A young mink afraid of flying must help his brother win a balloon race.
Though Drake tried his level best, it was all but impossible to ignore the majestic balloon as it made its swift and graceful descent. Two minks, a father and son team, piloted the worthy aircraft, skillfully guiding it as it returned to Earth. The elder mink Deggra hauled on the ripcord, allowing the air to begin its escape from the balloon.
"Douse her, Themmern!" Deggra cried as they approached their landing area in the grass of the quiet Jaderose meadow. Themmern, the other mink in the balloon, hurried to comply with his father. He pulled the stopper from the water jug and emptied it over the burning straw. The flames, which had been roaring their heated air to lift the balloon, hissed and died, allowing them to alight from the sky and again meet the Earth.
The touchdown was a little rough but perfectly stable, the woven-willow basket connecting squarely with the ground. Deggra chuffed in satisfaction; this was their fifth flight that morning and their best landing yet. With a swift nod to his son, the two minks seized the tether ropes and hurled them out of the basket so as to bind the balloon to the ground.
Auran, standing a sensible distance away from the landing site, clapped her paws for her mate and son. Rivergold and her three brothers, standing much less sensibly close to the balloon, whooped and cheered, dashing over to help the two minks lash down their airship. The four pairs of otter paws plus those of Deggra and Themmern had the craft secured to the earth in a matter of moments.
"Well done, lad!" Deggra congratulated his son Themmern when they had finished. "You're a grand help to me." Themmern beamed with pride, and forcibly directed Rivergold's eldest brother away from the basket.
The balloon was a handsome ship, not as large as some, built for only two creatures. The basket was woven of tight-laced willow withes, and narrow, much of the space taken up by the thin, lightweight metal fire's-barrel that powered the craft. The fire's-barrel was deep, surrounded by a short wooden fence so as none of the balloonists could bump it and be scorched. Running up from the basket were eight sturdy ropes, attaching to the corners and the centers of the sides. These ropes were tied to a great net of braided cords. Within this net was held the brilliant balloon itself, it all it's vert-and-argent glory.
Drake sat apart from the others, trying to concentrate on the book he was reading. He wanted no part in the excitement, but it was hard to ignore the laughing and cheering and congratulating.
"Were you watching, Drake?" he asked, his voice genteel.
"A little," he answered softly. "I was reading."
Deggra smiled with a hint of bitterness. "A shame, son."
Indeed it was, Drake thought sadly to himself.
Drake looked up to Deggra more than any other creature in the world. The mink was built shorter and stocky, with short but strong limbs and broad shoulders. His face was stern and calm and seldom seen to smile, but he had an air of trustworthiness about him that marked him as solid, hardworking, and honest.
Themmern, ("Like the Wolflady's father," he was fond of telling anyone who would listen.) however, was taller and slimmer, like their mother, with more wiry legs and tail. He was facetious, sarcastic, and looked most natural when smirking, but he was intelligent and did care for his little brother.
As different as the father and son were, they shared one great interest- their balloon.
The South Hawk, for that was the name Deggra had christened her, was an elegant craft, her panels dyed silver-gray and the emerald green of Jaderose, her basket expertly woven, lightweight but sturdy, her ropes tough and durable. Built for two creatures, simply controlled and agilely maneuvered, the South Hawk was a truly impressive airship.
Drake hated the sight of it.
Drake had never been able to refer to the South Hawk as 'her', as his brother, father, and even mother did, for he bore no affection at all for the craft. On the contrary, he hated it; he loathed it; he feared it.
He remembered the first and only time he'd ever gone up with Deggra and Themmern. He'd wanted to come along with them ever since he was old enough to swim, and he could swim before he could walk. He remembered listening to his father tell him and his brother about the sciences of ballooning.
"See, lads, it's warm air and naught else that makes the balloon fly," he'd say to them, gesturing to his working miniature of the South Hawk. "The warm air's less dense, lighter, you see, than the cold, and when you let it go into the Hawk, up she goes!" And he would take his model and hold it over a candle until the tiny balloon filled, let it go, and Drake would laugh in delight as the little craft wafted upward.
He remembered, clinging to his mother's apron strings, his father and brother going up, soaring majestically through the azure heavens, and then returning to Earth with tales of amazement and wonder.
Then, when he was four seasons old, his father had broken his golden rule, no more and no less than two creatures in the South Hawk, and let him come along with them.
But all that seemed so far away now. The joy of first being allowed, the thrill of anticipation of flight... those memories were faded and far away, as if they had happened to someone else. All that stuck in his mind was the pain, the sickness, and the awful, awful fear.
All of it had been ruined by his nemesis, vertigo. He could never go up without crushing discomfort, or paralyzing fright.
Presently the king, Wolflord Akeltryn, was holding a balloon race and Deggra and Themmern had jumped at a chance to enter. They had been practicing for the last half-season.
Drake sighed mournfully. Only two days away.
The day of the competition had arrived. All the balloonists in the race, there were a dozen of them, were testing their crafts a final time to make sure they were in top-notch condition.
The race covered about a forth of Jaderose Woodlands, from the very meadow where they stood to a checkpoint an acre or so away from the very lawns of Castle Rheddistron. The balloonists would fly from the meadow to the checkpoint, pick up a silver bar from the station waiting there, and fly back to the meadow. The prize would be an ornate rose made of silver, forged by Armory Master Bern, and presented by the Wolflord and Lady themselves.
"Old Southwind would have loved to see this, eh, lad?" Deggra remarked as the South Hawk began to inflate. He was trying to sound idle. The mink smiled, but Drake did not miss the hint of wistfulness in his tone. His cousin Southwind could never see it, because he hadn't come back from the war.
"When do we let her go?" asked the otter Rivergold, Drake's best friend. She and her three brothers were there to help them launch.
"When the Wolflady drops a red kerchief," Deggra explained. Not even he could suppress his nervousness.
Rivergold had wanted to go up for the longest time, and she knew how skittish Drake was around balloons. Naturally, Rivergold thought him immensely silly. But then, she thought all fears were silly, because she was afraid of nothing.
Drake, as always, moved away from the launch site to read the book he'd brought with him. He expected to hear his family firing up the Hawk, and going for one last test run before the competition.
But, instead of the sounds of ballooning, there was a thud, a jarring crack, and a snarled oath in his father's voice.
Drake dropped his book and raced in the direction of the commotion. He found his father kneeling on the ground and grasping a bleeding arm, with Themmern up in the balloon, struggling to douse the burner and bring down the airship.
"Dad!" Drake cried, rushing to Deggra's side. "Are you alright? What happened?"
"The Hawk... she jerked," he growled between jaws clenched tight. "Knocked me out, and landed on my foreleg..." He trailed off, hissing in pain.
Nearby, Themmern had managed to ground the South Hawk, and was struggling to tie her down. Drake hurried over to help him.
"Run and get Mum," Themmern order, and Drake was too frightened to disobey.
He returned shortly with Auran, and she examined her mate's injury. She slowly shook her head. "I'm sorry, Deggra," she whispered. "It's broken."
Deggra groaned and buried his face in his free paw. Auran bit her lip and proceeded to bind the fracture. Drake moved in closer.
"S'alright, Dad," he tried to comfort him. "It'll heal; you'll get better."
Themmern clipped his ear sharply. "Don't be thick, Drake," he growled. "We're out of the competition."
The little mink gasped. As much as he'd tried to avoid the whole business of ballooning, there was no way he could ignore his father's anticipation for the race. He talked of almost nothing else since the day the Wolflord had announced it half a season before.
There was a thick and angry silence. Then,
All heads turned on Themmern.
"Drake," he repeated, brows knit. "Drake can fly secondary."
"What!?" his little brother demanded, horrified.
"I'll fly primary and I'll tell you how to fly secondary," Themmern explained. His expression was unreadable. Drake wanted to tell him to stop fooling about, but for once he was utterly serious.
"Mum, Dad..." Drake pleaded, hoping they would have more sanity than his brother.
Auran looked away. Deggra was silent, his gaze fixed upon the ground, but Drake, to his terror, knew what he was thinking.
Who, lad, if not you?
"I don't know how!"
"I can tell you," Themmern said. "I've flown secondary enough to know how it's done."
"Let Rivergold go up!" Drake cried desperately. "She's got no less experience than me, and she's not scared of anything."
"Rivergold's heavier than you," Deggra said firmly. "The less weight the South Hawk carries, the better."
Drake bit his lip. He couldn't wrangle any longer. He didn't know what else to say. He fell to his knees, trembling.
Themmern discarded his mocking tone. He brought his face in close to his brothers and spoke in a voice only Drake could hear. "You can cower like that and disappoint Dad. Or you can climb in and help me win this race. The choice is yours."
"But I'm scared. I'm scared just thinking about it," Drake whispered.
Themmern grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes, all good humor gone. "Then don't think, Drake," he growled. "Just do it."
He trembled. There was nothing for it.
"Heaven help me," Drake said inaudibly as he swung himself into the basket.
The airships lined up on the edge of the forest, the starting line of the race. A long row of them, twelve in all, each with its own unique shape and color. Their balloons had been filled, and were straining against the tethers that held them to the Earth.
Drake shook uncontrollably in the basket. He cast about for a distraction.
He spotted old Alundro, the Piper Tavern's owner, entertaining a flock of young ones with his reed flute. Drake and his brother had often gone to Alundro's tavern to listen to the talented old hedgehog play and to sample his famous honeyed cider. Near Alundro was Sabeline the weasel, one of the Piper's comely tavern maids, who smiled prettily and waved.
The young mink then peered over to the royal assemblage, taking in the appearances of the rulers. Drake had never seen the king up close before. All he knew was that their Lord was huge and strong and handsome, with eyes of brilliant emerald green.
But for never having a good look at him, Lord Akeltryn was unmistakable, taller and darker-furred than the others, broad shoulders, noble ears, and a battle blade that was impressive even from a distance. Beside him sat a silvery-coated wolf of lesser height and smaller stature; the Wolflady Remoria, he assumed. The third wolf, the one with the king's slate-gray coloring must have been their daughter, Princess Thornara. Darvin Steward, the blind fieldmouse overseer of Castle Rheddistron, was there as well. Near the princess was a young, short-built wolverine whose identity Drake could not guess.
Just then, the Wolflady rose from he seat. She took a piece of scarlet silk from Darvin, raised it above her head... and dropped it! Rivergold and her brothers sliced through the restraining ropes with their claws, laughing and cheering.
The South Hawk surged up. Drake's stomach bucked like an angry horse. They rose quickly, along with the twelve others, and soared to the sky.
Almost immediately, Themmern began barking directions.
"Drake, throw more straw into the burner!"
"Drake, tied down that line!"
"Hurry up and drop a sandbag or two!"
The wind whipped by. The forest shrunk beneath him. He felt like he would be rocketed off the side if he so much as approached the basket edge. His balance all but completely fled him. His head ached. He wanted to collapse and close his eyes, but Themmern needed his collaboration, and he couldn't disappoint his dad. He simply couldn't.
Themmern heaved a sandbag over the fire. After a sickeningly quick descent, they touched down.
"Get the bar," Themmern ordered as he struggled to keep the South Hawk on the ground.
Drake jerked. "What?" He was surprised he could speak.
"Get the bar," his brother repeated.
"Oh, no. Please, Them," Drake begged. "Don't make me. If I get out, I won't be able to get back in."
Themmern gritted his teeth as he strained. "Could you hold her down while I got the bar?" he demanded snappishly. "I think not. You're wasting time. Get out and grab it, Drake, or I'll kill you myself. That is, if Dad doesn't!"
Drake bitterly knew his brother was right. His father didn't yell, wasn't violent. But the young mink would instinctively recognize Deggra's disappointment, his quiet, brooding anger. And Drake hated nothing more than making his father angry.
With a strangled cry, he hurled himself out of the basket, raced over to the station, grabbed a silver baton from one of the beavers at the table, and raced back.
He paused just before the basket. The prospect of the pain all over again was overwhelming.
"Come on, Drake!" Themmern begged. "Please!"
He moaned. No choice.
He dove back in, and couldn't hold back tears.
Themmern sighed in relief, and dug a small sealed jar from his belt pouch. It contained a quantity of lantern oil. He ripped off the stopper with his claws and upended the jar over the smothered flame.
With a blast of heat and smoke, the fire roared up! The lantern oil, highly flammable, relit the dying blaze and launched the balloon back into the air.
The next time period wasn't very clear to Drake. All he remembered was the dizziness, the headache, the knife-edge of fear, and his brother's sharp orders. They zoomed across the meadow.
They touched down, and Themmern dumped the water jug over the burner.
Drake dropped down into a crouch. The strain and sickness had proved too much for him. Heaving sigh of relief, he fainted.
"A valiant effort, indeed!" laughed a deep, merry voice.
Drake regained consciousness to the sound of gentle, congratulatory voices. He sat up and looked around.
To his surprise, he was surrounded by not just anyone, but the Wolflord's family themselves! Akeltryn had the deep, merry voice and shook him by the paw. Thornara clapped his shoulder. Darvin touched his forehead gently. His brother babbled crazily but sincerely about how well he performed. The generals clapped softly. The wolverine smiled shyly, and he smiled back.
Remoria then stepped forward, unwrapped a small cloth package. When the silk had fallen away, Drake could see the glint of silver. The rose!
The Wolflady laid it in his paw and closed his claws around it. She smiled. "Well done, little one."
The Wolflord's praise felt good. His brother's praise felt great. The metal of the flower in his paw felt greater.
But even better than the silver rose was the warmth that radiated from his father's proud smile.