Monday, 14 April 2014

Free Fall

It was unbearably cold. Her skirts were soaked through and although the sleet had stopped, the wind had increased sufficiently that she felt she had run out of options. Walking in the sodden woolen mass of her dress would be difficult enough, but the wind whipping the fabric around and tangling it in her legs made it dangerous. There were no villages nearby, and it had become too dark to see far enough to identify any farmhouses. As soon as the wind dropped she would ditch the skirt and take flight, but for now she had to stay in this miserable place.

Her head felt heavier than usual - she had a slightly lopsided sensation that she hadn't felt for years. Fervently hoping that it wasn't the prelude to a migraine, she collapsed into the relatively sheltered spot in the copse. She rested, leaning the metal part of her skull against the nearest tree. After two minutes of steady breathing, she pulled herself back onto her feet and clumsily started pulling apart the skirt that had caused her so many problems. It was actually a cunning design - it swathed her legs as the social order dictated, but could be removed and used as a blanket, cloak or even sacking if necessary. Tonight it was supposed to be a blanket but she felt unsure it would keep her warm.

Underneath her skirts she wore traditional bloomers, made of linen in case anyone should catch a glimpse of her ankle. Underneath those she had a rather more practical pair of leather breeches. They were made of fine kid leather and bound tightly to her legs except at the knees and hips. Strapped along various points of her leg were samples of weaponry that she could use in a last ditch emergency effort. As it required the removal of the vast majority of her modest garments to reach them, she had never considered it a particularly practical option, but it had become so reassuring to her that she had begun to wear the full uniform of breeches and waistcoat underneath her traditional garments and corsetry to social events back home.

Thanks to the leather, the wool padding she wore beneath was protected from rain but it too was sodden after the exertions of her day. She could not remove any more clothing - if anyone happened upon her she had to be decently clad and ideally mistaken for a farm girl. Hauling herself up to the lowest branches, she huddled in the crook of the branches and swathed the miserable blanket around her legs and torso. Unable to sleep in such a position, but at least protected to a degree from puddles and wolves, she dozed uncomfortably on and off for a few hours until her weary brain registered that the rattling of branches around her had faded.

Cautiously, she peered around and seeing the area was still too dark to navigate easily, she quickly dropped from the tree, reattached her skirt and scrambled to the edge of the copse. Looking out into the night she realised it was still heavily overcast, but the suggestion of light indicated that the dawn was coming. She acted swiftly and automatically, fastening her skirt open at the front, pinning the central portions backwards and freeing herself to run. Seizing the beads held on a leather thong around her neck she hauled them over her head. Instead of coming away, her action revealed that what appeared to be a necklaces was actually a part of an intricate system that extended beneath her shirt. Taking a firm grip on the cords, she ran forwards and after a few steps yanked savagely on them.

The fabric forming pleats in her jacket stretched briefly and a pair of wings erupted from them. She grunted as they caught the wind suddenly and as she reached  her maximum foot speed the wings began vigorously pumping. After almost three hundred meters of sprinting she was suddenly in flight and she continued to fight her way up. Eventually she reached the higher winds and let out a cry of relief as she was able to glide. Limply directing herself in the right direction she headed northwest. The wind was in her favour and she was able to use the early morning thermals to minimise her energy expenditure but even so, when she finally reached the coast and spied the ship, she was exhausted and unable to land smoothly. The hands on deck recognised that she was coming in far too fast and dived out of her way. She hit the ground feet first, but some instinct of self preservation took over and her legs folded underneath her as she ducked and rolled, taking the brunt of the impact on her back and shoulders. Having landed, her head thunked limply against the deck.

Within moments the ship's captain was in attendance and the the doctor arrived shortly after, hauling on his jacket as he emerged from below decks. Three additional gentlemen stood quietly to one side awaiting clearance.

The doctor quickly took her pulse and checked for signs of response in her eyes. After a few minutes he stood up and pronounced her exhausted, but uninjured; strongly recommended a large meal and three tots of rum, then left her. The captain nodded the three gentlemen forward and they lifted her and manipulated the mechanical aspects of the wings and bracing along her spine. After a more extended inspection than the doctor had offered, the three men stood and moved silently away. As soon as they were finished the cook's assistant had stepped forward with the plate of food and mug of spirits the doctor had required. They forced the spirit down her throat and she coughed and spluttered as the liquid burned her throat and awoke her fully.

Before the heady liquor took effect she was able to pass the report of her mission to the captain, retract and seal her wings and devour a substantial quantity of the meal placed before her hindered only by the shivering that always followed a long flight. At this point she was summonsed to the captain's quarters.

Slightly hazily she made her way to the room, guarded by two marines. One registered her arrival and nodded while simultaneously knocking on the door. The captain's voice came indistinctly through the door and it was opened. She made her way in and collapsed in the chair indicated. The captain leaned forward and interrogated her on the peripheral information which had not been included in the report as it was not an integral part of the mission - troop movement, the feelings of the general populace and the general quality of life and resources available to all the people of France. None of the news was good. The people were deeply unhappy, the country was ravaged and troops were amassing rapidly. The rewards for signing up seemed astronomical to the bourgeoise and the result was a surge to escape arable servitude for a military version of the same life.

After almost an hour the rum had mostly worn off, the food had settled, her physical symptoms of exertion had subsided and she was feeling tired throughout. Finally the captain released her, instructing she return to her own quarters. As she was about to leave the room the captain once more addressed her and queried when she would be ready to do another run. "I'll need to dry out - it was a wet night and the wings took a lot of punishment. If they are used again without proper treatment they'll tear." The captain frowned.

"You're the only resource we have of your type. We need you out there more than this."

Melissa shrugged apologetically and apologised, referring the captain to the three engineers who took care of the mechanics. Both women knew that the engineers were far more cautious than Melissa and any attempt made by the captain to get them to force Melissa into the air would only meet with failure. Resigned, the captain waved her away and Melissa gratefully staggered to her own quarters and collapsed into her hammock face down. She clumsily reached behind her and pulled the cords to unfold her wings before passing into a deep sleep.