"Hey, you! Big guy!"
He didn't recognize the voice, but Heath looked up from the broken wyvern saddle in his hands nonetheless. One of the straps that connected under Hyperion's belly needed to be replaced; he was in the middle of punching new holes in a strip of leather for the buckle to attach to. Important work, yes, but idle work, as well. A distraction wouldn't be so terribly unwelcome.
"Yeah, you. You're like twelve feet tall; who else would I be talking to?" the woman said.
The first thought that struck him was that she reminded him terribly of his old commander, Vaida. This woman was half her age and shorter by a head, but they had the same unfashionably short hair and the same combative stance, the same fire in their eyes and the same challenging grin. Heath wasn't much of one for idle daydreams, but the image danced in his mind's eye like a heat mirage. Of course, Vaida had assuredly died in the confusion following their desertion, and even if she hadn't, she wasn't half so polite as the woman in front of him.
He buried his smile and instead asked, "What can I do for you?"
She dropped herself to the ground next to him without waiting for an invitation, leaning back against the bole of a frost-gnawed old tree.
"Nothing, right now. I just figured I'd say hi to the other mercenaries here. Speaking of which, what wages are they paying you?"
"Hm? Nothing. I'm a mercenary no more," Heath said, taken aback.
"Tch, you're no fun. What use is fighting if you're not getting paid?"
"There's honor in it," he replied, then paused. "Sometimes."
She barked out a thunderclap of a laugh, sudden enough to make him start.
"You're funny! I like that. I'm Farina, by the way. The best merc in all of Elibe!"
"Heath," he said, holding out his hand to shake. She had a strong grip, but he didn't expect anything less. He recognized the way her eyes flickered to the skies every now and then, waiting for an enemy to pounce upon them; any mercenary with that kind of casual wariness had been in the business a while, and those hands of hers were likely more used to the hilt of a blade or the shaft of a polearm than to another person's.
"So, Heath, if it ain't for the gold, what are you doing with this bunch? And don't give me that honor nonsense. Not much honor in waging war on some gang of assassins."
"Debatable," he said, but he didn't argue the point. An Ilian sellsword he had met moments ago wouldn't care about his campaign against Bern's corruption. He wasn't wholly sure he knew what he was doing, even if she had asked. Killing his old comrades wouldn't do anything more than anger King Desmond. It wouldn't bring back any of his wing members or his tarnished honor, that was for sure. In any case, it wasn't late enough and he wasn't drunk enough to bring up old woes, and Farina probably hand enough troubles of her own, so instead, he said, "I owe these people a debt. They own my lance until their campaign is over or I have fallen."
"Noble. Very noble," she said with a grin. "'Course, I try to keep my nose out of that stuff. I fight because they bought my lance, but that was twenty thousand gold for the same stuff you're giving away for free. You're devaluing skills like these."
"Yeah?" he said.
"Yeah. See, we're out there risking life and limb on their coin, right? Except we haven't been hurt, and if you're like me, you've been in a dozen battles or more. Which means we're either really good, or scared little cowards," she said.
"I'm no coward, so I'll concede that your point has some merit," he said.
"Right, see? So we're in dangerous work and we're damn good at it. That necessitates a steep paycheck to cover stuff. Weapons, food for us and our mounts, family compensation in event of death, tack, vulneraries…All that's worth a lot. I'm worth a lot. And when good soldiers like you undercharge yourselves, people think I'm worth less. Got it?"
"I never thought of that," he said, setting down the saddle he was working on. "In the military, you were paid a flat wage. Non-negotiable."
Farina made a face.
"All that's why I never fell in with the divisions. No profit there!"
He nodded, lifting his lance and checking it over. It was a little battered, but not badly. The ties holding the shaft to the tip were still strong and tight, and the point was sharp as always.
"So, why are you telling me this?" he asked.
"I dunno. Educating the masses, I suppose," Farina replied. "Also, hey, it never hurts to put a man in your debt, eh?"
He snorted and shook his head.
"I don't indebt myself anymore. This is the last time, and then I'm a free man."
Heath didn't mention the fear that gripped him at the thought of being owned. He had blindly pledged his loyalty once upon a time, and he found himself facing desertion or dishonor for it. Commander Vaida had deserved his loyalty, but the rest of Bern's wyvern riders could go to hell for all he cared. He thought himself more cautious under Eubans, but the situation repeated itself, a savage echo of the stormy skies over the little farming village that had never dreamt of rebellion. Never again.
"Lighten up," Farina said, snapping him out of his musings. "You're making a face like a wildcat caught in a trap. I was just joking."
"Hey, no need to apologize to me," she scoffed.
"Then I suppose I'm sorry for that," Heath said with a small smile.
"Ha, so you are funny! Good. Too many boring people in this army already!"
She leaned forward, grinning, as if waiting for his next one-liner. Heath blinked once, twice, stalling. He didn't know what she expected from him—wittiness had never been his strongest suit. He was no shyster or bard to bandy words about.
"Then perhaps you should speak with more people. There's plenty of excitement if you look for it," he settled. Weak, perhaps, but he wasn't accustomed to being goaded on by strangers, so he supposed it would have to do.
"Well, then, let's go find some excitement! We've got a town in spitting distance of this lame old camp. Why not fly over and get ourselves a few drinks?"
"I'm sure that's against protocol—"
"Psh, like you care about that," Farina cut in. "No debts, right? No military life for you anymore? That means you can do what you want, as long as it doesn't breach your contract! It's almost dark, anyway, and no wyvern riders are going to attack once the sun goes down. No one will even notice we're gone."
"…Let me talk to Lord Eliwood. With his permission, we can leave."
"Stick in the mud," she mumbled, but she stood up and followed him as he went to find their army's leader.
Heath was looking forward to a night's entertainment, despite his protests; things had been far too grim in recent days for his liking. He worried a little that the loss of half their aerial warriors would handicap the army, but he knew Farina's logic was sound. No one flew much by night if they could help it, and they couldn't scout in the dark in any case. Besides, plenty of soldiers were granted temporary leave, even in the icelocked northern Bern. He knew Legault had hit the bars earlier, since he came back bragging of strong Bernese ale and beautiful Bernese women. Heath could afford to spend an hour or two drinking with a new comrade in arms.
Eliwood waved them off without any fuss, just reminding them to be careful. The two headed to the makeshift stables without further ado, coin purses full in their pockets.
"Do you want to bring both, or ride together?" Heath asked as they looked at the mounts. Proud Hyperion basked in the fading sunlight, his great leathery wings spread out to absorb as much warmth as he could. He cracked an eye open at the sound of Heath's voice, though, and let out a heavy sigh—the beast wasn't dumb by any means, and he liked the chance to rest even more than Heath did. Meanwhile, the three pegasi grazed at the short, brittle grass, their wings held forlornly at their sides. They all looked the same to Heath, nothing like the kaleidoscope colors of wyvern scales or the vast variances in their horns and snouts.
"Murphy won't let you on him," Farina said, walking up to one of the horses. She patted him on the nose. "They're smart enough to not let men ride them."
"Hyperion won't mind you, though. I just wouldn't want someone to take Murphy while we're in a tavern. No one is going to mess with a wyvern, whether it's one of Bern's royals or not."
"Fair enough," she conceded. "Saddle him up and let's get out of here."
It took the better part of ten minutes to get Hyperion's saddle on and cinched properly, the bulk of which was spent getting that troublesome strap reaffixed. When it was over, though, Heath vaulted onto Hyperion's back and gathered the reins in one hand. He turned back to help Farina up, but she put one foot on the stirrup and swung herself up and over.
"Damn, that's a weird seat. Broad-backed monster, isn't he?"
"The trade-off is more than worth it," he said, touching his heels to the wyvern's sides. With a snort, Hyperion flared his wings, took several lumbering strides, and launched into the air. He tucked his legs under him and streamlined himself, wings pounding for altitude. Farina's weight wasn't much of a burden for a beast used to carrying a grown man in plate armor and a full complement of javelins. Heath was pleased to see that Farina hunkered low, reducing wind resistance, moving with Hyperion instead of sitting stiffly, like many first-time riders did. He caught himself, remembering that she was as used to the sky as he was.
They leveled out four thousand feet up, Hyperion's wings stretching to scrape the bellies of low-hanging clouds. He could soar a mile or more on only one beat of those enormous wings, gliding lazily from thermal to thermal.
"I hate to admit it, but it's a smoother ride than on Murphy," Farina said.
"You say that now, but he's pretty rocky when it comes time to fight," Heath laughed.
"It's no picnic on a pegasus, either. Dodging arrows and magic…That's why we need better pay, right?"
"That again? You know, those are hazards I'm willing to risk if it means I can fly," he replied, taking in a deep breath of cool, still air and letting it out with a grin.
"…Me, too," she admitted.
"As long as I'm in the air, I'm—"
A piercing roar cut him off. Hyperion's wings flapped spasmodically, but he couldn't keep himself propelled with a ballistae bolt in one wing. Heath shouted in surprise as the wyvern let out another growl, high and pained, before going into a roll. Farina's arms slid tightly around Heath's waist, and he dropped the reins and grabbed the front of the saddle; Hyperion knew how to fly better than he did, and senselessly tugging at his snout wouldn't change the fact that they were losing altitude fast.
The wyvern hissed and flared his wings at the treetops, slowing their descent as best he could. They still hit the ground hard, the force of it knocking the air out of Heath's lungs and crushing Farina against his back. He could feel himself bruising, and he gritted his teeth against the pain.
Hyperion lay still as Heath shook off his shock and dismounted. Blood spilled from the wyvern's wing and from numerous cracked scales, and he held his jaws open, breath coming in hot puffs.
"Here, I've got a vulnerary," Farina said. "Hundred gold for it, and it's yours—"
"Now isn't the time," he muttered, snatching it from her hand. "Bill Lord Eliwood later."
He rubbed the medicine into Hyperion's wound. The reptile huffed in displeasure, but it stemmed the bloodflow and would ease the pain.
"I'm sorry. It's just a reflex," she said.
"Why do you care so much about money, anyway?" he demanded as he patted his mount on the snout. He would be fine with a little rest, but he was in condition to fly. Stupidly, Heath had left this trustworthy killer lance back at camp. He hadn't thought he would need it, choosing instead the iron sword that he had just began to train with. From the look of it, Farina was no better, holding only a small dagger in her hand.
"It doesn't really matter," she said. "If we make it back alive, we can talk."
"We'll be fine," Heath said, drawing his blade. He seized Hyperion's reins with his other hand, leading the wyvern behind him. Heath had a good sense of direction, and they hadn't been in the air very long. It would only be an hour or so before they returned to camp. His biggest concern was keeping them under the cover of the trees. He hadn't seen any other wyverns on the horizon, but he steeled himself for trouble.
Farina kept to his left, having to take three paces for every two of his.
"You're from around here, aren't you?"
He stiffened a little.
"I figured. Bern doesn't just hand out wyverns, right? Ilia won't let anyone else own a pegasus, so I figure it's the same."
"There's never been a non-Bernese native on wyvernback before," he replied.
"So you know your way around. Where are we, exactly?"
"A couple clips off course," he said. He looked up at the sky, the last light of the sun slanting through the branches. Hyperion chuffed, shook himself, and scratched his haunch on a tree.
"I meant more politically. Are we in some rebel province or what? Whoever shot us out of the sky probably thought you were one of Bern's boys."
"There are no rebels in Bern," Heath said softly. "There are only men seeking to further their own ambition. I suspect Hyperion was shot down in another effort to drum up false glory."
"I can see why you left," Farina scoffed. "I wouldn't stay for that."
"Regardless, they may come after us, and if they do, I'm in trouble," he said. He felt like he had swallowed scorpions, stinging and squirming in his gut. If Bern's military came for him—even if they were only checking to make sure he was okay!—they would invariably realize who he was and attempt to kill him. Then we would have no choice but to fight back, and then he might have to kill them, even the fresh recruits who knew nothing of Bern's treachery. He wouldn't have a choice; Eliwood needed him, Hyperion needed him, Farina needed him, and he couldn't abandon them all to die stupidly. No, he would have to draw his blade and cut them down, as he had when, panicked, they'd first caught up with him.
Farina didn't know that, though, and he was loathe to share, so he put on a weak smile.
"I suppose we'd both be in trouble, actually," he said.
"Yeah, I can't say I want to go toe to toe with them without Murphy. Why are you so jumpy, though? We're a good sight away from where your lizard fell back there."
"Bern and I aren't on the best of terms," he replied tightly.
"You resigned, though, right? No harm in moving on after a contract expires," she said with a shrug.
"…I didn't exactly resign," he sighed. Hyperion pushed his blunt snout into his hand, making a low sound of worry. Heath stroked the wyvern's face and didn't meet Farina's eyes.
"Ah, a deserter? With that mess you were telling me about, I don't blame you," she said. "I'd desert too if that was what they asked me."
Heath paused, eyebrows arching. He had expected some measure of scorn or hatred, the same as he got from so many proud warriors. Her nonchalance set him off balance.
"You aren't angry?"
"Why would I be? You fought for honor and loyalty and all that, right? If they betrayed that, you owed 'em nothing."
"A good attitude! One that I can't say is commonly held, though."
"People suck sometimes. The sooner you learn that, the better," she said darkly. He wanted to ask her what she meant, but he didn't push her. She let him deal with his own demons—he owed her no less than to let her do the same.
The sun finally disappeared over the horizon, and the cold Bernese woods went dark. Hyperion growled quietly and dug in his claws.
"I know you don't like it, boy, but we have to keep going," he said, tugging on the reins. The wyvern snarled.
"Man, I prefer a mount that listens. Pegasi don't argue with you."
Heath clicked his tongue and, head hanging, Hyperion plodded on. From the way he dragged his talons, he didn't like it one bit, but at the very least, he was complying. Heath couldn't ask for much more.
"Wyverns are tough, though, and they fight for themselves. I can't count how many times a snap of his teeth or a strike from his tail saved me."
"Bet they're expensive to maintain, though, right? How much do you spend on meat a month?"
"Not much, actually. Hyperion can hunt for himself in the wilderness."
"Oh, is that so? Say, can those wyverns live up in Ilia? We need some guys up there—pegasi only let women ride them, and so our men aren't much use. The economy would do a lot better with them working alongside us."
"I've heard little of Ilia's economy, I fear. Does it make it hard to be a mercenary?" he asked.
"It makes it hard to live. A lot of people are really poor. We need as much money as we can get to keep people from starving," she said. "…That's why it's important that I make so much, see? Then I can help fix some of our problems."
Heath smiled and nodded.
"Noble. Very noble," he said, echoing her earlier words. "Perhaps after this campaign, Hyperion and I will fly for Ilia. No more lords, no more blind patriotism. Just us and the people."
"Hey, that sounds like a great idea! Of course, I get a ten percent finder's fee for your first five jobs, okay?"
"Yeah, sure," he said. "I'll remember that."
"You're serious? Ah, that's great! And if you need lodgings or anything, I guess it wouldn't be too much trouble for you to stay with me while you sort yourself out. I charge a really modest rent, honest, compared to some places."
"You wouldn't mind a military deserter hanging around your home?" he asked.
"You're a mercenary who can't figure out proper management and who can't let little things go. I'm pretty sure you need me. I don't know how you've survived this long without a killer manager."
He laughed, surprising himself. In the year since he had deserted Bern's military, he hadn't laughed nearly so much as he had in one evening in Farina's company. She was no Commander Vaida, but he could certainly respect her.
"Perhaps you're right. Let's talk of this more, if we survive this war."
"I'll hold you to that," she said, clapping him on the back.