Krakatoan and Queen Harpia
An Air Marshal’s broad wings and black-plumed helmet loomed in the doorway. Dressed in a breastplate, and waving a gloved hand with hooked claws built into the fingertips, he strode over the flattened door. Waving the knife in one hand, Rocco clasped his mother tightly with the other. More Air Marshals pushed in. They beat their wings with gusto, as if they were vultures falling on a carcass.
A deep but forceful throbbing filled the air. Air Marshals outside were beating their war shields. The vibration caused the legs of the chairs and table to bounce. Dishes on the table rattled.
Pushing Rocco away, his mother stepped forward. She lifted her chin, casually as if she regularly addressed Air Marshals.
‘Get out of my house.’
The Air Marshal’s bushy eyebrows flared up. His lips curled into a sneer.
‘Whatever fight Harpia had with Belarica’s warriors is long past. We are not involved in the wars of Upper Terrakesh.’ His mother’s voice was steady. How – how could she be so calm?
The Air Marshal raised his sword so that the tip sat below his mother’s nose. ‘You instruct me on the affairs of Krakatoan?’
‘My son is good and innocent.’
‘So says every mudrock mother!’
‘I implore you to leave us in peace!’ His mother was waving, telling him to drop the knife.
His knuckles were white. He couldn’t drop it. At least – at least he’d get a few good jabs in before going down.
‘The mudrock tells us to leave.’ The bushy eye-browed Air Marshal smiled at the other Air Marshals crowding in behind him. In a single fluid movement the Air Marshal stepped forward, grabbed Rocco’s mother by the hair, spun her around and slid his sword across her throat.
The cut might have been to Rocco’s own neck. Rocco sucked the air. It only seemed to suffocate him. His knees were weak. The knife, which he’d been holding tightly - or so he thought - clanged to the floor. He fell to his knees.
‘Mother! Mother!’ He scarcely recognized his own voice. He flung himself forward but the Air Marshal blocked him, dropped his bloody, dripping sword over his mother’s body.
It couldn’t be true, but there his mother lay, slender in her faded night tunic, now seeping red at the neck.
The left half of the room began to shift up. The right side began to slip down.
The murderous Air Marshal spoke, but he couldn’t hear. His wings had begun to strum. His mother was gone. He was next.
The ceiling was open. Darting up to a crossbeam, Rocco braced himself against the rafters. He stared down dizzily.
‘We’re not going to kill you, blue wing. Come down. We’ve got something special planned.’
‘No! No! No!’ Rocco shrieked. Was his mother really gone? Jafari too?
The Air Marshal strode over his mother’s body, crumpled flat and alien-looking.
This was all his fault.
‘So, what’s it going to be?’ The Air Marshal flashed a row of stained, pebble-sized teeth.
He’d been screaming, but suddenly he heard himself stop. He caught his breath. Blackness began to well up in the back of his eyes. It should have been him, dead on the floor. They’d come for him, hadn’t they? Why should his mother die?
Forcing his arm up over his head he felt for the poles that supported the palm-frond roof. The floor below was swarming with Air Marshals and their glistening eyes.
A pool of blood had begun to form around his mother’s head. She was gone. The person who’d loved him most in all of Terrakesh. Part of him was gone too.
He slithered up between the poles and the crackling frond leaves. Within seconds he was standing on the roof, gulping air so fast he began to choke.
In the kitchen below, an Air Marshal barked like a dog. The voice meant nothing to him.
Rocco released his wings. In his bird eye vision he saw something fly through the air and catch his wing. He shook his wing trying to dislodge the sky net, looking down all the while at the Air Marshal who was holding the other end of the net. The Air Marshal grinned and gave a yank.
The sky net had teeth or something sticky built into it. The more he flapped, the tighter the netting burrowed into his feathers.
‘You’re not going anywhere!’ the Air Marshal called.
Rocco grabbed the net with both hands and pulled. Balanced on the roof frame he teetered forward.
‘Ha!’ The Air Marshal gave a heaving pull. Rocco fell forward over the side of the roof.
He was caught… through his own stupidity. He was responsible for all this – his mother and Jafari, both dead. Why, why, had he flown up to the cliffs? Why hadn’t he covered his wings properly? He was an idiot. He deserved to die.
Rocco listened to his own wings flap madly all the way down. He hit the ground. Air Marshals crowded over him, blocking his vision and scrambling everything so that he couldn’t tell which way was up.
Rough hands shoved a cloth in his mouth. His hands and feet were bound. A pole appeared. Were the Air Marshals really going to carry him away, alive, like a goat? If they were going to kill him, why wouldn’t they do it here, when he was close to his mother?
Something hard hit the back of his head. Everything went black.
* * *
Cold pierced Rocco’s cheek. Opening his eyes he stared across the plain of a stone floor. A short distance away a slender foot was moving among the folds of a silver robe.
He pulled his head up. He was sitting on a broad outdoor platform. A row of columns as thick and high as a baobab tree formed a line on either side of him, holding up a roof on a very grand mansion.
A great company of urvogels stared up from the many levels of a terraced garden below. Behind their heads, some distance away, stood the fortress wall. He knew the stones. He had scaled them yesterday, or sometime very recently. Above the wall rose the blue dome of the sky.
His head ached. A large hump had risen on the back of his scalp.
‘Blue wing awakes,’ said a female voice.
Rocco stared up at the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Her robes swung around her legs in great rustling sweeps. Her wings, half open, flashed black and iridescent silver in the sun. She smelled ever so sweet: of flowers, maybe honeysuckle.
Something tugged his foot. Rocco forced himself to focus. An Air Marshal was grinning, holding a sky-tether, the other end of which was fastened to Rocco’s feet.
‘Let him up, Air Marshal,’ said the beautiful creature in a voice like tinkling water.
The Air Marshal flicked the sky-tether. Rocco lurched up. His eyes were open but he couldn’t see past the black fog that clogged his head. His mother was dead. The platform beneath his feet seemed to sway. His legs were reeds wavering in the croc-infested waters of the Ebo River.
‘Blue Wing! Blue Wing!’
The beautiful voice was far away. Rocco blinked. The urvogel, clearly the one in charge, emerged from a blur into the creature he’d been looking at moments ago.
‘You – you killed my mother!’ Rocco spat the words.
The woman reeled back in surprise. Her eyes were dark and coldly glowing; her black, upswept hair was held in place with hard, glittery ornaments. Around her neck a collar of wispy filoplumes fluttered in the breeze.
‘I am Harpia,’ she said, looking down at Rocco as if he were a gnat, or an insect she couldn’t quite see. ‘And you, blue wing, you have the look of an urvogel, but you are stout and no doubt thick between the ears.’
A wave of laughter rolled up from the crowd below.
Harpia! Every muscle propelled him forward, to bite her face, to rip her limbs.
Nothing moved. His limbs were frozen in place. His eyes worked though. He could see her. His arm too, he thought lifting his hand to block the sun.
‘Why’d you kill her? Why? She didn’t do anything to you.’ The sound wailed from his lips.
Harpia waved casually, the same careless motion she used to direct the red robe who was shielding her from the sun with a fringed shade on a pole. Whenever she moved another red robe, scurrying behind her, arranged the train on her dress. Other red robes stood on guard by the door of the grand mansion, Harpia’s palace.
‘Turn around now so we can see your wings.’
‘She was my mother.’
‘Let me go!’ Rocco picked up the sky-tether that bound his feet and swung it wildly. In his bird eye vision he could see Harpia. She never stopped smiling. Her skin, so luminous a moment ago – before he knew who she was – now looked as cold and smooth as the underbelly of a snake.
‘I’m not urvogel. I don’t belong here. I belong down there!’ Rocco swung his arms at the wall. The urvogels below were staring, smiling like Harpia, as if he were nothing more than a bit of entertainment. They were just like her, cruel and full of ridicule. It was true. Would they fall on him like so many cockroaches next?
Why were all dressed so nicely? Ugh. It was all a trick. The grown up urvogels were dressed in blue tunics. Others wore red or gold. A few on the fringe of the crowd were dressed in white like the young ones he’d seen yesterday.
As his gaze flitted from one pocket of the crowd to the next he spotted Wheat Hair, standing near the bottom by the steps. In a sea of mostly dark-haired urvogels, his yellow hair stood out.
Girl and Wheat Hair were talking.
Harpia had been holding a long, gnarled staff. She rapped it impatiently on the stone floor. ‘I am the Archurvogel of Krakatoan, Regent of the West, Governor of everything that lies between the Shining Sea and the ends of Lower Terrakesh.’
‘You’re nothing but a murderer!’ Rocco shouted.
Harpia’s gaze was cold. ‘You are the spawn of a rotten egg, the offspring of a warrior who deserted this colony and flock, are you not?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘What’s your father’s name?’
What game was Harpia playing? If she was going to kill him, she could just get on with it.
‘You have wings, but there’s no escaping the muddled condition of that mudrock head. You are a plains creature through and through. You see nothing but what’s in front of your nose.’
‘Go ahead and kill me then, if that’s what you intend.’
With a click of her tongue, Harpia began pacing around Rocco, sizing him up. Surely she wasn’t going to eat him? Were they cannibals?
Harpia came to a standstill. ‘You appear to be fit as a falcon, blue wing. Any diseases we should know of? Any bouts of the pox?’
‘We could put you in quarantine, but the Alchemist here will have a look-see instead.’ As Harpia waved, a cloaked figure with a satchel slung over his shoulder stepped forward.
The Alchemist nodded at Harpia, then sidling up to Rocco he tugged his wing. Rocco clamped his wing tightly against his body.
The Alchemist tried to pry it open again, but Rocco knocked him away.
The Alchemist reached in again.
‘Get off.’ Rocco pushed harder. Harpia nodded and immediately several hands seized his wings from behind. Air Marshals pushed him down, shoving his face into the cold stones. An Air Marshal’s ugly boot with a spike in the toe nearly crushed his arm.
After his hands were tied, he was pulled to his feet. His wings were forced open. Rocco gritted his teeth. He’d just have to stand there and endure his moment of humiliation, whatever they were up to.
Taking out a large magnifying glass, the Alchemist began picking through his feathers.
‘We don’t need you introducing lice or mites or some other nasty infestation into our colony,’ snapped Harpia.
Rocco screwed his eyes shut. So she wasn’t going to kill him, not if she was trying to find out if he was diseased. What was the game? Was she going to keep him as some sort of caged pet?
The Alchemist’s inspection continued. At a sudden twitch, which stung but didn’t really hurt much, Rocco opened his eyes. The Alchemist had pulled a feather, which he passed to Harpia. She smelled the plume and with a small irritating smile ran it along her neck.
‘Go ahead. Pluck me like a chicken! You’re not just a murderer, you’re a thief too!’
More laughter from the crowd. Demon sheep. They were evil, all of them, but stupid too, the way they were looking so adoringly at Harpia.
Wheat Hair wasn’t paying attention. He was talking in earnest to Girl.
‘What a remarkable display of placental attachment,’ said Harpia.
Rocco felt his face grow warm. A moment later, the Alchemist had finished his groping. The Air Marshals released his wings. Rocco clamped them protectively against his sides.
‘Lift your tunic now. Show us!’ said Harpia playfully. ‘Show us the channel of mammalian affection. Let us see your twisted little scar.’
Rocco glared. She couldn’t make him do anything he didn’t want to do.
A glob of spittle formed in his mouth. Before he quite knew what was happening, his mouth was open and he was blowing it out with as much force as he could muster. He watched it fly. With an audible splat it landed perfectly, on the front of Harpia’s gown.
There. Now she knew exactly what he thought of her.
Harpia’s face turned pale.
He was glad he did it, even if she would torture him now. At least he had stood up to her in front of the crowd.
An urvogel in a red robe stepped forward and hastily began to wipe Harpia’s garment. Harpia stood silently while the red robe finished the task.
‘Your mother made an alliance with a traitor.’ Harpia’s voice was steely. She was talking to Rocco but looking out at the crowd. ‘Your mother harboured that traitor. She is guilty of that, and of giving birth to something that nature never intended – a twisted fleshy spine, neither mammal nor urvogel. The sight of you is hateful. You’re a pustule, a blemish on the great domains of Terrakesh.’
Tossing a disdainful look in Rocco’s direction, but never meeting his eyes, she continued her speech.
‘The Air Games are about to begin. Important officials and athletes from the neighbouring colonies will join us. You can be part of the entertainment. After that, we shall see –‘
Before Rocco could say anything, Harpia nodded to the Air Marshals on either side of him. ‘See that he’s clean. Then take him to one of the Roosting Halls. If he misbehaves, cut his wings. If he flies off, kill him.’
Her tone was triumphant. ‘He seems fit,’ she said, tapping her staff lightly on the ground. ‘He needs to stay that way. Let him roam freely within these walls. See if he can manage the temptation of flying off. More sport for us if he does.’
The Air Marshals removed Rocco’s restraints. Moving to the edge of the platform, Harpia raised her arms. The throng cheered. As she raised her arms higher, the cheers grew louder. Harpia’s wings quivered.
The scent of honeysuckle grew strong. Were the Krakatoans drawn to her stench? He wasn’t. She was vile. Odious. She had his mother’s blood on her hands.
Harpia strode over to the palace doors. The guards on top of the fortress wall watched her every step of the way. Occasionally they glanced over at him.
Two urvogels in red opened the palace doors. She swept in. Two hurried in behind her, lifting her robe as the train swept over the stones.
Rocco stared. The red robes were missing their wings. They had lumps where their wings once grew. They looked like grownup versions of the humpback children.
‘Don’t even try to escape.’ The Air Marshal on Rocco’s right blew a waft of foul-smelling breath into his face. ‘That wall you’ve been gaping at? There are guards up there, day and night. Legions of spy birds, too. Every wing that flutters in this kingdom gets reported back to Harpia.’
Rocco hissed. The Air Marshal – Stinky Breath, Rocco decided to call him – shoved him onto the steps leading down from the palace platform to a vast stone yard below. With Stinky Breath in front and a second Air Marshal – Knife-in-the-Back – walking behind, they proceeded downwards.
There was nothing he could do if Knife-in-the-Back decided to stick him. He was defenseless, not even so much as a stone or a rock in his pocket.
The city was obviously well fortified, though against what it was impossible to know. Were there warring tribes of urvogels? He would bide his time, make a plan and carry it through, preferably before Harpia turned him into a show monkey at the urvogel Air Games.
They reached the stone yard and continued across, passing an ornate fountain with a wide trough. Rocco raised his face. The water’s mist was soothing.
‘Think you’re on a holiday, do you?’
The hard toe of Knife-in-the-Back’s boot kicked his leg. Rocco stumbled forward.
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