Love Found at Death's Door (aka Chapter 1)

"Mr. Sharp!" Deryn just about squealed at the sudden presence of the coxswain's voice.

"Your assistance has been requested on the dorsal crank. Bring Aleksander with you; he's complained of boredom it seems. End message."

The lizard waited for a reply, then scampered away across the airship's flank as Deryn gazed back down at her sketchpad. On its white surface she'd drawn a sketch of Alek sitting at the controls of the starboard engine. Deryn had become so mesmerized with capturing every possible detail of the Austro-Hungarian prince that she hadn't even noticed the lizard run up beside her. Chuckling at herself, she stood on the Leviathan's taught surface, pulling tight against the harness that she'd attached to the rigging, allowing her to stand horizontally like a miniscule wing. The hills and fields of Germany rolled past directly in front of her; Deryn reckoned they were a few thousand feet up at least, but the airship seemed slightly closer to the ground than it had been a while ago. Where they descending?

What Mr. Rigby had planned for her and Alek at the dorsal crank was beyond her, but she thought it likely had something to do with their lowered altitude.

OOOOO

"We seem to be losing altitude young master," Klopp said.

"So we are." Alek replied, peering over the side of the engine pod. "How's the carburettor, Hoffman?" A bang and a string of curses emitted from the back of the engine pod as Hoffman struggled to pull his head out of the engine block, his face smeared with engine grease.

"Just a few more minutes of adjustment, sir." He panted.

"Good."

Alek caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned to witness Dylan bounding down the Leviathan's flank. Their eyes met, and the midshipman pointed at Alek and beckoned. Alek raised his arms, expressing 'why'. "Mr. Rigby!" Dylan shouted at him. At the recognition of the coxswain's name, he told Klopp to stay at the controls, then fastened himself onto the rigging.

...

"Thank you for finally showing up gentlemen." Rigby said.

"You're certainly welcome sir," Deryn said mockingly. Normally she wouldn't joke around, but today she was feeling inexplicably giddy. She glanced at Alek, and her heart-rate jumped again. She quickly reminded herself not to get caught up in girly things. . .no matter how attractive he appeared with his face dirtied with engine dust, his coat opened, exposing his undershirt which stuck to him slightly at the collar with sweat, as well as-

Pay attention! Deryn told herself.

"As you can see to my left, there is a Huxley waiting to take a passenger up." Deryn followed the man's indication, and, sure enough, there was one of the beasties floating gracefully next to the ship. She narrowed her eyes at the sight of it; this Huxley looked different…almost, old and decrepit. Its skin had a very pale gray hue to it, and it didn't seem to be as taught as the others. "Today is this particular Huxley's last mission, which is why we've chosen you, Sharp, to go up in it. You are our lightest middy, after all."

"What for, sir, if you don't mind me asking?" Deryn asked.

The coxswain gave her a strange look. "I'm amazed that you didn't notice his absence. Newkirk's been skulking around down there to check for any anti-aircraft artillery in those old barns. Can't be too careful whilst flying over Germany can we?"

It suddenly clicked in Deryn's head why she hadn't seen much of Newkirk recently: he was on the ground, spying on the bloody Germans!

"The supreme commanders," Rigby mocked, "have determined that today be the day we extract dear Newkirk. If he follows his orders, he will be sending up a flare within the hour to mark his location."

"And you want me to look for it, sir." Deryn finished for the coxswain.

"Precisely."

"And what of me?" Alek asked, "Why was I requested too?"

"We're going to teach you how to operate the crank. It's dismally simple, but important seeing as one of our best middies is on the other end of it. We thought it'd be something more interesting than translating for the engineers."

…..

Deryn strapped herself into the Huxley's harness, the old leather creaking as it held her weight. This one has to be the oldest beastie in the whole bloody air corps. She thought to herself as she gazed through the field glasses. How did the command entrust Newkirk with this monumental task anyhow? The boy still couldn't tie his own bloody neckties, but he was down there spying on the Germans? The coxswain hadn't even bothered to tell Deryn what colour the flare was either, which didn't help because the Germans would shoot phosphorous flares into the air at the Leviathan on occasion.

A flicker in the edge of her vision caught her attention. She swept the field glasses over to behold a small, green flare, probably from a hand-held flare gun, rise into the air. She followed the smoke trail down to the top of a small, rocky knoll adjacent to a lightly forested area.

"Great job Newkirk! The Germans most certainly won't notice a barking green flare!" She said to herself. The Germans were all using red flares at the time, so Newkirk stuck out like a tree in a flower garden.

Suddenly the ancient beastie she was suspended from performed a lurch downwards large enough to make Deryn gasp. "Calm down beastie, it's only a flare." Deryn said flatly. It was another few moments before she realised something was missing from the world around her. She only noticed it on the edge of her consciousness, but it made her heart sink: the pulsing she had felt from all other healthy Huxleys was gone…

Had this one just died?

Her heart sank as she heard what sounded like water draining from the Huxley, the awful bitter-almond scent of hydrogen filling her nose.

OOOOO

Alek watched the green flare in the distance fly up past the ship's flank. The coxswain had instructed him on the crank's use, albeit the "instruction" consisted of being put on the correct side of the crank, told where and how to place his hands on the handle, and which way to rotate to pull in or let out, but Mr. Rigby was called to the bridge as soon as the flare had been set off, leaving Alek alone on the ship's skin.

Suddenly, the crank at his side began creeking. He glanced at it, then up at Dylan in the Huxley. The beast's skin was sagging…was it losing altitude? It was! But how would Dylan get down from-

He finally remembered he was standing next to the bloody crank, so the prince wildly spun the handle. But the beastie was falling too fast! Cranking doggedly, he looked back over his shoulder. It wasn't going to be enough!

Then a slight popping noise made his ears perk up in all the flailing madness. He snapped his eyes down to the rope connecting Dylan to the ship. It was torn and frayed, and its condition was worsening. Alek looked back over his shoulder. The beastie was now free-falling, quickly passing out of view over the other side of the ship. The crank suddenly stopped dead in his hands, jammed by a loop that had somehow formed, drawing the line tight on the bottom, but hanging like a dead snake on the top of the spool. Well that's not doing any good! Alek thought.

In a blur, the rope ripped off the crank and instantly wrapped itself around Alek's ankle, wrenching him off his feet. He was being pulled over the side! Alek grappled for any rigging that he could hold on to, and caught one, but the weight of Dylan and the Huxley pulled him off. Suddenly he was falling free of the ship, away from safety, and his life.

VVVVV

Deryn awoke to a raging headache. It felt like some strange beastie was clawing at the back of her skull, squeezing in pulses that matched her heartbeat. It took her a few minutes to dare to open her eyes, so she resorted to trying to piece together the events that gave her the throbbing in the meantime.

All she could remember was cutting the bottom of the dead Huxley open to form a makeshift parachute whilst tumbling towards the ground. She was alive, so it apparently worked, she just didn't know if she had any other bodily injuries yet. . .

She noticed that her head was bobbing up and down slightly, and she turned a bit and opened her eyes to Alek's face. He was lying unconscious on his back, and Deryn's head had somehow come to rest on his chest. She decided not to stir, and just let the beauty of the moment sink in. She had always wanted to be here, pressed up against the Austro-Hungarian prince in such a way that it was almost cuddling. But she hadn't even told him who she was yet, and she imagined the crew's reaction if this ever happened on the ship. . .

On that note, where was the ship? The airbeast's looming shape was nowhere to be seen in the clouding sky. It was a fast ship, but it wasn't that fast, prompting Deryn to wonder how long they'd been lying here.

Soon, Alek began to stir, and Deryn closed her eyes to feign unconsciousness. The prince took a deep breath, then coughed. He seemed to freeze as he noticed Deryn lying on him.

He nudged her shoulder, "Hey Dylan, you alive?"

Deryn faked a groan. "Aye…my head feels like a beastie's sittin' on it though." She said as she sat up.

All around her where the scattered remains of the Huxley, rigging, and a few parts of the crank.

"Bloody hell," she said.

"Bloody hell is right," Alek said, rising to his knees. Deryn un-strapped herself from her frayed leather harness, then stood slowly.

"You hurt anywhere?" She asked. Alek was still on his knees, staring at the ground.

"I don't think so, but I'm sure I landed on my back."

"Aye, that tends to happen when someone falls." Deryn said mockingly. Alek just chuckled. A metallic glint caught Deryn's attention. She stumbled over to find her rigging knife, stuck blade-first into the grass-covered ground. She pulled it out, cleaned the blade on her trousers, then said, "And I present to you the hero of the day!" She held it above her head.

Alek was on his feet by now. "It was you behind it, was it not? It's useless without you." Deryn shrugged-off the compliment.

"I suppose you have a point." She said, and looked around.

They were in the middle of a suspiciously well-trimmed field of grass. To their left, a faded, wooden fence separated the field from a cobblestone road that stretched for miles before and behind the teens. Still to the left of that, a thick forest of tall, green pine trees followed the road as far as the eye could see. To their right, in the middle of the cultivated field was a small farmhouse adjacent to a large unpainted barn.

"I would be inclined to believe that farmer's not home." Alek said.

"How can you tell?" Deryn asked.

"There are no vehicles near the house or barn. And this doesn't seem like the place that one would walk to the local market." Deryn followed his gaze. Sure enough, there were no vehicles to behold.

"I assume you have a plan, then?"

Alek smiled at her. "Of course, but don't worry; I have experience with this sort of thing."

OOOOO

By the time they reached the barn, clouds had blotted out the sun. It was almost guaranteed to rain, but Alek doubted the presence of lightning. He wondered how long they'd be stuck down here, in the heart of his enemies' land. Even though Germany were allies to Austria-Hungary they were still his personal enemy; they had tried to kill him, after all.

Alek shivered a bit as the wind picked up. Slipping his arms into the sleeves of the farmer's long coat he walked inside the barn, where he found Dylan buttoning the spats on his boots. "I must say, you'd make a fine farmer's son." Alek said.

"Oh sod off. I can't understand half the buttons and ties on this stupid uniform!"

Dylan had kept his midshipman collared shirt and tie on, wearing over it a brown waistcoat, overlapped by a long farmer's coat much like Alek's, which was tied off at the waist by a red sash. His baggy tan trousers stolen from the farmer's wardrobe billowed at the bottom as they were stuffed into his tall boots. His rigging knife was also holstered in his right boot.

"Best we get moving?" Alek asked as Dylan stood.

"Wait a moment, I found something that we might need." With that, he ascended a ladder that Alek hadn't even noticed until now.

"What is it?" Alek asked.

"You mean, what are they." Alek heard the lid of a trunk lift open, and some familiar clicking noises soon emitted from the upper level. Dylan's head appeared over the edge. "Catch!" he said, dropping something at Alek. His arms closed around the object. A gun belt! In its leather holster was a shining black Steyr semi-automatic pistol. On the black leather belt hung six clips full of ammunition. Just who was this farmer?

Dylan slid down the ladder, not bothering to use the rungs. When he landed, he bounced on his feet slightly, turning to face Alek, opening his coat to reveal two formidable looking revolvers, as well as a broad, cheesy grin.

"The Colt forty-five, 'The Gun That Won the West'." He said as he pulled one out of the shoulder holster and spun the cylinder. "I love these things. My da had about four of 'em. By the way," he reached into his coat pocket, "I also found these." He handed Alek a small collection of gold coins. The Kaiser's face smirked proudly at him from the dull metal objects.

"We could stay at an inn with this!" he said.

"Let's get moving then."

VVVVV

They hopped over the waist-high fence and onto the road. On the way there, Alek had laid out some plans about how they were going to look for the nearest town or village and find a place to stay for the night. Their cover story was that they were a couple of students on their way into town. It seemed simple enough, although Alek had said that he would do all the talking. It was probably a good idea, Deryn reckoned. They wouldn't want her ruining their cover because she tried to talk to somebody.

As she walked along beside Alek, she wondered how they were going to pull this outrageous plan off. How would they get back home? And, if anybody figured out who Alek was, what would happen to them? Would she ever see him alive again? She tried to shake-off the questions; they'd get through this.

Then a fact dawned on her: she still hadn't told him about her secret. If they were found out, she might not ever be able to, either. She resolved to tell him today; it would be ideal seeing as they were alone together. If she worked up enough courage, she'd tell him as they walked down the road into town, or perhaps at an inn, much like Alek had told her about the Pope's letter in the hotel room in Istanbul.

If they were headed toward a town, that is. They had chosen to follow the path of an old, eight-legged walker filled with ragged and dirty looking labourers. They had been talking about what they were going to buy once they got to town, mostly new clothing or shoes, but all had mentioned a hot meal. Occasional puddles of oil kept them on the walker's track.

The sound of galloping hooves interrupted her thoughts. She and Alek turned to peer over their shoulders. Riding up behind them was a group of about seven German mounted cavalry soldiers. Their pointed, steel helmets shone, even in the dark and clouded weather. Their grey uniforms were broken only by their shiny black riding boots.

"Uh oh," Alek said, "Here comes trouble."

They both took a step to the right, and stood against the fence hoping the riders would pass by on the narrow road. But the officer at the head of the group raised his right hand and shouted, "Halt!" The group brought their steeds to a stop in a semi-circle around the duo, pinning them against the fence.

The officer spoke from the centre of the half circle, "Wohin gehen Sie?"

Where are you going? Deryn thought. Alek responded to him in German. From what Deryn could pick up, he said that they were just some students headed to town. The Germans exchanged amused glances with each other, then the officer chuckled through his nose and spoke again. The familiar words to Deryn illustrated that they were headed in completely the wrong direction.

"Die stadt ist so." the officer said, and pointed to his right, the opposite way they'd been walking. The two followed the indication, then Alek said something about being lost.

"Ist dieses zutreffende?" the officer asked Deryn.

Is this true? She nodded and said "Ja." The officer lifted an eyebrow, and Deryn's heart leapt. Had she said it wrong? Did the officer notice her voice? His eyes scanned every fibre of her stolen farmer's clothing, stopping at the slight bulges in her coat where the guns lay holstered.

"Was ist dieses?" the officer asked, patting his uniform in the same area.

What is this? Deryn just stared back. The officer asked again, the tone of his voice betraying his annoyance. The seconds of silence were endless as she locked eyes with the German. They both breathed, the noise becoming the only sound in Deryn's slowing world. Out of the corner of her eye, Deryn saw three of the riders make a move toward their flapped holsters.

"Oh damn it!" she shouted.

Her hands flew to the handles of the revolvers, and she snapped them out in a cross-draw. She fired once at the officer, knocking the spike off his helmet and startling his horse, which reared up on its hind legs, throwing him off in a flail of limbs and noisy riding gear.

These buggers haven't been sighted! Deryn thought to herself. She'd have to estimate the shots.

She saw Alek draw his pistol, which he then fired, hitting one of the soldiers in the chest. The man fell to the ground and lay still, blood beginning to seep to the front of his uniform. The other steeds had begun to whinny, and their riders fought to maintain control. A couple just jumped off their horses, sending them galloping away. Deryn fired both pistols at a soldier who had done just that. He had already drawn his Mauser, but never was able to fire, as Deryn's aim had been true. Both bullets struck the man in the chest, knocking him back a few feet and to the ground. He didn't get back up.

Suddenly, a shot from one of the Germans smacked the pistol right out of Deryn's left hand. "Cripes!" she exclaimed as she pulled her hand back. She turned to fire back, but Alek had already emptied four rounds into him. He stumbled backwards with a shout. Alek fired once more, hitting the man in the shoulder, sending him spinning to the ground. Deryn fired at another German that was aiming at Alek, who was reloading. The bullet passed through his skull, clanking on the back of his helmet as it exited. The man next to him drew a knife, and drew his arm back to throw it.

Not smart! Deryn thought to herself. She fired once, hitting him in the trachea. The German's eyes widened, and he dropped his knife to cover his wound just as dark red began to stream from it. He stumbled and fell to the ground, writhing.

Then one of the German guns went off, and Alek let out a cry, clutching at his abdomen. The officer had shaken off the fall from his horse and drawn his Mauser, which now smoked from the barrel.

"Alek!" Deryn screamed, not caring to disguise her voice as Alek dropped to a kneel.

Suddenly, one of the Germans was upon her, tearing the gun from her grasp. This one was young, not much older that Deryn, and the terror showed in his eyes.

Deryn drew her rigging knife, saying, "Ich bin traurig!" as she rammed it into the young German's gut.

I'm sorry! Their eyes met for a painfully long moment. He looked so confused and surprised. Deryn pressed her lips together to keep from tearing up. He grunted once, then fell to the ground as Deryn pulled her knife back, her hand covered in his blood.

She felt something hit her right between the shoulder blades with enough force to send her to her knees. The officer had pistol-whipped her! She whirled around with her knife, slicing across the man's chest and released a yell of anger. He let out a cry, stumbled backward and hit the ground, tripping over his own feet. Deryn regained her footing, rushing at the German, her knife primed for the kill. She got to within arm's reach of the downed enemy before the morbid realisation dawned on her. The German's hand already grasped the Mauser, his arm rising to align the sights with his eye, aiming right at her.

Deryn swung desperately at the weapon, trying to knock it out of his hand.

She missed.

"No-!"

Blam!

He pulled the trigger.

She felt something kick her hard in the abdomen, and she doubled over, the knife slipping from her hand and clattering on the stone walkway beneath her feet. She coughed twice, and pulled her hand away from herself.

It was covered with her lifeblood.

The officer propped himself up on his elbow, his gun barrel smoking. Their eyes met, and his face turned into a snarl.

Blam-Blam!

He fired twice more. The first striking Deryn in the bottom of her ribcage on her right side, and the second tore through her shoulder. She stumbled and fell backward after the last bullet ripped out the back of her jacket. Deryn's head smacked the cobblestone street, causing her to see stars for an instant.

"Dylan!" Alek shouted from her left, attempting to stand.

Blam!

The officer fired once more.

A bloody hole shred through Alek's pants, just above the knee. Deryn heard a sickening crack immediately after the bullet had passed through his joint, and Alek hit the ground hard, grasping his leg and shouting out in agony.

Deryn tried to take a breath to shout for Alek, but an excruciating pain stabbed at her chest. She managed a ragged gasp, causing her to cough up a mouth full of blood. It drained out the sides of her mouth as she struggled to breathe again.

Tears flooded her eyes.

So this is how Deryn Sharp will come to an end? She thought to herself.

She needed to tell Alek. If not, she would die without him knowing the love she had welled up inside of her for him. She covered the wound in her abdomen with her right hand, barely able to move it because of the pain. She tried to sit up. As she did, she felt her bottom rib snap, plunging itself into her lung. She screamed in agony as she dropped back down to the ground, blood flooding her mouth. Spitting it out, she glanced to her left, where Alek lay.

"A…Alek," She managed to say, "There's…something I need to tell you."

Suddenly, the German officer was standing over her, pistol in hand, his face betraying no emotion.

She quickly turned back to face Alek, the tears running down her face, and said, "He's going to kill me!"

Alek's eyes widened. "No!" He said.

"Sie weiter!" the officer said, pointing the gun in Alek's direction.

You next!

Deryn took another ragged gasp, then began: "My name isn't…Dylan Sharp. My real n-name is Deryn." By the look in his eyes, Alek wasn't following. Dammit! She didn't have time for this!

The officer ejected the used, smoking clip from his pistol. It made a horrible clacking noise as it bounced on the cobblestone street.

"Alek…blast it! I-I'm a girl…"

"W-what?"

"I," she gasped for air, "snuck into the air core as a boy…"

The officer shoved a new clip into the gun.

"And Alek…"

"Yes?"

The German pulled back the slide, and let it go.

"B-before I die…I just want you to know…that," she gasped again, "I-I love you."

Realization finally crept over Alek's face. Deryn stretched out a bloody and trembling hand to him. He stretched out his bloody and trembling hand to take hers, but he was just out of reach. He laid down on his side, and there hands met for the first time in love. The same tingling sensation that she felt whenever they made contact shot back up Deryn's arm. She managed a smile.

"Goodbye…Alek." She wept as she turned to look at the German standing over her. He raised his pistol, aiming at her head.

The kill shot.

She met eyes with him, and he smiled. A dastardly, evil smile. This man was truly a monster.

Raindrops began to fall from the sky, almost as if the sky were weeping for her. The officer's finger pulled tighter on the trigger.

Deryn Sharp took one last ragged breath, and closed her eyes…

Bang!