soon, the lights of the city blurred beneath them as she heard the wind rushing around the beast’s wings. Then, with a bump and another roar from the dragon, they were on the ground.

 

Elbee stretched down and scratched the beast behind his horns as he trotted toward the twinkling torches of their resting spot. A cohort of gnomes waited for them in the freezing wind next to the debarking ladders, mule-drawn carts for the passengers’ baggage, and a large barrel of fish.

The beast let out a final, contented puff of steaming breath before settling down on his haunches and folding his wings underneath the passenger cabin on his back.

“Good boy!” Elbee exclaimed. She unstrapped herself from her saddle and clambered closer to the dragon’s head. She scratched with both hands while heaping praise upon her steed. “You made it!”

One of the maintenance gnomes tugged a hand cart bearing the fish barrel close to the beast’s muzzle, then gasped as he thrust his head into the food. Within moments, the barrel was half empty, and the flying beast showed no sign of slowing down.

“He must be almost empty, my lady!” the gnome squeaked as Elbee carefully climbed down from her perch. The pilot nodded as she tried to work the kinks out of her legs.

“He certainly had to work at this night’s journey, that’s for sure!” she said tiredly before turning to greet her passengers as they descended from the cabin.

 

The passengers waited until Snarglefist signaled that it was safe to stand before untying themselves from their chairs and gathering their things. The She-Orc ran a hand through her stiff hair and made her way to the front.

“Me know you could have walked through storm or taken carriage over mountains instead of flying with us, and me thank you for opportunity to face death with you tonight!” she intoned as the passengers lined up at the door. Outside, they could hear the gnomes unlocking the portal and preparing the ladder for them.

“Me wish all good travels and luck to you this night!” she exclaimed as the door opened with a creak and the passengers surged forward. The Chanani maiden, her face an ashen white, took wobbly steps toward the door.

“You brave!” Snarglefist growled to her, admiration showing in her gravelly voice. “Me wish to fly with you again!”

The elvish woman gaped at her in shock before she nodded and stammered, “Thank you. Perhaps we shall meet again, maybe even in this world.” Snarglefist gave her a belly laugh as she helped her out the door and onto the ladder.

Finally, the Lady of Eyre came to the door. She was the last of the passengers, so Snarglefist followed her down. The ladder was slick with ice, but after the flight through the mountains, that seemed but a little danger to them.

“Thank you,” Ruarin said once they were safely on the ground. Banks of compacted snow showed where someone had shoveled the flagstones clean, and tall drifts obscured the outline of the hall into which the rest of the passengers were trudging. A glaze of ice covered everything else, and several of the gnomes slipped as they brought their carts over to unload luggage from the nets slung alongside the passenger cabin.

“Me have good news, lady,” Snarglefist said quietly. “Me and mate buy farm just down road from you.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Ruarin said, reaching out to the She-Orc and embracing her. “New neighbors.”

“Yes, we take cave in hill next to water,” Snarglefist said as she and the Lady of Eyre walked toward the hall. “Maybe you bring boy to play with daughter?”

“Nothing would make me happier, Snarglefist,” Ruarin agreed. “I shall tell my husband once I get back to the inn.”

Together, the Lady of Eyre and the Maiden of Hospitality walked into the welcome warmth of the hall of flying. Behind them, Elbee watched as her flying beast finished his meal and burped out a long tongue of blue flame to show his appreciation.

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