He'd been worried about the chocobo. He'd heard it call on his way down the mountain, a screech of denial and pain. Wolf attack on her chick? He didn't know what a chocobo would do so far up the mountain, when the closest flock was back at the village, but then again they had been known to nest in stranger places. He'd leaped across the ice-melt stream and scaled up snow-sprinkled rocks immediately.
It was still early for wolves, but not many other predators were fast enough to cause a chocobo trouble. He told himself he went because he needed to make sure, because the village had to be warned, but truth to be told he cared less about the villagers than about the hen screeching grief and rage over that ridge.
He liked chocobos better than people. The feeling was mutual. The only birds in the village were a handful of heavy draft-yellows, who always greeted his appearances at the fence with hopeful chirrups. Some owners slipped him a few coins to groom them, check their talons for cracks. More often he was stared at in suspicion and told to leave the birds alone as if he'd been about to do them a mischief; one or two times even chased off via thrown rocks.
With a walking stick and a belt knife as his only weapons, he didn't think he could possibly save the chick, not if a predator had it; but perhaps he could drag the mother away before she got herself killed. But when he got there, when he crawled his way under the bushes lining the edge of the ravine and peered down, there was no wolf to be seen.
There were chocobos. Several. Multi-hued.
Cloud stopped moving, breathing, started swearing at himself in his head.
He couldn't look away.
In the canyon itself there were two green chocobos downhill, two uphill, the two pairs facing each other. Stubby wings, powerful legs that would see them rushing up slopes a man would have to crawl through. Their crest feathers were puffed up in excitement. The riders kept them reined in, though -- one-handed. Because the other hand had a sword in it.
He knew who they were, didn't even need to see their faces -- he recognized the birds. Villagers didn't own greens, be they from Nibelheim, from Muspelheim, or any other villages of the Nibel range. No human he'd ever heard of owned anything but yellows.
There was a hen in the middle, of a color he'd never thought to see of his own eyes in his life. Glossy black-blue feathers, like a hole of midnight against the green moss and the snow. She stood above a curled-up body, feathers bristled in clear threat, talons raking the dried riverbed and screeching on the rocks. Her head swiveled, uphill, downhill, uphill, trying to glare at all four riders at the same time.
Cloud felt for the bird, honestly he did, and he would have felt for her rider as well -- he could recognize an ambush when he saw one, no matter that the ones he'd had to go through himself weren't mounted by professionals but by bored teenagers with branches as their only weapons -- except that villagers didn't ride blacks either. Even the local Lord didn't. Kaleb had a red.
Her rider wasn't human. Then again, the green-riders weren't human either.
They would kill Cloud without thinking twice if they noticed him.
Did they fight like wolves did, he wondered, when a wanderer entered their territory? The Noble Ones were rarely around, but when they were they didn't go unseen, unnoticed, and the black-rider wasn't anyone Cloud had ever heard of.
The black-rider moved then, pushed himself up on hands and knees, groggy and slow like a bear just leaving its wintering cave. There was blood all over his face, soaking his dark hair and the sleeve of his tunic and even down his leg. Cloud would have expected the bird to nudge him with her beak, checking on him, but while her head dipped a little, she kept watch on their enemies anyway. She was standing with one leg planted firmly on each side of her rider's body, stunted wings spread.
Cloud saw a gloved hand feel up her side along the cinch, close around a stirrup. The green riders stiffened, nudged their mounts forward. One of them shouted ... something, but there were too many echoes in the ravine and Cloud's heart beat so loudly in his ears he didn't understand anything.
It was strange to see them talk amongst each other, too. The Noble Ones talked to villagers when they had orders to give, but amongst each other they seemed to function with the smooth, well-oiled feel of a wolf pack, a hundred words in every glance, every twitch of their bodies, no speech necessary. Cloud had never been able to figure out the meaning hidden in their body language.
The injured rider leaned on his mount's flank, legs unsteady, called something back that sounded like a taunt. Cloud caught himself hoping he'd manage to get back on before they charged him. Because once he was in the saddle, the black hen would leave those greens in the dust.
It was actually rather silly that they would all have gone down in the ravine with him, instead of keeping a couple of warriors up on the edges where they could just leap on top of the hen if she tried to climb over a side to escape.
The only warning he got was a creak of leather. Cloud jerked to the side in a roll, dodging a descending talon by the smallest margin.
Over him stood the biggest bird he'd ever seen, its feathers red like drying blood. He couldn't see the rider's face for the helmet, but he could see the eyes, gleaming yellow in the shadow cast by the forehead shield. Cloud knew a moment of terror so deep he could be aware of nothing else.
"A spy," said Lord Kaleb, voice utterly dispassionate.
Cloud twisted away before he'd even started lifting his sword, scrambled out of the bush and along the edge of the ravine like a startled hare. Loose stones clattered under his feet; a green chocobo flinched in surprise.
If only he could run past the greens -- they wouldn't chase him as long as the black rider was a problem -- they wouldn't -- he could hide --
Fire streaked over his head and exploded in front of him and the world flipped like a pancake. Flat on his back again, breath knocked out. Didn't even hurt yet. The red chocobo racing at him. Huge sword held high. It probably weighed more than he did.
He was not going to die here. He kicked up, flipped-rolled himself on hands and feet again. Now it hurt. Not going to die here. Threw a handful of dirt at that bird's huge, beautiful eyes, sorry, sorry. Sword coming down, bird dancing blindly on his left side, sheer drop on his right, with the green riders and the black rider, slung across his own saddle like a sack of potatoes.
There was no real choice anyway, so Cloud hurled himself off the edge feet first.
It turned out momentum topped raw power and superior muscle mass. When his knees hit the closest green rider in the head, the not-a-man was knocked clean off his saddle. Cloud cracked a knee on the rocks when they hit the ground, though the rider softened most of the rest of the impact for him. Shaking himself, Cloud crawled to his feet once again.
Not going to die here, not going to, just not going to. Rock in his hand, flying to the other chocobo's head, sorry birdie, making it flinch back, his hand reaching for the riderless one's bridle -- if he could just climb on, but it whistled angrily at him and dodged his hand, and.
Black rush of ink-feathers. Gloved hand held out to his. Fast, a half-second to see it coming. Inhuman eyes gleaming through a mask of blood. Won't stop for you, they seemed to say. Here's a chance anyway.
He didn't even think. He didn't need to. He wasn't going to die here. That was all the thought he needed.
He caught that hand and let the bird's momentum fling him up into the saddle and then they were racing down the ravine, the rider flat on the bird's neck and Cloud flat on his back.
Behind them yells of rage, and then of frustration. Cloud breathed and clung to the rider as he watched the ground rush by under the black hen's feet. If he fell, he would be lucky to only break both legs. It felt like riding an avalanche -- no obstacle even slowed her down. Her rider didn't even try to turn her from her path.
Cloud chanced a couple of glances behind them. The greens and the red went from eating the black's dust to losing her entirely, sight blocked by boulders and trees and whatever else. There were more and more trees the farther down they went.
A bit too many trees actually. He couldn't believe they'd gotten so far in such a short time.
Cloud had never talked to a Noble One. Never wanted to, for that matter. In that situation, though... If they kept going downhill they'd reach the village eventually, but the villagers wouldn't hide Cloud, and Lord Kaleb wouldn't hesitate to go through them to find his enemy either. "Hey -- you've got to slow down!"
Plastered as he was against his back, Cloud couldn't avoid noticing when the rider went limp. Only their insane momentum kept him balanced on the bird's neck. Cloud started reciting all the swear words he knew as he felt blindly for the reins. His elbow nudged something that made the rider groan, but he didn't wake. A warm liquid seeped through Cloud's sleeve.
He glanced down to see an arrow shaft protruded from his side. Shit. Cloud gritted his teeth and kept stretching his arm around the unconscious body.
The bird was hard to slow down, barely reacting to the reins for the longest minutes of Cloud's seventeen years of existence. He tried to shift his weight back but the empty stirrups were too far down, and when he squeezed his knees to keep from sliding, the bird jumped forward. Branches whizzed past uncomfortably close to his head. Cloud couldn't even hope to direct the bird -- half his field of vision was blocked by the unconscious rider -- and if she had to turn he would take a spill, guaranteed. Even if he could shift his weight in time to turn with her, the dead weight of her rider would surely take him down as well, the saddle wasn't that wide.
"Stop!" he yelled, pulling on the reins until they bit into his palms.
The chocobo snorted, shaking her head to loosen the reins. He hissed as the leather burned his palm and wrapped them around his wrists, giving another tug. Shit -- riding yellows didn't compare. Even on the most stubborn one he'd never been so ignored.
Oh, hell. If she wanted to play it that way -- he knew the terrain better than she did. He gritted his teeth and shifted his weight and her rider's to the right, forcing her to turn to avoid a tumble, and then they were crashing through stubborn thorny bushes. There was a short, terrifying second of free-fall, and a sudden splash.
The bird yelped in shock as the ice-melt water rushed up to her chest, dancing on tiptoes toward the other bank. Her momentum was broken, though, and when Cloud tugged on the reins, she followed. Snorting, flaring her wings, and with much reluctance, but she obeyed. Cloud's whole body shuddered in relief.
"There, good girl. Let's stay out of sight, huh?"
He kept her in the water, pushed her upstream, in the shadow of the rocks lining the riverbank. She didn't complain about the cold as long as he would have expected.
The rider didn't complain about his toes dipping in ice-cold water either. For a few seconds, Cloud couldn't tell whether he was even still breathing, and didn't know which would be worse -- that he be dead or not. He had offered Cloud a way out, and on principle Cloud didn't like the idea of five people going against one, but then again maybe they had a good reason -- and either way he didn't care. He ground his teeth, angry at himself. He didn't care about why, or about the treacherous unfairness. He wasn't involved in their disputes.
Hadn't been, at least. Because now...
"Lord Kaleb's gonna be looking for me, isn't he," he told the bird, because pretending she listened made him feel a little less terrified of the thought of a party of Noble Ones hunting him down to silence him. No, actually, he didn't feel any less terrified, but he needed there to be someone he had to fake it for, or he'd just start whimpering and never stop. The black hen would do.
No one at the village would cover for him. Cloud knew a great variety of hiding places in the mountains; he'd even set up a few of them as emergency shelters during his years as a target for bullies of all kinds. But dried trail rations weren't going to sustain him long.
He couldn't stay. But he didn't know what to do. He'd never been anywhere else.
It would be a lot easier to survive without the burden of the unconscious male currently using him as a backrest. Cloud watched the black-haired head loll back on his shoulder with a grim scowl.
With an arrow through his guts, he was courting death by infection anyway. Perhaps it would be a kindness to take the knife that still hung to Cloud's belt and cut his throat in his sleep.
Cloud sighed and leaned into his weight, bracing him when the slope worsened. At least he kept Cloud reasonably warm.