Sunday, March 11, 2012

Episode Seven

She tugged on a bit of grass, and the strands parted from the mat, pulling free. Tr’lia held the smaller bit in her beak and hopped two bounces to the right. The fiber had cost her the rest of her festival money, and it wasn’t very good quality at that, but it would do for a start. She used her clawed toes to twist the strands and then poked with her beak so that the tight end joined the weaving she’d already begun on the cave floor.
She’d never made a nest before.
It looked awful, just a clump of half-twisted, dry old grass half as big as it should be for the time it had taken. Tr’lia sighed and pulled at a corner. The bottom needed to be the stoutest, even though she planned to add a good deal more fibers to its construction to hide the rugged beginnings. Her nest would need a firm foundation if she meant it to last. She tucked and tweaked and fiddled with the last bit before bouncing back to the fiber bundle. More layers might do it. More depth, and then it needed to be a lot bigger—big enough for two someday.
She stabbed the pillow again and clicked around, feeling for a stouter blade, a reed that might reinforce her nest’s bottom. A squeak from the cave mouth stalled her probing and brought her up sputtering. Lili. It was only a matter of time.
“Hello,” Tr’lia ignored the puffed up blue ball of indignation in her doorway. She turned back to her next selection and waited.
“Your. You.”
She felt a thicker stalk and snapped it up. Eureka, the blade had a woody, rounded stem, and pulled out a good two spans longer than the rest. Strong floor material.
“Oh.” Tr’lia nearly dropped the blade for chuckling. “That. Right.” She hopped to the nest and tucked the thick end into one side. Long enough to criss-cross the bit she’d already woven at least. She wouldn’t have to undo it and start over, though she might need to trade for something extra pretty to hide it.
“And?” Lili recovered and hopped into the cave interior. The space barely held both of them. Starter caves were meant to be cozy. “Does your mother know why?”
“Shush, Lili.” She stood up too fast and pulled out the last two loops of grass. “You promised to keep that quiet.”
“I know.”
“Weren’t you even going to tell me?” Lili’s feathers smoothed, halving her bulk, and she shuffled her feet against the stone floor.
“Of course. I just wanted to have something to show you first.”
“Is that it?”
“It’s harder than it looks.” Tr’lia sighed and worked the tail of the grass into the weave. “And I’ll hide most of this with feathers. It just has to be strong.”
“I can’t believe your mother let you start.” Lili pressed forward and examined the nest's beginnings, head turned sharply to one side and beak grinding together softly.
“It’s only a little bit early. They’ve had the cave since my hatching day.”
“Mine too. It’s nice, Tr’lia.”
“It’s really small.”
“Mine’s smaller.” Lili clattered her beak and bobbed her head forward and back. “I’d better find a tiny little man.”
The cave warbled with laughter. Tr’lia tried to eye her work critically, but it blurred a bit around the edges. She’d always thought Lili would nest first. It just seemed like a Lili sort of thing, nesting. She sighed and shifted her weight to the other foot. It was only a little bit early.
“You know,” Lili said. “I have some ribbons saved. There’s too much to use in one place. You could have a little bit for the sides or around the top.”
“Thanks, Lili.”
“Maybe I’ll start one soon too.”
“Hopefully yours will weave a little better. Look at that bubble.”
“It’s nice, Tr’lia.”
It wasn’t. Still, she’d only just started. Building the nest would keep her busy, keep her mind from thinking of killer plants and long-distance romance. She fluffed and shook the tension off. He’d said he was coming back. He’d said he’d find a way to see her. She looked at Lili through a rain of dislodged down and tried not to panic.
And if P’rao did return, at least she could have something here for him to come back to. She snagged a bit of fluff from mid-air and waved it at Lili.
“Help me grab this. We can use it to cover up the bottom.”
                                                                            Next Episode

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Episode Six

P’rao waited for them under the bleachers. Tr’lia landed on the highest perch, three beats before Lili’s impact rattled the dried timbers. She saw him twist his neck up, caught the flash of green in the shadows.
He had a glow bug lantern, but shielded it with his wing so that this corner of the arena remained nearly pitch black, lit only by a few distant stars and the thin slip of the small moon. Trl’ia saw him though, before the light dimmed beneath his mantle, and she felt the look as if it were a warm updraft.
“Wait here, Lili. Keep an eye out.” Tr’lia hopped from the stands. She heard Lili’s protest, but ignored the clacking and kept her eyes riveted on the valley floor. He waited just there, and so she’d land gracefully right about here.
The dust puffed a bit more than she planned, but in the low light, who would see if her tail was a bit fouled? She straightened her neck into a tall curve and tilted her head to one side, fixing a single eye on the darkness where she knew he stood.
“Hello, Tr’lia.” He hopped out so fast she stumbled back a step. Even so, he ended up very close beside her.
“H—hello.” Her beak rattled, and she grabbed the bare ground with her claws to steady her nerves. “I. Your friend delivered your message, P’rao.” They’d never been actually introduced, and his name felt risky, like the bravest thing she’d ever said.
“Meech didn’t think you would come.” His wing twitched aside, letting the glow bugs light a circle around them. Her sash gleamed against his breast, under his milker’s vest. It linked them, somehow, that strip of her feathers against his. He slid one step back under the bleachers, and Tr’lia followed.
“Why did you want to see me?” She lowered her voice, took slow, small steps for each of his long ones. Still, they stood in the protection of the structure before she had time to think.
“Tr’lia,” Lili hissed overhead. “I can’t see you!”
“I wanted to see you again.” He ruffled, and his crest curled forward. “I just. It felt.”
“I know.” She’d felt it to, hadn’t she, that tremor of something larger in the market square, the sense of fate hanging over?
“The festival is almost finished.”
“Yes.” They only had one day of closing events before the booths would come down, the wood recycled or stored like the precious thing it was, saved for the next need. “Tomorrow.”
“I have to leave in the morning.”
It came out louder than she imagined, and his crest slicked back down. He bobbled from foot to foot. Tomorrow. What could possibly be the point, if he was just up and leaving?
“I have a job at the edge the day after.”
“I see. Of course.”
“I want to see you again, Tr’lia.”
He’d barely seen her this time. Still, the idea warmed her enough to set her cheeks puffing. She shifted her weight from side to side, twisted her neck and thought about it.
“I’ll find a way to get back here between jobs.”
Milking jobs. That’s what he meant. He planned on going out into the jungle, into the thick, plant-infested strip along the border of their plain. He might easily not survive it.
“Is it very dangerous?” She hated how her voice trembled.
“Oh, it’s not too bad.” He purred it, smoothed the danger from the idea, but she knew it was. Of course it was.  When he hopped close to her side, Tr’lia leaned into him. “It would be better knowing I had something to fly back to.”
“Yes. I imagine it would.”
“Do you want me to?”
“Come back?”
Lili screeched down from the rafters, but her words flew wide. Tr’lia couldn’t hear a thing over her own heartbeat. A low breeze swirled around them, lifting the dust and a few stray bits of litter that danced down toward the market aisles.
P’rao slipped closer. Their wings brushed at the shoulder, and she let out a long breath. His neck curled. His beak clicked once and then ran a line along her neck feathers, ruffling them and sending trembles all the way to her little clawed toes. She warbled, way back in her throat, and heard P’rao’s answer, felt it vibrate in the air.
“Tr’lia!” Lili plopped to the ground beside the bleachers. Dust heaved into the air, blocking them long enough for P’rao to run his wingtip under hers, to stroke her side before sliding back a step. “Where are you? Someone is coming.”
“Here.” Her voice had little breath behind it. “I’m here, Lili, I’m fine.”
“Someone is…ooo!”
A second impact followed, and a scrabbling of claws and shadows. Tr’lia heard an “oof,” and Lili’s squeaking, but the dust swirled thickly now, and P’rao’s wing settled over her back. He pulled her farther into the shelter and hopped to block her from the ruckus.
“Lili!” She still had less voice than she’d hoped for.
“Take that!” Lili screeched and beat her wings at whoever had had the misfortune of startling her.
P’rao laughed, and Lili’s wings paused, still raised and ready to wallop the intruder. The dust settled leisurely, revealing a hunched over Meech, protecting his head with one wing and nearly kissing the dry ground. “Call her off!” He blinked against the rain of dirt and clattered his bill. “Someone shackle this harpy.”
Thump. Lili’s wing landed in his back. Tr’lia flinched as the poor cock toppled to his side, legs kicking.
“Stop it, Lili!” She brushed past P’rao and sidestepped into the open. The glow bugs came out again, making the dust a sheet that veiled the scene.
Lili’s blue feathers caked with the stuff. Her eyes blinked twice, “He called me a harpy!”
“Terribly rude of you, Meech,” P’rao chirped. He sounded far too tickled about poor Meech’s abused state. “You should apologize.”
“Me! She attacked me.”
“You landed on top of me!” Lili hopped into the air for emphasis.
“I didn’t.”
“Shhhhh.” P’rao mantled and hunkered down, swaying and stepping forward at the same time. The threat worked. Both Lili and Meech shut up long enough for the latter to flip back over and stumble to his feet.
Tr’lia chuckled and scuttled to P’rao’s side.
“Tr’lia,” Lili lowered her wings and sagged into a pout. “You look like a puff ball.” She squinted suspiciously at her feathers. They still prickled in all directions from P’rao’s attentions. “We should go before we get in trouble.”
 Go. The thought alone brought her plumage back to a normal state. She shivered against the next breeze, despite the warmth rising from the plain. He’d be gone in the morning.
“Tr’lia!” Lili whined, and hopped in place. Her nerves had just about failed. She’d be bolting to tattle next.
“Yeah. We should go.”
P’rao turned to face her, blocking them out and tilting his green head to one side. He warbled again, soft and just for her. She hopped forward, heard Lili’s clicking as his wings wrapped her in a quick embrace. His beak found her neck feathers again, nibbled at them once before he released her.
“Well,” Meech said. “So.”
P’rao backed away. He kept his eyes on her, though, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Tr’lia could only nod. She held her breath as Meech bounced into the air. P’rao only hesitated a second before launching. His down stroke lifted the dust again, but not enough to block out his parting look.
“Oh, my…”
“Don’t say it, Lili.” She sighed and watched the dark shapes drift away. “Just don’t say a thing.”

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Episode Five

She pressed her red bag higher up under her wing and hopped sideways toward the cave opening. From the side passage, the low whistle of her father snoring echoed against stone walls. The tunnels made him sound larger, more menacing than a squat sparrow with one gimpy wing.
Tr’lia held her breath and fought the urge to grind her beak. She’d wear the edge uneven, ruin her smile if she didn’t break the habit. Her nerves cared little for cosmetics. Her clawed toes scuffed the floor, flexing for a purchase and trying to keep silent in the process.
Two more hops would bring her to the mouth of their home. Beyond the irregular oval, an indigo sky sparkled with diamond stars. Shadows passed in the distance; some of the festivities still continued well into the wee hours, but they would be the more private kind—the kind her parents wouldn’t approve of.
She scuffed, and hopped again, and felt an cool eddy of night air swirling. Her claws flexed against the stone. The feathers on her cheeks puffed, and she sidled to the lip.
The wall of the aerie stood like a fortress against the plain. Their home opened out about three-fourths of the way up, just above the huge entrance to the flock’s secondary gathering cave. Tonight, no cackles sounded from below, however. Tr’lia could guess why. All the gathering was happening out on the festival grounds.
She grasped the very edge of the cave floor and peered down at the dance of glimmer and shadow. The booths all hung with billowing drapes, covered and waiting for dawn to break. The fabric rippled. She could see the movement, even from up here, and it spoke of crisp temperatures, moist air leaking off the distant jungles. The jungles where he worked.
A shiver wiggled from her scaly knees up to her wingtips. She ground her beak together and hugged the bag—and the scrolled message inside—closer. Her legs flexed and she pushed off, spreading her wings and catching the heat rising from the sun-soaked earth.
It buffered her. She shot up, streaking past cave mouths until the top of the plateau passed and the whole world spread below. The lights of glow insects dotted the grounds ahead, tiny now and barely moving.  Still, some revelers were about. A large cluster of lights shone at one end of the long arena. A few smaller ones centered on the open space in the heart of their makeshift market.
Tr’lia twitched her right wing and banked to the side, diving at the same time. The note had said the eastern end. He’d said to meet her there, opposite where the crowds were, where they’d be alone. Her back riffled and she wobbled in the dive, leveling out and making like an arrow toward dark end of the arena. Alone…with a milker.
She angled lower and felt the rush of air, the sweep of velocity across her feathers. Her mother would kill her if she knew.
A shadow crossed directly in front of her. Tr’lia squeaked and banked sharply away. She just knew, for one terrified breath, that her mother had found her, that her life was about to end. Instead, it was Lili’s voice that broke through her pounding heartbeats. It was Lili’s fat silhouette that joined formation at her right shoulder.
“Are you insane?”
“Go back to bed, Lili.”
“You can’t go alone, Tr’lia. What if he’s a creep?”
“What if he kills you and drags you off to the Plants.”
“If I’m dead, I hardly think I’d mind.”
“You can’t go alone.”
She heard Lili’s beak click, and the sound soothed her nerves. She’d been half a wing-beat shy of chickening out as it was. With Lili along, nothing bad could happen—except Lili.
“All right, then. You come with me.”
“Come on. You can keep an eye on us and if he does anything scary, go for help.”
“I don’t want to end up in the jungle, after all.”
It was brilliant, actually. Lili could chaperone, and by coming along, she’d share the guilt for sneaking out. If she’d been tempted to tattle before, the fear of her own punishment should snuff the urge sufficiently. Besides, she’d be glad for the backup. Just in case.
“Down there.” Tr’lia snapped her own beak, loud and mostly to ease the nervous flutter in her craw. She didn’t wait for an answer, just dipped her bill toward the arena and dove straight for the meeting she’d waited the whole festival for. Tonight, with the dark stretch rising rapidly to meet her, she almost pulled up. She almost turned tail and flew straight back to her own perch.
It would have been the safe thing to do, but then, the safe thing didn’t include milkers at all.