Guessing he'd flown about the right distance, Jann slowly angled the flyer down through the clouds. He broke from the cloudbank's underside to open sky, saw Grelle manor about a mile away, saw the gardens, the streams, the mauve creeper fields...
Then there was a flash of green and he felt as if someone had struck him with a hot poker. His mind cleared a few seconds later, and he found himself clutching blindly at the low railing of the craft as the flyer spun around him, smoke spiraling up from its engine. He glimpsed another flyer somewhere overhead. They'd shot the craft from below and now it was damaged, had spiraled down past them, and would soon lose power completely and plunge in free fall...
He saw an island in the sky, a mesh of green and brown, below him--rushing at him. He threw himself toward it, as the flyer spun away.
He spread his arms and legs and braced himself--the smack of impact struck the consciousness from him, quite unequivocally this time.
The ground was rippling under him...His nose was overwhelmed by a resinous, vinegary smell...
He lifted his head and saw it wasn't the ground rippling: he was lying on an interlaced bed of skypods and their vines. He had made it to one of the skylands. He could look down through the vines and glimpse the blue sky, ten yards down, and the uplands of the Granite Expression to one side, and the banks of the River Swenn--all seen between knots of skypods. Even a wisp of low-lying cloud, down below.
Each as big as a man's head, the pods were filled with a nutritious juice and a pocket of hydrogen that kept them ballooned high over the land. The plants absorbed mineral nutrition from the extensive behemoth and bird droppings deposited in gray and black patches across the "island". He could smell those, too.
He shifted about, trying to get more comfortable, knowing better than to try to stand--just shifting sent waves of ache through him. Wincingly trying his limbs, one at a time, he decided that no bones were broken. He was deeply bruised, at least, and there was blood in his mouth; his lips were swollen and he felt a gap where an upper molar had been--a moment later he located the tooth, and spat it out.
The bloody tooth stuck to a resinous, bristly pod, and he wondered how long had he been unconscious. The sun was much lower now, he saw. Late afternoon. He'd been out for hours, then. Which meant the Kastillians thought he'd fallen to his death. Would some officer send the men out to look for his body?
The reek of pod resin and behemoth droppings was too much. He had to move his face away from the mat a little, at least. He thought that if he moved slowly, carefully, he might be able to sit up. He couldn't see Grelle manor from this position--it was somewhere behind him.
The wind increased as the sun began to sink behind distant clouds--the foreshortened horizon of the skypods wavered in the rising wind, and the ripple traveled toward Jann just as he was easing himself into a sitting position on two pods. He didn't see the wave traveling through the skypods at first--he was looking over his shoulder, staring at the twisting column of black smoke exactly where Grelle Manor would be.
"Oh no..." How was he to get to his mother from here? How was he to get down at all?
Then a kind of wind-driven tsunami of skypod foliage came rolling over him from the outer edge--it loomed three yards over him...
He had just time to see it and swear, "Reeking death!"
And then it crashed down, and he was flung from his perch and felt himself tossed about until his support was pulled from under him and he was sliding down through the vines, falling faster and faster, tossed this way and that, skin burned by the bristles as he went.
He was going to fall straight through. He would be splashed over the brutal stone of the Granite Expression.
He flailed, grabbed a vine, hung on--hung there, panting and cursing, clinging to the vine with one hand--
And felt it snap in his hand. "No!" He kicked out with his hands and arms, trying to contact as many vines as possible, spread his weight around. They slapped him hard in the face so that his nose bloodied...
And then he stopped, or nearly--he was bouncing, slightly, in a tangle of vines. His feet and legs extended under the mat, from the crotch downward, into naked sky. One of his feet felt cold and he looked down in time to see the boot from his right foot spinning downward, and gone.
He ached from the impacts, his skin itched and burned everywhere it was exposed, blood ran from his nose and mouth...and if he moved, chances were he'd fall. The dusk was growing upon the land, and soon he would fall into the shadows.
He looked around through the increasing shadowiness of the vines, trying to find something to grip onto. Something solid enough to take his weight. But no single vine would do it--only by spreading your weight over many vines and pods could you survive up here.
The wind was rising...
The pods undulated in response, another great wave going through. The wave slapped at him so that he slipped down a little more and a vine broke under his right armpit. He cursed, and tried to relax, to ease pressure on the vines. He was afraid even to breathe hard.
The vines rippled again...he slipped down a little more...
And the rising wind brought something else: the smell of smoke. Of burning timbers--and other smells he was afraid to identify.
Then he heard a mournful grumbling reverberate from a good distance away. He went as limp as he could, tried spread his arms a bit more, took a deep breath, and shouted, "E'qer'minda'moy!"
Quickly to me!
No response. He shouted it again. And again. Ten times more till his throat was hoarse. The rising wind drowned his voice--and another vine parted under his crotch. He fell--
And grabbed at a thick vine just beside his head as he went.
He caught the vine, it pulled slack, then taut, he fell further--and stopped, swaying. Hanging by his hands under the skypod mat, dangling there...afraid to look down.
This time there came an answering rumble, and a low-pitched bellow. Then something drifted closer, something he'd seen from the corner of his eyes, as he'd fallen, and taken to be a cloud--it was a behemoth, below and to his right.
But the final vine snapped--he fell--
And the behemoth was there, catching him with only a three yard drop. He landed on his right foot first and felt something give way in the ankle.
He pitched onto his back, shouting with pain. But now he was riding a behemoth--and he knew Aleshna by its rumble.
Completely barefoot, Jann walked down the road to the manor. His skin itched and burned with the welts left by skypod scratches, his gut ached with the injuries from his fall and his ankle lanced pain up into his leg with each step.
He'd been afraid to fly the behemoth too close to the house; the Kastillians might have men still posted there. Walking around the final curve, before he came in clear site of the manor, he knew what he would see before he saw it, when the smoke blew over him once more. There is a particular smell to a freshly burned and shattered building--particularly one destroyed by explosives. He had never smelled it before, but it seemed somehow familiar to him.
And then he saw what was left of the manor, and felt the last shred of hope dry up and blow away in some limitless interior wasteland. Before him was the flame-crackling wreckage of his childhood home--and the childhood home of his father, and his grandfather and great grandfather. Only a bit of the southeast wall stood, with a chimney, a fireplace standing absurdly alone; the rest was rubble and heaps of smoking ashes.
Coughing with fumes from the embers, he circled the house, calling to his mother, to Keska; to Vonn. Seeing no one, receiving no reply. But there--a blistered human arm thrust from the masonry: he thought it was probably the cook, E'Kenna, judging by the charred remnants of a sleeve.
He went on, circumscribing the vast, smoldering ruin. He came upon two other bodies: both were Kastillians, shot by crossbow bolts--shot from above, it looked like. The Kastillians had come here in force, and destroyed the house in retaliation for his having killed four of their number.
He stared for a moment, then continued onward, looking for his mother. He had given off calling to her. He was very much afraid he'd find her, soon enough.
The Overlook lay smashed on the sideyard, balusters scattered and blackened, ritual objects reduced to trash in the weedy flower garden. He'd never noticed before how overgrown with weeds and ill-kept the garden about the house had become, with Mother always on her rounds or taking care of him and the servants-- doing as much for the servants as they did for her.
He must have passed her the first time, but he found her when he returned to the wreck of the Overlook balcony, thinking of the Imploring Wand he had seen there amongst a tangle of Sweep-Lilies. The wand snapped in half as if the Great Organizer were mocking them.
A still-burning slab of wall hid Mother's body. He had only to squat down once, to look that one time only, to see what he would revisit in memory on many lonely nights to come.
He fell to his knees and began to dig at the dirt around her body, to pull her remains free--they were so crushed he doubted he could get them all out in one piece--when he heard the growing sounds of battle.
A battle. With it, the hope of revenge, an outlet for the pain and rage that burned through him now. Later, he knew, he would face another truth: this wasn't only the fault of the Kastillians. If he had listened to Vonn…
He almost tripped over Keska's body, half hidden in high grass, as he ran--hobbled, really--toward the sounds of fighting. Old Keska a Blunn--it looked like he'd been on the balcony with mother. Keska had been thrown clear by the blast that had smashed the wall from the other side, then shot with a Stropp in the back of the head by some passing Kastillian.
The battle was a few hundred yards away in a field of grain--about two dozen Kastillians had been surprised at their landed flyers by a force of Free Ranchers in buckskin and rough woolen tunics, near the edge of a creeper-field. Even as Jann came upon the scene, the Ranchers charged, some riding tallies and others on foot, firing crossbows and brandishing the long slim double-edged scimitars typical of Paradine Plainsmen. And there--in the midst of the men charging--was Vonn!
Vonn had come, but too late. Fighting at his side were about thirty men and ten women, of every age from nineteen to sixty. Women from the Free Ranchers were well known to be fierce fighters-- and they charged, screeching their war-cries at the startled Kastillians.