Chapter Eight — The Island’s Birds

Morning surprised Jon, coming as sudden as night had, flooding his tent with amazing light that transformed everything it touched into something alive and miraculous. Also, it was hot. The tree cover had sheltered their tents from afternoon sun, but not from dawn.

They scouted inland that day, in search of the fresh water source. Working through the first dense undergrowth proved difficult, and the Professor and Tam had to lead the way with brush knives until they found the dappled cathedral of pillared trees that was the inner island. Birds sang, here, and insects chattered so noisily that Jon couldn’t hear his brother panting for breath. Tam wiped his face and sat down on a fallen branch when they were halfway up the mound of island they were climbing. “I’m sweating like an ice jar. This air’s so hot and wet it’s like breathing soup.”

“Really flowery and delicious soup, with moss bits,” Djaren amended.

Ellea and Kara gave him matching expressions.

Jon thought he understood what Djaren was trying to express. Every smell in the air—loam, leaf, sweet fruit, distant sea tang, and vivid flowers—flowed past like the coral forests had beneath their boat. All sensations could be drunk in together, brewed like tea in the rich, filtered light of this place. Jon was struck with the thought that this dappled under-leaf surface of the island might be a mirror to the underwater world that surrounded it. Maybe it had emerged from the sea like a bubble. Maybe it existed only because it had been imagined by something in the world below.

“That’s the strangest bird,” Anna said, breaking the reverie.

Jon and the others looked where she pointed, and there indeed was a bird with plumes all the colors of a storybook crown, gold, blue, and red. It strutted on the dappled floor, watched by a plainer court in surrounding branches. None of the birds seemed to care that there were humans about. They only watched the showy one, who began to dance, flicking wings and breast and tail feathers into pompous fluffs and marvelous fans. Jon recognized the species, then, from faded illustrations in a book. He scrabbled for his notes. “Djaren, isn’t that one the ‘Celestial Plume’?”

“His ladies seem to think so,” Ellea said. “How undignified. We shouldn’t be watching that sort of behavior.”

“There’s a group of pretty blue and green ones over there.” Anna pointed in the opposite direction. “They shimmer like beetle shells.”

“I don’t think anyone hunts here,” Djaren said, standing oddly still. A bright-eyed finch in dazzling reds and oranges had settled on his outstretched arm. The tiny thing chirruped and showed off its crest of bobbing black dots on little spines.

“These birds are the oddest things,” Anna said, trying to coax the finch to her own hand. “They’re like living hats and fans, but that seems an awful thing to say.”

“I bet it’s what they’re sold for.” Djaren surrendered his small visitor to her sleeve.

“That’s terrible.” Anna cooed and chirruped back at her guest. “Look how lovely they are, here.”

“Don’t you know that’s nothing really lovely until it’s attended an important social event in Levour?” Djaren asked. “It’s as if you don’t read the papers.”

Ellea crouched down and used a handful of biscuit crumbs to befriend some of the beetle-shell birds.

“I don’t think they have any predators on this island,” the Professor observed.

“Maybe this place is magic,” Jon said. It seemed all right to say that to the Professor. He wouldn’t think Jon was being childish.

“That’s what the natives think,” Djaren said. “They don’t come here, because it’s a sacred place for spirits, where people aren’t to be.”

The Professor agreed with a silent nod.

“Is it right for us to be here, then?” Tam asked.

Djaren shrugged. “Father thought so.”

“Maybe the magic here is what needs to be protected,” Jon said. “Without it, these little fellows would be all hats. So long as we protect them, too, and don’t go spoiling things, perhaps we can be part of the magic for a while.”

“That’s a very Shandorian philosophy.” The Professor smiled. “Our Land seems to embrace each new group who arrives with its own magic.”

“And it punishes those who spoil things,” Djaren said.

“But does any of that very idealistic phila-whatsit work when you aren’t in your fairy-tale land?” Kara asked.

Djaren considered this. “Invaders spoiled the other islands here pretty badly. Then along came a giant earthquake that rattled a quarter of the world. In Shandor we’d call that the Land’s vengeance.”

“You think, you both think, that these islands are all magically alive?” Kara raised her eyebrows.

“Shandor is,” the Professor said. “Is it wrong of us to think that other lands might be as well? Or are we projecting our own philosophies on alien systems? We can’t know without more solid observations. But as someone who has seen the dead walk, stone carvings move, and people fly, I would be foolish to rule it impossible.”

Kara appeared to digest that, frowning while a brilliant thing like a peacock grubbed about at her feet for tidbits. After they started walking again, Kara came up with a new question. “So what spoils things? If we cut down firewood or try to hunt on the island, does the ground swallow us up?”

“Probably not,” the Professor said, “but it’s still unwise to do so. Tins and fishing are good enough for us, and fallen branches will prove better fuel, anyway. We have no reason to harm this place or its feathered inhabitants.”

Jon could not keep track of all the amazing birds they saw, and he gibbered together with Djaren over two species neither of them recognized from any book. They made everyone wait while they took notes, and easily convinced Anna to draw the new birds.

When at last they reached the top of their mound there was still nothing to see but the unbroken canopy of living, chirping jungle. Kara and Djaren shinned up two of the tallest trees. Kara made it to the top of hers, but Djaren’s proved to house some peevish seabirds, and he had to retreat. Kara dropped a rope, and those brave enough took turns being hoisted up to the highest branches of her tree.

Jon worked up his courage at last and found himself rising like a slow, lurching bird into the canopy. Sky opened at last before him as he clutched, breathless, at the swaying trunk. The island fell away in leafy green skirts toward the endless water, pale celadon at the land’s edge blending into brilliant blue beyond. To the north a hazy mass hung on the horizon, with a thread of smoke rising from it. Up close it might have been a billowing column, but from here it was just a warning finger. Don’t come here. Or was it like a K’shay tanna beacon, that meant Send aid? Well, aid was sent. The Doctor and Lady Blackfeather should be there already. Maybe the magic would let them help.

Jon tugged to signal he was ready to come down, and sank below the bright surface back into the green depths.

*     *     *

They found the island’s single fresh water source late in the afternoon. Djaren had read about it in one of Professor Hallowfield’s books, and it was just as described, a little trickle among rocks in a steep ravine. Gathering the water into a bucket and trying to haul it up the slope would be difficult, and making camp beside it was clearly impossible. It was a lovely find, though, at the end of a long day. They perched about it, dipping feet in where they could and watching birds swoop down to enjoy the water, too.

Anna forbade drinking from the spring, since it hadn’t been boiled. Djaren and Kara lingered last, to take anarchic handfuls to drink anyway. It tasted wonderful and exciting, Djaren thought, though maybe half of that was all the layers of not-allowed.

Kara made a face. “Tastes like dirt.”

Djaren laughed, and they joined the others in following the trickle of water along down the ravine. It disappeared underground twice, never emerging as more than a thin stream, and sank entirely away in a swampy place with thick growths of bamboo and tall, reedy plants. One of the fluttering things in the leaves above them turned out to be an enormous bat, sleepily flailing. Best of all, Djaren found a lot of fallen bamboo, just what was wanted for huts.

“Look!” Jon called, and they all gathered around. He pointed at a little snare made of a springy bit of bamboo and some waxed cord. “Is someone trying to trap the birds?”

Djaren bent to examine the snare. It was well-made, but it had either never been set or already sprung, since the cord dangled slack. “I think this is old. See?” The cord, darkened with age, snapped when he gave it a brisk tug. “It won’t be trapping anything.”

Uncle Eabrey frowned. “Still, this is evidence that others have been on Tuwa. Even if they are long gone, we should be cautious.”

“I thought people didn’t come here,” Kara said.

“The locals don’t,” Djaren said. “Foreign poachers are another matter. If we find any more snares, we should break them.”

“I ask you all,” Uncle Eabrey said, with a sigh, “to at least attempt to avoid notice.” He looked straight at Djaren. “I am supposed to be keeping you safe.”

“Snares go wrong all the time, for all sorts of reasons. We can be subtle,” Djaren said. “Mysterious. It’s a magic island. Anything can happen.”

“I’d like as little to happen as possible,” his uncle said.

At their camp that night, the sunset gave another amazing show, though Djaren was distracted by charting out hut construction ideas in the sand. Soon the light had faded so that only Kara and Ellea could see his designs, and neither of them were much interested.

“Mother says goodnight,” Ellea announced, after sitting for a bit looking particularly blankly at the rising stars.

“Does she say what they’re doing, or how they are?” Djaren asked.

“No. She’s not saying things very well.” Ellea’s voice was a mix of reproach and admiration.

“They’re bound to be having terribly exciting and dangerous adventures without us.” Djaren sighed.

The insects found them that night. At some dim, itchy hour, Djaren flailed about trying to put up nets before collapsing half-tangled in one. In the morning he stumbled, scratching, from his tent to find Tam doing the same while trying to coax a tiny fire. They all shared a cold breakfast out of tins as they waited for the teapot to boil.

“We need more proper fuel,” Tam said. “And a new camping spot, away from these confounded bugs.”

Uncle Eabrey agreed. “The beach is also vulnerable to further waves, or even ordinary storms. Let’s find a place higher up.”

The spot Uncle Eabrey chose for their new camp was a high, breezy point that overlooked a lovely cove full of tide pools. They gathered and piled more driftwood, rolled the water barrels over to the new camp, and repitched the tents. Tam began work on a clam rake. Djaren redrew his hut designs and began assigning people to find the necessary materials while he laid out all the tools he thought they might want.

Huts proved difficult, sweaty things to make. They had not been left with any precision cutting and measuring equipment, or with post-holers, so convenient for digging round holes to stand support poles in. By the end of the day the beginnings of the hut did not look as neat or graceful as the pictures in Djaren’s mind. The floor and single wall were uneven, lumpy, and propped up in places with crates and sticks.

“Well,” said Tam breathlessly, standing back to look. “It’s upright, at any rate.”

“It’s still crooked,” Ellea pointed out.

“We’ll start over from the beginning,” Djaren said.

“We’re making it over again?” Tam looked dismayed. He’d had to do much of the lifting.

“Not tonight,” Uncle Eabrey said, frowning at the clouds on the horizon. “Tonight we’d best add extra tent stakes and tie down everything that might blow away.”

The storm was fantastic. Djaren was impressed and amazed at its power. The wind took one of the tents, his own and Uncle Eabrey’s, luckily. It rolled downhill, spilling them both out to lie flat in the torrential rain, clinging to the island as if it were falling through the sky. Djaren whooped, and thunder rolled back, a deep chuckle that shook the earth. At last, after crawling to the refuge of Tam and Jon’s tent, they watched the dawn transform the world into a wet net of diamonds.

“There went our chance of dry fuel for a week,” Tam said glumly.

“My new rainwater collection system should be full, though,” Jon pointed out.

The storm had, as it turned out, done them several favors. A quarter of the bamboo grove and several trees had been flattened, leaving more material for huts and all the fuel they could need, given the time to dry it. Some coconuts had washed up on their beach, and proved to be still good inside. Ellea discovered a monkey skeleton, mostly intact, which seemed to please her immensely. She sang to herself as she laid the bones in the sun to dry. Best of all, Djaren found an amazing old carved prow, all worked with twisting faces and graceful bird shapes, on a beach a little further along. They gave it a place of honor in their camp.

Anna started experimenting with some of the fallen bamboo, Tam and Jon went to try the new clam rake, and Djaren and Kara took to the water, chasing down fish and odd creatures, and learning by guesses and experiments which ones not to touch. Most were impossible to catch. The fish were as skittish and wild as the birds were tame.

“We need spears,” Djaren sputtered, surfacing. Kara, already treading water, grinned and held up a huge shell with a pale glistening inhabitant.

Around lunch-time Anna came down from camp. “I made you a basket,” she said, handing Tam a big reedy bowl with twisted handles. Tam put the basket to work immediately rinsing off the clams he and Jon had found.

“I thought mostly it was the K’shay tanna women who did the gathering.” Djaren grinned.

Anna pinned him with a smug smile. “In the Land, women own the tents. I’m about to finish a hut that won’t stand crooked.”

“What? The K’shay tanna don’t build, it’s one of the oldest rules,” Djaren teased.

“No permanent dwellings, yes, but there’s no such thing as a permanent dwelling here, not with storms ripping them to bits three times a season. I don’t care what the pictures say a hut should be. I can make pictures too, and moreover, I can make huts.”

“All right, then.” Djaren could see he was not going to win. “Anna is on huts. I’ll make the spear guns.”

“The what?” Uncle Eabrey looked worried. They had, rather unfairly, put him in charge of dealing with the conch Kara had caught, and it looked a messy task.

“Spear guns. I’ve seen pictures.”

“Let me help you. After lunch,” Uncle Eabrey insisted.

They had a surprisingly delicious lunch of steamed clams and crabs and roasted conch. Uncle Eabrey had made some oil and spice mixture which, along with the coconut milk, transformed alien-looking meats into the best flavors one never knew to love. Kara and Djaren immediately decided they needed to find more delicious things to dive for.

“You are going to be redder than those crabs if you don’t keep out of the sun better,” Anna pointed out. Seemingly immune from sun, her copper-brown skin just got darker and darker. Djaren, still shirtless from swimming, looked at his rapidly freckling shoulders, and shrugged. He stopped, dismayed at how the bones showed through when he did that. Tam was already mostly red where the sun had got at him, leaving the skin under his shirt at collar and elbows conch white. Kara, gnawing savagely on crab legs in rolled trousers and a shirt of his that she’d cut the arms off, was a comfortable dark olive.

Uncle Eabrey, and Jon in polite mimicry of him, seemed loathe to remove even one layer of clothing. After shucking the conch, Uncle Eabrey had quickly rolled his sleeves back down over his scars. Djaren had seen those marks before, had noted them in his earliest memories. He’d been held by those arms when he was very small and full of new questions but still unable to make his words understood. It was only now, though, that he began to realize what they meant. There were multiple rings of faded white and pink around Uncle Eabrey’s wrists. How many times or for how long would someone have to have their hands bound to create that many scars? Djaren shivered, and told his mind to think instead about happy useful things like spear guns.

Uncle Eabrey, as it turned out, was good at making spear guns, nice springy ones for fishing in the shallows. Djaren had grander plans. He wanted to dive underwater and shoot down his prey where it lived and darted. His design was a bit like a crossbow, and involved the sacrifice of the top inch of Tam’s left gumboot, to make a band powerful enough to shoot through water and scales. Once Djaren had proved his device worked, Kara wanted one too, which made Tam’s right gumboot shorter as well.

“These really are amazingly useful boots,” Jon said, smiling. Tam’s older pair had been put away somewhere safe after last summer, when it had been useful in a very different way.

They found more uses for Tam’s gumboots over the next few days, including angry crab relocation vehicles, stream water collection and transport buckets, and as the boots they were intended to be, for wading over sharp coral and stinging plant-animals. Kara and Djaren became increasingly daring and agile divers, especially Kara, who could hold her breath for really improbable lengths of time.

They ended up with two camps, one at the point overlooking the beach to house stubborn divers who stayed out until they were exhausted, with the tents to be flags to the Land’s Wings when it returned, and to keep dried piles of wood out of the rain. The other, inland, had Jon’s water capture distillery, a tree platform, and Anna’s surprising woven huts. She had trimmed fallen saplings, planted the ends in circles, bent and woven them into tufted cones, and finished with threaded layers of reeds. They were nearly invisible against the forest, and doubled as hides for bird-watching.

Having given up his own hut-building scheme, Djaren decided instead to build an outrigger to dive from. Tam liked the idea; he wanted to borrow back the rowboat to fish with the nets he’d made. The first time Djaren and Kara tried night diving was a revelation. Entirely new things took over the reefs by night, and Djaren nearly suffocated trying to chase them out too far. Kara made it rather further out. After that, the process repeated almost nightly.

“Who taught you how to swim?” Djaren gasped when Kara swam back with a fat yellow fish to where he was treading water weakly.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You swim like a fish. When did you learn?”

“When the boat lost me. More here, though.”

Djaren sputtered a little, heading for shore. “You just learned? How? I’ve been swimming since I was three, and you’re leagues better at it.”

“Don’t know. I’m better than you at things, I suppose.” Kara grinned.

Back on the moonlit shore, Djaren caught his breath. “What else did you learn after doing it once?”

“Nothing.” Kara shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Djaren dumped his catch into one of Tam’s filched gumboots, and Kara put hers in the other. “Here,” he said, “try this.” He picked up a short fishing spear and chose one of the trickier sword forms he’d learned but been too weak to execute with a real sword, years ago. It was much easier now that he wasn’t wearing heavy practice armor, under the eye of ridiculously tall and powerful cousins. He could remember every detail of the old lessons, the smells of leather polish and cook-fires, and where the muscles bent and strained when you were doing it right.

“Just that?” Kara asked, and repeated it perfectly, down to the flick he’d used to push his wet hair back out of his way.

“How did you remember it all the first time? I had to keep doing it until I knew how it was supposed to feel.”

“I watched you.” She shrugged.

“People can’t just do that,” Djaren told her, excited. “I think it’s part of your gift. You see weak points, so do you see the strong ones too? Can you see where movement comes from? You might have an improved sense of mass and motion. You never trip on loose rocks. Do you feel they’re loose before you touch them? How do you see things?”

He found himself surprisingly close to her, drawn near to stare into her eyes in curiosity. Water dripped down her face from her hair, over a guarded, unsure expression.

“Did you know—?” she said at last.

“What?” Djaren was caught on her words, on the water flowing to gather in the hollow of her throat.

“You’re turning into one giant freckle.” She turned on her heel, and left with her fish-filled gumboot. “I’m going to camp. I don’t have stupid powers, I’m just better than you. Keep up.”

Djaren fumbled in the bottom of his gumboot for his forgotten spectacles, and found them covered in ink from a small squid he’d shoved on top of them. He got back to his hut rather late, to find Ellea sitting just outside it, white nightgown gleaming in the dappled moonlight. “Mummy didn’t say goodnight. I said goodnight, and she didn’t.”

Djaren sat beside her. “Maybe she’s just very tired. Maybe they’re busy and she’ll remember later, or she doesn’t want to wake you.”

“Maybe,” Ellea allowed.

“Goodnight, Ellea.” Djaren gave his sister a hug, which she squawked at, because he was still wet.

*     *     *

Jon and Ellea walked together in dappled light, carrying waterskins to fill from the little stream. It was time, Anna insisted, that everyone have a proper wash, and she didn’t want to spare any of the water they’d brought from the Land’s Wings. This was their fourth trip, and Ellea was getting irritable.

“If Anna wants more water after this, I’m waking Djaren,” she said. “Moonlight swims with tomb thieves aren’t precisely work.”

Jon didn’t quite understand what she was upset about. Djaren and Kara had been bringing back plenty of fish, and if you fished all night it made sense that you’d have to sleep through the heat of the day. Jon himself had no desire to go swimming in dangerous waters at night. He liked foraging on the beach with Tam and helping Anna around the camp.

A little flock of green and blue birds landed nearby, and chittered at them. Jon pulled out his notebook and pencil; he’d only seen this species in groups of two or three, before. Were they gathering to migrate, or to mate? Before he could take notes, though, a panicked bird-screech rang out over all the chittering, and the flock bolted.

“Something’s not right,” Jon said, and ran through the undergrowth toward the sound. He found one of the male Celestial Plumes caught in a snare, very like the one they’d seen that first day. This snare was new, though, not old and broken. The bird fluttered wildly, and Jon had to cup his hands around its wings to hold it still so that Ellea could free its feet from the noose. Its heart thumped wildly and it trembled in Jon’s hands. When he let it go, it streaked away in a bright flutter to the canopy above.

“This hasn’t been here long,” Ellea mused, looking at the trap. “There could be poachers on the island right now.”

This worried Jon deeply. The little sacred birds were very trusting. The best part of every morning was waking up to hear them already about in the trees, and rolling over to move aside leaves and netting, looking for the bright flashes of color they made. “It seems very wrong that someone is hunting them,” he said. Then a thought came to him. “The Seer said we had a purpose here. What if it’s to guard the birds?”

Ellea nodded. “We could be the Land’s vengeance on poachers. I’ll leave a lesson for them.” She opened her bag. She kept odd things in there, like the bloody kestrel-leavings they’d found two days ago and the broken bone flute that had washed up on the beach. She still had that monkey skeleton the storm had brought them, cleaned and whitened now by sun and scavengers. With careful fingers, she hung the skeleton in the snare in place of the bird, and opened its jaw and lifted its arms to make it look like it was flailing and shrieking.

“That would scare me if I found it,” Jon admitted, impressed. “I wonder if there are more snares about?”

Water-fetching forgotten, they searched through the undergrowth and found two more snares, both set but empty. Ellea deftly filled each with frightening little treasures.

While they were sabotaging the fourth snare, Jon saw movement past the trees to their left, and grabbed Ellea’s arm. “Someone’s there,” he whispered. Ellea glared in the direction of the sound for a moment, then relaxed. “Tam and Anna,” she said. “They’ve found snares too, I believe.”

Tam and Anna were bent over a snare that held a dead bird. “I think it died of fright.” Tam carefully loosed the little corpse. “The snare was meant to get it alive.”

Jon came to stand beside where his brother knelt. “This is terrible, Tam.”

Anna cut the remains of the snare apart, rather savagely, with her boot knife. “How many of these are there?”

Jon heard more bird calls, then, in the distance, frantic chirps and rustles, and distressed cries. No more conversation needed to be had. Moving as quietly as they could, the children crept through the jungle toward the sounds. There were no more snares on the ground, but instead Jon found himself stepping round crumpled paper, a broken sandal, fruit peels, and then rather a lot of empty glass bottles. Over a dozen crates and cages, all in a jumbled stack, were screeching and chittering with captive birds.

Oblivious to the cries, three men lay sleeping on the ground, one half curled around another bottle. The debris strewn about the camp included the remains of a lunch of crabs, huge brush knives, and piles of green and weeping cut wood. Tam and Anna exchanged looks. Anna drew her boot knife and Tam gripped his clearing knife. “Jon, Ellea, you two keep a lookout. If any of them move, or you see anyone else, give a bird call.”

Ellea raised her brows. “A bird call, here? That’s not very practical.”

“Some kind of sign, then. I don’t care what.”

Jon nodded, and he and Ellea crouched down to watch. Anna crept up from the left and Tam from the right, both circling the camp to be on the other side of the cages. Birds began hopping down and flying off into the jungle as they cut the ties holding cages shut. Jon and Ellea kept a careful eye on the sleeping men. They were an odd lot: one very dark, with hair like ropes; one medium-dark with blue tattoos; one sunburned red with graying blond hair in tufts everywhere but the top of his head. Their clothes were oddly mixed too, and their camp smelled awful.

“Are they pirates, do you think?” Jon whispered to Ellea.

“They’re scavengers,” Ellea sniffed. “I’ll bet they haven’t even a proper boat with cannons.”

One of the men stirred and rolled. Jon thought frantically through what signals he might make, but Ellea caught his arm to stop him, and glared at the man until he began snoring.

Tam and Anna freed the rest of the birds without incident, and crept back to them, breathless and bright-eyed.

“We saved over four dozen, I think,” Tam whispered.

“Maybe more, I was too scared they’d wake to count properly,” Anna said.

Jon felt very proud of his brave older brother, but his own heart was pounding all the way back to camp.

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