"I'll kill you, boy!" the man shouted, one hand twisted in the reins, the other trying to bring the butt of the rifle down onto Alek's head.
At last Alek's hand closed on the hilt of the saber. He let go of the rider's arm and dropped back to the ground, the steel singing as it drew. He landed beside the still-thrashing horse and spun on one foot, slapping the flat of the sword against the horse's backside.
It reared up on its hind legs, the horseman crying out as he finally tumbled from his perch. The carbine flew from his grasp into the tall grass, and he landed with a heavy thud.
Alek slashed his way through the rye until he stood beside the fallen horseman. He lowered the saber's point to the man's throat.
The man said nothing.
His eyes were half open, his face pale. He wasn't much older than Alek, his beard wispy, his splayed arms thin. The expression on his face was so still... .
Alek took a step back. "Are you hurt, sir?"
Something large and warm nudged him softly from behind - the horse, suddenly calm. Its nuzzle pushed against the back of Alek's neck, sending a cold shiver down his spine.
The man didn't respond.
In the distance, shots rang out. Volger and Klopp needed his help, now. Alek turned from the fallen rider and pulled himself up into the saddle. The reins were tangled and twisted, the horse unsteady beneath him.
Alek leaned down and whispered in its ear. "It's all right. Everything's going to be okay."
He prodded his heels into its flanks, and the horse shuddered into motion, leaving its former rider behind in the grass.
The Stormwalker's engines were already rumbling.
The horse didn't hesitate when Alek urged it between the huge steel legs. It must have trained alongside walkers - it was an Austrian horse, after all.
Alek had just killed an Austrian soldier.
He forced the thought away and grabbed the dangling chain ladder, sending the horse clear with a shout and a kick.
Bauer met him at the hatch. "We heard shots and started up, sir."
"Good man," Alek said. "We'll need the cannon loaded too. Volger and Klopp are a kilometer from here, holding off a troop of horses."
"Right away, sir." Bauer offered a hand, and pulled him inside.
As Alek scrambled through the belly and up into the pilot's cabin, more shots sounded in the distance. At least the fight hadn't ended yet.
"Do you need help, sir?" Hoffman asked. He was halfway up through the hatch, a look of concern on his bearded face.
Alek stared at the controls, realizing that he'd never piloted before without Master Klopp sitting beside him. And here he was, about to stride into battle.
"You've never piloted, have you?" Alek asked.
Hoffman shook his head. "I'm just an engineer, sir."
"Well, then, you're better off helping Bauer with the cannon. And both of you strap in tight."
Hoffman smiled, saluting. "You'll do all right, sir."
Alek nodded, turning back to the controls as the hatch swung shut. He flexed his hands.
One step at a time, Klopp always said.
Alek pushed the saunters forward... . The walker reared up, valves hissing. One huge foot pushed ahead in the stream, sending spray into the air. Alek took another step, urging the machine faster.
But his power gauges all flickered deep in the green - the engines were still cold.
In a few steps the Stormwalker had climbed the river-bank, up to level ground. Alek gunned the fuel injectors, the engines roaring.
The power gauges began to rise.
He pushed the machine forward, letting its strides grow longer and longer. The furrows began to flash by underneath, the sound of tearing rye audible above the engines. He felt the moment when the walker shifted into a run, the machine rising up into the air between footfalls.
From the top of each stride he could see the troop of horses ahead. They were spread out across the rye, in search formation.
Alek smiled. Klopp and Volger had also slipped away into the tall grass - that was how they'd held out for so long.
Heads turned, the horsemen wheeling toward the new threat.
The intercom crackled. "Ready to fire."
"Aim over their heads, Bauer. They're Austrians, and Klopp and Volger are somewhere in that grass."
"A warning shot then, sir."
A few of the carbines crackled, and Alek heard a bullet strike metal close by. He realized that the viewport was wide open, with no one to wind it shut.
The young rider he'd killed had missed him on purpose. But these men were aiming to kill.
He changed the walker's stride, pushing outward with the feet so that the machine weaved from left to right. Running serpentine, Klopp called this, cutting a path like a snake through the grass.
But the machine's winding path didn't feel as graceful as that.
The cannon boomed below him - then a column of dirt and smoke shot into the air just behind the horsemen. Widening circles rippled through the grass like pond water from a stone, and two horses fell sideways, throwing their riders.
A second later a wave of dirt and sheer force struck Alek through the open viewport, and his hands slipped from the saunters. The walker lurched to one side, wheeling toward the stream. Alek grabbed at the controls, twisting them hard, and the Stormwalker came to, staggering but still upright.
The horsemen had gathered into tight formation, about to retreat. But Alek saw them hesitating, wondering if the walker was out of control. Lurching around like this, it probably looked as intimidating as a drunken chicken. He doubted Bauer could reload the cannon unless he could steady the machine.
Shots crackled again, and something pinged around Alek's ears, a bullet ricocheting around the metal cabin. No point in coming to a halt - it just made him a better target - so Alek leaned low over the controls, heading straight for the troop of horses.
The riders hesitated for another moment, then wheeled about and galloped back toward the stream, deciding not to pit flesh against metal.
"Sir! It's Master Klopp!" Bauer's voice came on the intercom. "Standing up in front of us!"
Alek pulled back on the saunters, just as he had the day before - and again the walker's right foot planted hard, the machine beginning to tip.
But this time he knew what to do. He twisted the walker sideways, thrusting out one steel leg. Dust exploded across the viewport, and the sound of straining gears and tearing grass filled his ears.
Alek felt the machine regain its balance, the momentum of its charge consumed by the skid.
As the walker settled, Alek heard the belly hatch open below. There were shouts, and the clanking of the chain ladder unrolling. Was that Klopp's voice? Volger's?
He wanted to glance down through the cabin hatch, but he stayed at the controls. The dust was clearing before him, and he saw movement in the distance - the flash of helmets and spurs. Perhaps he should fire one of the machine guns into the air, just to keep them in retreat.
Alek spun around in the pilot's chair. "Klopp! You're all right!"
"Well enough." The man pulled himself up into the cabin. His clothes were torn and bloody.
"Were you hit?"
"Not me. Volger." Klopp fell into the commander's chair, panting. "His shoulder - Hoffman's seeing to it below. But we must go, young master. More will come."
Alek nodded. "Which way?"
"First back to the stream. The kerosene's still there."
"Right. Of course." The dust was clearing in the viewports, and Alek put his shaking hands on the saunters again. He realized that he'd hoped Klopp would take the controls, but the man was still panting, his face bright red.
"Don't worry, Alek. You did well."
Alek swallowed, forcing his hands to push the Stormwalker into a first step. "I almost wrecked it again."
"Exactly: almost." Klopp laughed. "Remember how I said everyone falls the first time they try to run?"
Alek scowled as he planted one giant foot on the river-bank. "I could hardly forget."
"Well, everyone also falls the second time they run, young master!" Klopp's laughter turned into coughing, then he spat and cleared his throat. "Except for you, it seems. Lucky for us you're such a Mozart with the saunters."
Alek kept his eyes ahead, not answering. He didn't feel proud, having left that rider behind, lying broken in the grass. The man had been a soldier serving the empire. He couldn't have understood the politics swirling around him any more than those commoners back in Lienz.
But he'd lost his life just the same.
Alek felt himself split into two people, the way he did when he was alone on watch, one part crushing down his despair into its small, hidden place. He blinked away sweat and searched the riverbank for the precious cans of kerosene, hoping that Bauer was watching for horses, and that the cannon was loaded again.
Just after morning altitude drills the middies were all at breakfast, chattering about signal scores, the duty roster, and when war would finally come.
Deryn had already finished her eggs and potatoes. She was busy sketching the way the message lizard tubes coiled around the Leviathan's walls and windows. The beasties always poked their heads out as they waited for messages, like foxes in a burrow.
Then suddenly Midshipman Tyndall, who'd been staring dreamily out the windows, shouted, "Look at that!"
The other middies sprang up, scrambling to the port side of the mess. In the distance, across the patchwork of farmlands and villages, the great city of London was rising into view. They shouted to each other about the ironclads moored on the River Thames, the tangle of converging rail lines, and the elephantine draft animals that choked the roads leading to the capital.
"BLASÉ ABOUT OLD SIGHTS."
Deryn stayed in her seat, taking the opportunity to spear one of Middy Fitzroy's potatoes.
"Haven't you plook-heads seen London before?" she asked, chewing.
"Not from up here," Newkirk said. "The Service never lets us big ships fly over cities."
"Wouldn't want to scare the Monkey Luddites, would we?" Tyndall said, punching Newkirk's shoulder.
Newkirk ignored him. "Look! Is that Saint Paul's?"
"Seen it," Deryn said, stealing a piece of Tyndall's bacon. "I flew over these parts in a Huxley once. An interesting story, that."
"Quit your blethering, Mr. Sharp!" Fitzroy said. "We've heard that story enough."
Deryn flicked a piece of potato at Fitzroy's dorsal regions. The boy always assumed superior airs, just because his father was an ocean navy captain.
Feeling the projectile hit home, Fitzroy turned from the view and scowled. "We're the ones who rescued you, remember?"
"What, you sods?" she said. "I don't remember seeing you at the winch, Mr. Fitzroy."
"Perhaps not." He smiled and turned back to the view. "But we watched you float past these very windows, swinging from your Huxley like a pair of trinkets."
The other middies laughed, and Deryn sprang up from her chair. "I think you might want to rephrase that, Mr. Fitzroy."
He turned away and gazed serenely out the window. "And I think you might learn to respect your betters, Mr. Sharp."
"Betters?" Deryn balled her fists. "Who'd respect a bum-rag like you?"
"Gentlemen!" Mr. Rigby's voice came from the hallway. "Your attention, please."