“A sparrow whips by my head, distracting me for a second. I watch the brown blur whiz through the air, loop-the-looping until he tightens his wings and drops down to earth in a breathtaking dive. Just before he hits the leafy canopy below, he opens his wings and soars. He’s mocking us, I know, so I ignore him and stare down at the scenery below.”
As I spread my wings to capture more air, the crisp October wind flutters the feathers on the end of my tail. A squawk escapes my beak, signaling my flock to turn. We curve across the sky like a majestic arrow. I’m flying point.
I am Sona, the first female leader of the Fortis-Volant gaggle, and close kin to our original ruler, my birth father. He is the one who named our group, after something he heard in the language of the walkers. When I reach the end of my term, it is my responsibility to christen our flock. But that problem will only arise once I have successfully led the gaggle to The Pull and back. I clear the thought from my mind and shift left.
Nudging in the same direction as me comes the second-in-line. His name is Relk, and he would have been the one to occupy my position if my egg was faulty. He lets out a throaty honk, and we fully shift position. A twinge of envy thrums in my heart as he places lead and directs the group. It’s more uncomfortable along the edge, as the wind that slides off Relk’s wing bounces off my side. I press in tighter.
“Sreeris!” I squawk out.
My sister peers over at me from her position. When she sees my discomfort, she nods her long, slender neck and swaps places with me. Now to Relk’s right, I hover in closer to him so he can hear me.
“Relk.” I hiss. “Turn the flock away from the wind. If we ram straight into it, we’re going nowhere.”
He gives me an annoyed look, but obliges, and the rest of the gaggle seems to relax the tension in their wings. I glare at Relk. If he doesn’t learn to fly true before it’s his turn, he’ll be in trouble.
A sparrow whips by my head, distracting me for a second. I watch the brown blur whiz through the air, loop-the-looping until he tightens his wings and drops down to earth in a breathtaking dive. Just before he hits the leafy canopy below, he opens his wings and soars. He’s mocking us, I know, so I ignore him and stare down at the scenery below.
Canada isn’t the most interesting of places. From the air, the only thing anyone can see is green and brown. Trees and shrubs and soil. In the place of The Pull, there are sandy beaches and sparkling waters, and all the walkers wear bright feathers. They travel in noisy swarms, honking and squawking without saying anything, and scattering paper that smells like old food all over the ground. Sometimes, they throw the food, and that is the best treat of all.
I look down and see another color, one I didn’t expect until far later: white. I shudder and puff up my feathers. This is what we were worried about. It means that winter is approaching, fast, and we need to go before it swallows up our home. It came earlier than last year. That can only mean no good.
“Sona, Sona, do you see the white?” Sreeris babbles, a tinge of fear in her voice. Relk looks over at her, briefly abandoning his position. I narrow my eyes at him, berating him in my head.
“It’s worrying, Sreeris,” he says comfortingly. “But we shall be far away before the cold comes.”
I start nudging to the front, ahead of time. It’s rude to cut one’s lead off short, but I am the leader, and he is not doing his job. Relk nudges right back out at me, extending his wings to push me back. How dare he disobey!
“My turn for point,” I say coldly. He stares at me, but with a dark look, he scoots left. I’ve scrambled the order, something no leader should ever do, and I feel my flock’s eyes burning holes in my back. But I shake them off and push onward.
“Sona,” Sreeris tries again, “what if we don’t escape the white?”
I feel myself smile. She would never give up on me. I rack my brain for an answer, and reply with, “We find a shelter. Those human farms are everywhere, we’ll be sure to find one abandoned. It’s not necessary, however. We’ll be there before winter comes,” I say as confidently as I can.
A frigid gust of wind blasts into me before I can finish, and I spin off balance. As I try to right myself, I collide into Relk who pushes me right back. The rest of the flock watches me, not reassured and unimpressed. My cheeks burn in embarrassment.
“Maybe we should rest. We’ve been flying all day. And I don’t think its best, in this case, to ‘follow the leader.’” Relk cuts in sardonically.
I stifle a honk of anger and turn to the gaggle. Noticing weary eyes and ruffled feathers, I reluctantly lead my group down to the ground. We swoop over the lush canopy, before alighting down on a grassy meadow. Sreeris seems the most happy out of everyone; she lets out a happy squawk before plopping down and snuggling into her feathers. I, too, feel relieved to finally stop flying, as I stretch out the ache in my muscles. But I wouldn’t admit it. Leaders are supposed to be ever strong.
As soon everyone huddles together, I survey our group. All five members are accounted for: Relk, Sreeris, Kalyna, Aijel, and of course, me, Sona. Kalyna and Aijel are the silent ones, the ones who always fly back while Relk and I grapple for the top spot and Sreeris babbles. Relk is bossy and arrogant, and seems intent on stealing my position as leader away from me before it’s his turn. Sreeris is by far my favorite. She’s my birth sister, kind, and sensitive, and would stick with me through anything.
“Sreeris,” I call out. She peeks out from under a wing. “Come on. I want to talk to you.”
“You’re tired? What do you mean, you’re tired?!”
“I mean, I’m tired!”
“Sreeris, I am your leader, come here right this instant!”
My good-for-nothing-sister ignores me, burrowing her beak under her wing. I huff and curl up on the ground, tucking my feet neatly underneath me. Winding my graceful, long neck to settle my head on my back, I let out a sigh and let my beak squish into my velvety, soft feathers. My glistening eyes close, and darkness settles over me.
“Rise and shine, sleepyhead!” I open my eyes, feeling as though I had barely just closed them. Sreeris stands above me, beaming down at my bedraggled form. I bounce to my feet and steady myself, glaring furiously.
“Looks like our leader didn’t get the chance to get her beauty sleep,” a mocking voice bites from across the meadow. Relk sneers at me, preening his feathers. He would be the one to instigate our flock, getting up so… up so… unreasonably early just to taunt me! Aijel stares at Kalyna in that special way of his, and she returns the look. I feel a prickling feeling on the back of my neck. It alway seems that those two are somehow communicating.
“So, we shall head out now?” I try to sound important.
Sreeris beams, nodding her head frantically. “Yeah! I can’t wait to fly lead!”
I fall quiet, staring at her. Relk smirks and turns his back.
“Excuse me?” I ask my sister softly.
“Relk said that you said I could fly lead for most of today! I’m so, so excited!” Sreeris
honks happily. I shoot a venomous glare at my fellow flock-mate. He still isn’t looking at me.
“Why aren’t you smiling?” She asks, confused. “Aren’t you happy? I can… I can still fly lead, right?”
I take one look at her innocent, pathetic expression and break down. “Of course, Sreeris. Don’t forget to soar strong!” I let out a nervous honk as she laughs happily and waddles over to nuzzle Relk.
As we get into formation to lift off, I notice some clumps of white around the meadow. Despite the blazing sun, they refuse to melt, and it sets a chill up my spine. We have to leave soon. Winter is coming. I close my eyes and turn towards Sreeris.
I was originally destined to have two siblings. In fact, I was second-in-line to become leader before the cold happened. There was a third egg, older than me, who was also nestled close to me and Sreeris in the nest. It was supposed to be a brother, they tell me. One who would be brave and strong and complete the task of flying to The Pull better than I ever could. One who would follow my father’s wings. One who could take care of Sreeris and all her nervous babbling tendencies, and who would comfort me in the worst of times, whenever Relk bullied me when I was a chick.
Instead, the flock got me. The cold ignored my egg, but it shook Sreeris up enough to come out wonky. She doesn’t have the skill to fly. The stakes are too high.
“Aijel?” I ask, turning towards the bird. He flips his neck over to look at me, an unreadable expression on his face.
“You’re flying next to Sreeris, right? Okay, make sure she doesn’t screw up, and take over as quickly as you can,” I finish and dart over to the back of the V. I sigh. The back is only for the lowest class fliers. In fact, Sreeris would be here if I could trust her not to get in trouble!
Sreeris takes off. Lopsided, of course. Relk darts up to steady her and resumes his position as the second row propels themselves in the air, and finally, it’s my turn. Kalyna and I push off the ground, flapping our wings to catch some wind. I hate to admit I struggle a bit. Kalyna gives me a sort of funny look, and I glance away.
“Okay, Sreeris!” I yell forward. “Once you’re high enough, catch the thermals. That should bring you a little ways, and then from there –”
“Let Sreeris handle it herself!” Relk shouts back at me. He’s grinning. “She’s a big girl.”
I fall back a bit in shock at being spoken to in such a way. And he’s wrong. Sreeris is not a big girl, she’s totally incompetent no matter how much I love her. I can’t believe I ever agreed to this…
After that, I fall silent, biting back scathing remarks. My sister is just as bad as I thought she’d be. No, she’s worse. Her wings tilt the wrong way, she’s smashing against the wind, and neither Aijel nor Relk has offered to switch with her! They must be against me as the leader, it’s the only possibility. So I screw my eyes shut and try to ignore those traitors, the mocking of Kalyna’s looks, and my sister’s horrible, horrible flying.
Ignoring must take much more effort than I originally thought, because I soon grow fatigued. Nobody else in our gaggle is complaining, however, so I just keep flying. After a while, I can’t take it anymore, and I turn towards Kalyna.
“Aren’t… you… tired?” I huff. She gives me a look and shakes her head.
“Exhausted already? We’ve barely flown!” She’s glaring now. “Horrible, isn’t it? When you’re horribly fatigued, but your leader keeps pushing you more and more? She’s at the point of the V, after all, so she gets to make the decisions. And you have to follow the leader, no matter what, or you’re left at the mercy of the wind.” She turns away, seething, and guilt writhes in my chest.
I thought flying back would be much more easier than the front. The leader, after all, is the one who has to avoid smashing into the wind. But there are no thermals in the back, no little gusts of warm air that can help me soar easily. When Relk and Aijel manage to catch one, I am left flapping after them desperately. Whenever I slip out of formation, a gale of frigid wind sends me flying.
We forge on for about an hour before Relk notices my state.
“Oh-HOH? Is our little leader tired?” he mocks. I glare at him, and real concern slips over his face.
“Sona, we’re barely over halfway done!” He drops down beside me, and Kalyna gladly surges forward. “And why aren’t you in position? If you break out of the V, you have a whole sky’s worth of air slamming into you from all sides.”
“Look, I’m tired, okay?!”
“We need to rest,” he says importantly. “Flock! Fly down!”
I yawn and follow everyone else. We’ve barely reached the ground when I start snoring.
It’s dark when I wake up. The stars flicker like lightning bugs in the sky, and the moon is swathed in clouds. I feel alone and frightened, until I hear the gentle snores of my flock-mates, at the other side of the clearing. Shame burns within me. I guess no one, not even little Sreeris, wanted to sleep beside me.
“Our flock would be better if my brother was here,” I admit to myself, bowing my head. “He would be respected, the perfect leader. Everyone would get equal roles, and he would know how to fly in every position.” I flop down and glare at Relk, he’s fast asleep and curled next to Sreeris.
Something crackles in the leaves next to me, and my breath catches in my throat. Terror rushes through me, and I go stiff. There’s another crackle — footsteps. But not goose footsteps. They’re bigger. The thing murmurs something, and I recognize the sound instantly.
Walkers. I relax my tense body, because walkers are harmless. They’ve never hurt me or my flock. I stare at my gaggle, wondering if I should alert them. I decide against it. They would just get mad at me for waking them up. I bristle. Because everything is my fault, isn’t it!
“Thar theer arr!” A walker says in a quiet hiss. Their language is unintelligible. “Neese en fat, hua-hua-hua.” He chuckles.
“Un shoot weel tak them down, jess oo wait. Plump en juicy, goosey, goosey.” More laughter. I don’t understand a word of it. They must be telling jokes.
Something clicks. I open my eyes. That doesn’t sound natural. Suddenly, a thought comes to mind. I’ve heard stories of walkers with sticks that shoot fire. A nearby gaggle once told me that if the fire hits you, it will burn a hole straight through your entire body, and the walkers will carry away your carcass to… devour. I’ve always thought these so-called hunters were a myth. I hope I’m right. Another click, and I jolt my body backwards.
“BAM!” Something explodes inches away from my face, and I leap. A scream rakes out of my throat and the rest of the flock is to their feet.
“Walkers! Walkers with fire sticks?! Hunters!” Geese can’t run, so I jump and start flying. I don’t get anywhere before another something explodes, whizzing by my tail. I’m in the air before I remember my sister.
“Sreeris!” I yell. A scream answers. The hunters aren’t playing games anymore, and fire comprised of silvery pellets rains down on my flock. Aijel and Relk are already long gone, but Kalyna and Sreeris are still down there.
“Sona! Help!” Kalyna shrieks somewhere below. I flap above the clearing, waiting a second too long.
“Luk! Thar enether goose! Shoopt! Shoopt quickly!” A silver something whizzes by my tail, smacking against the feathers and whirling me into a nearby tree. The leafy fronds swallow me up, and I’m caught helpless in the branches. All the hunters are focused on me now, and they send their fire flying. The pellets sparkle in the air like deadly stars, but the tree is protecting me. I writhe free and take to the air, my throat raw from screaming.
“Kalyna! Sreeris!” I shriek. A tiny body pinwheels into the air. I recognize it as Sreeris, and my stomach lurches as I see her left wing drenched with crimson.
“Kalyna? Kalyna, where are you?!” Nobody answers. Still, I linger in the air until I hear a heart-throbbing wail. I feel bile burn my throat.
I don’t look back for my fallen flock mate. The only thing I can do is press close to my sister and try to steady her. I can see Relk and Aijel ahead, their anxiously waiting bodies illuminated by the moon. It’s full, pure and white, glowing like a halo in the sky.
“Oh, Aijel.” I sob, looking at that all-too-familiar, unreadable face. But I can see his eyes. They’re searching for his sister.
“Sona! What happened to Sreeris? Is she okay? Where’s Kalyna?” Relk says with a gasp. I almost begin sobbing. I need to be strong, a leader.
“I — It was hell down there,” I say in a wavering voice. “No fire burned me, but it got Sreeris’ wing, and I don’t know how fatal it is. There was no time to check, I just had to get out of there with my sister. K — Kalyna didn’t make it.” Aijel stiffens as I finish, his unreadable expression slipping into pure terror. Then, anger claims his face. A dark, cold fury like nothing I’ve seen before.
“Oh, Sona, I’m so sorry,” Relk says sincerely. “We’ll have to rest soon, and check up on her wing.” Sreeris is growing faint beside me. “We’ll have to rest in the forest though. Can’t risk… them finding us again. Sona, will you lead?” I shake my head.
“No,” I say stubbornly. “You and Aijel do point. Make sure Sreeris is okay.” I take a deep breath. “I’ll fly back.”
This time, I ignore any ache I experience. Everytime I glance over to my side to ask Kalyna if she’s holding up, I remember she’s not here and feel my heart drop to my talons. Aijel isn’t speaking to me, but Relk and I have momentarily put our differences aside due to our concern for Sreeris. I never realized before how much he truly cared for her. It almost makes me sympathize with him. Almost.
“Relk!” I say. “There’s a small patch of grass down there in the forest. It’s surrounded by trees. Resting place for Sreeris?” That’s another thing. Whenever we discuss a place to take a break, we always tag on, “for Sreeris” to clear up we’re not doing this for each other.
“Mmm… no. There could be predators.”
“Our time is running thin, Relk! Do you want my sister to collapse out of the very sky?”
“Fine. We can take a brief rest.”
Relk swoops us down. As I plop to the earth, I immediately turn to Sreeris, who has fainted. Relk leans down to tenderly preen her feathers, and Aijel waddles off to the far corner to grieve.
“Oh! Oh, Sreeris, look at how you’re breathing. And bleeding!” Blood trickles down a hole in her side, staining her feathers crimson. Thankfully, the situation is a lot less dire than we originally thought. Her wing is uninjured, promising that if she survives the wound, she will be able to fly again.
As Relk fusses over Sreeris, I graze on some of the surrounding vegetation. Hunger always follow stress, and I’m currently starving. As my sister comes to, I nibble half-heartedly on a tender grass sprout.
“Sreeris? Sreeris, you’re okay!” Relk rejoices. I waddle over to her as fast as I can, letting out a squawk of joy.
“What happened?” she murmurs, twisting around to face me. “Is Kalyna okay? Sh — she was down with me… promised we’d come out together…” She yawns, and her eyes tear up. “I was about to promise her back when there was fire in my side, and sticky liquid started filling me up inside and coming out my eyes so I couldn’t see. I just kept flying, but the fire was burning me, and then I heard her scream that she was exploding, and then…” She shakes her head. “I don’t remember the rest.”
I sigh and let my beak run through her silky-soft feathers. As Sreeris falls back to sleep, this time snoring, I cleanse the blood from her body.
“Sona,” Relk says, staring at the sky.
“What?!” I snap at him. He looks at me, startled, before narrowing his eyes.
“I didn’t want to tell you this before, but now that you’re being so rude, I won’t hesitate –” I snarl. He hisses back, and continues.
“We’ve been flying off track.” Silence.
“I said, we’ve been flying off track!”
I stare at him. “That’s impossible.”
“No, it’s not. Funny, I think that’s the first time this has happened. You really screwed this up, didn’t you Sona? Completely butchered your mission.” He shakes his head in mock sadness. “Your father would be so disappointed-”
“Shut up!” I scream, flapping my wings threateningly. “Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!” He turns away, so I must be mistaken when I think I see a flicker of shame cross his face. I march to the other end of the clearing and plop down. Something akin to guilt wallows in my stomach, but I ignore it. I close my eyes, still seething, and drift uneasily to sleep.
Sleep is such a beautiful thing. It heals your broken body, it washes away your fatigue, it hides you away from the problems you have to face in your waking hours. I relax myself as I drift off. At least now, nothing bad can happen to my flock.
There is the soft sound of trotting footsteps somewhere to my right and the feeling of being watched. I burrow my head deeper under my wing. Another footstep, closer to me.
“Sreeris…” I mumble, my voice muffled by feathers. “Sreeris, I don’t wanna wake up.” I stretch. The soft morning sun shines its gentle light over me, warming my night-cooled feathers. Crickets chitter in their cheerful choir. A slight breeze whooshes through the leaves, imitating the sound of the ocean. All of it wraps around me like a heavenly peaceful blanket.
A yawn splits open my beak, and I sleepily let my head emerge. Blinking bleary eyes, I find myself face-to-face with…
In a snap, all my drowsiness has disappeared.
A snarl rips from the beast’s velvet muzzle, and he leaps. I feel razor-sharp claws rake over my stomach, and downy feathers fly through the air like dandelion seeds. A ghastly pain spreads through my torso, but I can barely feel it. My eyes are focused on the beast’s dagger-like teeth, as he opens his mouth and lunges at my throat.
“Sona? SONA!” Somebody yells. I whip my head and the fox’s mouth snaps right where my neck used to be. In desperation, I kick out my webbed feet at its unexposed belly and flail my body as much as I can.
Somebody launches himself at the fox, and manages to tackle it off of me. The horrible weight lifted, I writhe to my feet and awkwardly flap out of the way. Somebody else leaps forward.
“Sona! Come quickly, you’re hurt.” Sreeris honks desperately, flapping her right wing. It’s ironic that she is now the one to protect me. I turn to face my saviors.
Relk is at the strongest I’ve ever seen him. He thrashes at the fox, clawing at its eyes, and pecking sharply at its skull and ears. Aijel nips at the beast’s crimson tail. They both saved my life. Much as I dislike them, I have to join them. It’s only fair. After all, I am the leader.
“Relk! Watch out!” I yell a warning as I fly at the fox. Relk ducks out of the way of my talons as I land on top of the creature that almost killed me. With a final scream, the fox shakes me off and darts into the shrubbery. All three of us hunch together, panting.
“Okay,” Relk states, straightening. “That’s done. Sona, any injuries?” I inspect my chest. The feathers have parted where I was clawed, and angry red marks streak across my skin. They sting horribly. Still, the wound is nothing compared to what I could have had.
“None.” I assure him. He nods and turns towards Aijel.
“Aijel, any — ”
“Okay, then. It seems we have rested enough to start traveling again. Is everyone okay with this idea?” I wince. The assurance in his voice, the way he speaks, he sounds like a true leader. It almost hurts.
Everyone declares themselves awake and ready to face the day, even Sreeris. She is cheerful as ever, still conversing with her same bubbly tone, even with a hole burned in her side. The bleeding has stopped, meaning the fire probably glanced off her in such a way, it didn’t dig in deep. The wound is neat, which is good. A perfectly round red hole.
“So, shall we lift off?” I say dully. I’m still staring at Relk. He just seems so confident in himself! When you’re directing a ragtag bunch of geese, it should be impossible to be that self-assured. But he is, and it gives me a sinking feeling in my chest.
“Yes, let’s.” He confirms. “You’ll be flying front, I assume?” The statement is like a blow to the heart. Does he really think, right off the bat, that I would be spoiled enough to automatically fly in the most important position? Does he think I’m just a stuck-up leader? I puff out my feathers indignantly, trying to recover a few scraps of pride.
“Of course not!” I honk angrily. “I’ll be flying back. Aijel needs to learn how to avoid flying against the wind.” Aijel gives me a look, not an angry one for once, but more… confused. Relk actually smiles.
“Sreeris, your wound is okay?” I ask my sister. She nods, a stoic look in her eyes. Sometimes, she seems the strongest out of us all. AIjel shifts into position behind Relk, as quiet as always. But I can’t help analyze him, and the grief of losing his sister still lingers in his expression. I shake off my thoughts and ready my wings.
“Flock! Get ready to fly in three! One, two…” I realize for a second how much my wings ache. But if I have to sacrifice them for the flock, I will. It’s my duty, after all. Relk launches off first. Then Aijel, and finally my dear sister. I am last to take to the air, and as the wind rushes through my feathers, a sense of elation I’ve never before experienced rushes through me.
Even when I’m not in the front, flying still feels amazing. I stretch out my wings to their full extent, and swoop to catch up with the rest of my gaggle. Sreeris is inches in front of me, teetering slightly because of her injury, but still soaring stronger then I never noticed she could. It almost gives me a sense of pride. That’s my sister, the girl who survived being rattled by winter, who learned to fly even with my poor leadership, and who pushed through a could-be-fatal injury.
Relk curves us against the wind as we fly, and it slides right off of our V. I don’t have nearly as much resistance as when Sreeris was leading. Once we’re high enough, he switches off with Aijel. I think it may be his first time being the point in his life! And… he’s almost as bad as my sister. Relk murmurs to him urgent instructions, and I make sure to make my voice heard.
“Lower your head a bit, so the wind doesn’t smack it!”
“Quick, quick… turn now!”
“Wait, not that way!”
“Perfect! Now, swoop upwards, there’s a huge gale coming! You won’t be able to curve around that.”
“Not downwards, you numbskull! Up!”
Relk quickly switches out with him in time to avoid the huge blast of wind. The rest of the gaggle follows. It’s stunning how capable he is. A flush of pride creeps through my feathers. I taught him that…
As we resume flying, Aijel and Relk continuously swap out for front. Sreeris even gets a few seconds to lead the group as well. I actually enjoy myself as I watch them fool around. The whole flock is laughing for the first time in days… no, weeks… No, they’re laughing for the first time since this mission started! Even Aijel spares a few chuckles. As we spread our wings and soar, I can’t help but remember my last assignment: I still have to name the flock. It seems impossible. We’ve been Fortis-Volant for what seems like forever. What name could possibly capture the essence of this group?
I think of the hunters that took Kalyna’s life and the crimson of the fox that nearly stole mine. I think of the red burn on Sreeris’ side and then, of the everlasting loyalty to my flock, a flame that can never be extinguished. And then a name emerges that is perfect for everyone. Perfect for Relk’s flaring stubbornness, for Sreeris’ dancing happiness, for Aijel’s burning grief over his sister. And perfect for me, too, in a way.
“Fire.” I whisper to myself. Fire is beautiful and deadly and relentless. “The Burning-Fire Gaggle.” It seems to fit.
A squawk escapes Relk’s beak, signaling our flock to turn. We curve across the sky like a majestic arrow. I’m flying back. We’ve been traveling for more than a month by now, and we still haven’t reached our destination. But we’re drawing close. This, I know for a fact.
Somewhere, mere miles away, the place of The Pull is peeking over the horizon.