Banri L’Chandra stood on the edge of the sky island known as Alash-la and cried. She held the one thing that mattered more to her than life itself close to her breast. The bundle of white cooed quietly, oblivious to her mother’s tears, the threat of violence that surrounded her or even the whipping wind and dashes of rain that now fell.
“L’Chandra,” the priestess said quietly, holding out her hand. “You know better than this. It is our way. It is our calling.”
“No,” L’Chandra said, shaking her head slowly. “I would rather die that surrender my daughter.” L’Chandra saw the calm face and open hand of the priestess, beckoning for her to pull back from the railing, and looking at that face made her feel calmer. But she also saw the spears of the guards in the shadows behind the priestess, and knew that they would not hesitate to step in if needed.
“She is beautiful, she is perfect,” L’Chandra said to the priestess. “I don’t care what the others say. I don’t care if she is not part of your perfect plan. I don’t care….”
“She may look beautiful now,” the priestess said. “But she is flawed. And you know that we cannot have that.”
“Can’t have that!” L’Chandra echoed. “She’s a baby! She’s my baby!”
“There will be other babies,” the priestess cooed, taking another step toward L’Chandra and the rail.
L’Chandra sobbed at the words, then shook her head again. The wind whipped her gown around her legs and rain pelted them both.
“No, there won’t.” L’Chandra turned and began chanting words under her breath. When the priestess realized what she was doing, she lunged for L’Chandra, but her hands met empty air.
All of them watched as L’Chandra and her baby plunged over the edge and into the darkness below.
* * *
Webber Machard had come up with many good ideas over his few years: sprinklers that let you know when they needed to be turned on; fire alarm systems that blew whistles to alert city firefighters; even a system for waking one up in the morning by squirting water in your face. They all worked. They all were good ideas.
This wasn’t one of those ideas.
He stood at the end of the gondola and stared out at the face of the thunderhead cloud facing him and gasped to himself as his eyes followed it thousands and thousands of feet above them. Behind him, his uncle Drake was busy throwing equipment out the side of the gondola. Finally, Webb shook himself out of his reverie and turned to see what he uncle was doing.
“’Ell of a way to study weather,” Drake muttered, while he continued to throw telescopes, sandbags and their lunch over the side. Then he paused. “Well, Webb, are you going to help? Or are you waiting to see what it’s like to fall 10,000 feet?”
Webb’s face turned pale and he glanced over the side to the valley floor beneath them. Where half an hour before it was drifting slowly by, even stopping on occasion, the thunderstorm in front of them was now rapidly drawing them into its path as a thirsty drinker would suck melon ale up through a straw. He turned to his uncle and started throwing out everything he could find.
“Do you really think we can rise fast enough to get out from under it?” Webb asked, his eyes wide.
“’Ell if I know,” Drake said. Webb noticed that he pronounced it as one word: Elifino. “What I do know is those bags above us are filled with hydrogen. One strike from a bolt of lightning and you and I will be singing with our forefathers.”
“I thought you were an agnostic,” Webb said.
“’Ell, I fought the Centrics,” Drake said. “Get a million arrows falling down around you and no one is an agnostic.”
Webb threw a brass sextant over the side and watched it fall slowly to the ground far below. The details of the valley floor were growing dim in the gathering darkness. He then turned and looked at the massive wall of thunderclouds looming in front of them. Drake stepped forward and put his arm around the boy.
“That’s the last of it,” Webb said quietly while both of them stared ahead. “We’re not going to make it, are we?”
Drake struggled to come up with an encouraging answer but couldn’t find one. Instead, they both opened their eyes wide as they suddenly felt the gondola lurch beneath their feet. Webb looked at the thundercloud ahead and saw the face of it dropping rapidly.
“We’ve caught an updraft!” Drake nearly shouted. He slapped Webb on the shoulder. “We might just survive this yet.”
The two of them watched silently, each praying in their own way as the thunderclouds drew close and then closed about them. Webb’s ears popped and he found himself gasping for breath, so he knew they were still rising. But he also knew how far above them the thundercloud rose in the atmosphere.
Wrapped in a dense fog, Webb eventually lost all sense of movement; left or right, up or down. Thunder continued to rumble around them. Rain pelted them. He looked around him in the dark and could barely see Drake on the other side of the gondola. The old man was gripping the railing, like him straining to see anything inside the cloud.
“What now?” Webb said through the rain.
Drake shook his head. “Now we are at the mercy of the thunder gods.”
“Thunder gods? You were just talking about ancestors.”
“’Ell, at this point I am open to anything.”
At that moment, they both heard a smack on the top of the balloon and both felt the gondola rapidly dropping beneath their feet.
“What the ell?” Drake shouted. “Something hit us on top.”
Drake reached for the netting that led from the gondola up to the top of the balloon above them, intending to climb, but Webb grabbed his arm.
“Let me,” Webb said. “I’m faster and lighter.”
“Here,” Drake said, tying a rope around Webb’s waist. “We may be falling, but no reason to hurry things up.”
Webb waited for Drake to finish, then grabbed the netting and began climbing the side of the balloon. Halfway up, the rain turned to hail. “Bloody ell,” he heard Drake mutter below him. Before he got to the top, he could see in the dark that the balloon was depressed in the very center.
He climbed over the edge and clambered across the rising and falling surface to the area that was depressed. And that’s when he got the surprise of his life.
“It’s a woman!” he shouted down to Drake, but the big man didn’t respond. He looked at her and realized that she wasn’t moving, and that blood ran from her mouth. He thought of trying to resuscitate her, but realized that trying to do so on the top of a falling balloon probably wasn’t wise. Instead, he took the rope that was around his waist and tied it around her. And that’s when he realized that there was a baby.
The white clump of cloth began to cry, perhaps startled by the hail that continued to grow. He opened his double-breasted peacoat and put the baby inside it, buttoning it tight. And then he turned back to the woman. He slid the limp body across the edge of the balloon and down the way that he had come. Holding onto the webbing, he half pushed and half dragged the body along side him as he worked his way down the side of the balloon. Finally he came to the place where he had to allow the woman to slide down on her own, slowed by the rope as he fed it through the webbing. He calculated how far down the gondola was, and allowed the woman to hang off the side.
The baby continued to cry as he climbed down himself. When he got to the gondola, he saw that Drake had pulled the woman onto the gondola. She lay at Drake’s feet.
“Dead?” Webb asked as he jumped into the gondola.
Drake nodded. “Her neck broke from the fall. She probably didn’t feel a thing.”
The gondola and balloon broke from the clouds and they were suddenly surrounded by evening light, a mystical light that Webb knew they would only find in the Winding River Valley. They were still several thousand feet up, and it looked like they wouldn’t be crashing anytime soon.
The light allowed him to see the woman better. She was tall and slender, clad in a gown made of a diaphanous material that seems almost alive. How ironic.
“She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” Webb said.
“Aye, she’s an Esperian,” Drake said. “Lives up in the clouds.”
“The clouds? How do they get up there?”
“’Ell if I know,” Drake said. “Maybe they started up there and can’t get down. Most people live their whole lives without seeing one. But this one…” He clucked his teeth. “’Ell of a way to get down.”
The baby cried again, and Drake looked up.
“What have you got there?”
Webb unbuttoned his peacoat and pulled the baby from it. In the light he saw the chubby cheeks and fair skin of the baby, a lock of blonde hair peeking out of the tight white wrapping.
“It’s a baby,” Webb said.
“I know it’s a baby, dunce,” Drake said. “Question is, what are we going to do with it?”
“We need to take it back to the Esperians.”
Drake stared at Webb and laughed. “Now you’re daft. No way we are getting up there.”
But Webb’s mind was already making plans, and the smile ran away from Drake’s face as he saw the look in Webb’s eyes.
“You really are daft, you know.”
“Perhaps,” Webb said, looking down at the baby in his arms. “Perhaps I am.”
* * *