I awoke with my face in the dirt. Granules and bits of grass stuck to my lips as I rose. Tate stirred next to me and grew restless. The golden sky alerted me to the fact that the time to move on had long since passed.
My head pounded, and Tate hissed and nipped at me, exhibiting far different behavior from his calm and guiding nature.
I sat up and did my best to calm him. “Woah, friend. It’s okay. I’m awake.”
The wind swirled around me and settled. When he did, the grassy field we’d spent the night in grew silent. That’s when I understood. I should have known he wouldn’t act like this unless there was a reason. We’d spent too many years riding together.
My gaze swept over the field and the nearby pond and determined it was all empty. Not a living creature in sight save for the two of us. My flock of hundreds of geese was gone, as were my partners Scarlett and Min.
“Where are they?”
We were only a few days into our journey south from Ontario and had just passed Minneapolis. We needed to keep moving. I could feel Boreas’s breath in the air. Winter was fast approaching and we needed to get these geese to warm grounds, but Scarlett and Min wouldn’t have gone off without me.
Something was up. “Scout the field, see if you can find any of the geese.”
Tate broke away and scoured the field, billowing over the grass in his wake. He scouted the outer edges of the field. I stood and dusted off my brown leather jacket and blue jeans. That’s when I noticed my knife was missing from my hip and it wasn’t lying on the ground anywhere.
When I searched the nests closest to me, they were all empty and cold. Every single one. I couldn’t even spot a loose feather. The geese had been gone a while.
“They wouldn’t have flown off on their own in the middle of the night,” I mumbled. That, combined with my splitting headache left one likely reason for their disappearance: rustlers. I didn’t normally run into any around this portion of the journey, but my little detour last night might have pushed me into the wrong neck of the woods.
I shifted from studying the ground to watch the sky. I saw no evidence of a stray breeze amongst the scattering of clouds up there. Even the nearby tree canopies were motionless. The only gust in the area came from Tate.
My companion raced back to me and pulled at my arms.
“What did you find?”
The wind brushed against my back, guiding me to the pond. I allowed myself to be led until we reached the pond's edge. I stopped, but Tate kept pushing.
I dug in my heels. “I’m not going for a swim. I didn’t bring my snorkel.”
Tate gave up pushing and raced across the water, circling a specific spot like a vulture. The water splished and splashed beneath his relentless whirling.
The lake splashed back at Tate, annoyed by his presence. We weren’t alone here after all.
I cupped my hands over my mouth. “Hey, can I talk to you? I’m trying to find my flock.”
The lake splashed me in the face.
I wiped the water from my eyes. “I just want to know if you saw anything.”
The lake settled, and a woman rose from the water in front of me. Sapphire eyes scowled at me from a dark, round face. Her arms were crossed and her voice rumbled like rapids in a canyon. “Get your wind under control. He’s stirring up my waters.”
“Sorry about that ma’am.” I whistled and Tate raced over and settled into a gentle breeze as he circled me.
The Naiad regarded me for a moment. “What do you want, Aurai?”
Technically, I was only half Aurai on my mother’s side, but I didn’t correct her. Figured that wouldn’t do much in getting her to talk with me. I stuck to the manners my momma had raised me with, hoping for a butterfly effect.
“The name is Len Sherwin. My flock seems to have gone missing. I wondered if you might have noticed anything strange last night.”
“Aside from you parking your flock in my waters?”
Every year I took my flock along the same route. Knowing where they were made the geese easier to wrangle. This was a new stop on our journey south. The old one had been claimed by human development and industry. I brought them here because I preferred to keep as much distance between my flock and people as I could. The idea that the lake might have been occupied hadn’t occurred to me.
“My apologies, ma’am. Our old nesting grounds is now serving as a factory.”
The Naiad sighed and stared off into the trees for a moment. When she spoke, her voice had softened. “Then I guess you didn’t have much choice in where you spent the night, did you?” Nature spirit's tended to be understanding when your actions involved avoiding humans.
“No, ma’am, we did not.”
“The name is Rydia.”
“Well, Miss Rydia. Did you notice anything strange last night?”
She pursed her lips and thought. “After you and your flock arrived, things were noisy for a while. Once everything settled down, things were quiet until early this morning.”
“The winds picked up real fierce. The geese started honking like they had when you arrived. I heard voices, a woman was shouting. I’m surprised you didn’t hear them.”
I rubbed the back of my head where a bump had formed. “I figure that was by design.”
I wagered the woman Miss Rydia had heard was Scarlett. The rustlers might have deemed her too pretty to knock out and decided to keep her around for companionship. While the thought made my blood boil, I also knew what kind of a woman Scarlett was. Whoever took her would be in for a rude awakening if they tried anything. She had no scruples about being honest.
Miss Rydia noticed my action and stepped up to me. “Are you hurt?” Her damp hand found the back of my head and examined the lump there.
I brushed her hand away. “Just a small bump. Nothing to worry about.”
I had worse injuries over the years. Riding the winds can lead to all sorts of nasty falls. Aurai survived falls better than humans, but I was only half Aurai. That meant learning to ride took longer for me than it did most. And I had plenty more falls than either Scarlett or Min did when we were young.
Her eyes narrowed as she replaced you her hand on my neck. “Then it will be no trouble for me to fix it. Water raced down her arm to the back of my head. The stiffness in my neck and the swelling subsided as she worked her healing magic.
She pulled back with a smile. “See, all better.”
I wiped off the spot she’d touched. “Thank you kindly. Now, do you have any idea who might have taken my birds?”
Miss Rydia bit her lip and avoided making eye contact.
I grabbed her by both shoulders and coaxed her into looking at me. “If you know something, I’d be mighty appreciative if you told me.”
She nodded with a sigh. “There’s an Aurai in these parts that likes to cause trouble. He rides an awful wind. He always comes from the west. His name is Kolt Ahio.”
I snorted. “Great, a whirlwind of trouble.”
Rydia cocked her head. “You know him.”
“Can’t say I do, but I know his type.” I glanced at the clear sky and the rising sun. I needed to get a move on. “You say he comes from the west?”
I pulled my sunglasses from my coat and unfolded them. “Well, thank you for your help, Miss Rydia.”
“I wish I could have done more.”
I offered her a warm smile as I slipped on my aviators. “You’ve done plenty. Tate, let’s go.”
My companion swirled to life and began to lift me into the air.
Miss Rydia cupped her hands over her mouth. “If you find your flock, you’re more than welcome to bring them back here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Tate took to the skies with me in his embrace as we flew over the landscape, keeping an eye out for our stolen geese. The geese were tired from their flight the day before. The rustlers would have needed to rely on their winds to carry the geese more than anything, which meant they couldn’t have gotten far.
The winds today were calm, and a chill hung in the fall air. Boreas was right on our heels and here we were wasting precious time. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing the flock that my family had cared for the last two hundred years. Letting my family down would be bad enough, but failing here would be more than just losing birds. Many Aurai already despised me due to my lees-than-pure lineage. Losing the geese would just give them more ammunition.
Then there was Scarlett. The woman could handle herself, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t worried about her. She was a friend, and sometimes a little more. We never talked about it much, but I think we had an agreement of sorts. We watched each other’s back and took care of one another.
Min’s disappearance bothered me. I could understand Kolt taking Scarlett, but Min. If Kolt was into taking prisoners, why had he left me knocked out and taken Min? It didn’t add up and I didn’t like the implications. I tried to give my friend the benefit of the doubt, but it just didn’t make any sense.
Tate and I climbed higher, searching for a better view. We passed three thousand feet and kept soaring, trying to spot some sort of resting ground within range of Miss Rydia’s pond.
Up here, the winds roared as they raced by, shredding any clouds that tried to form. We were still low, and these winds were rough for this altitude. Based on the roar, I reckoned an ehecatl might be near. Those wind serpents were dangerous and territorial. They spooked lesser wind spirits and had no qualms eating an Aurai.
Tate came to a shuddering halt and swirled around anxiously as we hovered. I took his warning of danger to heart.
“It’s okay, friend. We aren’t staying long.”
Tate relaxed. He trusted me as much as I trusted him. We had plenty of close calls over the years but always made it through because we could rely on each other. I knew he could guide me out of the worst situations. I had faith in my companion and trusted his signs.
His jitteriness confirmed my suspicion of an ehecatl in the area, but we didn’t have to worry. I spotted a lake with plenty of trees for cover.
I pointed and Tate dove for our destination at full speed, I didn’t reign him in until we hit two thousand feet. I steered him around the lake, scanning it for any signs of our flock. I didn’t see any foul on the water and couldn’t spot anything beneath the trees. However, a few breezes were shaking the trees. Most were rough and wild, one roamed with a much gentler manner and seemed to be circling one tree in particular. I figured that must be Scarlett’s zephyr, Calantha. That spirit was a calm, reliable one that had carried Scarlett around since we were little.
“Reckon that’s our girl?” I asked.
Tate bobbed excitedly, confirming my suspicion. He got along with Calantha almost as much as I did with Scarlett. We were just a couple of lovesick fools.
We landed in the forest, a ways off from the rustler’s camp. I sent Tate to scout around the area as I walked toward the camp. The closer I got, the voices of the thieves became clear. I heard two men I didn’t recognize along with the voice of Min. The three were laughing, which confirmed my suspicions on how exactly I got the lump on the back of my head.
Min had turned on me.
Sure enough, peering around a tree showed him standing there with his new buddies around our pile of bags with drinks in their hands. Min’s short black hair was tilled perfectly slicked back and he sported a new black leather jacket, making him look like a fifties greaser.
The other two men wore matching jackets. One had a red whirlwind sewn over his heart. I guessed that was Kolt. Even as the man laughed, he scowled and watched his friends through narrowed eyes.
A short ways away sat a disgruntled and seething Scarlett tied to a tree with a gag over her mouth. Her wavy red hair had been stripped of its usual braid and puffed up in disarray around her. There were tears in her jeans and her red flannel shirt hung open, exposing her dirtied white undershirt.
Her cold blue eyes spotted me and mouthed Min, trying to warn me. I nodded back. Her lips twitched with a silent signal and a moment later, a soft breeze ghosted along my back, carrying the scent of flowers: Calantha.
“Hey, girl,” I whispered. “Give this to your mama, will you?” I extracted my Swiss Army knife from my pocket, unfolded the small blade, and held it out for the wind spirit. Silent as a spring breeze, she carried the tool off.
Scarlett would get herself free, which meant all I had to do was play distraction until then. I stepped out of hiding and cleared my throat. I smiled to myself as the three men jumped.
“You three seem to be having a good day.”
Min’s eyes widened. “Len, what are you doing here?” He didn’t sound nearly as excited as a friend should.
“Oh, looking for my flock. Seems like someone thought they could make off with them.” A few trace hunks drifted through the air. I nodded in the direction. “Sounds like they’re close. Why’d you do it, Min?”
My old pal’s eyes narrowed as he stepped forward. “You don’t deserve a flock that size. You’re a lousy half-breed and I’m just supposed to take orders from you.”
I shoved my hands in my pockets and looked my old friend up and down. “I thought we were friends, Min. Didn’t realize I was cramping your style.”
Kolt snarled as he stepped forward. “I thought you said he wouldn’t be a problem.”
I raised a hand in a placating manner. “Don’t be too hard on him. He lies.”
Kolt and his lackey didn’t laugh at my joke. They were a tough crowd, but I wasn’t complaining. Their frustration worked fine enough for me.
The pair looked ready for a fight, which I had counted on. Only Min seemed to be against that outcome. He stepped forward, a tinge of worry in his voice. “Careful with him. Wherever he goes, Tate isn’t far behind.”
Neither Kolt nor his lackey looked too concerned by that. Kolt whistled and wind blasted my face, trying to knock me over. I stood firm and the gust moved on, circling the clearing with rage.
I recognized the hot, muggy breath of Kolt’s wind spirit: a rudras. Those winds were powerful spirits from Southeast Asia. They were fast and strong, but unpredictable and difficult to control like all storm winds.
Kolt then whirled on Min, drawing a knife. “We should have killed him last night, but you had to be soft. I warned you about that Naiad in the lake. I know a snitch when I see one.”
The lackey chuckled as he pulled his own blade. “We should have left nothing but bodies in that field.”
I knew a lot about Min after growing up with him. He wasn’t a killer and this kind of talk made him uncomfortable. It was as plain as the sweat on his brow.
Undeterred by the threat and determined to keep the trio occupied with me, I stepped forward with my head held high. “So what’s the plan here Min? You taking the flock to Mexico?”
Kolt sneered. “He isn’t taken them anywhere. They’ll stay right here for the hunters. Those folks pay handsomely for easy pickings.”
The thought of hunters going after my family’s flock made my blood boil. “Did Min tell you the flock has been guarded by my family for over two hundred years? You know how we deal with those who try to harm it?”
Min looked worried, but he still tried to put on a brave face. “There’s nothing you can do, Len. We’ve got you beat three to one.”
I smirked and looked at him over the top of my glasses. “You sure about that?”
With a scream, Scarlett pounced on the lackey from behind, sending him to the ground. A cold breeze rushed the clearing, bowling her over and carrying off the man, making it two on two. Scarlett focused her burning eyes on Min, who paled at the sight.
As I said, I wasn’t worried about Scarlett.
I nabbed a nearby pinecone and chucked it at Kolt. It would have nailed him straight in the eye if not for his rudras. The wind spirit blasted the pinecone off course before battering against me. I planted my feet and stood firm against the gale’s onslaught.
Tate picked this moment to show up and knocked Kolt on his rear-end in a single blow. The thief roared in frustration and his wind spirit came to his aid, picking him off the ground and holding him aloft so he could glare daggers at me.
I hollered up at him. “You need to teach that rudras of yours some manners.”
“He knows plenty!” Kolt shot through the air toward me, and if not for Tate’s quick thinking, he’d have run me through. As it were, Tate sprang into action, lifting me out of harm’s way. Kolt swung around and came at me again. I took to the skies with Tate right behind me.
Tate and I zoomed over the forest, zipping through trees, and keeping a fair distance between us and our pursuer. There was no doubting that Kolt’s rudras was faster than Tate. That made things difficult. Not having my knives made things worse. We couldn’t win in a straight fight against the pair. We needed a plan to deal with Kolt, and as I stared into the heavens, I had one.
“We’re going to need help dealing with this fellow. You thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked.
The answer was yes, as always. Tate shot skyward and I let him steer. He guided us up higher and higher, climbing past three thousand feet. I listened to the wind as it roared, and nudged Tate in the proper direction.
Kolt kept after us, at times gaining on us, but the climb proved to be too much for his wind spirit. It was used to racing along the ground more than up in the atmosphere.
The higher we went, the more the wind howled. While Tate shuddered, with nerves he pressed on. I spoke to calm his nerves and work him through the plan. “Don’t worry, friend. We’ve got this. When I give the word, you can leave, got it?”
He bounced and kept flying. The roars grew louder and Kolt grew nearer. He swiped at me and I felt his blade slash across my boot.
“You can’t outrun the storm!” Kolt shouted.
Up ahead, I saw the faintest hint of movement. Kolt was too fixated on me to notice the large, sky-blue serpent weaving through the air toward us.
I peered over my shoulder with a grin. “We don’t have to. Now, Tate!”
My companion scattered and I dropped through the air. I had just enough time to enjoy the confusion on Kolt’s face before he spotted the ehecatl. By then, it was too late. The wind serpent had spotted its meal. In one bite, Kolt was gone and the serpent continued on its way until it disappeared into the great blue expanse.
My heart slowed as I plummeted to the ground. A few moments passed and I felt Tate embrace me once again. Together, we angled back to the lake and our flock.
When we landed, Scarlett stood over an unconscious Min, his face battered and bloodied.
“You purge some of your frustrations?”
Scarlett sauntered up to me with a grin and two knives in her hands. A third one, her own, was back on her hip where it belonged. “And then some.” She planted a kiss on my cheek and handed over the knives. “I believe these are yours.”
“Thank you.” I returned the little one to my pocket, and the other to its sheath on my hip.
She headed toward the lake and I followed right behind her. “You ready to get this show on the road? We’re never going to reach Mexico at this rate.”
I studied the reflection of the noon sun shimmering on the water. “The day’s lost. We’ll head back to the pond. It’s safe and the Naiad who lives there says we’re welcome.”
Scarlett whistled and Calantha rushed over and swirled around her partner, picking her off the ground a few feet.
“What about Kolt?” Scarlett asked.
“He had a date with an ehecatl.”
Scarlett shuddered. “Hell of a way to go.” She fell into thought.
I nodded at the lump on the ground. “Think you let Min off too easy?”
Scarlett rubbed her chin as she studied the unconscious form of our ex-friend. “Maybe, but now he knows if I ever see him again, I won’t be so nice.”
That was the truth. I’d rather face down an ehecatl on my own rather than deal with an enraged Scarlett.
Together, we took to the air and rounded up the geese. Scarlett and I guided them back to Miss Rydia’s pond for some much-needed R and R. We’d worry about Boreas’s approach tomorrow.