Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Episode Four

A triangle formation swooped low over their perch. Tr’lia twisted her neck and arched back to examine the players. Not one of them had a shiny green head.
Beside her, Lili crunched a trio of jeweled crickets. Her bill snapped as she pulled each bug from the stick they’d been roasted on, and her eyes flicked between bites down to their table ring where the remainder of their weaving shimmered in the setting sunlight.
The festival only had two days left.
“Do you want this one?” Lili offered the stick and the last cricket, but Tr’lia shook her head.
“Go ahead. I’m still full of mushroom.” They’d eaten more fungus this week than she usually had in a month. “Who won today?”
“Northern Gulls.”
“The falcon squad from South Aerie almost had them, but one of their point’s was disqualified.”
“Oh.” Tr’lia shifted her weight to the other foot and tucked the tired one up into her downy belly. “did you see--.”
“No. Not today.” Lili rolled her eyes and downed the last bug. “Nor yesterday either. He wasn’t that cute Tr’lia.”
But he was. Not that she expected Lili to understand. Since that first meeting, Tr’lia hadn’t been able to think of anything but the milker. She considered it a bit disloyal that Lili could be so rude about it, but her friend’s patience had never exactly overflowed.
“Well, we’re almost sold out.”
“You can take tomorrow off if you want,” Lili tried. “Go wander around and see if you can find him.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not?’
“Because.” She sighed and fluffed her chest feathers. Her wings flapped a little with her mood. “It would look too desperate, Lili. If he wanted to see me again, he would have come by.”
“Stupid.” Lili hopped down from the perch, shaking the wood enough she had to put down both feet to cling to it. “He probably is working too.”
“Well he could have found a way.”
“Maybe.” Lili scuffed behind the booth, stirring up dust that they’d have to brush off the sashes later. “I don’t get why it’s so important. You don’t even know him. If you want to see him again, go find him.”
“Ha!” Tr’lia dropped down and went to work cleaning up Lili’s mess. The more she wiped, however, the more her friend’s pacing erased her efforts. “Stop fidgeting, Lili! You’re getting it all filthy.”
“And you’re being grouchy. Maybe they left already, Tr’lia. He’s a milker anyway. He was probably just messing with you, and you’re spoiling the festival for nothing!”
“What? Spoiling the—what?” She spun to face her little blue friend, and sent an even bigger cloud of dust across their wares. “I’m spoiling the festival?”
“Yes.” Lili held her ground. She puffed up, even though she stood only chest high, and stared up at Tr’lia without flinching. “We’ve been waiting for this forever, Tr’lia, and you’ve been pouting the whole time!”
“But. I.” Tr’lia felt her gullet tighten. She felt tears pooling, and ground her beak together to stall them. “You don’t understand.”
“I do too.” Lili deflated. Her feathers settled, though she didn’t exactly back down. “I do. But I don’t know how to make him come back, Tr’lia. And I want to enjoy this!” She swept one wing in an arc, over the table and smack into a black breast.
“Ooof.” It’s owner grunted and staggered back.
“Ooops.” Lili chirped.
The milker recovered and brushed at his vest. He had white bars on his wings, the grass vest, and the attitude, but his head was black and crestless. Tr’lia dropped her beak and brushed at the bags and sashes.
“Where’s your friend?” Lili blurted.
“Lili!” Tr’lia’s cheeks blossomed.
“He’s working.” The milker said. “We’ve been swamped, couldn’t get away even for a second. P’rao tried, but it’s been crazy.” He reached into his vest and pulled out a scroll. “He hired me to send you this.”
“Why didn’t he just bring it himself?” Lili fluffed up again.
“Hush, Lili.” Tr’lia stared at the scroll and imagined what it said.
“One of us had to keep delivering, and he couldn’t hire himself.” He waved the roll of skin. “Don’t you want it?”
She nodded, but her wings wouldn’t work. In the end, Lili snatched it for her, glowering at P’rao’s friend until he took a step back.
“Thank you.” Tr’lia found her voice. She snagged the scroll from Lili before she could do any more damage. “Tell him thank you.”
“Just show up,” the milker said. He spread his wings and twisted his head to one side. “He’s driving me crazy.”
They watched him launch. His down stroke caked their wares in dust again, but Tr’lia hardly cared. She held the scroll between her wingtips and followed the milker’s flight until he dropped down between the booths and out of sight. P’rao. Her feathers trembled, nearly dropped the message.
Lili wasn’t having any of it. “Well,” she said.
“Well what?”
“Aren’t you going to read it?”
“What do you think it says?”
“I don’t know.” Lili shrugged and leaned against the counter. “But it better be good or I’m going to find that stupid milker and pluck him.”
“Lili!” Tr’lia laughed despite her nerves. The scroll felt heavy. It made everything suddenly very real and scary, but Lili wouldn’t wait much longer. She took a deep breath and pried the thing open.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Episode Three

P’rao flicked his tail and stamped one, clawed foot into the dust. Overhead, a gaggle of long-necked shoppers blotted out the sun, honking to one another as they passed each table and barely missing a collision with one of the vendors perched over his wares. The idiots were too excited to watch where they flew—like most of the birds flocking through the festival.
“Meech!” He twisted his green neck round and eyed his friend over one wing. “Hurry up with that one. It’s getting late.”
“There will probably be six more messages when we get back.” Meech tucked the coins they’d earned delivering this one into his interior vest pocket. “Everyone’s got someone they want to natter at today.”
“Right.” P’rao ground his bill together, scraping top against bottom until he saw Meech cringe. “But maybe the next one will be closer.”
“Uff.” Meech shook his black head and fluffed his breast feathers. “Not the chick again.”
P’rao snapped his beak with a clack and flashed his friend a glare before launching from the festival grounds. His wings snagged an updraft, and he beat them hard enough to send a flurry of dust directly into Meech’s face.  Of course it was the chick again. They’d been delivering messages all over the enormous grounds, and he hadn’t managed to squeeze in a break or even a chance to get close enough to catch her eye again.
Tr’lia. He scanned the ground below and got his bearings before angling back toward the perch where they’d set up shop. He wore her feathers across his breast, a slash of yellow, green and red that reminded him exactly how brightly she shone.
“P’rao!” Meech drifted up beside him, dust still staining his normally-perfect black plumage. “I don’t get what’s the matter with you, but I hope you get over it soon.”
“I’ll pay you back, Meech.” They’d already made back what he’d spent on the sash, but half of that belonged to Meech anyway. Still, the festival didn’t officially start till tomorrow. He’d be able to pay for the sash three times over and still have money for them to play with. “Let it go.”
“It’s not like you, getting nutsy over a hen. Not like you haven’t seen a pretty colored chest before.”
“She’s different.”
P’rao spotted their perch. It stood alone, without a table, and Meech had draped a sign from the center that proclaimed their messenger service. The idea had been brilliant, and P’rao wished he could claim it, but this time, Meech got the credit. Who would have guessed the festival patrons and vendors would swarm them with messages even before the event got rolling? They had three customers waiting already, lined up at the base of the pole and fluffing their impatience.
“It’s not like you got time for nesting,” Meech kept at it. “Unless you plan to give up milking and start growing ‘shrooms.”
“Not.” He snapped and dove for their stand.
“Well a girl like that’s not gonna want anything to do with the likes of us.”
P’rao grabbed the cross beam and leaned back against his momentum. He mantled his wings and felt Meech impact beside him. Three bright faces turned up to note their arrival. Customers. Maybe one of the deliveries would be close to her.
“You can’t be sure of that, Meech.” He fluffed and shook off the dust. “Maybe she’s different.”
“Right.” Meech didn’t sound convinced. He dropped toward the ground, laughing. “And maybe I’ll take a break and go lay an egg.”
P’rao sighed. He looked out over the perches and watched the shadows of shoppers darken and lighten the world as they passed. The sash hugged his chest, and he ran a wingtip over the silken feathers. Maybe she was different.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Episode Two

"Plants!" LiLi scoffed for the twentieth time. "He's selling plants, here!" She nibbled on her bit of roast fungus and clucked furiously.
"They're cut off from the nodes, LiLi," Tr'lia said with more calm than she felt. "They're probably harmless. Otherwise, they wouldn't have let him bring them in." She took a bite of her own 'shroom. "These are good."
They'd bought the fungi from the booth next door after laying out all their crafts. The smell of mushrooms roasting had been too much for either girl to resist. Now both sat clutching the rickety perch over their stall, watching with awe as the number of booths spread across the plain continued to grow.
"We'll never have time to see it all," Tr'lia commented.
"We will if we sell out fast." LiLi still insisted that they’d make sales early. It would be nice, to sell enough that they could enjoy the festival in style, but Tr'lia couldn’t see it happening today.
"They're just looking today." She motioned to yet another group of passing shadows. "They want to see everything before they buy."
LiLi clucked to herself, resenting Tr'lia's logic. She turned her head toward the distant camps and managed to remain silent for about thirty seconds.
"Look!" she shouted, hopping up and nearly tumbling Tr'lia from the perch. "They're practicing for the games!" In the distance, the formations could be seen flying their maneuvers against the orange-pink sky. They swooped and dove as one, nearly touching, then scattering into some other pattern.
"They'll save the really fancy stuff for the contests."
"I know that." LiLi didn't turn away from the horizon and the shapes flying there.
Tr'lia checked below them again, eying the lines of feathered bags and sashes critically. The rows were straight, and the feathers shone beautifully in the sun. Still, she couldn't resist the impulse to hop down into the booth, to tidy up the lines just a touch.
She was smoothing out the feathers on her favorite bag--made from cast-offs she'd traded from the healer's wife--when LiLi settled in a puff beside her.
"Don't look now," LiLi whispered.
"Where? What?"
"Don't look over there." LiLi had her head lowered. She nodded across the market aisle, toward the pet booth. "They're watching you."
"Who?" Tr'lia looked despite the warning.
"I said don't look!"
Two young cocks leaned against the counter where the rows of cages sat. They were slim and tall and wore vests of woven grasses over their arching breasts. Both had feathers of slick black with white stripes along their wing edges, but the taller of the two had a brilliant green head topped with a slim, pointed crest. It curled backwards over his shoulders. They both stared in Tr'lia's direction.
"Who are they?" Tr'lia dropped her gaze and played at inspecting the bag again.
"They're milkers!" LiLi clicked her beak disapprovingly. "Look at their vests."
"You said don't look." But Tr'lia could see LiLi sneaking peeks in the men's direction and couldn't resist another look.
Plant milkers. The thought caused her scaled knees to tremble. You had to be crazy or suicidal to be a milker. She cast another quick glance in their direction. They were young; maybe they just wanted to look like milkers. She imagined it would seem daring to brave the forests. And the milkers did supply the flocks with chemicals for the healers' medicines. She shook her head. They were too young--too young to wrangle plants.
They were probably posing as milkers to impress people. They probably worked for a chemist and saw a lot of the milkers come and go. Maybe they bartered for the vests, or made them themselves.
"They're coming over here!" LiLi burst in on her musing. Her voice whistled through a clenched beak. "Tr'lia!"
"Shhh. Settle down, LiLi, maybe they'll buy something."
"Didn't you see the way he was looking at you?"
"Shut up, LiLi." Tr'lia couldn't help wondering which he LiLi referred to. She smoothed the red-feathered bag and forced herself to breath very slowly.
"Hiee." The deep voice rolled across their counter. LiLi squeaked. The milkers stood opposite them, shining in the sun and smiling.
"Hello," Tr'lia said. The crested one stared at her in a way that made her cheek feathers want to puff in embarrassment. She turned away quickly.
"Nice feathers," he said.
Shocked, she turned back to find him admiring the red bag. "Oh, right." Her cheeks puffed despite her efforts. "It's made from our healer's feathers."
"It's pretty." He leaned on the counter, raising his eyes to her face with deliberate leisure.
Maybe he is a milker, Tr'lia thought. Something about the way he moved reeked of confidence, and the vest looked pretty authentic close up. He was older than she'd thought too, and his eyes looked right into you.
"It's thirty five." LiLi, forever-practical LiLi, interrupted. "And that one's twenty." She pointed to the sash the other milker fondled.
Green head ignored her. He clicked his beak softly and pointed to another bag. "What about that one?"
"That one is from LiLi's mother," Tr'lia said.
"It's twenty also," LiLi added.
"It's lovely," Green head said politely. "Don't you make any with your own feathers?" Tr'lia's recalcitrant cheeks puffed again. Her voice failed her.
"This one is hers," LiLi blurted. She offered him the sash Tr'lia had made after her last molt. Ignoring Tr'lia's pleading look she added, "It's seventy five," quoting double what they'd priced the sash.
Tr'lia wanted to strangle her. She wanted to rip the sash from Green head's grip and take quick flight for the nearest cave. She wanted him to stop running his long, black wingtip over the sash. Her tail twitched.
He stroked the wide yellow middle, woven from her breast feathers. He turned the sash, eyed the green border and peeked up at her matching wings. He lifted the end and admired the red fringe she'd woven from the feathers of her head. Tr'lia prayed for death.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"What?" Tr'lia tore her gaze from the sash.
"Her name's Tr'lia," LiLi said.
"How old are you," Green head smiled at her and cradled her sash.
"Sixteen seasons," Tr'lia said. The feathers along her back stood up slightly.
"You'll be nesting soon." He bobbed his head and the curling crest raised just a touch. Tr'lia could hear LiLi's horrified clucking, but it seemed far away.
"Yes," she answered him.
"Seventy five, was it?"
"I'll take it."
"Tr'lia dear, are you well?" LiLi's mother asked. A sweet hen, who looked like a puffed up version of LiLi, she had agreed to help the girls with the booth during the festival. Now she perched over them, peering down on occasion between bouts of preening. "You're so quiet today."
"She's mooning over a plant milker," LiLi said. Her mother just missed their first, and only, sale of the day.
"I am NOT," Tr'lia straightened her legs and leaned over LiLi. She glared down at her.
"Oh no, dear," LiLi's mom clucked. "What would your poor mother say?"
"I'm not mooning," Tr'lia insisted. What would her mother say? Her mother would go into a full-blown molt over it.
"Why don't you girls go look around? Have some fun before you get too busy."
"Good idea," LiLi chirped.
Tr'lia had split the sash money with her, and she sensed LiLi was dying to spend it. They left the booth and wandered along the aisle together. LiLi cooed over the wares and inhaled the scent of fungus cooking with a hungry glint in her eye. She nudged Tr'lia's wing.
"Stop looking for that milker, Tr'lia. Let's get another 'shroom."
"I wasn't," Tr'lia said. "I want to go see the pets." She headed across the aisle without acknowledging LiLi's sulk. The pet vendor hunched up on his perch with his head tucked under one wing.
"Tr'lia!" LiLi sang behind her. "I'm hungry!"
The plants were not on the counter. Tr'lia eyed the sleeping vendor and cleared her throat.
"Tr'lia, no." LiLi slid up beside her. "Your mother will kill you."
"I'll have my own nest soon."
"But you don't yet."
"Hush, LiLi. I'll buy you a mushroom."
LiLi pouted, but stopped protesting and looked at the cages of insects. Tr'lia cleared her throat again, and then clicked her beak sharply.
"Ho HO!" the vendor cried. His head snaked its way from under the grimy wing and swiveled to look at them. "Back again."
"May I see the plants again?"
"No Tr'lia," LiLi whined.
"Shush, LiLi."
The vendor plopped behind the counter and retrieved the tray of glass domes.
"Your mother--"
"Hush." Tr'lia eyed the plants and tilted her head from side to side. They had a lot of teeth. "I'd like to make a purchase," she said.
"When your mother kills you, can I have that bag?" LiLi asked.
"Shut up, LiLi." Tr'lia hugged the red-feathered bag to her side. The leaflet on plant keeping lay safely hidden within. "She's not going to kill me."
"Wanna bet?" LiLi took an enormous bite of her 'shroom.
"They're only Bluebottles," Tr'lia said, raising the mesh cylinder to the light. The three flies flashed blue and pink in the afternoon glow. "She won't mind so much."
"But you bought that book."
"Be quiet about it, LiLi. You hear me?" Tr'lia hugged the bag closer. The rotten vender had charged her almost as much for the leaflet as she'd paid for the flies.
"If she finds it, she'll go into a molt."
"She won't find it." Tr'lia scanned the market crowd, hoping for a flash of green. She tucked the container of flies into the bag and smiled. "Besides," she said. "I'll be nesting soon."

Episode One

"Hurry up, Tr'lia!" LiLi sang over her shoulder as she hopped through the market's wide aisles. Her clawed feet stirred little puffs of dust as they scrabbled for purchase. "Come on!"

"I'm coming." Tr'lia sighed. She clutched the netted bundle of wares more tightly in her green wings and increased her pace. Her friend's feathered back bobbled between the rows of booths like a fat, blue cloud. Tr'lia smiled and suppressed a chuckle. Who could blame LiLi for being excited? "The festival doesn't start for two days, LiLi," she called. "We won't sell anything today."

"They're already shopping!" LiLi hopped higher and flapped her short wings for emphasis. She was hurtling forward again before she hit the ground. Her little fantail twitched, an arc of blue, as she landed and continued her hustle.

Tr'lia shifted the bundle's weight again and followed her friend. She flipped her own long tail feathers higher above the dust and kept after LiLi. Occasionally a shadow would pass over, the silhouette of some early shopper looking to see what the bazaar had to promise. Tr'lia wanted to see as much as they did, but LiLi would not be deterred. She tried in vain to catch a glimpse or two of the wares in the booths as they ran past.

The festival had come to their aerie at last. Her feathers ruffled at the thought. Flocks would be arriving from the farthest reaches of the desert to trade, to compete in the games, and to show off for one another. The plain below their cliff homes already teemed with the camps of visitors, strange visitors, and their wares already filled the makeshift booths of the bazaar.

LiLi put distance between them as Tr'lia's mind wandered from their task. The booths to either side of her demanded attention. She saw ropes twined from dried grasses, grasses that had been diligently cleared from the Flocks' territories to prevent the Plants gaining any purchase here. She saw carved stone bowls, bone utensils and armor crafted from the exoskeletons of the giant insect herds.

She saw the vendors. They perched above their goods in plumages of impossible variety, and Tr'lia wanted to see them all.

"Tr'lia!" LiLi chastised from far ahead.

"I'm coming." Tr'lia snapped. LiLi had no bundle to carry. Her wings were too short for much labor, and it fell upon Tr'lia to heft their year's work to the stall. "Don't get into a molt over it!"

The friends had worked all year together, trading babysitting and odd jobs for cast-off feathers. They'd spent long evenings twining and weaving and perfecting their crafts, all for today--all for the chance to be included in the festivities. LiLi was right to be in a hurry.

Tr'lia stood a dozen strides from their booth when she saw the pet vendor. LiLi perched over their tables, flapping at her and churning up clouds of dust, beckoning for her to get a move on. But the pet vendor's booth seemed more enticing and far more exotic. Tr'lia's scaled legs slowed. She cast an eye over the spread of mesh cages and listened to the buzz of wings inside.

She stopped. She shifted her netted bundle to one yellow hip and examined the little cages. Three bluebottle flies skittered around inside a small, mesh cylinder. Their exoskeletons gleamed iridescent below the continual buzzing of their translucent wings. Another case held an emerald beetle the size of Tr'lia's fist. It hissed and waved its long horn at her when she peered closer.

"Ho, HO!" a voice from above called. "A pet enthusiast, a connoisseur!"

Tr'lia looked to the perch above the stall. The crimson sky faded into peach as dawn spread over the market. The light cast a pink glow around the fat vendor that stared down at her. His feathers would have been lovely, had they been clean. Obviously not big on preening, their owner had let them fade into a mish-mash of dingy hues. Tr'lia identified reds, browns and purples through the grime.

"Hello," she said.

"And a good morning to you, my dear!" The man shouted, and a crooked crest rose in an arc over his brow. "A little shopping, on a fine day, yes?"

"Yes. No," she answered. "I'm vending today."

"And so you are, so you are." The vendor launched from his perch so suddenly that Tr'lia took a step back. He landed in a plump plop behind his table-ring of pets.

He shook himself, ruffling his plumage and dislodging a small flurry of down in the process. "But these are lovely, no?" He pointed one long sharp tip feather at the three bluebottles.

"Yes," Tr'lia said politely. "They are."

"Yes! And quite unusual, no? Quite unique."

"I've seen some before," she said. "A traveling vendor brought some last winter."

"Oh NO!" The dirty man was taken aback. "Surely not like these," he protested.

"Bluebottle flies." Tr'lia continued quickly. "They are lovely."

The pet vendor just harrumphed at her and reached below the counter. He pulled out a tray of slender glass domes and set it down next to the flies. "And what about these?" Triumph and something of a dare shone in his black eyes. "I suppose you've seen these as well?"

"No--no." Tr'lia shook her head and stared at the domes. Her feet trembled and begged to back away from the stall. The feathers on her neck rose a little against her will. Inside each perfect glass container grew a bright green plant. Each shiny stem arched upwards, terminating in a bulbous, toothy green mouth. Sticky goo collected between the lips. "Where did, where did you get those?" she whispered.

"Ha Ho!" the man sang. His crest stood so high it nearly straightened. "You haven't seen these before."

"No," Tr'lia eyed the glass suspiciously, as if it might shatter at any moment and release the horrid things. "Aren't they dangerous?"

"Certainly so!" the vendor sang happily. "But for the brave, the skilled keeper, a true treat!" He reached under the counter again, and she braced herself for his next revelation. All he produced, however, was a stack of thin leaflets. He held one out to her, bobbing his head rapidly. The leaflet read: The Captive Care of Plant Species.

"Tr'lia!" She heard LiLi's voice, frantic and moving in their direction.

"No." Tr'lia shook her head, refusing the proffered leaflet. "I have to go." She twisted her head and looked over one shoulder. LiLi waddled across the dirt aisle and she looked far less than happy. If she saw the plants, well, Tr'lia didn't want to deal with an irate LiLi all afternoon. "Thank you," she told the old vendor without looking back in his direction. "Goodbye."


Introducing the RAWK universe...

Old William bent forward on his smooth rock seat and peered at the ring of faces. His cheek feathers puffed in a blue cloud around his fat beak. A circle of wide eyes regarded him from the cave floor. Multi-colored crests lifted in anticipation of his next words. He let them stew for a second, tapped one talloned foot against the dusty floor, and stared at each chick in turn.
“Time was,” he said and sat back abruptly. The children shivered. “Time was when the whole surface of the world was choked with plants.” He nodded as his audience twitched in horror. “Our flocks lived in small pockets, high in the rock cliffs, and always in fear of the encroaching plants.” William paused, and nodded at the group.
The older chicks, the one’s who had heard the tale before, leaned forward. The little ones hugged themselves and clicked their beaks softly.
“Before the wide plains were cleared, we cowered in small groups and prayed for safety. A brave few ventured forth to collect the things we needed. Some never returned. Many were taken to the Plant pens and never seen again.”
A few of the chicks looked to be in danger of crying. Old William changed his pitch, let awe and hope enter his words.
“Then the Rocs came,” he said. “From where, we’ll never know, but one morning, they flew out of the East, on wings as wide as this cave mouth. Their feathers gleamed in the light of the sun. And hope flew with them.”

* * * *

Welcome to the RAWK universe. A few years ago, a group of inspired authors belonging to the Moses Lake Muses writing group undertook an exercise in world building. Through the chat that ensued, the planet, Rawk, orbited into existence. Here was a world overrun by insidious and highly intelligent plant life, by giant Venus Flytraps who used their root system and 'nodes' to control the rest of the vegetation--and who had an insatiable appetite for flesh.

The shy, but tenacious denizens of Rawk, the great flocks of birds who lived in constant fear of the Plants, told us their tales. They spoke of the time when the grasses butted right up to their cliff aeries and the Plants nearly held dominion. They whispered of the ones who went missing, who now, possibly, lived imprisoned by the Plants, providing a constant, domestic food source for Rawk's wicked masters. They told us of the mushroom growers, the healers and chemists, and the brave milkers who venture into the wild jungles, risking their lives to procure the juices needed to make medicine. The showed us the mighty herds of insects that roamed their deserts.

They shared their festivals with us, the great annual gatherings for trade, games and mating.

In short, they enchanted us with the wonders and possibilities of their world. Each of us left that discussion with a mind full of stories to be told. This one, Much Ado About Bluebottles, is mine. I hope you find it entertaining, and I hope you seek out other stories, or help me encourage more to be written, by the talented authors that shared RAWK's creation with me.

~ Frances Pauli