Flying the Storm(10)
Author:C. S. Arnot


    The militia had mostly moved around to the nose of the craft, heading for the shore of a small lake that spanned the majority of the wide meadow. Tovmas followed after them.

    When he was out of earshot, Aiden turned to Fredrick. “We could just leave, you know. Get out before things turn nasty.”

    “Before there’s any more killing,” said Fredrick, echoing Aiden’s doubts. “It’d be the smart thing to do.”

    “I think so.”

    “But…” Fredrick stretched his back, “I feel bad for them, you know?”

    “Yeah,” replied Aiden. There was really nothing else to say. Like it or not, they knew they had to see this thing through.

    He walked around to the nose of the aircraft. Fredrick closed the ramp and followed.

    It was a strange lake, now that he got a look at it. Its uphill shore was more or less the way nature intended, but the downhill shore was cut straight by a reinforced bank. The old, overgrown road traversed the bank, disappearing at its far side where it turned off down the hill again. The militiamen had gathered down near the shore, where Aiden could see a couple of dark, upright shapes, one taller and one shorter than the men around them. They looked like tree trunks.

    As he drew closer, Aiden realised that they were stones. He’d seen standing stones before; only these were much smoother and rounder that any he’d come across. The militiamen were gathered on the far side of them, facing towards Aiden. A couple of them were kneeling, gazing at the top of the tallest stone.

    Skirting around the back of the crowd, Aiden stopped and had a look at the strange standing stones. The shorter, right hand one had broken at some point in its past, and seemed to be only a stump of what it might have been an age ago. The tall stone, though, was far more massive. From the ground upwards, it was almost cylindrical, until near the top it tapered into a flat surface with a gnarled protrusion in the middle. It could easily have been a face, whenever it was carved.

    If it was a face, then the flattened shoulders of the stone gave it the appearance of a hooded cobra. Strange swirling patterns, weather-worn, wound their way around the middle of the stone.

    There was always something odd about standing stones, but this one plainly gave Aiden the shivers. He couldn’t say exactly why. Maybe it was just the way it loomed over everyone: unmoving, unnatural.

    What was stranger than the stones, though, was the way the militia were acting. Some were muttering and whispering as they stared at the stone’s face. Some heads were bowed. One by one the men came forward and tipped a little of whatever was in their canteens at the foot of the stones.

    “Vishapakar,” said a voice behind Aiden. Startled, he spun round to see that it was only Tovmas.

    “Dragon-stones,” continued Tovmas. “These two guard the lake.” He gestured at the flat-calm disc behind him.

    “I see,” said Aiden, clearing his throat and trying to recover some dignity. “Who put them here?”

    Tovmas shrugged, smiling slightly. “Nobody knows. They have been here, and by many other springs and lakes, for thousands of years. Long before Christianity; long before written words.”

    “So…what are your men doing?”

    “They are praying. Praying that the great dragons keep them safe tomorrow. Maybe in the West you have forgotten what it is to pray, no?”

    “I know what prayer is,” replied Aiden, deflecting the taunt.

    Worshipping wings he could understand; they had a purpose. Standing stones? Not so much.

    Tovmas sighed, as if trying to explain something to a difficult child. “We Armenians are a religious people. We have prayed through every famine; every disaster; every war ever to cross this land, and there have been many. But sometimes prayers go unanswered, yes?” Tovmas bent to pick up a small round stone. “In the last war, Armenia’s prayers fell on deaf ears. The God of the Christians did not listen. Terrible things happened to this country, to her people.” He turned to face the lake. “So, when the new ways didn’t work, people turned to the old ways.” Tovmas threw the stone out into the lake. The little splash sent ripples racing across the mirror-flat surface, disturbing the perfect reflection.

    “And what about you?” asked Aiden.

    Tovmas paused, considering the question. “I believe in respect. I respect the old gods, the vishapakar and the others; just as much as I respect the new. It can’t hurt to appease them all, can it?”

    Aiden smirked. “I’m familiar with betting wide”.

    Tovmas walked a little way and then sat down on the grass, his legs crossed. He was surprisingly nimble for an older man. Aiden followed, choosing a rounded boulder to sit on. He picked up a small stone of his own and threw it. The splash was satisfying.

    “I learned one thing from the war,” continued Tovmas. “Everybody prays when they are scared. Sometimes they don’t know who to: a childhood god, their mother even. They just pray. I don’t know why.”

    “There are no atheists in foxholes,” quoted Aiden, though he couldn’t remember where from.

    “Yes!” said Tovmas, smiling. “You see?”

    Aiden nodded. He wondered if maybe he should start believing in something himself. It seemed to be the fashionable thing to do.

    Fredrick had joined the pair, sitting down in the grass. He seemed untroubled by the behaviour of the militiamen. They were scattering now anyway, spreading out across the meadow and producing food from their packs. A couple were starting a fire with kindling they’d brought from Ashtarak. Fredrick pointed at them.

    “That a good idea?” he asked Tovmas.

    Tovmas just shrugged. “We are almost ten kilometres from the slavers’ camp,” he said. “Even if they could see the smoke, I doubt they’d think it was anything unusual. There are many shepherds’ camps in these mountains. If they flew over us, though, then we’d be spotted with or without a fire. Your aircraft is quite visible.”

    This didn’t please Aiden. If he hadn’t felt exposed up on this mountainside before, he certainly did now. In the air, he could defend himself, but down here he was just a sitting duck. He suddenly wanted the fire put out, even though Tovmas didn’t seem to think it was a problem.

    Tovmas was watching him. “Let them have their fire, they’ll keep it small.” Somehow, though it wasn’t said, he understood Tovmas’ full meaning.

    Tomorrow, they could be dead. Let them have a fire.

    Who was he to tell them they couldn’t?

    Aiden ran his hands through the grass by his sides, idly pulling out shoots. It something he’d always done when he was young, on summer afternoons that stretched lazily onwards into the haze. It calmed him. He let his mind drift. He remembered people; friends he had spent those endless sun-squinting days with; faces he hadn’t seen in a long time. Snatches of conversation and glimpses of pasty skin burned pink in the sun. Straightforward times.

    If they could see him now, if they could see the trouble he got into, what would they say? They would probably have stories of their own, as mad as his, no doubt. He looked over at the huddles of militia and the dragon stones. Not quite as mad, maybe.

    The meadow was dead quiet. Even the militia’s chatter had died. The only sound was the breeze washing across the grass in lazy waves. He closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the peace.

    It was getting cooler, and he was getting hungry. “I’m going to make some food. You want anything?”

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