A draft opening chapter of my WIP novel set in a Viking inspired sci-fi fantasy world
|"Once upon a time a princess fell in love with a handsome goblin."|
Eledy suppressed an upwelling chuckle as she read the single line inked onto the front page of the book she found in her mother's cockpit hold. Seriously? She could not understand this. Goblins were monsters that her brothers told her stories about at night to try to scare her. Stories in which goblins met the gruesome ends they deserved, not married princesses.
Certainly, most humans would never call a goblin handsome. Although, Eledy did not find the appearance of the Forest Goblins enslaved in the human citadel of Ardenland repulsive despite their oversized ragged ears, claws and stumps of horns that were polled for fear they might use them as weapons if they rebelled against their human captors. The slaves in the King’s Hall always returned Eledy’s kindness with grateful grins.
Glancing up to make sure that the Bowmaiden, Ylva, was too busy flying her mother's Sky Skiff form to pay her any attention, Eledy turned the pages of the book. All were blank.
Closing the book, Eledy ran her finger over the two gilded phoenixes entwined on its cover. The pages were of rough, thick paper into which leaves had been pressed.
This was not at all the kind of book that she expected to find when, like a dutiful daughter, she had leaned forward from the seat in the tent-like cockpit and reached into her mother's cockpit hold. The slick surface of the door, adorned with silver runes to protect Gerstermini in flight, had yielded with the smoothness of a leaf lifting in the breeze as Eledy undid the catch.
Her mother had told her to brush up her reading about the rules of the flyways. As she slid her fingers inside, instead of an instructions manual she found this odd book slipping into her hands as her mother’s Skiff form slowed pace as cloud wisps obscured the view.
What was the book doing there? Who had written it? The flamboyant handwriting was not that of anyone in her family.
Eledy clutched at the puzzle of the book as a welcome distraction from the approach of the worst ordeal of her life. Merely remembering where she was heading made her gasp in a shaky breath.
As her mother's Bowmaiden glanced over her shoulder in her direction, Eledy concealed the book under her shawl, formed like a pouch as it crossed over each side of her chest and tied at her waist.
Ylva's eyes flickered to the shawl, then to the viewpoint behind Eledy, checking that the ribbon of smooth air forming the flyway was safe from any danger pursuing them.
The flyways had been created by channeling the planet’s magnetic field to create paths in the sky which the metal bodies of the Sky Skiff flying vessels connected to for a safe and smooth journey. Each moment they travelled was thanks to the meteor at the core of Gaia that the wise admiral of her father’s Sky Skiff fleet told Eledy had brought the first life to Gaia. Yet, another hit from the meteors that sometimes entered the upper atmosphere might snatch life away as easily, if it were not for the dragons tasked to capture the meteors and keep the planet safe.
“You’re very quiet. Are you all right?” Ylva asked.
“Just a bit apprehensive about the operation to enable me to change into a Sky Skiff. You know I’m not looking forward to becoming one. The air is full of dangers. I feel safer with my feet on the ground. I’ve tried again and again to convince Mother and Father that I don’t want to become a Skiff…”
From within the bow compartment, Queen Gerstermini sighed.
“Daughter, you know we would never be unkind to you, but you must accept your responsibilities. You know your Father expects you to become one of his flying squadron in the most powerful Sky Skiff fleet in the Nine Kingdoms. He has the operation all planned out with the elves of Rybelheim. He was one of the first people in Ardenland to be transformed into a Sky Skiff when the elves allowed humans to have the implant, and he’ll be proud of you as he is of all the other great and good people of Ardenland who have undergone the transformation. Your brothers became Skiffs gladly before you. Why, little Kai was but thirteen when he had the implant earlier this year. You are older than he and fully grown.”
Queen Gerstermini's voice came slightly muffled over the flight-com. Eledy's mother must have overheard in the flight capsule where she sat with attachments sprouting from her spine to connect her to the Sky Skiff vessel that Ylva and Eledy travelled in. The walls of the cockpit were thin. Eledy should have remembered that her mother could hear her passengers from her capsule in the bow of the vessel. Did Gerstermini also know that Eledy had found the notebook inside her cockpit compartment? Would she mind?
“Yes, Princess,” Ylva added. “You should rejoice that your father has seen fit to have you turned into one of the flying vessels that have made your country the most powerful in the Nine Kingdoms through battle and trade. Not every girl in Ardenland can afford to be transformed into a Sky Skiff.”
Eledy retreated further against the glossy leather seats of the cockpit, wishing that someone would listen to her rather than repeating these unbending points about following duty. “I know, and I’m grateful to Father for thinking of me, but I’m afraid it will be strange and painful and I’ll no longer be myself afterwards.”
“Honestly, your Mother and I have already explained. The elves will use magic to put you into a sleep during the operation and heal your body afterwards. You’ll look no different except for the attachment in your spine from which you can magically project your Skiff form,” Ylva said.
Eledy shuddered at the memory of young Kai’s pain-crumpled face as she tended him following his Skiffing. “I’ve heard it can take a while for the aching pain to go afterwards, and some people have died during the transformation. It’s dangerous.”
“I cannot deny that it was, at first when it was experimental. However,” Gerstermini continued with reasoned determination, "there have been Sky Skiffs created for many years now. I’m sure the elves of Rybelheim will take great care over you, as befits you, daughter. Do not weary your soul with fretting. It’s always best to accept the inevitable.”
“Indeed.” Eledy’s forced reply to her mother’s words was almost too soft to hear as she tried to stop herself shaking and maintain the composed posture expected of the daughter of the famed human king of Ardenland and his elven bride. Yet, inside she was screaming.
Turning her head towards the cockpit window, she pretended to fix her attention on the patchwork of fields about human farmsteads vanishing from view behind her. Ahead, the snow-capped mountains of Rybelheim appeared no bigger than bumps in a flagstone floor this high up. Impressive though it was, Eledy resented the sight of their destination — a broken-topped caldera. Within its crater, said in legend to be the scar left by the meteor, lay the workshop of the most advanced elven race of the continent who prided themselves on inventing a way to allow any race of people in the Nine Kingdoms to transform to flying vessels.
In a few weeks time, on her sixteenth birthday, Eledy would undergo the transformation into a Sky Skiff. She dreaded it. Each bone in her body would be replaced with bones of talibereth metal. Filled with magic, the metal allowed her to project the form of a flying vessel from her body at the command of the Bowmaiden to whom she would be allocated. Soon, like her mother, her physical form would be encased in a flight capsule, sentient, but unable to control her movements. Thousands of feet up in the air, her fate would rest on the Bowmaiden who was to fly her on quests that would win glory for Ardenland, or perhaps get Eledy killed… That was, if the process of Skiffing did not kill her.
Today the plans were to be finalised.
At least her mother had the forethought to leave Ardenland early to review the concept design that Eledy had chosen for her Sky Skiff form with the elves of Rybelheim. It meant Eledy had time to think things through before the Twelve, her father's elite counsel members, arrived to finish their negotiations with the elves.
A crack shuddered against the Sky Skiff's bow. Eledy jolted from her musings with a shriek. Ylva temporarily lost control of the tiller, gasping in surprise. Gerstermini's Skiff form veered towards the edge of the flyway.
"What was that?" Eledy asked as soon as her nerves settled. Concern rising in her throat, she peered through the windshield to see if her mother's glistening form of sky-blue talibereth metal had been damaged. "Are you all right?"
"I think so.” Gerstermini’s voice had the tone of someone trying to reassure a child, whilst being afraid themselves. “Probably just a rogue hailstone, or a small meteor. They fall from time to time.”
Eledy's reply faltered as they hit a rough squall of air. Gerstermini jolted, banking sideways to avoid the turbulence. Eledy clenched her hands as her mother became snatched upwards, the wind strong as a giant trying to hurl her to her death. Gerstermini fell, bow downwards as if she crested a storm wave. The warning panel screamed.
The juddering ceased. Eledy's racing heartbeat deafened the clatter of hail striking her mother's Skiff form. She knew that the talibereth flying vessel sprouted from Gerstermini’s body could feel little pain, but part of her writhed in indignation to hear the pounding at the pristine azure shell in which she sat encased. The warning panel continued to flash in bursts like red lightning.
"Neblung," Ylva said, an ominous note deepening her musical elven voice.
"How do you know?" Eledy asked.
"Only a Neblung hag could conjure an icy blast like that. They call upon daemons, or nature spirits, in their magic."
Eledy shuddered, having been sheltered from the character of her father's enemies until now. "Why are they coming for us?"
"You father riled Geddak, the Neblung Supreme Sorcerer, by demanding that he join the alliance of the Nine Kingdoms ruled over by Ardenland. If he would not show allegiance, your father swore to fight him as he does all this enemies — without mercy."
Eledy glanced back at the wraiths of dark clouds. "I guess that didn't go down well."
The Bowmaiden's face twisted as if she had bitten into something bitter. "Geddak's a dangerous one to pick a fight with. The rulers of Neblung are priests and priestesses amongst a race of witch-bloods, with even more powerful magic than the rest. Geddak thinks he should rightfully rule the Nine Kingdoms as he’s the most advanced in magic in the entire continent. It was only a matter of time before Neblung attacked."
"It was just a reconnaissance broom rider, no reason to suppose Geddak will launch an attack now.” From Gerstermini’s crisp tone, Eledy guessed that her mother resented Ylva’s frankness to her. "Don't wait for the Twelve. We'll be in more danger if we loiter here for the hag to come again. Keep flying on."
Ylva’s hand paused from moving the tiller into a faster flight position as Gerstermini bade her. “With all due respect, Your Majesty..."
An eruption of sound burst behind them, tearing at Eledy's eardrums. What was it? Amongst the mauve and white growths of cloud surrounding the flyway thickly as a forest, anything could be coming for them…
Eledy’s ears rang and stung as an armoured broomrider zipped past, a squall of sound accompanying her. Out of the corner of her eye, Eledy caught another hag zooming towards them, her flying leathers glinting with steel studs in the sunrays, making her look like a hornet poised to sting. "Behind you!"
"My guns," Gerstermini ordered her Bowmaiden.
Eledy's heart lurched as Ylva reached for the lever triggering the Skiff to open fire. Having rarely left the King's Hall, let alone been in a sky battle, a terrifying sense of being out of depth overwhelmed Eledy.
"Can I help? What can I do?" she asked Ylva who pressed a multitude of slick, scrolling metal levers to angle Gerstermini’s guns.
"Not now." The Bowmaiden's voice was tight as she glanced out of the windshield to set the final angle of the guns.
Ice slapped the windshield so hard that, as Eledy pulled herself up from being thrown by the jolt of the impact, she was sure that the crystal window must have shattered. Ylva reached for the activation lever of the guns. The ice crackled, spreading like tree roots across the windshield. The view of the flyway obscured, Ylva left off trying to fire at the hags with a growl of frustration, scrabbling with frantic fingers at the controls that should thaw the ice.
"It's too thick. It’ll takes ages to thaw,” she got out through chattering teeth. Unable to see their course, she jolted Gerstermini against the turbulent air stream marking the edge of the flyway.
"We have to stop on the flyway. Landing blind is impossible,” Gerstermini said.
Eledy clutched her seat with white knuckles as the drone of the broomrider closed in. The first hag doubled back, flying in circles over Gerstermini. Strange letters formed of blue flame bit through the obscurity of ice as the hag drew magical runes in the air to lash Gerstermini with conjured bursts of storm wind. Eledy scrunched into a ball, pressing her hands over her ears as she prepared for the impending crash.
Although the thaw liquid was melting the ice, the clearer view of the danger awaiting them only made Eledy’s stomach churn. The clouds below were no more protection than torn cottongrass. Beneath the gaping void of air, the fissured surface of the mountains grinned like the primed jaws of a predator.
With a crackle like a firecracker, another Sky Skiff opened fire. The drone of the broomrider behind them changed to a receding squeal as the hag plummeted from the sky, shot down.
“That was timely, I thank you,” Gerstermini told the stranger over the communication system. It sounded like she knew him, but Eledy was puzzled who he was.
“I’m only too glad to be of service to you,” the unfamiliar Skiff replied in a smooth masculine voice.
Eledy uncurled, hope of rescue kindling.
With unhurried grace, the green Sky Skiff set a course along the flyway parallel to Gerstermini. The cloud banks thickened. Attention fixed on the sleek form of the unfamiliar Skiff cutting through the smoke spray of clouds, Eledy hoped he would not become lost from view. With the windshield still icy and the clouds gathering, she strained her eyes as if she were going blind. The clouds boded another brewing hailstorm and Eledy’s skin prickled in anxiety, recalling the hags that came with the last squall. Was this cliff of cloud conjured by sorcery too?
All too soon the green Skiff was lost from view behind the cloud. If Eledy stared hard she could make out the pinpricks of his lamps searching a careful way forward.
Something bucked Gerstermini from underneath, the shock shuddering through her Sky Skiff form and sending Ylva and Eledy tumbling. Ylva pushed herself up, grabbing for the tiller. The warning panel shrieked. Even as Ylva regained control of the tiller, settling Gerstermini back on the flyway, a heavy jolt thrust her sideways. Amid the squeal of Gerstermini’s engine and flailing wings, Eledy caught a stuttering growl.
She cast a frantic look at Ylva. “They’re back.”
Ylva gave the briefest nod, focused on trying to counteract the force trying to thrust Gerstermini off the flyway towards the turbulent, untravelled expanse of air where she might get torn from the sky to crash upon the mountain tops.
“The hag’s using a wrench gun, trying to break the magnetic connection with the flyway,” Ylva told Eledy as she managed to get Gerstermini ahead of the hag.
Before the flyway was regained, the hag struck again, the force of the gun tearing at Gerstermini like she was driftwood in a storm wave.
“Hold her straight, Ylva!”
Eledy’s heart leapt at the urgent words of the incoming green Sky Skiff.
“What? I…” Ylva tensed as the second Skiff darted through the fog. “No! You’re getting too near.”
Wings held out towards Gerstermini, chopping the air, the Skiff banked in close. He might easily have crashed against Gerstermini and brought them both down, but he didn’t.
If the hag had seen him coming, she had no time to react. The wrench gun was tossed from the hag’s hands, twisting through the air. It pierced the cloud and vanished, leaving a hole wounding the pristine white of the cloud. Smoke billowed from the engine of the broomstick, tingeing the snowy clouds grey. Its acrid tang made Eledy cough as it entered the atmosphere inside the cockpit. The green Skiff loitered and Eledy wondered if he congratulated himself as the broom rider writhed and made a forced dive towards the oxygen-rich atmosphere below, her breathing apparatus slashed by his wingtips. He could have killed her if he’d chosen. She was lucky he showed her mercy.
Eledy’s grip tightened on her seat as a second hag appeared. “There’s another one!”
“There won’t be for long, sweet princess” the green Skiff answered over the flight-com.
Eledy soon realised why he sounded smug — the downdraft of his wings sent the damaged broomstick and its rider stuttering down straight onto the new arrival. The hag clutched at her coven sister to break her fall.
The green Sky Skiff hovered overhead, triumphant. “Tell Geddak that the son of Belladonna sends his regards.”
The Bowmaiden of the green Skiff began complaining just as Ylva was at the precarious point of levelling Gerstermini back onto the flyway. Ylva cast an irritated glance at the trumpet-shaped flight-com device.
“Did you see that, Your Majesty? Loyfti just took over, I didn’t steer him. Don’t you think such behaviour is uncanny, dangerous…” the green Skiff’s Bowmaiden appealed to Gerstermini.
“You reacted too quickly to give it any thought. Now you mistrust yourself and your flight instincts as you mistrust me,” Loyfti said, a weary edge sighing in his voice as if he had long put up with his Bowmaiden’s complaints.
“Well, it cannot be proven,” Gerstermini said simply, clearly expecting her verdict to decide things.
However, the Bowmaiden still grumbled. “Do that again and I’m selling you, mark my words.”
“Go ahead, I’d be glad to have a new Bowmaiden,” he replied, his sass making Eledy smile. “Now, Your Majesty, you still have an icy windshield.”
A ray of light cut through the ice ensnaring Gerstermini's windshield. The clean, acid smell of thaw liquid tickled Eledy's nostrils as their rescuer drenched Gerstermini's windshield, melting the ice.
Loyfti dipped away from them, his lamps winking brightly and his engine sparking flame. The sun glinted off his rich green body, the v-shaped hull cutting through the clouds in a way that reminded Eledy of a smaller version of the longships her ancestors arrived upon when they discovered the continent on a raid. Outlined with silver, the stranger's bow and cockpit capsule resembled the dragons pictured in illuminated manuscripts. The silver wings, filigree metal feathers spread out in spokes, added to the impression. Curiosity tickling her, her gaze followed the handsome Sky Skiff. He bore the helm of Ardenland on his bow, but she had not seen him before.
"I told you that having a badly fitted thaw liquid spray comes in useful in a multitude of ways, Dougie," Loyfti announced as the magical beams from his communication system intersected with Gerstermini’s flight-com. The Sky Skiffs had a communication system that worked via magic that allowed them to broadcast their conversation to each other. Eledy guessed that Loyfti wasn’t bothered about her listening in as he chatted to his friend, or else he would have made the conversation beams private.
From his address, Eledy guessed her friend Dougie must be close by and rose in her seat to scan the skies for him.
Eledy waved to Dougie as he overtook them with care in his Sky Skiff form the colours of ocean waves; blue with the white roof marking out all the noble Sky Skiffs of Ardenland. Though she could not see him wave back, encased as he was in his bow capsule, she knew he would have seen her through the eye portals in the front of the bow and would appreciate her thankful gesture.
Although he was Eledy's friend, she had never heard him mention a Sky Skiff who was unknown to her before. Dougie was the orphaned nephew of the admiral of her father’s fleet. Eledy liked Dougie's steady, good nature and he always had time to talk to her when she visited the watchtower by the sea where he was posted, ready to transform into his Skiff form and fly to the King’s Hall should danger be spotted from the tower.
The two Sky Skiffs darted away in pursuit of one hag who remained in pursuit, their banter over the flight-com fading from hearing. It would not be long before the hag got caught; already the shaft of the broomstick was curled about with black smoke from a hit from one of Loyfti's guns.
“Who’s Loyfti? Why haven’t I met him before?" Eledy asked.
After a moment of silence, Ylva motioned Eledy closer. She obeyed.
The Bowmaiden whispered, "Loyfti's your father's spy; a Forest Goblin sorcerer stolen from Vandafar. He's a dangerous boy and your parents can't trust him. I suppose they’d rather keep you safe. A wise decision," Ylva confided, curling her lips in disdain. Eledy guessed Ylva did not like Loyfti.
"Well, I at least am grateful to him. You are right, however, that it would be wise to keep him at a distance, even if he did just down a fellow Neblung for my sake,” Gerstermini's voice came over the flight-com.
Eledy turned to to Ylva. “I thought you said he was son of the Forest Goblin king?”
Ylva drew in her lips as she navigated Gerstermini around one of the spires of rock marking the edge of the Rybelheim caldera, each moment flying lower in preparation for landing. “His mother was Belladonna, only daughter of Geddak.”
Eledy nodded, piecing together this information. So, Loyfti was heir to the kingdoms of both her father’s sworn enemies. A valuable prisoner. But what had he done to earn her parents’ trust and be allowed free to fly? Could they truly trust him…
Ylva navigated down the flyway leading towards Rybelheim. The mirror-like towers of the Sky Skiff workshop loomed closer, announcing the end of life as Eledy knew it.