Flying the Storm(6)
Author:C. S. Arnot


    “I am now,” grumbled the Dane.

    “Good. Someone’s coming.”

    Aiden saw a pair of legs swing out from the dark bunk, followed by the rest of Fredrick. He came out to the pad with only his trousers on, his wiry torso pale in the sun. He shaded his eyes with a hand and looked down at the approaching figure, only a little closer than when Aiden had spotted him.

    “Who’s that?” Fredrick asked.

    “Dunno.”

    The figure was walking along the stretch of highway now, heading for the ramp to the landing pad. Definitely male, Aiden decided. Not burly enough to be the barman. Could have been one of the merchants, he supposed.

    “Probably just coming for a look at the aircraft. Some people in this town might never have seen one before.”

    Fredrick turned and wandered back up the ramp, yawning and stretching. He returned a moment later, still shirtless, carrying his hip flask. He did his customary walk around the aircraft, looking it over, and then clambered up onto the aircraft’s back to stand on the wing root. With a well-practised flick he opened the hip flask.

    Morning libations. Every morning, or rather whenever Fredrick rolled out of his bunk, it was the same ritual. Walk around the aircraft, up onto the wing root, splash the port and starboard wings with alcohol – in that order. Aiden couldn’t make out the words today, but he knew them well anyway.

    Chord and camber, keep me airborne.

    It was something a lot of veteran pilots did, but despite the eagle-wing tattoos on his chest Fredrick was too young for that. Instead, he’d picked it up from his mother.

    Fred was never reluctant to tell the stories: she’d been an infantry transport pilot through the last years of the war, earning her own wings in the flak-filled skies of the Urals Offensive. Brutal stuff, apparently, but it had made her one hell of a pilot. Everything Fred knew about flying, he’d learned from her.

    The pseudo-religion did make some sense to Aiden, though he wasn’t a follower himself. It appealed to him to worship something tangible, something useful, rather than some formless deity that didn’t seem to listen to anyone anyway.

    Eventually, the stranger reached the landing pad. He was wearing a heavy looking coat, but he didn’t seem to be sweating or even out of breath from the climb. It was getting very warm now, too. He also had to be one of the only men in Ashtarak without a moustache. His face looked like it was normally clean-shaven, but for whatever reason it had been left to grow stubble. As he came closer, Aiden saw his eyes were dark and baggy. Tired-looking. He was older than the pair of them.

    “Can I help you?” Aiden asked as the man approached him.

    He nodded, drawing to a halt, frowning. “I hear you are looking for fuel,” he said. His English was good, with only a hint of an Armenian accent showing through.

    “You heard right, friend,” said Aiden. Fredrick came back down the ramp, this time with his shirt on. He stood next to Aiden, arms folded.

    “I can get you fuel,” said the man, “If you help me in return.”

    “What do you need?”

    The man’s eyes gripped Aiden’s then. “My daughter. She was taken by…slavers, five days ago. I have to get her back.”

    Aiden felt Fredrick shift. “We aren’t mercenaries,” he said flatly.

    The man sighed. “I know. I am only looking for transport, nothing more.”

    The pair looked at each other then. “How can you get us fuel?” asked Aiden.

    The man waved at the plains around them. “The soil here is not good for growing. It yields enough to feed its people, but not enough to make fuel. Anything we have is brought in from elsewhere. That makes it expensive, and rare.”

    “So how do we get some?”

    The man sighed, as if he had been interrupted. “Ashtarak is ruled by a council. In truth, though, it is only one man. Azarian, he is called. The rest are sheep who are grateful to sit at his table. What little fuel there is here is owned by the council, and so it is held by Azarian. He is not the kind of man to give fuel away for things like this. It is too precious. More than gold, even.”

    Aiden wanted to press his earlier question, but he knew the man would get there eventually. He was just taking his sweet time.

    “Your only hope,” he continued, after a pause, “is my brother, Bedros. He is the council… how do you say? Quartermaster? He holds the key to the fuel.”

    “And your brother will give us some?”

    At this, the man grimaced. “It is too risky, he knows. He wants to help us, but there is no knowing what Azarian would do if he gave the fuel away. No, we must take it for ourselves, if we want it. My brother has told me he will let us in, but no more. He is already risking much by that.”

    “You want us to steal the fuel.” Fredrick didn’t sound happy.

    “If you want to get away from here, then this is the only way.”

    Aiden sighed through his nose. It was never simple.

    “Assuming you find your daughter, and somehow we get her back here, what then?” he asked. “Will this Azarian bloke just forgive us for stealing his ‘nol?”

    “I think he will have to. It isn’t only my daughter. There are two other women who were taken, and people want them back. Our people do not abide slavery. The town will be with us, then. They would not let Azarian punish us.”

    “It sounds like a lot of risk,” said Fredrick.

    “It is your only choice. That, or travel to Georgia to buy fuel. The road is not easy, there are many bandits… But if you must, then I suppose it is possible. If that is your decision, then I will trouble you no more.”

    The Armenian turned to leave.

    “Wait,” said Aiden. Here we go… “We’ll do it. We’ll help you.” He glanced at Fredrick, whose face was unreadable.

    The man smiled then. The corners of his eyes had so many creases.

    “Thank you, my friends,” he said, coming forwards to embrace them. “I cannot thank you enough.”

    They awkwardly took his embrace, each in turn, before he backed off and grinned at them again.

    “My name is Tovmas.”

    “Aiden,” said Aiden.

    “Fredrick,” said Fredrick.

    The three men stood in silence for a moment. “So…” said Aiden. “What now?”

    “Now I will gather my men.”

    “Your men?”

    “Yes,” said Tovmas. “The men who will help me to free the girls. Some are their relatives, friends. Others just want to help. From the militia, mostly.”

    “And Azarian doesn’t know about this?”

    “I hope not,” said Tovmas. “I pleaded with him to send the militia, in a convoy. He told me it was a fool’s mission, and that I should accept that my daughter is gone. I have done everything I can to keep this from him.” His face turned dark again, his gaze shifting to the ground. “He cannot see what has to be done. None of them can, in the council. We need a show of force to stop the raids. Then the other towns will follow us. We could remake Armenia.”

    Clearly this man’s ideas extended beyond just saving his daughter. Still, if he could get them fuel, Aiden certainly wasn’t going to complain.

    “You say you need transport. Are you sure that’s all you need?” asked Fredrick.

    Tovmas’ eyes flickered at the tail gun behind the pair, and then back to their faces. “I was a soldier, once. I do not think I have forgotten everything I learned.”

    Aiden didn’t like the sound of that. This man wanted his chance to play soldier again. There was going to be violence. Hopefully Aiden and Fredrick could steer clear of it.

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