Today’s Fabulous Free Friday includes another excerpt from THE LAST EMPRESS. In this piece, young Duchess Anastasia and British agent Jack Hawthorne–fleeing the Soviet secret police known as Cheka–are forced into a risky exit from a still-moving airship…
As dawn bathed the near-endless steppes in summer gold, Ana discovered one does not just set off from an airship that was underway. The large aircraft was at the mercy of the winds which pushed and lifted the ship like a cork bobbing on a swirling river. Without a ground crew to seize the control lines and a mast to dock to, getting off the Star of Savannah could cost Ana a broken limb or even her life.
Hawthorne argued with the chief about not bothering with this dangerous maneuver and taking them to England instead. The chief suggested stopping at one of several small towns prior to Petrograd with airfields and ground crews, but Jack Hawthorne refused. Those places had field masters and Red Guard political officers closely watching the arrival and departure of airships and their passengers. There was no compromise. To avoid getting caught, they would have to be dropped off far away from any town, village or farm in the grasslands.
“There’s a meadow just ahead,” the chief pointed out the forward gondola’s windows. A long stretch of flatland covered in wild grass and summer wildflowers beckoned. “This is the best location I can find. I’ll try to get the ship as low as possible. You still have to climb down the ladder and jump.”
“Can’t you just stop the ship?” Ana asked.
“There’s a strong cross-current. I can only slow down, not stop.”
Ana and Hawthorne uneasily watched the engineer open the forward boarding hatch and kick out a rope ladder. The ladder dropped thirty feet or so and dangled in the air as the chief fought to bring the airship down lower. The gauges reported they were sliding forward at almost six knots, the equivalent of a fast-trotting horse, even with two of the engines reversing madly to slow them down.
“I could jump with you in my arms,” Hawthorne suggested. “Like I did before in the trees.”
Ana shook her head, tightening the cap perched there so the wind would not blow it away.
“You don’t know what the ground is like. It could be soft as a pillowcase or as hard as an iron bar. If you land wrong carrying me, you could sprain an ankle or break your legs. Wouldn’t Thorn be better at this sort of leap?”
“Yes. But it takes great effort to put the genie back in the bottle. Once he’s free, he doesn’t want to go back. I’d rather you not have to deal with him.” Hawthorne muttered something that she almost didn’t hear. “He’s rather taken with you.”
Ana was surprised. “What did you say?”
“Nothing important. Look, carrying you might be better than you impaling yourself with that thing,” he tested the impromptu cloth sling the engineer fashioned so Ana could carry the saber on her back.
“I’ll be fine.”
Seeing she was still playing with the hat, Hawthorne snatched it from her head. He gasped. The beautiful long strawberry blonde hair that used to cascade down her back was no longer than her neck.
“When did you do this? How?”
“This morning. The doctor lent me his straight razor,” she blushed as she took back the hat and seated it back on her head. “You said I needed to look more like a boy.”
“You look like a lost waif from a Charles Dickens serial.”
“Then it’s perfect,” she smiled. It was only a fake glimmer of hope, an attempt to appease his worries. The ghosts of last night continued to haunt her.
Hawthorne started climbing down the ladder first.
“Follow right behind me. After I let go, you have to decide when it’s best to jump.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” she called out as he descended into the breeze.
The engineer steadied her as she swung out her legs and put one foot on a ladder rung, then the other foot on the rung below it. Looking down, she saw Hawthorne holding on to the ladder. Farther below him, a ground swell of greens, tans and dark browns whipped by much too fast.
She looked up the ladder at the concerned engineer. He extended his hand to her, just in case. Frightened for a moment, she almost lifted up her hand so he could drag her back inside the gondola. She changed her mind and followed Hawthorne down, rung by rung, the wind snapping about them.
There was nothing certain about this. Her legs and arms started to shake. The airship bounced up and Ana was treated to a stomach-sickening lurch. She closed her eyes and hung on to the ladder with all of her might. The craft corrected itself and came back down.
She looked down again. Hawthorne was near the bottom rung. He was riding the ladder as though it was in a storm. Their weight was causing the ladder to swing forwards and back as though it was the pendulum of a clock. He looked up towards her.
“You have to come down lower!”
Nodding, she came down a few more rungs. With both of them near the bottom, the ladder’s swaying was much more pronounced now. When her feet were almost on the same rung as his hands, she looked down again. He was getting ready to jump.
Hawthorne waited until the ladder swayed backward and he leaped outward, away from the ladder at a near right angle. She watched him tumble into the high grass, spilling and rolling. In seconds, he was back up on his feet and running after them.
“Jump, Ana!” he waved to her. “Cover your head and jump!”
Obeying him, she climbed down to the same place as he was before. She waited and waited as the ladder swung her forward and back, much like the brave trapeze artists from the visiting European circuses who came to the Alexander Palace. She focused on that thought. She remembered they were called aerialists.
“I am an aerialist!” she shouted to the wind, trying not to be afraid.
She looked behind her. Jack was receding in the distance. He could not run fast enough to keep up with them. The ship was picking up speed. Didn’t the chief realize this?
As she was about to jump, the airship nosed upward again. Ana held on tight, wishing things were not moving quite as fast as they were. Looking ahead, she understood why the airship climbed. The meadow was divided by a line of tall trees. The chief was trying to save her life. She looked up. The engineer was waving at her and shouting, but he was too far away for her to hear his words.
She thought about climbing back up. Perhaps the chief could turn the airship around and try again, but the wind was not cooperating. They passed over the trees and more meadowland appeared. The ship’s nose came down and they slowed down. The chief was going to let her try to jump again.
She remembered falling off Orion only twice. Both times were when she was little and hitting the ground was more of a shock than her actually getting hurt. She wondered if jumping off the ladder and hitting the ground would be like that.
Ana timed the sway of the ladder, took one last look ahead of her, clenched her eyes tight and jumped. Long seconds passed. She wrapped her arms over her head as her legs hit the ground hard and gave out. She tumbled, end over end, the air knocked from her lungs. Her arms and legs rotated around her until she came to a violent stop.
Lying flat on her back, the saber’s long shaft wedged hard against her, she looked up at the sky. The tail end of the airship passed over and kept going. The shape headed away until it was little more than a reflection of sunlight bouncing off its silvery skin…
Help Give Anastasia A Good Home! Read the first three chapters and nominate THE LAST EMPRESS on Kindle Scout.