Rocco’s wings hummed over the savannah. He planted his feet at the base of the cliffs.
Staying close to the rock face, he flew up, pausing to listen at regular intervals for the shouts of guards or Air Marshals, and glancing back at the Endless Plains. At last he came to the top. The fortress wall of Krakatoan was exceedingly long and high. Up close it was even more massive. But he had managed to arrive at the end of the wall, a corner tower, bordered on the right by a dense forest.
Pulling himself over the crest of the rock, he started into the woods. A peal of laughter, close but muffled by the stone wall, rang out. Once he was safely inside the trees, Rocco walked along the wall’s outer edge, guided by the laughter that continued to float into the air.
He came to a tree with a sizeable trunk, and branches overhanging the top of the wall. Whoever was on the other side might hear his wings, so he climbed the tree and pulled himself out as far as he dared. He was almost at the end of the tree’s limb.
The voices, clearly more than one, had grown ever louder with merriment. Rocco parted the leaves. Four young urvogels, with white wings and dressed in white robes, were playing in the courtyard below.
‘You go,’ said the tallest urvogel, Wheat Hair, he decided to call him because his hair – pulled in a topknot - was the exact colour of a field of grain ready to be harvested.
They were playing some sort of game. Wheat Hair pushed the shoulders of the smallest one whose dark hair hung loosely around his face. Small One ran forward. The other three began to chant, run-run-run-jump-and-flip.
Upon reaching the base of the wall, Small One jumped at the stones as if he could run up vertically. Whatever he was trying to do, he wasn’t very good at it. Two steps up, and Small One jerked back. He fell on his bottom. Small One didn’t appear to be hurt, he grinned up at the others who began laughing uproariously.
The other two white robes were a middle-sized boy and girl. Middle Boy and Girl, he would call them. Middle Boy had a tapered face. His hair was in a topknot just like Wheat Hair’s. Girl had long, loose raven-coloured hair, which bounced around her shoulders and down her back.
‘I’m going to go again,’ announced Small One.
‘Not your turn,’ said Girl.
‘I fell. It didn’t count.’
‘Yes it did.’
They were almost directly beneath Rocco. He had a clear view of the tops of their heads.
The area where they were jumping was full of closely cropped, very green grass. How did they keep it so trim? Not even any goats around, thought Rocco, looking along the cobbled pathways that ran under the equally green trees. Clay roofs of buildings built out of some kind of shiny white rock stood in the distance. Deeper within the city rose the towering walls of the Queen’s palace. At the top sat the three gold domes.
Turning his attention back to the game, Rocco watched the girl urvogel run-run-run-jump-and-flip. They sang the phrase aloud. Girl managed a perfect backflip off the wall. She was agile, hardly using her wings. Bouncing down to the ground, she bowed low while the other three clapped. They were surprisingly playful. Not mean at all.
A knot from the tree limb kept sticking into his stomach. Rocco shifted around trying to find a more comfortable position. As he jostled around, a spray of leaves fluttered off the tree. They blew down. The four urvogels’ heads jerked up.
‘What was that?’ asked Middle Boy.
Rocco shrank back into the foliage, but his sudden movement knocked another cluster of leaves loose.
About fifty metres away stood the corner tower. Two Air Marshals had come out. Talking, and watching the white robes at play, they leaned over the waist-high wall. A sloping roof made of the same clay tiles as the city buildings rose over their heads. They were dressed in the same red-trimmed black jackets as the Air Marshals who visited the river villages each year.
The sight of the Air Marshals made Rocco’s stomach churn. He jerked deeper into the leaves. When he was small, Air Marshals used to raid the villages at any time of the day or night. They would swoop down and seize any goat or sack of grain that happened to be left out in the open.
After years of being terrorized in this manner, the villagers finally agreed to pay a tax to Queen Harpia. A treaty was drawn up with a term that only permitted the Air Marshals to visit once, on the Eve of the Harvest Moon.
Rocco had never seen Air Marshals up close before. At his mother’s urging he stayed inside, watching from his bedroom window whilst everyone else attended the Harvest Moon Exchange in the village square. If his mother was away, or down in the square herself, he would throw on his cloak and watch from the top of his steps.
The Air Marshals, no longer watching, were marching along the top of the wall. They were headed south on the side of the wall that paralleled the cliffs. Were they going to walk the whole way around, and how far was it anyway?
With the Air Marshals fading from sight, Rocco laid down again, clutching the branch tightly to his chest. Small One needed to win, or at least make a complete flip without falling. The others were older and better at it, but Small One was charming, the way he giggled at each disastrous attempt.
Air Marshal boots clapped on the wall. Rocco’s spine stiffened. He craned his neck, which was also stiff from lying still in order to prevent any more leaves from falling off. The plumed feathers sticking up from the Air Marshals’ helmets bobbed into view.
The pair bent low, skirting under a branch before passing out of Rocco’s line of vision. He could hear them still, clap-clapping over the stones. Surely they hadn’t lapped the entire wall in such a short span of time.
What would the Air Marshals do if they caught him? Would they think he was some sort of spy? No one would believe he came all this way just because he was curious.
The Air Marshals stepped into view beneath the roof of the corner tower. They looked like a different pair. One had a rounder face. They were talking, not paying attention to him or the white robes below.
Rocco turned back to the game. These young urvogels were friendly, nice to each other, the way they bantered back and forth. With his eyes shut they might have been human children playing in the village yard.
Twice more that afternoon Rocco’s back stiffened as he heard Air Marshal boots clap along the wall. Each time he held his breath, watching as the plumed helmets ducked under the branch, disappeared for a period, only to reappear moments later in the corner tower. Only then could he breathe freely again.
The sunlight faded. Light began to flicker from the white robes’ wings. So their feathers were bioluminescent just like the Air Marshals’ wings.
The white robes had stopped playing. They walked over and sat down beneath a tree at the edge of the cobbled path. They were beautiful. Wheat Hair, Middle Boy and Girl were aligned in a row, their wings all angled the same way. Small One was lying on his back in front of them. He was talking and waving his arms.
They looked like a flock of giant birds. They didn’t look cruel. Maybe that quality only came out when their queen was around, or maybe when one of them was sick or weak or about to die? Did they fall on each other, buzzing around their victim in a frenzy?
Rocco glanced back at his own wings. At least the sand was still sticking to his feathers. He could hide easily enough during the day, but without the sand covering, his wings would be as bright as a beacon.
He scuttled back on his branch. Wrapping his arms around the tree trunk he swung down to the ground outside the wall.
It was late. He began to run. Moments later he reached the cliffs. The moon hung low. The sky was full of pale stars casting a soft glow over the swaying grass below.
Did all their looking down from the cliffs make urvogels think they were better than humans, Rocco wondered, gazing down. Well, they were superior. They had wings.
The wind, cooler now that the sun had fallen, blew against his face. Surely there was some advantage to living on the ground, he thought scanning the Endless Plains, to the left and right.
With a jump, he dropped feet first over the edge. Wings half open to guide his descent, he glided down. At the bottom he found another patch of sand and rolled around once more. The sky was clear, so he set off for the lonely tree.
The tree’s long shadow fell on the ground. He flew up to his earlier spot. He lay back, listening to his heart thump as he stared up at the darkened ridge of the city wall.
He’d actually done it! He’d seen something no human had ever seen -- young urvogels playing inside the city. A vein in his neck began to throb.
As he continued to watch, one urvogel then another flew into the sky above the city. A dozen more flew up. They circled each other, at first randomly then separating themselves into lines.
The lines rose, gaining altitude as they ascended. The urvogels at the top touched hands, or so it appeared, before spiraling down with their wings tucked.
They were sky dancing!
For a moment they disappeared behind the wall, then up they flew again. Wings flickered, then grew bright, as if they were signalling. Higher and higher they flew as the sequence began again.
How could such glorious creatures be so cruel? Lions were beautiful. Sometimes male lions killed each other’s cubs. But there was a point to that slaughter — so the village teacher said. Male lions were trying to drive the she-lion into heat so she could bear his offspring. That was cruel but it sort of made sense, at least in a lion’s head.
The urvogels weren’t surfacing any more. The dance was over. The sky was dark. Pushing off his branch, Rocco flew out over the plains. The sight of them, it ravished his eyes. Was it some kind of trick to make him forget that they were treacherous?
His limbs wouldn’t stop quivering. Jafari wasn’t going to believe it all.
The night breeze blew. Bits of sand began to fleck off. His wings grew heavy like lead. Halfway home, cracks of blue began to flash out from his underwing. He could touch down on the savannah, but there were going to be lions or hyenas skulking around in the long grass. No, he wouldn’t risk it.
A heaviness, like a giant hand, settled over his head. His nerves were shot. He was tired. He’d seen so much, his eyes were tired out. So was his mind spirit. Little wonder that his senses weren’t working any more.
The silhouetted trees of the Ebo River rose like phantoms. Veils of moonlight rippled along the upper branches, flickering in a stream of endlessly shifting shapes. It was hard to tell what was real and what was nightshade. Down below, the river bed curled like a snake, bent and woven into the stomach of the earth.
Not far ahead a sharply angled ray of light stuck out from the trees. It sort of looked like a soaring wing which didn’t make any sense. Where was its mate? Rocco rubbed his eyes. Slowing down, he came abreast of the tree where the light had been. The shape, whatever it was, existed no more. Everything was blackness and trees.
The moon was playing tricks. Or maybe his head was suffering from drought. He hadn’t had a drop of water all day.
He reached the village fence. Flying along the outer rim, he came to the spot directly across from the village well. He flew over the top, and glided down, being careful not to flap. The villagers never tired of telling him how much they hated the sound of urvogel wings.
The village yard was just as empty as it had been that morning. He walked over to the well and drew up a bucket of water. He drank half and poured the rest over his dusty head. With the bucket still in his hand he sat down on the ledge that went around the well.
The hair on the back of his neck had prickled.
Jumping up, he looked around. The yard was silent, almost too quiet -- not a cricket or a night hooting bird. He knew the shapes of the fence, the rows of houses and the wind tower.
Setting the bucket on the ground, he set off up the slope leading to his house. He trudged on, listening to the beat of his own feet. Arriving at his door, he looked around one more time. Not finding anything amiss, he stumbled inside, almost tripping over his mother’s shoes.
His mother had only been gone for five days. He hadn’t expected her back for at least a week. She’d been over in Gogogamesh delivering a cousin’s baby. Maybe the baby came early, thought Rocco as he kicked off his shoes.
Had his mother spent all evening wondering where he was? Probably not. She probably thought he was sleeping at Jafari’s. He could go over now, but what was the point. He was already home. Pulling back his sheets, he sank down.
* * *
Rocco’s eyes flew open. Several hours had passed. Light from the window was grey.
He sat bolt upright on the edge of the bed. A bell was clanging somewhere outside. The heavy hand he’d felt earlier was pressing on the top of his head again. He was still too tired to think straight. He got up and looked out the window. The smoldering shapes of houses, half visible in the early light, huddled in the distance.
Again, the bell clanged. A knot was forming in the bottom of his stomach. Something wasn’t right. Throwing on his clothes, he ran outside. Had a lion found its way into the village? Were the River Gang boys up to something?
A familiar shape was running up the slope.
‘Rocco! They’ve seen you, and they’re looking everywhere for you. You have to—’ Jafari’s voice broke off. He lurched forward.
As Rocco leapt down the steps, Jafari fell. What could he have possibly tripped on? Rocco ran down.
‘What happened?’ asked Rocco, kneeling down at the same moment he noticed the arrow sticking out of Jafari’s back. He grabbed it. Jafari moaned so he let go.
‘Who did this?’ asked Rocco squinting down the slope.
‘You have to go! Get out now!’ Jafari shoved his leg.
Several doors down, two Air Marshals were standing in the middle of the path. They were looking this way.
‘I’m not leaving without you.’ Rocco’s voice was hoarse as he leaned down, intending to pick Jafari up and carry him into the house.
‘It’s not me they’re after! It’s you! Go! Go!’ Jafari pushed harder at Rocco’s leg.
Rocco staggered up. The Air Marshals weren’t standing still any longer. They were advancing up the path. A cloud of dust swirled behind them. One had just shot Jafari. He was holding a bow. With his eyes on Rocco, he reached back in his quiver.
What did they want with him? Had they followed him home from Krakatoan?
His wings jerked open. That wasn’t going to work, not this time. Urvogels could fly. Lifting his feet, he began to run, one long stride after another until finally he was on his steps. His mother opened the door and pulled him in.
‘Air Marshals! They shot Jafari and now they’re after me!’ panted Rocco. He locked the door, made of thin planks, hardly a barrier if anyone really wanted in.
He ran to the counter. Opening a drawer, he seized a large butcher knife. He returned to his mother’s side. Her face was drawn, taut. The long twisted yarns of her hair, worn up during the day, now swung around her shoulders.
With the knife pointed at the door, Rocco drew his mother close.
Angry voices rang outside.
‘You’ll have to hide.’ His mother’s voice was deadly calm.
Rocco looked around. There wasn’t anywhere to hide. The house was small, just the kitchen and two sleeping rooms. Holding his mother close, he pulled her around the table. They were as far away from the door as they could get.
‘I’ve something to tell you, son.’
His mother put her hand on his shoulder.
A blow struck the door with such force that Rocco almost dropped the knife. If only his hands weren’t so sweaty, his aim could be deadly good. Still grasping the bone handle, he wiped his hand on his tunic and raised the knife again.
‘Harpia put a death sentence on your father. You know all about that. But you don’t know that she also declared that the offspring of the warriors who supported Belarica should also die.’
Rocco looked at his mother. What was she saying? Harpia? A death sentence?
His legs buckled. His mother’s arms were around him, holding him up.
The room was silent. Another sound, like a crack of thunder, hit the door.
‘I – I always planned to tell you, son, but by the time you were old enough it seemed as if Harpia had forgotten about her revenge. She hadn’t killed any of Belarica’s warriors. Yes, they died but she didn’t come for their offspring, the hunchback children. I thought – hoped – it was over, all that nastiness from the Great War.’
Another deafening bang hit the door. The Air Marshals had found something solid which they were now using as a battering ram. The floor shook.
‘So I’m going to die here, like this?’ Rocco’s gaze flew from one object to another: the stool in the corner, the greens lying over the side of the big black pot over the fire. His mother had obviously been planning to make a stew, a stew that he would never eat.
His mother touched his cheek. ‘We’re not finished yet – perhaps it is only curiosity or surprise that brings the Air Marshals here. Perhaps Harpia has only just discovered your existence.’
Rocco opened his mouth but only a croak came out. He pushed his face into his mother’s hair. She had protected him his entire life. She had warned him to stay away from the cliffs. She had made the protective cloak for his wings. And now she was standing beside him, trying to smooth over these last awful moments of his life.
‘I love you, son.’
He was drowning. The house had become a chaotic blur.
The banging at the door had risen to such a pitch that his mother stopped talking. He grasped his mother tighter. It had always been the two of them. It was the same – now – at the end.
Thwack. The door and its frame hit the floor with a pulverizing blow.
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