City of Rangda — Approaching Rangdan Airspace
Sitting inside the Elleth troop glider was like being imprisoned in a hanging cage. Not all of them were imprisoned — Lydia knew that for some, this was liberating. For her, and for one other, she knew it was not a choice they could have ever made, not really. For a lady Knight of her predilection, it was either this sacrifice, or a lifetime of other sufferings.
The Elleth was the largest of the gliders flying from the Higwe. Despite its awe-inspiring size, its interiors were tight and rattling, and the floor beneath her feet felt unsteady and loose. There were no viewports to the outside and the door to the cockpit, where the pilot would land the massive unpowered glider craft, was sealed up. The troops sat fifteen in a row on either side of the craft, under a series of great arcing ribs supporting the fuselage.
All of them were women. It was rare to see a squadron of knights that was integrated.
“Gwen, how are you holding up?”
Lydia looked beside herself. There was an elfin girl about a head shorter than her — Lydia was pretty tall, so it was no aspersion on Gwen. Though dressed in the same blue uniform, with the same plate guard over her chest and back and the same steel-lined gloves and knee caps and boots, the same silver circlet denoting a Paladin, a Knight officer, Gwen looked like a wilting flower sitting in the Elleth. Her delicate face was bowed, and her wavy chestnut hair dropped over her face. Lydia could only see her lips, curled in frown.
“Gwendolyn?” Lydia asked again.
Slowly, the girl looked up at her with her shining, emerald green eyes.
The eyes of the Palladienzi family; the survivors now known as the Vittoria family.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the noise.” Gwen said.
There was air rushing outside the craft, and in the interior it was the background hum of their existence. Buffeting winds and rattling joints and the unadulterated stench of metal.
“How are you feeling? Are you air-sick?” Lydia asked.
“I am fine.”
She was not fine. But there was not much that could be done about it.
“How close do you think we are to landing?”
“Are you ready, you think? Have you checked your rifle yet?”
“Lydia, I got the same training as you. I’ll take care of it.”
She was going from monosyllabic to snippy, so it was time to retire the conversation.
Taking her own advice, Lydia began to check her equipment. Despite their titles and prestige the Knights were a military unit in the modern world. Though she had on a breastplate and a circlet over her uniform, she still had a firearm, grenades and ammunition. As a tall and strong girl she was selected to be the automatic “rifleman” for the squadron. She wielded a Myrta light machine gun that she stowed under her seat.
It was a strange and unwieldy weapon, a long rifle, all metal save for the buttstock, with a conical barrel shroud and a fixed, side-loading magazine into which stripper clips were fed. She was careful with the magazine — if it was damaged the gun became inoperable. There were no field replacements, though there was an extra Myrta in the Elleth’s storage. Lydia had already loaded a stripper clip and she checked to see if it was still seated.
Her biggest worry was the lubricating device that helped in feeding the gun.
She could not tell if it was properly working or not, without taking the gun apart.
While Gwendolyn sighed at her side, Lydia counted her ammunition and rations.
“Fine, I’ll do it.”
Gwendolyn seemed to say this as if to the air, and pulled her wooden Quercia rifle from under her seat. She checked the chamber, the bolt and counted her 6.5mm en-bloc clips, all with a grumpy look on her face. Lydia smiled and suppressed a giggle at the sight.
If only Gwen could have smiled too. But she had a lot on her mind.
Lydia understood all too well.
She knew that out of all them, Gwendolyn had the most to worry about.
Being a cousin of the Queen was not luxurious. Especially when the Queen had killed her every other cousin; the ones she did not like. Gwendolyn Vittoria was one of the very few afforded that name. There was a dire implication to her presence in this aircraft.
At any other time, Lydia would have been overjoyed to keep the duchess company.
She was polite and winsome and skilled in ballet and had an angelic voice.
She was a perfect lady.
But neither of them were here for each other.
Neither would have chosen the Ayvartan sky for their elopement.
Lydia was here because she would have been enslaved otherwise.
She was headed to Ayvarta; it was a place that she once dreamed about as a child. Her family had wealth and could go anywhere. She had heard of the red sands and the world’s largest waterfall and of the exotic foods; she had seen paintings of dancing girls and camel caravans and photos of drakes the size of a truck, caught in safaris. As a teenager she had wanted to see it all. She had felt so free to go anywhere. Now she was there to destroy it.
She had no choice. This was her only means of liberation.
Lydia turned the myrta over in her fingers. As she moved to set the heavy thing down again, she saw the pilot’s cockpit open, and the woman inside call out to them.
“We’ve entered Rangdan sky! Put on your parachutes and brace for stormy weather!”
As glider-borne troops, they weren’t meant to jump. But they might have to.
For them, stormy weather meant a hail of flak.
And the sunshine creeping in through the front glass of the Elleth was a dire omen.
“I’ll help you if you need it, Gwen.” Lydia said.
Gwendolyn gave no response. She held her rifle to her chest and looked at her shoes.
Lydia joined her.
Around them the glider started to rock, and slant, as it descended.
“I’ll keep you safe.” Lydia mumbled.