A thud of rock woke Sykeet, followed by a rattling of dislodged crystals against the woven walls of her hanging hut. There were no fire pots in her lower reach of the rookery. No light from the moons, either: a storm beat against the suspended village. Her wings twitched in the dark.
There was cursing, then a shriek of panic, “The fledglings!”
Sykeet darted from her hut like a harpoon, flying blind toward the crèche net. Her long wings beat the air, lifting her upward. Sleet hissed against rock, giving her only a minimal sense of location in the dark. More rocks thudded above. She heard the twangs of over-stretched ropes snapping.
She called shrilly to her daughter, “Kyree!”
There were voices in the dark: other mothers and the faint cries of fledglings. Then from above, a wild flapping of fabric and netting. She couldn’t see a thing.
The falling canopy hit her, a glancing blow that knocked loose feathers and sent her tumbling in the dark. She heard waves crashing against the rocky base of the spire below.
Sykeet caught air in her wings, regaining control. Still blind. The plummeting crèche net had fallen below her. She pulled her wings against her body and dove into what she hoped was open air.
“Kyree!” she called again.
The panicked brood, trapped in the net, screeched as they fell toward the sea.
Sykeet followed their cries. The net hadn’t snagged on the crystal-crusted spire. If she could catch it with the talons of her feet or wings, she might slow its fall.
But a gust from the storm blew her sideways, away from the screams. She beat air frantically, trying to get back.
There was a splash as net and brood plunged into the sea.
Cold sleet crusted her feathers, numbing muscles. Spray from the waves blew against her as she fought to stay above them, circling blindly and calling, trying to find her daughter.
Unable to see, she slammed into the spire. Pain shot through her. Dazed and disoriented, she grabbed hold, talons clutching crystals. Fragments cracked loose from the rock. She slipped closer to the waves. Sea spray filled her open beak as she turned toward the water. She choked and coughed.
Sykeet could only cling there, shivering from pain and cold, too numb to take flight. She listened for fledglings, hearing only the roar of wind. Waves pounded the rocky base below her. Her eyes stung from sleet and spray. When she tried to climb lower, more crystals broke off, nearly dropping her into the cold sea.
She folded her wings close against her to conserve heat, and pressed her head against the rock. The world had gone dark, taking the thing she cherished.
She shivered through the night, praying for some sign that her daughter had survived. She saw nothing, heard nothing.
But in the dark hours of early morning, she suddenly dreamt she was elsewhere. Sleet and spray still beat against her, but instead of the rocky spire, she felt she was pressed against something smooth. A net held her down.
Then the dream was gone, as quickly as it had come.
Other mothers from the rookery pried Sykeet’s talons from the rock wall in the morning. The storm had moved on, and she saw blue sky, red sun, and white clouds as they flew her in a net to the aerie above. Their voices sang in a melody of sad calls. Sykeet remembered singing to Kyree in the crèche net. Nothing could fill that void.
Wooden perches stuck out like a thorny crown around the spire’s peak, offered up toward the giant red sun. Sykeet’s stiffness began to thaw in the sunlight as she gripped a perch facing east. Despondent, she didn’t preen her green and yellow feathers, leaving them matted from the storm.
One of the mothers, Teeka, swooped onto the perch beside her. They were both silent for a time, then Teeka said, “There will be other broods.”
“Not for me,” said Sykeet. “Fate has destroyed me.”
“Some accept Fate. Some deny it.”
“What’s to deny?” Sykeet said miserably. “I heard the net hit the water.” She remembered the splash in painful clarity.
“They took it,” said Teeka.
Teeka cocked her head. “Didn’t you know? The Yantay.”
The Yantay rarely ventured near the spire. “How do you know?”
“They threw the rocks that ripped it down.”
Sykeet remembered the thud of rocks and the rattle of crystals falling on her hut. If a pod of Yantay had taken her daughter, drowning was a mercy by comparison.
Abruptly she had a vision, a dream turned inside out: She was trapped in the crèche net. Its knotted mesh pressed into her feathers, binding wings and legs. Only her curved beak was partly free as she breathed between cords of the mesh. Cold water spattered her head, spray that leapt from the crests of waves breaking against the thing she rode. She scratched at reptilian scales with her wing talons, feeling cold flesh beneath. Her claws had no effect.
Teeka’s words pulled her back to her perch atop the spire. “The Lord of the rookery’s fledgling was in the net. He’s pledged rank and treasure for his rescue.”
“I don’t want that! I want Kyree!”
“Just as well. The Lord wouldn’t grant them to a hen.”
Sykeet stretched her wings. She wanted to believe, wanted to save her daughter. But a search would only bring more heartache.
Except… the vision of Kyree had been so real.
“Which way did the Yantay go?” she demanded.
“You might as well ask the wind.”
“I’ll ask the Lord of the rookery.”
“You can’t go to him by yourself!”
“I died last night, Teeka, down by the sea. Come with me.”
“There’s nothing for me here but to finish dying.”
“Don’t be foolish!”
“Together we are two, Teeka.”
The Lord held court from a crystal cave chiseled into the spire. Lattices of rope and sea vines cascaded around the cave. The drakes clung to them, jostling for position in the swaying lattices. Their talons also clutched harpoons carved from reptile bones. Closer to the cave, the knights of the rookery wore spurs on their legs. Sykeet and Teeka had nothing. They were the only hens. If it weren’t for her daughter, Sykeet would never have come, and Teeka clearly wished she hadn’t. The knights were nearly twice their size, powerfully muscled, and the other drakes not much smaller. Sykeet took hold of a dangling rope of the lattice, beating her wings to keep from being hurled off as drakes above her whipped the lattice into a frenzy.
The Lord watched with hooded eyes from his perch in the cave. His feathers were pale from age, the feather barbs of his plumes brittle and sparse. But his curved beak was long and sharp.
The cacophony continued until the Lord finally shouted, “Silence!”
The turbulence of the rope lattices slowed, and Sykeet climbed higher. Teeka did not.
“Who vows to find the Prince?” called the Lord.
A chorus answered.
“Who vows to bring him home?”
The chorus was louder, sending the lattices swaying again. Sykeet hung on.
“Then follow my knights,” ordered the Lord.
The lattices jerked as the drakes took flight. Sykeet and Teeka were left behind as the drakes followed heading in all directions.
“Where?” cried Sykeet. “Doesn’t anyone know?”
The Lord glared out of his cave at the two stragglers.
“Why are you here?” he demanded.
“For the brood.”
“Why are you here?”
Teeka dropped from the lattice, fleeing.
Sykeet had nothing to lose. “Which way did the Yantay go?”
“This isn’t your hunt,” said the Lord.
“My fledgling, my hunt,” she snapped. Letting go with her talons, she plunged from the lattice.
Sykeet swooped down past where the mothers had rescued her, but Teeka had disappeared.
Ahead, high above the waves, she saw four drakes in an unbalanced V formation. She pounded air with her wings to catch up, breastbone straining with each beat.
The drakes dangled harpoons from ropes clutched in their hind talons. She had nothing. If there was a battle with the Yantay, it would be on their terms, not hers. She wished Teeka had stuck with her.
She was nearly to the trailing edge of the V when someone spotted her. A knight led the V. At the lagging edge was the flock’s rivener.
“Sykeet!” shouted the rivener. “Where are you flying?”
“I seek the Yantay,” she said, gasping for breath.
“As the bait?” The others in the V laughed.
“They took the fledglings!” she said.
“And you want the reward.”
“No. My daughter.”
“Yet you already threw your harpoon and lost it?”
Sykeet didn’t reply to the insult. They knew she had no harpoon.
“You should be home, weaving nets,” said the rivener.
At the head of the V, the knight turned his head, beak bright yellow in the sun. “Don’t get in our way.”
She struggled just to keep up outside the V. Her wing muscles burned from the effort. Was this even the right direction? The drakes surely didn’t know. Sykeet followed them only because this was the direction from where she’d spent the night clinging to the rock. She tried to remember clues from last night.
The Yantay swam in pods: one monster Alpha and a group of offspring. She’d watched them, but never gotten close. The reptiles had two heads on long necks, with a line of sharp dorsal spines sticking up. An Alpha must have led its pod to the spire during the storm, knowing the flock would seek shelter in their huts. A full-grown Yantay could hurl rocks gripped in its mouths farther than any harpoon. High enough to hit the crèche net. Enough rocks must have brought it down.
Afterwards the pod had swum away with the net. But rather than drowning the fledglings, they’d kept them alive. As she thought of Kyree in the net, her mental vision flipped upside down.
She was looking up from the sea, not down, still struggling in the net. Fledglings screamed as the jaws of a Yantay bore down on the crèche net. Bones crunched. One scream was extinguished. A rain of feathers scattered over the net. She smelled blood and felt herself huddle against another fledgling, beak down.
Sykeet desperately wanted to be there, to pull her daughter free. Was the vision real? If so, where was the pod? She seemed to see through Kyree’s eyes: gaze jumping between the weave of the net, Yantay scales, and a bloody mass of bones and feathers. The crèche net stretched along dorsal spines. And through the net she glimpsed a spire jutting from the sea: a double spire with a lace-work of crystals bridging the gap.
With a start, Sykeet emerged from the vision. She knew where that was.
She veered away from the flight the drakes were taking.
“Where’s she going?” one of them called.
“Who cares where a hen goes?”
But the rivener dropped out of the V to follow her. “Did you see something?”
“What do you care?” she retorted.
“Alone, you’re nothing,” he said. “What did you see?”
“I know where they are.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“I didn’t say I saw them. I said I know where they are.”
The rivener looked back at the receding V. “If this is a trick, Sykeet…”
“Come with me if you want to save them.”
“You’ve got gall, telling me what to do. I’m the one with a harpoon. You’re no more use in a fight than a fledgling.”
“You were flying in the wrong direction.”
“No one knows where they went.”
“Because you saw a feather on the waves?”
“Come or don’t come.”
“If you know where the pod is, you need me. Alone, you’re nothing but bait. What’s the point of that? Just drown yourself now.”
Sykeet held her anger. The important thing was to save Kyree.
“I’ve gone with a knight against an Alpha,” he said. “Harpooned one of the necks, then got clear while the knight attacked the other head. It takes strength and speed and skill. You have none of those.”
Though she ignored him, he stayed with her. She beat her wings, heading for the double spire, watching the dark green water below for feathers. She saw only silver flashes of fish below the surface. The vision had seemed real, but where was the proof?
He flew closer, not trailing as if he planned to rejoin the knight’s V. He wanted the reward and was betting she’d lead him to it.
“You came when none of the others did,” he said. “Either you know something or you’re grief-crazed. Which is it?”
“No. It’s one or the other, but you haven’t figured out which yet. Hens never know their own minds. That’s the fault of laying eggs.”
Sykeet clamped her beak shut, saying nothing. She needed him to help save her daughter.
“Since you know nothing of fighting, I’ll explain. This-” He swung his harpoon up by its rope, catching it deftly in the talons of his other leg. “-is a bladed harpoon. Not the same as a barbed harpoon. You’d hurl those at Yantay offspring, to keep them from diving. But an Alpha never dives. The blade pierces like a beak and comes out again just as easy. So you can strike again and again, at either head. You follow me?”
She nodded, to keep him from repeating.
“If this was a defensive raid, we’d go in with barbed harpoons, spear a few of the offspring, and retreat before the Alpha could reach us. But I’m betting an Alpha knocked down the net and took it. Attacking an Alpha is harder. Especially when there’s only one of us.”
The rivener wasn’t very good at counting. But he had a harpoon, which made up for it. She focused on the sea. The double spire stood up from the waves ahead. She hadn’t spotted a pod. An Alpha should be easy to spot with its serpentine body undulating on the waves. And sometimes the offspring breached with a splash.
He interrupted her thoughts. “How do you know?”
“How do you know where the fledglings are?”
“I saw the pod near the double spire.”
“Before you got here?” His voice changed, dripping disgust. “By flying with the dead in the clouds?”
She wished she hadn’t answered. This could take a dangerous turn. “Just a dream,” she muttered.
“You led me here because of a dream?” he shouted.
She tried to calm him. “I followed the net down during the storm. I spent the night clinging to the rock in the cold. Then I saw.” Better to say no more.
“How could you see in the dark?”
“I could hear.”
“You heard nothing!” he bellowed. “You foolish hen! You led me from the real hunt only because of your imagination.”
“Then go back!” The words were out before she could stop them.
She saw a white splash ahead, past the twin spires. She tried to see details with her huntress eyes, but the splash was gone. A breaching?
“To the right of the spire,” she said.
“What? Your dream?” he railed. “Your imaginary pod?”
Sykeet saw what might have been a rolling log with a branch sticking up. No, two branches.
“The Alpha,” she said.
There was another breaching near it. The rivener must have seen. He hooted and swooped down, low above the waves.
“They won’t have spotted us yet,” he said. “They can’t see like I can.”
She heard the eagerness in his voice, the thrill of the hunt.
“I have to plan this,” he said. “Only one of us, so only one chance.”
He seemed to be talking to himself.
“The sun’s behind me,” he said, “so they’ll see my shadow just before I strike. If this were a defensive foray, at least two of us would dive, a harpoon for each head. But it’s just me. Wait – you. You could feint for the second head. Can you do that?”
“I can do anything for my daughter.”
“Just be bait. Even a hen can do that. Fly as close as you can, otherwise both heads will attack me, and there’s no chance of saving the Prince.”
He was only thinking of the Lord’s son, none of the others.
They skimmed low over the sea, wingtips practically touching the waves with each downbeat. Sykeet was panting to keep pace with the drake’s huge wings.
The Alpha’s body undulated atop the waves. She could make out something on its back. That must be the crèche net, stretched like a web beneath its dorsal spines. The Yantay’s long necks swayed, heads bobbing ahead. Sykeet was too far away to detect motion in the net. Was Kyree still alive?
She remembered Kyree crawling in the net in the aerie, tiny wing and hind talons clumsily climbing from strand to strand each time Sykeet came to feed her. She remembered her delicate, almost transparent wings covered with soft, immature feathers. The net that had supported her was now her prison. If not her tomb.
“Three, four, five!” announced the rivener. “Five offspring around the Alpha. He gripped his harpoon with his right rear talons, rope in the left. “Bad to worse. And no chance of just pulling the net off the spines. It’s stretched tight. Have to cut it loose. Do you see the Prince?”
There was someone in the net. She couldn’t tell who. But she saw motion, a beak through the net. She resisted the urge to call out to Kyree.
“Time for strategy,” said the rivener. “I’ll strike at the right head. Unless it turns. Whichever I choose, you have to distract the other. Get in close enough for it to strike at you.”
Close enough for it to kill me, she thought.
There were at least three fledglings in the crèche net. Corpses, too: bloody remains of bones and feathers. The Yantay were taking their time, relishing their feast. Rage boiled inside her. Rage that could get her killed without saving her daughter.
The rivener’s long wings beat slow and steady. Sykeet’s were faster, frantic.
“Get ready,” he said.
One of the offspring’s heads turned, spotting them. It trumpeted, and other heads turned toward it.
The rivener beat his wings faster, diving in just as the Alpha’s heads turned toward him. He veered right, hurling his harpoon at the last moment. The blade plunged into the Alpha’s neck with a solid thud. He hung onto the harpoon rope, swinging the head sideways. Both heads trumpeted, then there was a crack of breaking vertebrae.
The other head was arcing toward the rivener when Sykeet swooped in, tail and hind feathers fanned out with a sudden “whump” of braking air.
The Alpha was startled, recoiling, and she collided with the head. Its jaws snapped on her tail feathers, and she gouged the single huge eye on its head with her beak.
It screamed, releasing her tail, and she beat her wings, desperately climbing into the air above it. Lost tail feathers swirled below her.
The remaining neck had collapsed at an unnatural angle across the Alpha’s back, spasming. The rivener landed on it. Tugging with the talons of both legs, he pulled loose the harpoon.
The other head should have been blind, but the neck curved toward him.
“I told you to distract it!” he roared. He flew toward the net stretched between the dorsal spines.
Sykeet glimpsed Kyree trapped in the net. Her daughter was alive! She swooped fiercely at the Alpha’s head, ripping loose scales with her talons. The jaws lunged toward her, just missing her pinions. The eyeball welled with blood. How could it still see?
She flew to the back of its neck and dug in with her hind and wing talons as it bucked. She bit deeply with her beak, tasting blood.
It hurled her free, and she tumbled in the air, barely gaining control above the waves. The Yantay offspring clustered around it, heads weaving dangerously near her, jaws snapping.
On the Alpha’s back, the rivener used his harpoon to hack at the net strung between the dorsal spines. The remaining head swung toward him again.
This time, Sykeet flew directly below the jaws, talons-first at its throat. She tore at its windpipe, and blood spurted. Air hissed from its torn throat as its roar of fury lost breath. She hung on with her talons, wings flapping for balance as the neck thrashed. The serpentine body below jerked, entering death throes. She had a sudden fear it would sink, carrying the crèche net into the depths.
The rivener had trouble cutting the cords with the bone harpoon. But as Sykeet hung on, she saw him drag free a struggling fledgling.
“Time to go,” he said.
He had the Prince.
“No! The other fledglings!” she shouted.
“I can’t fight all the Yantay.” Holding the Prince in his talons, he took flight. His harpoon dangled beneath one leg.
Kyree and another fledgling were still trapped in the net on the back of the dying Alpha. Blood jetted from its artery onto her feathers.
She dropped from its neck, beating her wings furiously as she pursued the rivener. He flew over the waves with slow, powerful strokes, carrying the Prince.
As she caught up, she turned her beak sideways and snatched the rope with the harpoon. She yanked. It jerked from the rivener’s talons. He swore, losing the rhythm of flight.
She veered back toward the pod. He shouted after her, but he had the Prince. He wouldn’t risk his reward for the sake of a harpoon.
She landed on the back of the Alpha as its head collapsed onto the waves with a splash. In the crèche net were Kyree, watching her with trust in her eyes, a crying fledgling she recognized as Toosa, and the mostly-eaten remains of the others.
The Alpha’s corpse was at the mercy of the waves now. The long body with its dorsal spines rocked from side to side, threatening to roll over. Sykeet shifted her grip on the harpoon.
Abruptly the net jerked back toward the Alpha’s tail.
She turned to see one of the Yantay offspring gripping the net in the jaws of both heads, dragging it into the sea. She tried to pull back, but her hollow-boned weight was no match. And the dorsal spines, once stiff on the Alpha’s back, had relaxed in death, offering no resistance.
She took flight, flapping toward the offspring by the tail.
She didn’t trust herself to throw the harpoon. She flew directly at the Yantay that gripped the net, wings beating furiously as she slashed with the bloody harpoon.
The Yantay trumpeted, releasing the net from both jaws. She kept flying at its heads, stabbing as the necks tried to weave out of the way. Blood sprayed over her feathers.
The Yantay dove to escape, but another lunged toward her, grabbing her dangling harpoon rope. As it pulled her toward it, she plunged the harpoon into its eye. It let go with a scream, and as she jerked the blade free, the Yantay dove beneath the waves.
Now there were only three of the offspring on the surface, necks weaving, heads trumpeting, wary.
She landed on the Alpha’s back and pulled at the net with her talons, unwrapping cords tangled around the fledglings. Then she feverishly sawed at the net, hacking through another cord.
Kyree and Toosa struggled out just as a Yantay pulled on the net. She let go of the harpoon. Grasping a fledgling with each leg, she beat her wings, lifting off from the rolling Alpha. Her heart hammered as she struggled above the blood-streaked waves, flying back toward the rookery.
George S. Walker has previously been published in The Colored Lens, as well as in Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Electric Spec, Every Day Fiction, and elsewhere. Anthologies containing his stories include Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism & Beyond, Bibliotheca Fantastica, and others. Learn more at his website.