Wings More Than Wishes
Steele Tyler Filipek
A gust of wind. A silent prayer. With a sickening lurch of machinery and hydraulics, the ornithopter leaps into the air. Its wings beat a pattern impossible to see, so fast are they moving. Steam pours out of a hundred pipes held together by soldered hope. Deafening, screeching. But the carriage rises, sunlight glinting against its bronze bulwark.
The crowd in the cobblestone square below stares, mute. Something completely alien has risen from the market square, all beating wings and hissing steam and brass plates looking more like a teapot from some alchemists' lab than a flying machine. The doubters await the inevitable crash, for the death and blood and spectacle of it all.
The thing does not fall. It does not fail. The machine twists for a moment, shudders back, and begins to fly.
Then, as if the eye of a storm has passed, the cheering begins.
Men applaud; women throw roses into the rising column of debris, children chase the flying machine's shadow. Even the Cardinal--the thin old wretch who nearly had the ornithopther's pair of inventors put on trial for witchcraft--seems astounded. Or perhaps he is merely at a loss for words.
"To the brothers Revoire!" someone shouts.
The crowd picks it up quickly, chanting from the streets as they chase the device. Others, too scared by Cardinal Araignee's pronouncements of doom and hellfire, remained home only to emerge now, clapping, flying their aprons in glee.
"Revoire! Revoire! Revoire! Revoire!"
The pilots and their guest high up in the cabin of the apparatus, however, don't hear anything. Their hearts play a deafening waltz made entirely of thirty-second staccato notes against the walls of their ribcages, drowning the sound from the air.
"Marc!" Guillaume shouts. The inventor's leather helmet has been juddered loose from his tousled blonde hair. The Revoires hadn't thought to add any dampeners to the frame. The metal shakes, quakes, trembles, jolts. Noticing for the first time the lack of excess weight from shock absorbers, Guillaume tries once more to yell to his brother. "M-m-ma-mar."
"He can't hear you!" Brother Rafael yells through fleshy fingers wrapped around his eyes. He has to watch. But he cannot. He whimpers and screams for the mercy of the Lord in tongues he did not know he possessed.
Marc doesn't answer. Underneath the man's single, bushy eyebrow, the pilot is staring intently forward. His hands, knobby despite their youth, race across the exposed pipes inside the cabin. Fingers flick switches. A foot kicks a stubborn gauge.
The machine suddenly lurches sideways.
"Clocktower! Clocktower!" someone shouts.
Rafael, strapped onto passenger seat, goes rigid. Through the tiny porthole ahead, he can see the brickwork of St. Laurence wobble closer.
The monk grabs onto his robes and whips them over his head.
Rafael waits for the inevitable unification with God. Pure silence greets him. It has happened.
But a sickening second of weightlessness follows, then passes as the contraption's engine whirs back to life. It jaunts left.
But because Rafael can still feel newfound aches in every joint of his aging body, the monk knows he is alive, at least for the time being. Still, he keeps his monks' habit tucked tightly around his head.
"We commanded you to watch any and all proceedings." Cardinal Araignee, like a scarlet buzzard, crosses his brow in indignation. From the throne at the center of the court, he leans forward. "Wasn't this the case? This was why we had whisked you away, for the purposes of determining the extent of the devilry that the Marc and Guillaume Revoire had brought into this world with their machine."
The rabble in the court rustles slightly, but a glance from the Cardinal quiets them.
Brother Rafael is huge, really, both in height and girth, but seems small before the audience. His mouth gives him no saliva to gulp, for which he says a silent prayer of thanks to the Lord. Sweat beads down to his frock as the entire hall, packed in with fellow monks and nobleman alike, gazes, waiting.
The bishops on the rise look at each other then turn to Araignee.
The Cardinal runs a hand across his cheek, tracing the hundreds of lines that weave an eight-decade tale of inquisition. Ink, from paperwork condemning a thirteen year-old boy to death, still coats the man's fingertips.
Rafael nods once more, though nothing except alarm prompted it. "I--" his voice warbles. "I managed to view events after that. After the Lord, in his grace, granted me strength to continue watching."
"Continue, then," the Cardinal says. He relaxes back into his chair, a hand on his paunch, waiting.
"Guillaume! The rudder! It isn't working!"
Words that Rafael does not want to hear. "Oh Lord, catch this pitiful soul as I fling myself down to Earth before this contraption takes me with it to hell."
"What?" Marc yells.
Rafael pulls at the straps holding him down. They do not give. He whimpers, then shouts, "Nothing!"
"I wasn't talking to you!" Guillaume's words jangle around the cabin as the ornithopter takes an unexpected dip that turns into a tailspin that twists into a flailing ascent.
Marc turns away from the glass to hurl a wrench at his brother. "Stop yelling at Brother Rafael! This isn't his fault!"
"Please," Rafael whispers, his words not heard even by himself. "Keep your eyes forward."
"I told you we shouldn't have taken off today!" Guillaume yells.
"Do you think we had a choice?" asked Marc. "What would we have done? The Cardinal--"
"The Cardinal won't matter if we die here!" Guillaume's face goes stricken. He turns to Rafael. "No offense, Brother."
"Don't talk to him! The bilateral hinges must be warped!"
"It's not impossible if you didn't--"
"What are you accusing me--"
"I'm just saying--"
A thermal pushes the machine higher then drops it as the ornithopter crosses over a lake. The frame contorts, a few nuts shooting out like champagne corks across the tiny cockpit.
Rafael, using every ounce of courage he has left in him, leans forward and grabs the two men with his burly hands. "Commend your souls to God, gentlemen! That is all we can do. Now fly this thing if you don't want to meet you maker this afternoon!"
"Or words to that effect."
A chuckling murmur ripples through the crowd. Father Gaston hammers for silence. The mass obeys, nearly instantly.
"So." Araignee. Thinking. Sitting. His eyes probe every inch of Rafael's tall frame, looking for weakness. "You feared death?"
Rafael's eyes fall to his lap. "No. Not feared." Lips, pursed in thought, part then pucker several times. "I wanted to be able to bring my report back to the council. That is all."
"The Council chose you for a reason, Brother. You, who lives out in the wilderness. Who has given up all comfort of civilization. Who lives in a hole, drinks from a stream, and eats raw roots supper."
Father Gaston slaps his hand on the desk, smashing Rafael's word into oblivion. His jowls tremble as he speaks; "Then why are you coming before us with this garbled account? Don't you want to see what we are after here?"
Araignee looks over at his compatriot with ice pouring from his milky white gaze. "That is not to say that we were prejudiced before the beginning of this trial."
"Of course." Gaston stumbles, his anger and edge gone in an instant. "I was merely trying to say that--"
"That Brother Rafael had failed in his duty?"
The courtroom erupts. Jeers, cheers, shouting. Everyone talking, yelling at once. Gaston's hammer echoes through the hall, but it does no good.
Rafael does not stand up, but flails his hands in supplication. "No! No! I came back with my report. I am fully cooperating. I have no sympathy for the Revoires."
"Death to the heretic!"
"Give it to him!"
Coarser words are used. A fight breaks out. Guards rush into the stands to silence the gathering.
Araignee's voice booms out, a thunderstorm from such a small man. The sound dies.
"So," the Cardinal continues, "you admit. Your judgment was clouded."
"I--" Rafael's tongue clicks on his lips.
"Are you lying to us now?"
Rafael's face goes white. "No!"
"On your soul. Your everlasting soul. Did you fear the coming of the Lord?"
The monk he pauses to wrack his brain for, in all truth, he does not remember. He knows every moment spent in silence is one more bit of evidence against him. The monk must answer truthfully, and he finds it at the base of his memory.
Whispers reverberate across the hall.
Some of the bishops look on, questioning, and others nod in approval. Araignee seems happy. Not happy. Satisfied, as from a meal. "Very well."
Father Antoine clears his throat. He thumps his chest with a bejeweled fist. "Skip to the end, if you don't mind."
Rafael nods to the council and begins to speak once more.
"The controls!" Marc screams.
"What about them?" Guillaume yells.
The smaller Revoire strains at them, pulling, pushing, gritting his teeth. The machine continues to fly, but as it will.
Guillaume's face turns white. He leaves the engine unattended, its plates thundering against the strain. "Adjust the gauges!" He yells.
"That could bring the whole ship down!"
"Better to try than crash into a mountain!"
Rafael crashes into his seat, is thrown into the air, pulled back down by his straps. He screams, yelps. The inventors ignore him, fighting at the front of the ship. The monk yells, but neither hears.
Marc slaps Guillaume away from the stick. He pulls a number of knobs, gears. Guillaume thrashes in, smashing his palm into the gauges. Marc screams. Guillaume yells. The two begin to grapple, their hands at each other's throats, the machinery forgotten.
"Brothers! Brothers!" Rafael yells.
"You always thought this would be a failure!" Marc shrieks.
"You never double-checked the wing screws!" Guillaume barks.
"Shut up! I did so!"
"You did not!"
An explosion rocks the aft of the ship. The Revoires go silent as they turn to look at a mass of bulging steel behind Rafael's ear.
Rafael spins, strains against the straps. He can only watch as a pipeline expands to the size of a cannonball. The latch at his stomach bursts just in time to fling the monk to the front, falling on the inventors.
A side rips apart. The machine is spinning. Twirling. Above and around, one whole wall open to the heavens. Clouds sparkle in the morning sky, the sun whipping around as the device continues to spin.
Screams. Their voices meld in the deafening roar of the wind and the pounding and the shuddering of what feels like everything that could ever shriek.
A bump. Marc is pulled out, but Rafael catches him, sliding out to do so.
"Don't let go!" Marc screams. "Please! God, in all thy Mercy!"
Rafael squints against the light, his veins bulging, his muscles straining, his robe whipping in the wind. He shouldn't even be here. He should be at home, in his cave, away from everyone and every temptation, especially the technology that brings the devil with it.
But he is not. The Cardinal called for him specifically. Rafael screams, roars, arches back his head, and wheels Marc back inside.
Off-balance. His feet are in the air. The ornithopter cranks up, down, and over.
But the monk is gone.
Out. Up in the sky. The machine is already gone, rapidly dwindling in the distance. The lake of St. Laurence, where pilgrims are said to be healed by the waters, is below. The monk is too high.
This is it.
Rafael is flying, only the wind and the sky to greet him. He feels the touch of the sun upon his face, but nothing else. Like a newborn, he's swimming in a sea of emptiness, alone, death reaching for him with cold fingers.
No. Not cold. Kind.
His time has come. He broke his vow, and now he must pay. But this shall be it. He knows it. God has judged his time up, and he holds no grudge against anyone.
"Oh Lord," he breathes. It is a moment of pure joy. He gives thanks to his savior and the Revoires, both, for bringing this to him.
He tumbles out of the sky like a baby bird, end over end. The drop seems to take forever, blue upon blue as the sky gives way to the water to the sky to the water to the sky.
A mighty crash drives the air from Rafael's lungs and the consciousness from his mind. For a long time, darkness is all there is. No thoughts, no feeling, no nothing. Just tranquility. Like a dream, or meditation in the cave where the monk lived until so recently, where the bats would roost, and the birds, too, when the weather was unkind.
Sound returns slowly, awkwardly. A light lapping, which Rafael eventually feels. He is on the shores of heaven, he knows. Or, more humbly, purgatory. It is too cold for Hell.
His eyes drift open to meet whatever fate has brought him. They grant him the sight of the lake by the afternoon light. Rafael is on the shore, the waters washing him in, the woods beckoning him forward. The wind is cool.
Rafael is alive. He breathes, to make sure. His lungs shout in protest, sending him into a fit of coughing. He spits up blood, phlegm, and water.
Alive. He touches the earth, pulling the mud between his fingers, not sure how to feel. He has landed. God rejected him. Or did he have more to learn? Did he survive for a reason? He doesn't know.
The wind picks up, blowing through his hair. His answer. He looks off behind him, his senses finally coming back to him. Off in the distance, wreckage burns on the side of a mountain.
Nothing comes to the monk for a while. He just stares. His legs pick up. He's moving. His mind, left behind, catches up. He runs, somehow finding the energy.
Several hours pass without Rafael looking away. He barely blinks. The path is strong and true, through rocks and thicket and brush, trees and moss and wreckage. The first gears appear at the base of the mountain, and then nuts, bolts, a pipe. He finally reaches the mass.
Everything burns. Nothing is left. The engine still judders and thumps, though pathetically. There is nothing left of the Revoires except a small pool of blood.
Rafael falls to his knees and prays.
"Our father, who art in heaven..."
Night sneaks up quickly. The engine dies at some point. Stars come out then fade with the coming of day. Trees twist, grass grows, a deeper chill sets in, and the fires fade.
Rafael waits until the wreckage is cool enough to search through the metal. There is nothing for him to find. The monk says another prayer, sets a mound of stone, and returns to town.
"So no demons arose with the flames of the device?"
"Did the brothers incant any heathen rituals before or after rising?"
"Did you see any idols? Any markings? Anything unholy?"
"What about sacrifices? Blood? Something simple, that you might have overlooked."
Rafael looks up at the council. This questioning has gone on since before daybreak. His eyes are heavy, and his back aches. He still feels the injuries of that day as if they had happened the night before and not two months past.
The monk shakes his head. "No. No. They were . . . insane." He stops, thinking. "And sinful. For defying the words of God."
"And for blasphemy." Araignee adds.
Rafael bows his head, hands together. "Yes, your eminence."
"Hmmm," the Cardinal says. "Do you have anything else to add?"
"No, your eminence."
The council rises. As does Rafael, the guards, and everyone in the court and outside.
Araignee looks to his left, to his right. The bishops nod in approval, but it is a formality; the old man has all the power. He treasures it in his hands, coddling it like a child coddles a kitten.
He turns to the council and speaks, loudly for everyone to hear. "It is the decision of this court that the brothers Revoire have committed a foul act of the most heinous heresy, having turned their sight from the Lord for the pursuits of evil. We therefore, do so state that any who associate with them or their works shall burn next to the Revoires in Hell for all eternity."
Rafael waits. And waits. And waits for his turn. For his punishment. The bishops file out of the hall. Noblemen and commoners alike rush to them for blessings or to beg for their ears on matters of great import.
The monk's knees almost give out, but a guard ushers him through a small door at the side of the court where few else dare to tread. Araignee awaits him behind the awning of a massive sentry.
"Ah. Brother Rafael," the Cardinal says, holding out a gnarled hand.
Rafael holds his terror in his throat. Barely. He bows, kissing the ring, realizing that the Cardinal is smiling, delighting in the terror that he brings only by speaking someone's name.
"Please, join me."
Without another word, Araignee walks off into the murk of the hall beyond.
Rafael and the Cardinal walk down checkerboard marble, the guards trailing them at a distance.
"So," Araignee says.
The monk knows better than to supply the old man with any words, any more rope than necessary.
A long moment passes. Cardinal Araignee smiles and faces Rafael, stopping. "What do you think of this turn of events?"
Rafael's eyes are held onto Araignee's own by an invisible line of fate. The fate to walk free or to be stretched on a rack deep below Paris.
"I don't think," Rafael says. "I just report."
"Good, good. But if you had to give you assessment on the situation, what would it be?"
Rafael looks at the scenes depicted in the glass: saints burning, martyrs with their heads reattached to their bodies, angelic heavenly hosts battling otherworldly demons. "The Revoires got what they deserved."
"Indeed?" Araignee rubs a fingernail on his upper lip. "Is that what you truly think? Were you smitten at all by the power you witnessed in that infernal contraption?"
Rafael sputters, trying to grasp at something in his memory. Anything. "I--"
"Yes, I thought so." Araignee grunts.
In an instant, the guards hold Rafael down and put a knife to his throat.
"You are holding something back," says Araignee.
The guards push the monk forward. The first blow lands with a thud. He reflexively pulls away, right into the fist of the other guard. Rafael cannot fight back, would not even if he were free . . .
"You say you did not see the Revoires' bodies and only found their blood. But you did not investigate a trail? Did not care to check? Yet you cared enough about them to ascertain their fate."
. . . his vows . . . "When the master," Rafael begins, but is cut short by a barrage of kicks to his ribs.
"I know this has been a severe break for you, coming from the woods, only to be shocked into service as you behold a thing of the Enemy." Araignee shakes his head, smiling, as the beating continues, blood flecking onto the floor beneath. The cardinal steps back to avoid getting some on his shoes. "It would shatter any man's mind, but I thought that you would be perfect. A man with no knowledge of the events of civilization, with favors pending on your brow. Someone on the edge of the world who talks to no one."
Rafael coughs on the ground, his entire body wracked with spasms. The guards kick him with their heels then leave him to his pain. A number of teeth are loose. Or gone, Rafael feels with his tongue.
"But that just means that our traditional methods wouldn't work on you, would they?" The Cardinal sighs. "So dedicated to your world, are you. Which makes this all the more repugnant."
The guards pull Rafael up to face Araignee, bent forward, a single finger flicking the monk's broken, bleeding nose. "What are you holding back from me?"
The intent drips in the air, but between heaving breaths, Rafael only manages to say, "When the master calls, the servant answers."
Araignee frowns. "What is that?"
"I didn't see anything. I didn't know what to look for," Rafael says. Tears fill his eyes. "I just want to return to my cave. I just want--wanted to be left alone."
A moment more like a month passes as Rafael heaves between the two guards. But then the Cardinal nods, and the monk falls to the ground from his captors' arms.
"Very well," Araignee says. "So long as you speak to no one else about this, you are free to go." The Cardinal leans in very closely, beckoning Rafael to follow suit. "The Lord will be watching, and so will I."
The journey home takes several days. The vows that Brother Rafael had taken a dozen years before lay shattered at his feet from coming to town out of the wilderness, even with Cardinal Araignee calling, not to mention stepping inside the machine. Still, old habits die hard, so he forces himself to walk, praying at every bend in the rutted path. His knees hurt from the stones, his head burning in the sun. But he thanks God for his life and asks forgiveness for his many sins.
As the sun rises over distant hills, Rafael finally comes upon the valley he has called home for twelve years. Mists cling to every tree and niche with an admirable tenacity, but there is no mistaking it despite the dark. His bleeding feet find new energy, and Rafael lumbers onward. His cave appears out of the gloom.
"Marc! Guillaume!" the monk calls out.
The inventors emerge, brushing the sleep from their eyes. Their bodies are covered in bruises.
"Rafael?" Marc says. He rubs his eyes again, gingerly, as one arm still sits in a sling. "Is it you?"
"Brother Rafael," Guillaume says. "You've made it."
The monk grins. "Where is the machine?"
Marc rushes forward, hugging the man. He comes no higher than the monk's chest, but his grip is tight. "You have done us a service that we can never hope to repay."
Guillaume smiles, points to something hidden under a pile of leaves, a fallen tree, and shadows. Broken vents pop out. A bit of brass still gleams. "What we could manage to get away, in any case."
"How'd you make it out alive?"
Rafael pats Marc on the head as an answer. "How long will it take you to fly it again?"
"We have to rework the whole positioning apparatus, not to mention the manifolds in the engine." Guillaume brushes back his thick, matted hair. "A few months, at least, from when we get reestablished in Flanders."
"You don't think Araignee or the Inquisition will follow you there?"
"They will," Guillaume admits. "But it will take some time. Maybe we'll be able to fly to Hindustan after that."
Marc grins. "Or maybe Araignee will be dead by then."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that," Rafael says. He extricates himself from Marc's embrace. "You're welcome to spend as much time as you need here."
Guillaume shakes his head. "No. They'll come looking for you, soon, probably to take you away for silencing. We should be gone by the afternoon." Guillaume thought. "You should be, too."
The monk nods, but does not answer. He looks around his little haven once more, drinking it in. He is standing. He is there. A calm that he hasn't felt in years of isolation has finally come over him.
Marc shatters the tranquility first. "Why did you do it, Rafael? You broke your vows, lied."
Rafael shakes away the concern. "No. Araignee broke them for me. I had no compulsion henceforth to tell the truth."
Guillaume raises an eyebrow. Disbelief. He puts a finger to his chin. "Why?"
"Why did you build that machine? Why are you pursuing science? Why are you running? What is its purpose?"
"That's not an answer," Guillaume says.
Rafael shrugs. "You brought me closer to God."
"What?" The look on Marc's face makes Rafael smile. "You saw an angel in the sky?"
Guillaume cuffs his younger brother on the head. Marc goes to attack him, but Guillaume pushes him forward to town. "Come on, Marc. We need to buy a cart."
The two brothers stalk off down the road without another word. Rafael watches them go until they duck down into a gully and are gone. Forever.
Rafael takes another look around his home. He finds a stout branch among those covering the machine. He picks it up, shakes it free of its leaves. It is sturdy and long, good for walking.
The monk has no other possessions. He walks into the woods heading to the rest of the world, his heart as light as the sun.