So today is day 3 of the build up to the review of Charlotte English’s brand new novel Orlind, and I love her writing and her books, so I was so happy to be able to post a short story by her! So without further ado here it is:
Sigwide and the Bokren Birds
The black-scaled drauk was at least twice the size of Sigwide, but the little grey orting wasn’t fazed. He squared off against his scaled and clawed opponent, growling deep in his small soft-furred chest.
The drauk ignored him. It continued its advance on the one remaining bokren bird, sending the dim-witted creature into a noisy panic. Irked by this lack of consideration, Sigwide gathered his round little body into a crouch and prepared to charge.
Ynara Sanfaer stood watching the development of this little three-way battle, suffering some indecision. Egora was one of a small flock of six bokren birds she had owned, the only one still living after a spate of drauk attacks. The bird was as dense as a stump, of course, but with her jaunty red feet and wings she was a rather attractive thing. And she laid wonderful eggs. Ynara would prefer not to lose her as well.
Sigwide, on the other hand, had been her daughter’s beloved pet for the last eleven years and was completely irreplaceable. And just now he was intent on impaling himself on the drauk’s spiked tail.
It wasn’t much of a choice. With a sigh, she stooped and scooped up the orting. Sigwide fought, as she had expected; she was obliged to use both hands to keep him from jumping free, and in that instant the drauk struck. The bokren squawked and struggled, feathers flying; then its neck snapped between the drauk’s strong jaws and it fell silent.
Ynara thought briefly about rescuing the corpse – at least the poor stupid beast would make good stew – but a glance at the drauk’s wicked claws changed her mind. Gripping the wildly struggling Sigwide a little harder, she opened her wings. With a small jump she was airborne and wending her way up to the top of the broad-capped glissenwol tree in which her family lived.
The house was built inside and around the trunk in a motley collection of wooden-walled rooms. A wide balcony hung near the top, sheltered and kept dry by the overarching glissenwol cap. Ynara landed here and stepped into the house, releasing Sigwide with some relief.
‘Ow,’ she muttered, inspecting the red scratches now striping the honey-brown hue of her skin.
She found her husband and daughter in the kitchen, sharing a bowl of tea. Sigwide ran straight to Llandry and climbed her leg, his fur bristling as he chattered out his rage. Llan’s eyes travelled from the enraged orting to Ynara herself, taking in the new wounds.
‘Don’t tell me,’ she said. ‘He still thinks he’s an orboe.’
Ynara dropped into a chair with a sigh. ‘He’d need to be at least that size to take on a drauk and win. But he keeps trying.’
Aysun grunted his disapproval. ‘Wild beast needs to learn manners. And sense.’
‘He’s all right, Pa,’ said Llandry, hugging Sigwide close. ‘He’s never seriously injured himself.’
‘Only other people,’ Aysun replied, casting a meaningful look at Ynara’s bleeding arms.
Llandry winced. ‘Sorry, Ma.’
Ynara shrugged. ‘They’ll heal. My poor Egora will not, however.’
‘Not only stupid, but wholly ineffectual as a guard as well,’ Aysun commented. At Llandry’s reproachful look, he softened the sting of his comment by reaching over and tickling the orting’s belly.
‘Your alarm device was wholly ineffectual, too,’ Ynara retorted.
‘Ah… it didn’t go off again?’
‘It did, but far too late. By the time I reached the ground, the drauk already had Egora cornered. I couldn’t have rescued her without getting sliced up by the thing myself.’
‘It’s meant to scare the thing away,’ Aysun muttered, his blond brows drawn together. ‘I’ll work on it.’
‘No. That’s enough. I can’t watch any more of my poor birds get butchered by the drauk population of Glinnery. As long as we live so close to the woods, it’ll always be a problem.’
‘You sure, Ma? If Pa built a cage, they’d be safe.’
‘And imprisoned. That’s no solution, love.’ Llandry’s face – so like her own, with her grey eyes, honey-coloured skin and dark black hair – was anxious and sad as she looked at her mother. She was a worrier, that girl, and seemed to feel every little hurt of her mother’s ten times over.
Ynara smiled reassuringly and squeezed Llandry’s hand. ‘It’s all right, love. I’ll miss the birds, but we can go back to getting our eggs from the market.’
Llandry nodded dubiously. She looked at her father. ‘I’m sure we could come up with something better. Right, Pa?’
Aysun looked straight at Ynara and grinned. It was one of those boyish grins, full of mischief and fun; it looked no less natural on his tanned and lined face than it had twenty years ago when they were both young.
It was the sort of grin that gave her mixed feelings. Anticipation, because it usually meant he was about to do something fiendishly clever and amusing. And trepidation, because sometimes his fiendishly clever plans went horribly awry.
‘Don’t get carried away,’ she said warningly. But the remarkably similar expressions on her husband and daughter’s faces told her the warning was futile.
A week later, Llandry sat in the tiny workshop she’d built in her own home, a few minutes’ flight from her mother’s house. Sigwide was asleep in his basket, for which she felt guiltily thankful. He could be tremendously disruptive when she was trying to work, but she always found it difficult to turn the loyal little beast away.
In her hands was a tiny round piece of black jet, matching several others that lay on her work bench. She had worked them into perfect spheres and polished them to a high shine. They now lay glinting darkly in the golden afternoon sunlight that streamed through her big windows.
‘A pile of eyes,’ she murmured to herself as her slender fingers worked away at the last stone. ‘How macabre.’
Sigwide stirred in his basket and chirped something. She often wished she could understand what he was saying; he so frequently sounded conversational. He’d learned some of her words: he responded with extreme excitement whenever anybody mentioned “food”, “nuts” or “fruit”. The fact that she couldn’t decipher even a single phrase of his made her feel dense.
She added the final piece of jet to the pile and inspected it with some satisfaction. She loved her work as a jeweller, but never more so than when she was crafting something for her mother. The claws and beaks were finished as well, worked in vividly red firestone. She’d carved each one with precision, making them as lifelike as possible. Now it was time to deliver them to her father.
She packed everything carefully into her belt pouch, then slung Sigwide’s carry pack across her shoulders. Once a grumbling Sigwide was safely tucked into the travel bag, she stepped out onto the wide ledge before her front door and unfurled her wings. Hers were pale grey, a hue she secretly found insipid next to her mother’s glorious dark blue.
But then, that was essentially true of every feature. Ynara glowed with health and beauty; Llandry only managed a faint sparkle once in a while, on her best days. The contrast regularly mortified her, but she was far too attached to her mother to mind.
Well. She didn’t mind that much.
She adopted a lazy pace, her wings beating powerfully but slowly as she soared over the clustered glissenwol caps of the city of Waeverleyne. She always flew high, enjoying the strong currents of air in the open skies. And the view was spectacular. The realm of Glinnery was always well-lit: when the sun set, the sorcerers drew a cloak of soft, artificial light over the realm’s woods and towns, feeding the needs of the light-hungry plants, beasts and machines that their society required. Waeverleyne, Glinnery’s capital city, reflected the perpetual light from its hundreds of bejewelled buildings, its narrow rivers and its pools of still, clear water, shining brilliantly even in the softer eventide hours. She made the journey slowly, taking in the view.
Her parents lived on the outskirts of the city, almost on the edge. The glissenwol wilds loomed in a colourful mass a half-mile or so to the east of their particularly tall tree. It had been a perfect place to grow up, for they had all the conveniences of the city within reach, and all the advantages of untamed nature a short flight away.
There were also downsides, of course, including regular visits from the vicious drauks that decimated Ynara’s poultry. Well. If she couldn’t have egg-laying birds, she could have an equally attractive substitute for her pretty red-winged birds.
Her father was at work in the rear garden when she arrived.
‘Is Mamma home?’ she asked as she landed lightly beside him.
‘She’s out,’ Aysun replied. ‘Council meeting.’
Llandry nodded. Ynara was an elected Elder of the realm of Glinnery, so she was frequently absent. That was convenient today.
She nodded and loosed Sigwide. ‘I finished the eyes.’
‘Great. There are three ready to fit.’ He waved a brown hand at a short row of small metal constructs, each one exactly as high as an average bokren bird. The machines had legs, wings and heads attached to their rounded bodies; all that remained were the details she’d created. She grinned her appreciation as she examined the metal birds. Her father was as much artist as engineer; these fabricated poultry were minutely detailed and, in their own way, quite beautiful.
‘Do they work?’ Llandry took up a cross-legged position next to her father and unpacked her bags of gems and tools. She began fitting eyes, claws and wing-tips to the first bird as her father worked at the manufacture of another.
‘Yep,’ he answered. ‘See this?’ He pointed to a thin strip of dark panelling that ran down the back of the bird she held. ‘Just needs a bit more light.’
‘You’re amazing, Pa.’ He flashed her a quick grin by way of an answer, still intent on fitting a wing onto the fourth metal bokren bird. She focused on her own task, and for a time they worked in silence. At last, when the sun was near to setting and the eventide hours of the Day Cloak were drawing in, the birds were ready. A row of six of them stood at Llandry’s left hand, all glittering with the coloured gems she had set into the metal.
‘Should be ready,’ Aysun said, getting to his feet. He walked up and down for a few moments, wincing. Llandry understood his discomfort as soon as she stood up; the hours of motionless activity had stolen most of the blood from her legs, and they prickled painfully as she moved.
Her father crouched down behind the row of bokrens and nudged one of them with his hand. It jerked forward, its wings flapping as its legs moved. Llandry could hear the whir of tiny gears inside the bird, maintaining the flow of movement. Soon all six were rattling around the garden, walking jerkily but steadily in circles. Llandry jumped as one of them opened its jewelled beak and emitted a squawk.
‘Reckon that’ll do nicely, don’t you?’ Aysun folded his arms, observing his creations with a pleased expression.
‘Reckon so,’ Llandry agreed. ‘Just one last thing.’ She dashed away to the old bokren pen and grabbed a few of the real birds’ nests. They even had a few feathers still clinging to the woven straw. She laid the nests around the garden, placing a few dark-shelled bokren eggs in each one.
‘Perfect,’ she beamed.
‘Think she’ll like them?’
Llandry considered that. ‘She’ll either love them or hate them,’ she decided. Her father just nodded glumly.
‘I’ll wait upstairs.’ He wandered off to the stairs and began to climb them slowly. Aysun was from the adjacent realm of Irbel, and lacked the wings that Llandry and her mother both bore. Llandry sometimes wondered if he felt like an outsider in Waeverleyne; few wingless humans lived there for more than a few moons at a time. But he’d never seemed dissatisfied to her.
She stooped to grab Sigwide before he could get his teeth around the leg of a downed metal bokren. ‘I’ll be up in a minute,’ she called.
Ynara arrived home with an aching head and an aching back. Too many hours spent sitting in a hard chair in the councillor’s halls was never good for her. She went straight up to her bedchamber to brush and rearrange her hair and wash her face. Feeling revived, she descended the stairs on her way to the kitchen.
Her husband and daughter were waiting for her at the bottom.
‘What? Is something wrong?’ She felt a flicker of anxiety under their scrutiny.
‘Nope,’ said Aysun.
‘Did you pass through the garden on your way up, Ma?’
‘No,’ she said slowly, looking from one to the other. Where they were expressionless before, now they were looking very pleased with themselves. ‘What have you two been up to?’
‘You really need to come and see this,’ Llandry replied. The two of them turned as one and went to the door. She followed them down the exterior stairs, feeling that mixture of anticipation and trepidation once again.
A scene of chaos awaited her in the garden. Half a dozen metal birds flapped and squawked their way around the flowerbeds, their wings shining a far brighter red than any real feathers. They were bokren birds, perfect to every detail; the very jerkiness of their mechanised gait mimicked the graceless movements of the real birds eerily well.
She took in the nests filled with eggs that were scattered about, her lips twitching into a smile.
‘Good grief,’ she managed faintly. ‘You two are just… just… there aren’t words.’
‘That’s not all,’ Llandry said. She pointed at one of the blue-leaved glaeshur bushes that Ynara had planted around the base of the stairs. Sigwide crouched beside it, watching the bokren birds with avid interest. Then he exploded into action, yipping in excitement as he charged at the nearest bird. He nudged the thing with nose and paws until it changed direction and fell into step with an adjacent bird. This step he repeated until all six birds were marching off to the west, the dying sun’s bronze glow flickering like firelight on their polished metal wings.
The absurd orting paused for some moments to watch his handiwork. Then he raced around to intercept the ragged row of bokren constructs and began turning them to go back the other way.
Ynara began to laugh. The sight of those ridiculous robotic bokren birds all walking in a line; Sigwide’s herding game; the identical looks of smug merriment on the faces of her husband and daughter; all of it set her laughing until she could hardly breathe.
‘All right,’ she gasped at last. ‘That might be a truly resplendent waste of time and resources, but I’ll admit it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.’
Aysun and Llandry were laughing too. ‘No wonder he’s so bad at guarding,’ Llandry said breathlessly. ‘He’s a herder by nature.’
‘Crap at that too, though,’ Aysun said. ‘Watched him try it with the real ones. Not one of them would take him seriously.’
Ynara chuckled, and picked up the orting as he raced past her feet again. She held him in the air, his fur soft under her fingers.
‘You’re ridiculous,’ she informed him.
Sigwide squirmed out of her grasp and resumed herding with inexhaustible enthusiasm.
‘Completely ridiculous,’ Llandry agreed.