Written by Barbara Davies / Artwork by Holly Eddy
Wind Rider





















Riel wheeled the pulley hoist back into the hangar and returned to the Wind Rider. Arms folded, she studied the
crates and sacks she'd just spent an hour loading. It had been hard work getting the weight evenly distributed in
the 20-foot by 6-foot open-topped gondola, especially without Enny's strong arms to help her. And before that,
she'd had to wind up the huge steel mainspring coiled inside the gondola floor.

Where
was that cursed nephew of hers? She pulled out her pocket watch and glanced at it. Five minutes until
departure. Late delivery would trigger the contract's penalty clause, so if Enny didn't turn up in time, she'd just
have to fly solo. That prospect had once daunted her, especially in the early days when ill health forced Mother to
relinquish the Wind Rider into Riel's care; now flying solo held definite attractions.
Just me and Drig and a fair
wind—

"Auntie Riel." Enny's shout interrupted her musing, and the young man emerged through the wide-open hangar
doors, a cloaked figure in tow. "I've got us a passenger." He hurried across the mooring yard towards her.

Riel put her hands on her hips. "This is a cargo run. We've no room for passengers!"

But he was already encouraging his companion to climb the dangling rope ladder. "Ziska doesn't weigh much," he
called, his tone breezy. "And we've room for one."

The stranger's hood fell back to reveal a girl, her fair hair tied in a ponytail. She was as pretty as Riel's nephew was
plain, but her cloak was shabby and patched, Riel noticed with misgiving. "I hope she can pay her fare."

Money was tight, what with the hangar rental, the cost of lifting gas, and the repairs that were inevitable after every
trip. And lately Liseo's Falcon, a top of the range model that made the Wind Rider look like the antiquated airship
she was, had been stealing business that once would have come Riel's way. This was her first fully loaded freight
run in nearly a month, and to get it she'd cut her price to the bone.

"I'm paying." Enny started up the ladder, his additional weight making the airship bob and eliciting a squeak of
alarm from the girl. "Take it out of my wages."

"Don't worry, I will!"

Ziska had clearly never been in a gondola before, so Riel helped her over the rail.

"Thank you so much for agreeing to take me to Minton," said the girl. "I'll be no trouble at all, I promise." Her gaze
fell on the 'cat' curled up on top of one of the crates. Drig always assumed the shape of Mouser—in Great
Grandmother's day, he and the airship's cat had been inseparable. "Oh, is that an air elemental?" Her eyes
brightened.

How on earth did she know that? "Please don't bother Drig," said Riel, but Ziska had already crossed to the crate,
crouched in front of it, and begun to make cooing noises. Fortunately, Drig appeared amused rather than irritated
by the attention.

Enny heaved himself over the rail and pulled up the ladder behind him.

"Inflate the aft ballonet, will you?" said Riel.

With a grunt, he grabbed the lever and began to pump air up the tube. The bag nestling inside the ellipsoid
balloon's stern filled with air, displacing lifting gas forward, and the Wind Rider's nose began to rise, taking with it
the gondola slung beneath. When the tilt was to her liking, Riel signalled Enny to stop. Face flushed, he joined
Ziska, who had at last decided to let Drig sleep in peace.

"All right?" she heard him ask, and saw Ziska's nose wrinkle as she smiled and nodded. Enny hadn't had much luck
with girls—Riel hoped he wasn't going to get his heart broken.

She cast off the mooring rope, started the propeller, and took her position next to the rudder. Suspension cables
creaked and there was a perceptible sway as they gathered speed and height, but a visual inspection reassured her
that the cargo wouldn't shift. The familiar whirr of the propeller was a comforting accompaniment as she set course
for the Boar Mountains. All being well, by nightfall they should be safely moored at Minton, their cargo continuing
the final stage of its journey in Jeb's mule wagon.

Enny finished his conversation, and came astern to join her.

"Trust you to fall for a pretty face," said Riel. "Where did you find her?"

"Saw her at the livery stable on my way here. She was asking about mule trains to Minton but couldn't afford the
fare. I told her we'd be glad to take her in the Wind Rider."

"Has she family across the border?"

"I didn't ask."

"You should have. Not everyone's who they seem. Drig's proof of that." Riel frowned. "You didn't tell Ziska about
him?"

His gaze flicked to the snoozing elemental then back to her. "Of course not! Talking of elementals, I went to Marr's
rally last night." He saw her disapproval and became defensive. "It was my last chance. They're upping sticks today
and moving on."

She resisted the urge to box his ears. "Don't you know how hard it is to leave that cult once they've sucked you
in?"

He looked indignant. "I'm not stupid, Auntie. I've heard the rumours too. But there was plenty of free food and
drink, and girls, and I was careful to sneak away before the speeches began in earnest." His expression brightened.
"Marr's elementals were brilliant. You should have seen the things they do on command!" He glanced at Drig and
lowered his voice. "Why doesn't he ever do stuff like that?"

"Because he isn't ours to command. Drig's with us by choice, Enny."

"I know!" He rolled his eyes. "But all he ever does is sleep."

The rising sun was casting a scudding shadow of the Wind Rider on the ground ahead of them and a gentle breeze
had sprung up. Riel checked the compass and adjusted their course, then gave a contented sigh—this was her
favourite time of the day.

~ * ~

They were crossing the tusk-like peaks that gave the Boar Mountains their name, and Riel was frowning at the fog
bank she spotted in the distance, when Enny stopped rewinding the mainspring and pointed back the way they had
come. "Isn't that the Falcon?"

Riel turned and shaded her eyes, then reached for her spyglass. Liseo's airship, both powerful propellers turning,
was gaining on them fast. She wondered if he was trying to impress his passenger, a thickly bearded, barrel-
chested man standing in the gondola's prow, something golden perched on his shoulder.

Two signal flags climbed a line attaching gondola to balloon:
Stop. You are carrying illegal cargo.

Illegal? She had checked every sack and crate herself.
Unless…. Riel snapped her eyeglass closed and turned to
address Ziska. "Who are you running from?"

"What?" said Enny, his puzzlement turning to distress as Ziska dissolved into tears. "There, there!" He set aside
the winding lever and draped a comforting arm around her shoulder. "Now see what you've done." He threw Riel an
accusing look.

Riel waved him to silence. "Liseo's passenger is chasing her." She described the bearded man and saw Ziska flinch.
"Who is he, Ziska? What does he want and why?"

"His name's Romme," sobbed the girl. "He's Marr's enforcer. Please, don't let him take me back."

"Marr?" said Enny. "What's he got to do with you?"

"He's my husband."

Enny's face fell.

Riel felt a stab of pity for Ziska. She'd heard rumours of the girls Marr enticed in with gifts and flattery, only to put
them to work for his cult once he had them safely under his thumb. Depending on their attributes, they ended up
as drudges, breeders, or lures to attract yet more followers. "Which wife are you?"

Ziska wiped her eyes. "Number twenty-six."

Enny's jaw dropped. "Twenty-six!"

"I know." Her lower lip trembled. "I was so stupid. But he made me feel special."

"What about your family?" said Riel. "Didn't they have something to say on the matter?"

"They're dead."

"Mine too," said Enny. "Auntie Riel's looked after me since—"

"Quiet," said Riel. "With all his other wives, why is Marr bothering to chase after you?"

Ziska sighed. "It must be because I've been helping to train his elementals."

"Ah." Riel's thoughts raced. "Marr's cult may go in for multiple wives, but the law only recognises the first."

"That's all right then, isn't it?" Enny's eyes tracked between Riel and Ziska. "She doesn't even need to divorce him;
all she has to do is leave."

"'All'?" Indignation replaced Ziska's distress. "Marr's bodyguards watched us day and night. And he has friends in
high places. I knew this was the nearest to the border we were ever going to get, so…" She raised her hands and
let them drop.

"Good thinking," said Riel. "They've little time for cult leaders like Marr over the border." She pursed her lips. "Even
so, you went through a
kind of marriage ceremony with him, so you'd better publish an announcement in the
Minton Gazette. Tell everyone you no long consider yourself Marr's wife. That should put an end to his efforts to
get you back."

"I will." Ziska gave her a hopeful smile.

"We have to get her across the border first," said Enny, who could always be relied upon to state the obvious.

Riel glanced back at the fast approaching Falcon. Marr must be paying Liseo handsomely; she couldn't afford to top
his offer. "How
did you escape?"

"One of Marr's earth elementals helped me."

Riel's eyebrows rose. "Oh?"

"Once the rally was under way, I managed to slip away back to our living quarters. She dug me an escape tunnel.
She was going to fill it in again afterwards." Ziska shrugged. "I think she liked me. Or perhaps she just felt like
making mischief."

The latter sounded more likely, thought Riel, remembering the hair-raising accounts of Drig's younger days that
had become part of her family's folklore.

"You're not going to let Marr take her back, are you?" asked Enny, his eyes beseeching.

Riel sighed. She'd like nothing better than to wash her hands of the matter. But while the girl might have been
naïve, she didn't deserve to be treated as some self-regarding bully's property. Liseo had overstated the case
calling Ziska 'illegal', and the fact he was helping to cause Riel yet more trouble also rankled.

The Wind Rider might not be able to outrun the Falcon, but Riel would back her navigation skills and ability to read
an air current against Liseo's any day. And there was that fog bank ahead.

"No guarantees," she said, "but I'll see what I can do."

~ * ~

The Falcon was only minutes behind—Riel could hear Liseo's hails—when dense, swirling grey fog closed in all
around them and the temperature plummeted. The fog felt clammy against her skin and droplets of condensation
formed on every surface.

"Inflate the forward ballonet," she told Enny quietly.

"What—" began Ziska, her voice echoing oddly in the fog.

Riel waved her to silence and shoved the rudder hard over. As the gondola's nose dropped, the girl reached for
something to hold onto.

"Is it wise to lose height so fast in this fog?" murmured Enny, rejoining Riel.

All around them was a featureless expanse of grey. "We might be unlucky and hit a tree," she admitted. "Got a
better idea?"

He shook his head. "Do you think we'll lose them?"

"Depends. If I were Liseo, I wouldn't waste time trying to find us, I'd make straight for Minton and wait." She
frowned. "We'd better seize this chance to drop Ziska off and let her go the rest of the way on foot."

"I could go with her," said Enny, giving Riel a sidelong glance.

She hid her smile. "You could."

He was explaining the plan to Ziska when a dark shape loomed out of the fog to their right: the Falcon! With a dull
thwack the balloons collided, and the resulting lurch almost catapulted Enny out of the gondola. Ziska hauled him
back over the railing by his belt.

"Turn off your propeller," came Liseo's voice through his loudhailer. He was standing by the Falcon's rudder. Beside
him stood the bearded man Riel had seen earlier; the golden creature on his shoulder was a mongoose.

Odd kind of pet! She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Not likely!"

Drig had managed to sleep through the collision, but Riel's bellow woke him. He stretched on top of his crate,
yawned, and leaped up onto the Wind Rider's railing, ears erect, tail lashing.

"Your passenger is Marr's wife. Romme here has authority to bring her back. I'll throw over a line. Send her back by
breeches buoy."

"Get out of the way, Liseo!" yelled Riel. "You've no authority over me or my passengers."

"Don't be an idiot!" His voice sounded strained. "Marr's a bad enemy to make. Here. Catch!"

She made no attempt to catch the line, and with a curse he hauled it in and prepared to throw again. Ignoring him,
she concentrated on putting some distance between the two airships.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Romme speak to his mongoose. Then something golden-yellow streaked
past the Wind Rider, and seconds later, a wall of roaring flame barred their way.
A fire elemental! Heart thudding,
Riel put the propeller into reverse and pulled the rudder towards her. But their forward momentum was such that it
was going to be close…perhaps too close.

A loud hissing noise made her look round. From somewhere below, its origin hidden by the fog, a waterspout was
funnelling up and targeting the flames. For a moment Riel simply gaped at it then she scanned the gondola.
Where's Drig?

"What's happening!" asked Ziska, her face pale.

Enny gripped the railing. "Looks like our elemental's fighting theirs." He gave a fierce grin. "Go get 'em, boy!"

Drig's waterspout was pitifully thin, and almost all of the water had turned to steam before it reached the flaming
barrier. The heat on Riel's face was intense, and looking up, she saw the balloon's nose was perilously close to the
flames. As she watched, it glowed a cherry red then turned white hot and began to droop.

"Take cover," she shouted, as hissing droplets of the now molten envelope rained down. Most fell clear of the
gondola, but a charred mark appeared on a crate at the far end, and from one of the mail sacks a wisp of smoke
curled up then turned into a small flame. Ziska huddled next to Enny and pulled her cloak over them both.

Deep laughter boomed across the gap between the airships. Spitting curses, Riel grabbed the sand bucket and
hurried towards the mail sack. As she doused the fire, the gondola tilted sharply, forcing her to cling one-handed to
the railing. She feared a suspension cable had parted, but a glance reassured her all were still intact. She was still
puzzling over it, when Romme shouted a command and the wall of flame vanished.

Riel was just drawing a relieved breath, when she felt a sinking sensation, and realized it wasn't only in her guts.
Apprehension washed over her as she guessed what must have happened.

"Hang onto something," she yelled. "We're going down!"

~ * ~

Air whistled past Riel's ears as their rate and angle of descent increased. That they were still aloft at all was a
miracle. Or perhaps not. Great Grandmother had insisted the Wind Rider's builder include two separate gasbags
inside the envelope.
If it weren't for her, we'd have lost all our lifting gas in one go!

She shoved the rudder hard over—anything to bleed off a little more of their momentum—and Enny and Ziska
clutched each other, took an involuntary step backwards, and yelped as they tripped over a crate.

The fog eddied and thinned and Riel caught a glimpse of boulders, grass, alarmed sheep scampering for cover,
outcroppings of rock, a stream…. The mountain slope was much closer than she had estimated. The fog closed in
once more, but she had seen enough.

"Get in amongst those mail sacks," she shouted. "And brace yourselves." With a spare piece of rope she lashed
herself to the railing, then she squeezed her eyes shut.
If it's our time to die, may the gods make it quick.

Something zoomed past, and she opened her eyes just in time for an explosion of dust-laden air to fill them with
dirt and blow back her hair. Then the Wind Rider hit, but not in a rending crash. To her relieved amazement it
bounced, cracking rocks and sending clods of earth skyward. A series of further bounces followed, each one smaller
and softer than the one before, and understanding dawned.
Drig provided us with an air cushion.

At last they came to a full stop, and Riel switched off the propeller. The trickling of a brook and sheep bleating their
annoyance replaced its whirr. She blinked the grit from her eyes and saw Drig, once more in cat form, lounging on
his crate.

"You cut that close," she blurted, then flushed. "Sorry! That didn't come out right. Thank you, Drig. You saved all
our lives."

The elemental didn’t acknowledge her, just curled up and went to sleep. That he had put himself out twice for the
Wind Rider's crew and passenger spoke volumes, however.

With shaky fingers Riel untied the rope securing her. Crates and mail sacks shifted, and a soft groan made her look
up. "Are you two all right?"

"Got a splinter in my thumb." Enny held out his hand to help Ziska up.

"Bumped my elbow and bruised my—" Ziska blushed and rubbed her backside.

Something brushed the crown of Riel's head and she looked up. With only one gasbag intact, the balloon could
barely support itself let alone a cargo-filled gondola. Shame flooded through her as she assessed the extent of the
damage, and she was glad Mother and Grandmother were no longer around to witness it. She couldn't possibly
reach Minton by the time agreed. Which meant—
The penalty clause! This run was meant to solve my money
troubles not add to them
.

She heard Ziska joking softly with her nephew and remembered she wasn't the only one with problems. From the
whirring of twin propellers, growing louder then fainter in the fog bank above, the Falcon was still searching for
them. And as the day wore on, the fog would disperse.

She came to a decision. "This doesn't change anything. You still have to escort Ziska across the border, Enny."

He nodded. "What about you, Auntie? And the cargo?"

"We aren't going anywhere. I'll walk to Minton and get Jeb to bring his mule wagon out here. He'll want paying
extra, of course—"

"But that'll take forever!" Enny frowned. "Are you
sure you can't just patch the envelope? The Wind Rider's
puncture kit—"

"Is only for small tears." With a jolt the magnitude of what had happened came home to her. "I can't believe Liseo
nearly got us all killed!"

"I can sew," said Ziska. "Perhaps I could help—"

"It's not just the envelope that needs repairing," said Riel. "In any case, I only carry a small quantity of lifting gas.
For topping up."

Ziska's face crumpled. "I'm so sorry! If it wasn't for me, none of this would have happened!"

"Hush." Enny gave the girl's shoulder a sympathetic pat. "Couldn't Drig be our lifting gas, Auntie?"

"Even if he could… Melted envelope and gasbag, remember?" But his comment had prompted the glimmer of an idea.

"What is it?" asked Enny.

"A long shot. Drig may not be willing to help us a third time."

Ziska brightened. "Let me talk to him. It's about time I pulled my weight."

Hadn't the girl said she helped Marr with his elementals? And Drig certainly seemed to like her. "Very well," said Riel.
"Here's what I want you to ask him…."

~ * ~

"I'll wait for you in Minton." Riel fended off the balloon, which was bumping her on the head once more. "Don't take
too long." Two hundred yards away lay the border: a single-strand fence that was more idea than reality.

Enny nodded. "With luck we can hitch a ride with the next border patrol."

"Remember what I said."

"Tell the authorities the truth. I remember."

As the gondola was floating barely a foot off the ground, he simply vaulted over the side and held up his arms to
catch Ziska. Once he'd put her down, the girl signalled him to wait and crouched to address the air cushion
supporting the Wind Rider.

"Goodbye for now, Drig. It's been an honour to know you." Though Riel heard no reply, when Ziska straightened
she was smiling. She slipped her arm through Enny's and the two exchanged a warm glance.

As they hurried towards the fence, Riel was struck by the change in her nephew. He looked confident. Almost
handsome.
Rescuing damsels in distress agrees with him. She raised her hand in farewell, but he didn't look back,
and with a sigh, she returned her attention to her own plight.

"It's just you and me again, Drig. Let's go."

Obediently, the Wind Rider began to move once more. It was an odd sensation, flying, or rather floating, along
without the aid of the propeller. And slow going—even elementals have their limits and until Drig could rest and
recuperate, he was conserving energy.

Rather than follow the line of the fence, Riel circled back a couple of miles, before heading once more for Minton—
she wanted Romme to think Ziska was still on board. To pass the time, she thought about the future. She
intended to see Marr in court, with Liseo and Romme charged as accessories. Nothing less than full and fair
compensation would do: for the Wind Rider's repairs and the loss of any business incurred while it was out of
commission, room and board while she supervised repairs….

But a court case would mean publicity. While Liseo would appear in a bad light, deterring future prospective
customers, Riel's role in events hadn't been exactly spotless. Some might say she shouldn't have accepted Ziska as
a passenger, an error compounded by declining to return the girl to her 'rightful' husband. She had placed the
cargo that should have been her top priority in jeopardy. She needed something that showed her in a more
positive light. Hm. Did that tintype taker still have his store on Minton's Main Street? The Wind Rider in its current
condition would make an arresting image she could use as evidence for the judge
and for an advertising campaign.
In fact, if she turned the tintype into large billposters and Enny posted them in prominent spots between Minton
and home….

Always supposing her love-struck nephew didn't want to settle down in Minton with Ziska instead, of course. If she
was willing.
Perhaps I should ask her to crew for me. Enny would like that. And she has a useful way with Drig.

In the meantime, Riel needed a slogan. How about: 'No matter what, we always deliver'? No, she could do better
than that…

Half an hour later, sunlight flashing off something on the horizon drew her thoughts away from slogans. She
trained her spyglass on the dark shape hovering there, and sucked in her breath as a familiar shape swam into
view. As she had feared, there was one last obstacle to be overcome before she reached Minton and the border.
The Falcon was lying in wait.

~ * ~

The setting sun bathed Liseo's airship and the outskirts of Minton 50 yards beyond it in a pink-orange glow.
So
near and yet so far
, thought Riel.

Something glinted in the entrance to the customs yard, and she shaded her eyes. Two customs officers stood
there, one with a spyglass trained in her direction. She might be able to use that to her advantage.

"Stop here," she told Drig. The none-too-gentle bump with which the Wind Rider settled betrayed his tiredness.

A barrel-chested figure swarmed down the Falcon's rope ladder and bounded towards them, golden mongoose
clinging to one shoulder.

"I'm glad you survived the crash, Riel," came Liseo's hail from above.

She threw him a sour look. "No thanks to you!"

Without asking, Romme scrambled aboard. His hard gaze raked the Wind Rider's battered gondola from stem to
stern, and Riel folded her arms and watched with thinned lips as he moved aside crates and mail sacks, searching
for Ziska in the most unlikely places.

At last he turned towards her, his expression frustrated. "Where is she?"

"Ziska? On her way to Minton, I imagine." She shrugged. "I dropped her off further along the border. You'll just
have to tell Marr you failed."

Romme's face flushed a brick red and he raised a fist the size of a small ham and advanced on her. She reached for
the winding lever, then stopped—he could order his fire elemental to attack her, and Drig was too tired to come to
her rescue again, even if he felt so inclined.
I'm going to have to talk my way out of this!

"Don't!" Heart thumping in her chest, she took a step back, "Think, man! So far, you've only been obeying Marr's
orders. But if you hit me, the court will charge you with the offence."

"Court?" He curled his lip. "Who says you're going to live to tell the tale, meddling bitch?"

"Haven't you forgotten something?" Her palms were damp and she wiped them unobtrusively. "Witnesses."

"Him?" Romme gestured up at Liseo, who looked as if he'd rather be somewhere else. "He's too spineless to say
anything."

"No, them!"

His head swung round to follow her pointing finger. A familiar bandy-legged figure had joined the two customs
officials standing in the entrance to their yard. Jeb the mule wagoner waved at Riel, and it seemed only friendly to
wave back.

With a furious oath, Romme lowered his hand. Moments later, he was shinning back up the ladder, and the Falcon's
propellers were turning.

"Give my love to Marr," she shouted sarcastically, as Liseo headed back towards the Boar Mountains. Only when the
airship had merged with the encroaching darkness did the tension in her shoulders ease and her attention return to
the matter at hand.

"Come on, Drig," she coaxed. No reaction. "Only another fifty yards." Was she going to have to shift her cargo the
final distance by wagon after all? "Just one last push. For me." The Wind Rider remained motionless and she rolled
her eyes. "For Ziska then?"

At last the gondola stirred, rose a few inches, and began a slow forward crawl. There was some bouncing and
scraping, but at this point one more scratch was neither here or there.

"Thanks, Drig. Head for the customs yard, will you?"

He did.

Usually Riel tethered the Wind Rider to one of the yard's mooring poles. This time, she settled for a berth at
ground level next to Jeb's wagon. While the customs officials inspected her, thankfully, only slightly singed cargo,
with muttered asides and raised eyebrows, she placed the snoring Drig, once more in cat form, on his crate and
with a weary groan sank down next to him.

Jeb appeared beside the gondola, rested his arms on the rail, and gave her a curious look. "Where's Enny? And
what on earth happened to you this trip, Riel?" He gestured at the Wind Rider's limp excuse for a balloon.
"Lightning?"

Riel shook her head. "It'll all come out in court eventually. But in the meantime—" she grinned at him, "—let me give
you the potted version…."
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
Freelance writer Barbara Davies lives in the English Cotswolds. Her
short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including
Myth and
Magic: Queer Fairy Tales and Far Orbit
, and in The Lorelei Signal,
Tales of the Talisman, Neo Opsis, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight
Magazine
, among other ezines and magazines. A collection of her
specfic,
Into the Yellow and Other Stories, is available from Bedazzled
Ink.