The Search For Cuteness: Part 5

Any information is valuable to the degree that you can use it.

        Sunlight filtered in through the window shade, poking through the holes and threadbare sections of the worn fabric in its attempt to brighten the room's interior. Light, airy birdsong drifted in as well, along with the soft, lazy gurgling of a stream and the distant sound of laughter. Crisp, woods-y scents permeated the air, carried by a slight, feathery breeze - smells of pine, leather, earthenware, and slow-burning cook-fires. And it was as warm as an early summer morning.

        It was all so peaceful. A stray shaft of sunlight fell across her eyes, and, lazily, she ducked her head away, seeking a few more minutes' rest. That is, until memories of the day before hit her, and Iiwi remembered where she was.

        She was up in an instant, darting out of bed and across the hut - or trying to. She realized mid-leap how much it hurt to do so. Moreover, her sore, stiff muscles resisted her attempts at movement, and she fell off the bed like an ungainly fledgling, tangled in the sheet that had been placed over her. Groaning, she slowly pushed herself into a sitting position and took stock of her situation.

        It didn't hurt to move as much as it hurt to move too much, too quickly. Slowly, she stretched, easing the soreness away. Her right wing refused to stretch completely, and it hurt much worse than the rest of her. Surprisingly, she saw that it had been treated and bound in a sort of sling - probably to help the torn muscle heal faster. In fact, most of her wounds had been treated - scratches, bruises, rope burns, everything.

        ~Must've patched me up after they fished me out of that net~ she mused to herself. She'd been flying much too fast - and starting to succumb to exhaustion - when she hit the net. She didn't remember much of the net - it had been strong and silvery, like a spider's web, and strung across the space between some tall trees - either to catch small prey, or as protection against attack. She wasn't good with nets - she never had been - and the more she struggled, the more entangled she'd become. She supposed she'd blacked out not long after that. But her present situation confused her. Her wounds had been tended to and she'd been allowed to rest - both things that ran contrary to her initial impression of her pursuer's intentions.

        She scanned the hut carefully. It wasn't very large - perhaps ten feet long by eight wide - scarcely enough space to spread her wings - and another nine or so feet high. Its walls were rounded - no corners here - and constructed of sturdy, upright logs of pine, lashed together with leather and twine and insulated with a mixture of mud, sticks, and what looked like hay. The ceiling was more of the same - with a small opening near its center, blackened, no doubt, from the smoke from the fire circle resting beneath it. Two tall beams jutted up from the floor to help support the ceiling, and about a dozen others crisscrossed the height were wall met ceiling. She supposed these acted as braces, but it was obvious that they doubled as a storage area - animal-skins, stretches of leather, and stripped poles in the process of becoming spears were stacked across the beams. Various knicknacks, tools, pouches, and things of bone, leather, and wood that she couldn't identify hung from various knobs on the hut's walls. The floor was hard-packed earth, covered with several layers of roughly-woven rugs dyed in muted reds and yellows, and the furniture consisted of wood-and-bone supports and a half-dozen layers of animal skins to cushion them. The hut had no window, she noticed now - the sole opening was the east entrance, which was covered by a battered, worn length of woven cloth. The cloth looked thicker and better-crafted than the rugs, and was dyed a faded greenish color. An earthenware bowl filled with water had been left for her, along with a tough, dried strip of meat.

        She helped herself to both of these, tearing at the dried jerky as she approached the hut's exit. She listened there for a while, then - satisfied that there was no one immediately around the hut - stole a quick glance outside. Ducking back into the hut, she retreated a bit and considered her next move.

        She appeared to be in a village of these huts, in a small clearing hidden from view by the undisturbed canopy the surrounding trees provided. Unlike Beak's old village, this establishment appeared to be hiding no technology more advanced than a loom - all around there were wooden fixtures for hanging laundry, weaving, cleaning and cooking meat, and building new wooden fixtures. Half-finished wood and grass baskets lay stacked under a shade hut, near a pile of pliable green saplings and sturdy wisps of long-stranded grass. Wood, stone, and bone tools were stacked neatly by each fixture - there was no metal in sight. In truth, the whole place reminded her of a cross between re-constructions of Native American settlements and a handful of untouched Amazonian villages she'd chanced upon in her travels.

        Most important to her, however, was the fact that no one seemed to be around. Still-smoldering fires and freshly-cooked meat told her the village was not abandoned - or, at least, had not been so for long. Moreover, the absence of signs of struggle, hasty retreat, or battle - as well as the happy laughter echoing in the distance - indicated that the inhabitants were just fine, and only momentarily absent.

        Best to leave now, then. No telling when they might return, or when she might get an opportunity like this again. She wasn't about to risk flying with her right wing-muscle torn - not yet, anyway - and wanted to avoid even gliding for a while. That left her with no option but running, and she wasn't too thrilled with that idea. But she had no choice, and so the sooner she left, the better off she was.

        She slipped silently out of the hut, keeping close to the buildings in case this village wasn't completely empty. She continued towards the forest - away from the laughter - darting from hut to hut without so much as a sound. Let the others laugh - she could be stealthy when she wanted to, and she'd forgotten more about sneaking around than Bob had ever been taught. It was a necessity in more than one of her chosen fields. She kept her shadow masked by the huts', her eyes scanning the tree line for booby traps or scouts or anything that might betray her presence. Seeing none, she paused the briefest of moments at the last hut, then dashed into the forest.


        The four hunters crept forward slowly, scanning the area for their quarry. They'd only just glimpsed it, as it broke cover in a mad dash to safety. They'd known the bird would escape, of course, but their leader had ignored them. The bird was too tired, he'd said. Too wounded. Too disoriented.

        That last one just might be true. Had their quarry been more alert and aware of their surroundings, they surely would've detected the hunters and remained concealed until the four had passed. Perhaps this would not be as difficult as they suspected. The leader of the four motioned to his compatriots, silently laying out the plan of attack. Two left, one right, and himself up the middle. And if that didn't work, fall back and regroup a click ahead of their present position. After all, they knew this terrain like the backs of their hands; their quarry did not. The four took up their positions quickly, preparing to rush their target.

        Just then a small, yellow banana landed at their commander's feet.


        Beak covered his ears, bracing himself for the explosion he knew was coming. It was a pity to be forced to use one of his precious BaNAna bombs, but he needed to get into the security locker if he wanted to retrieve his lightsaber - which he *really* wanted to do.

        A slight 'pop' was heard, followed by a deafening boom, a huge cloud of smoke, and what felt like an earthquake as the bomb's blast shook the ship. Beneath the sound of the explosion, he heard the bulkhead around the locker weakening. Taking a deep breath, Beak turned and ran into the still-billowing smoke.

        The corridor that had been so neat and orderly moments before was a mess. Panels and chunks of wall were scattered everywhere, snapped wires writhed and sparked across the floor, and fires crackled, burning away bits of charred panel or wall insulation. The downed guards were okay - he'd shielded them from most of the blast, and while they'd all have tremendous headaches - and a newfound fear of bananas - when they awoke, they would awaken.

        The smoke grew thicker as he continued back the way he'd come, and he was forced to use his Magi senses to guide him through to the door he sought. Apparently his Magi senses were somewhat out-of-whack, however, as along the way he plowed into three walls, two piles of rubble, and a nest of live wires. Deciding that it was perhaps best if he slowed his pace a bit to adjust for his not-quite-working senses, Beak began to walk, feeling his way along the lengths of ruined wall until he finally found what he was looking for.

        Actually, it wasn't exactly what he was looking for, but it was quite welcome, given that he was slowly exhausting his supply of air. After all, holding one's breath for anything more than a minute or two was hard enough sitting still - holding it for four minutes while running (and plowing into things) was insane. At any rate, Beak wasted no time in donning the air-mask. After another fifteen minutes of stumbling about in the rubble and settling dust - and at which point he was eternally grateful for the mask - he finally found the supply locker he'd been searching for.

        Part of the bulkhead had collapsed onto it, but that was moved easily enough with the Force. The lock was similarly dispatched, leaving Beak free to...stare at the baggie containing his disassembled lightsaber.

        Oh, swell. This was really gonna take a while. Granted, he'd memorized the blueprints for the saber - but that just meant he knew how to put it together. It didn't mean it could be done quickly. Grabbing the bag of parts, he set off in search for a few tools - and a quiet, out-of-the-main-search-grid-place that would lend itself to the re-assembly of a lightsaber.


        "I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Drake moaned.

        "No one said you had to follow us into the station, you know," Ferdia reminded him, weaving through the crowd in an attempt to keep Squeaks in sight. The mouse seemed to know exactly where he was going, and was wasting no time getting there.

        They were on Outpost Three-Four-Oh, a rusty, run-down heap of space junk drifting several hours' Warp 5 travel from Ferdia's world. That put it deep in uncharted territory - so deep, in fact, it had been officially abandoned centuries ago. The squatters that took up operations on it spent precious little in maintaining it, and its stabilization thrusters and position regulators had long since failed. One lone engine on the entire station worked, inasmuch as it simply could not be turned off. Thus the station drifted further into uncharted space with every passing second. Its life support systems were still fully functional, however, which made it an ideal haunt for drifters and pirates who saw the constantly-moving station as a safe-haven. Even if law-enforcement ships ventured out this far, without knowing the station's last coordinates or its rate and direction of drift, it would be hard to track 340 down.

        It was the kind of place you could find anything in - legal, smuggled, stolen, or otherwise. Handmade maps - put together by pirates, but generally reliable - were plentiful, as were all manners of weapons, uniforms, passports and personal identities, ships, slaves, and, of course, more esoteric goods like fruits, linen, precious stones and metals, and so on. In short, it was a pirate's dream.

        And Drake's nightmare. He really preferred not to think on how his friend knew of this place. The corridors were rusty, streaked with grime, coated in filth, and crammed with creatures. He didn't recognize most of the species shoving past him - or half the goods, for that matter. When he'd first seen the station, he'd been certain it had been sacked during Squeaks' absence - looted and destroyed and left for scavengers. Thus, he'd wanted to make sure his friend could indeed find what he needed here. His conscience - tormented though it was at disobeying orders and bringing the mouse here in the first place - simply would not allow him to leave Squeaks without a means of escape.

        He was falling behind, though. Creatures kept shoving past him, cutting across his path and forcing him to slow down. A commotion suddenly broke out behind him - a blond wolf with a lightsword was hacking her way through the crowd - and he decided that he had better catch up to his companions. True, as long as he could see either Squeaks or the bluebird, he didn't mind the distance between them - but he didn't want to get caught in a disturbance such as the one behind him now. The two were far enough ahead that he doubted they noticed the fight - Ferdia'd caught up with Squeaks easily enough, and kept a firm grip on his tail as she now and again paused to glance about her.

        Drake sighed. The bird was gazing about the station in wonder, much as she had on the last station she'd been on, her concern for her safety - or her brother's at the hands of his current captors - fading to a secondary concern at the moment. He envied her - of the three of them, she was the one who stood to lose the least in this adventure. Certainly, her brother's life and those of his friends were in danger - but the only repercussions she would have to face upon returning from this mission were those of a supervisor upset at another long absence with little to show for it. Squeaks was pushing his luck in this venture - if the Alliance found out, they would certainly come after him. And if they - or his fellow Ducks, for that matter - discovered his role in all this, then even Mallard would be unable to shield him from the same fate as his friend.

        All the more reason to get off this station - and get himself back to his ship - as quickly as possible.


        It was cold. And dark. And dusty. It was also cramped, stinking, and vaguely sinister.

        But this section of the ship was in the midst of repairs, and was presently abandoned. Moreover, the lack of power to the section - as evidenced by the darkness and cold temperatures - meant the Empire would be unable to scan the area for them. Which made it the best place for them to hide out in for the moment.

        Bob sat on a battered console, peering at a printed copy of the ship's blueprints. They'd gotten badly turned around after breaking out of the brig this last time - partially because they'd been nearly incoherent after sustaining the electrical shock it took to short-circuit the cell's bars - and now needed to find out not only where they were, but where they were likely to find Beak. All the other cells in their bloc had been empty, as had most of the others in the brig. They'd stumbled across what Ferdie was convinced were 'interrogation rooms,' but had found to sign of Beak there, either. At some point in their wanderings, they had chanced upon a local sickbay - and after subduing its staff, had determined that not only was Beak not in any of the infirmaries, but not in the morgue, either. And most definitely not listed as having been killed or relocated to another ship.

        They'd been unable to locate the Magi, however, and their escape had not gone wholly unnoticed. Teams of guards were now scouring the ship in search of them. They were, for the most part, running away from said guards - although every now and again, a group would take them by surprise, and with no time to run, they would attack. This had, so far, left Bob with a belt-full of phasers and Ferdie with several phaser-wounds and a nasty bump forming on his head.

        The abandoned sector was giving them some much-needed rest on their trip towards the shuttle bay. While Bob was the first to admit he had no idea how to fly the fighter, both he and Ferdie agreed that, since finding Beak was beginning to seem impossible on a ship this size, they might be better off going somewhere where Beak might find them. Since he did not appear to be in serious trouble at the moment - or if he was, it was the sort they had no way of knowing about - it seemed logical to Bob that Beak had also escaped. That would certainly explained the ever-increasing amounts of search teams wandering the ship, as well as the explosion they felt hours ago.

        Besides, the fighter had a food replicator, and it had been days since Bob had had any coffee. Or at least it felt that way. Perhaps it had merely been several hours, or perhaps they had been incarcerated for a bit longer than a Hootie day or two. They had been fed - some tepid, dirty water and a few scraps of moldy bread - a few times, but Bob hadn't kept count. There was also no way of adjusting for the meals they missed after escaping. The first few escapes they'd made had gotten them recaptured within hours of escape, though the one before this one had kept them free long enough for them to get in some decent sleep before resuming running. At any rate, Bob was hungry, and he was desperate for coffee. Even that sludge the replicator made would taste heavenly to him now.

        He rolled the ship's map back up, jumping down from his perch atop the console and striding over to a snoring Ferdie. They'd both napped for a while after reaching this unpatrolled area, but Ferdie had been out cold for hours, and Bob suddenly craved coffee like nothing else in the world. Informing the groggy bluebird that there were comfortable bunks in the fighter, he managed to pull Ferdie to his feet, and the two of them were off.

        Next stop: coffee, Bob thought. Or, rather, the fighter, where he would get a suitable coffee-substitute. Beak would just need to figure out where they were on his own. He had those powers, after all. The 'Force'. Let his Great BaNAna guide him to safety. Bob's own Great Coffee was busily guiding him to the fighter.


        There it was again. A little red rock stacked on top of a small pile of white pebbles and pine needles. Either this was the Hawks' way of marking a game trail, or she was going in circles. The fourth time she came upon the odd arrangement, she decided it might be *very* useful to know whether it was one thing or the other. She would have gladly consulted her compass, had she had it with her. However, her small leather 'bag of tricks' was no longer tucked under her wing - apparently the raptors had found it and confiscated it. Either that, or perhaps she had lost it in her flight yesterday. At any rate, she no longer had it on her, which meant she needed to improvise. Plucking out a battered mantle-feather, she took some sap from a nearby tree and affixed her own bit of red to the marker.

        The next two markers were, thankfully, feather-free. But, stuck with sap to the scarlet stone topping the third marker she passed was her red feather.

        Well, that settled that then. She was going in circles. Big, gradual circles, but circles, nonetheless. Iiwi sighed. She never had been good at ground navigation. It had never really been a problem before - she could find her way anywhere once she was airborne - but being currently earthbound, that solution wouldn't work here. She scanned the surrounding area for movement or anything seemingly out-of-place, but could find nothing unusual. The forest was alive with the calls of native creatures - none of them sentient - and that was enough to tell her nothing threatening was nearby.

        That was good enough for her. Determined not to continue on in circles, she picked a tree, positioned herself a few feet away from it, and took a flying leap at its trunk, spreading her wings as she did so. Kicking her feet out in front of her, she felt herself start to fall back to the ground an instant before her talons sank into the tree's bark. She flapped her good wing immediately, countering her forward motion in time to stop herself from slamming beak-first into the trunk as well. Cupping her wings around the tree as best she could - a task the wing-claws of her ancestors would no doubt have made easier - she gripped the trunk tightly, extracting the talons of one foot from the bark. She pushed with her other leg, struggling to pull herself up by her wings at bit before burying her free foot talons-deep in the bark again. Shifting her weight to that leg, she then repeated the process with her other foot, and continued on, slowly climbing up the tree like a spike-booted lumberjack. Towards the top of the tree, at the lowest branch beneath those that crowded the interwoven canopy level, she stepped away from the trunk, pausing a moment to catch her breath before taking a flying leap off the branch.

        Her right wing screamed at her as she spread her wings, so she quickly pulled it back into a looser, more relaxed position. It caused her glide to veer sharply to the right, and it cut significantly into the length and economy of the glide, but she was still traveling faster than she had been before, and at least she wouldn't be going in a circle now. As soon as she felt her flight begin to take her too far to the right, she pulled her left wing back, leveling out - and quickly losing altitude. It wasn't long before she landed again - but she wasted no time in climbing another tree and gliding away again. She soon found that shorter, straighter glides were easiest for her, and began gliding nearly branch-to-branch, catching herself far above the forest floor to save on climbing time.

        At this rate, she'd be out of the forest in no time, she thought to herself. Now, if only she knew where to go after that…


        The stelk's pace was slowing. Not long before, he'd injured one of his front legs - in a poorly-caught stumble, from rough-housing with his herd-mates while trying to impress a female, or perhaps even running from danger, as he was now. The injury wasn't severe - given time, it could heal completely - but at the moment, it was enough to make him the slowest of the herd. Which, of course, marked him as the easiest to bring down - which in turn meant that he wouldn't live long enough for the wound to heal. Even now, bare minutes into the chase, his leg was giving out, slowing him down even as his herd-mates ran to safety. There was a thicket ahead - full of tough, thorny vines that would protect him, if he could reach them. If only…

        His leg spasmed suddenly, and he faltered, tumbling to the ground - and snapping a legbone in the process. Panicked, he struggled to his feet, desperately running/hobbling towards safety. He'd only made it a few more feet before his death caught up with him.

        Skye struck swiftly, slamming into his prey with enough force to knock the wounded stelk over onto its back. It was tired and in pain, but it was still young and strong, and it struggled, lashing about wildly and kicking its legs as he strengthened his grip on its neck and prepared to deliver the killing blow. That was easier said than done as the madly-thrashing quadruped fought to knock him off, but Skye was a skilled hunter, staying near the animal's back, still half-airborne as he waited for his chance. It came, finally - a flash of exposed throat, undefended and well clear of the stelk's legs. With a snap of his beak, the fight was over. He released his hold on the dying creature's neck, back-winging a few paces away so as to be well clear of his prey's death spasms.

        As he stood, waiting for his meal to die, he took a moment to scan the surrounding forest. Stelk were known for occasionally stampeding predators who had brought down their herd-mates. And there were dozens of opportunistic, pack-hunting carnivores that would ambush his kind if given the chance. The beasts lacked sentience, but knew that the predatory birds would flee if attacked, rather than defend their kill. It was far easier for the Hawks to find new prey than to defend themselves against a dozen snapping, razor-tooth-filled mouths. And, too, there were rival tribes in the area, always looking to expand their territory and more than willing to attack an unwary stranger. It was therefore best to stay on one's guard from the moment one made a kill to the moment one took flight again. After all, all it usually took to dissuade meal interruptions was a sharp glare and threatening shriek.

        The stelk lay still now. Knowing better than to assume it was dead, Skye approached it from behind, leaping onto its back and ripping open its bleeding throat before jumping back again. The stelk remained motionless, its dull eyes staring blankly ahead into oblivion. Satisfied that it was dead, Skye circled his kill, bowing deeply to thank the gods for a successful hunt before beginning to eat.

        He was nearly finished when he heard it. A slight rustle, a whisper of wings, and then, a few seconds later and closer to him, the shudder of a branch and the clack of talons on bark. The same sequence, repeated over and over, each part of it varying in length and sometimes pausing quite a while between the shuddering branch and the soft rustle that followed it. A most unusual sound. He'd never heard anything like it. And that made it worth investigating. He was finished with the stelk anyway - some of the younger hunters that patrolled this area would no doubt be arriving soon to transport the remainder of his catch to the village, distribute the meat, strip and tan the hide, and clean and dry out the bones. Or to use them in soup, in the case of the marrowy leg bones. So he was free to satisfy his curiosity.

        The sound was difficult to track - it originated in one place, and ended somewhere quite a length away. Moreover, it wasn't traveling in any one set direction - sometimes its path wobbled along a predominantly westward path, others it headed north or northwest. And it made very little noise between start and finishing points, making anticipating its path nearly impossible. He stayed with it, though, gaining on it during the times it landed - for that was what he realized the shuddering branches meant - and when it took flight again, rustling the upper branches of its tree. But it wasn't until it reached the river that Skye realized what it was he'd been tracking.


        Iiwi was overjoyed at the sight of the river. True, she had no way of knowing if this river was the same one she had flown over the day before or another river completely, but it was something more than just forest, and it gave her something to follow.

        Besides, she was thirsty.

        She'd been tree-hopping along like this for hours. While it was certainly a faster way of travel, it was also an awkward one, and this world's gravity wasn't helping much at all. She was hot and tired, and covered in leaf debris, bark chips, and sticky sap. Her flight feathers needed preening badly, and her legs and tail were so coated in sap that she really wondered if they could be cleaned at all. She remembered her encounter with the river-monster all-too-clearly, but all she wanted to do right now was dive into the river and take a bath.

        Common sense triumphed over that idea, but she nonetheless decided that now was as good a time for a break as any. Gliding to the opposite side of the river - and taking the time to scan both up and downstream for the silhouettes of those river-monsters - she lighted at the water's edge, doing a quick check of her surroundings before leaning over and taking a long, cool drink from the river. Feeling somewhat refreshed, she glanced at her reflection - and promptly decided she needed to make some attempt at cleaning herself before she started preening. She was a mess.

        Hopping to a spot where the river was about a foot deep - far too shallow for the huge monster she'd seen before to be lurking in - she leaned over, dipping her head and the leading edges of her wings into the water. Quickly, she tipped back up, splashing water down her back and wings without truly getting wet. She shook out her feathers as the water flowed over them, then repeated the move, sloshing off dust and leaves and bits of debris until her feathers were more manageably clean. She then returned to the shore and began preening, removing all remaining bits of dirt and sap while carefully smoothing and aligning her feathers.

        As she began working on her tail feathers, she again considered her options. Not only had she failed to see any Hooties at all in her travels, she had also yet to think up a way to help Bob and the others. She had no chance of locating her communicator again, so if her call hadn't gotten through to Ivan…then she didn't know what she would do. This world was very nice and pretty, but she was lost and hurt and her friends were in trouble - and not only could she not help them, she couldn't get home. There was really nothing she could do but find some place to sit it out and hope that her luck took a turn for the better. She sighed, a sorrowful trill that pretty much summed up how she felt.


        Skye watched her from the safety of a bushy thicket on the opposite side of the river. He'd been further behind that he'd thought, and had overshot this last stop as well. She hadn't landed in the branches, but on the ground - and hadn't made a sound when she did so - and he had missed this detail and crossed the river further northward, continuing on until it was quite obvious to him that he had lost the sound he'd been tracking. A careless mistake, perhaps, but he'd only been doing this on a lark - it wasn't as if he'd been tracking prey or an enemy, so he hadn't put as much effort into it.

        He was stunned to find he'd been tracking the same scarlet bird he'd chased into the village a day before. Well, chased into the village's defensive net, at any rate. She'd done a fair amount of damage to that net, something the village elder held him responsible for - as if he hadn't tried to warn her to stop! But she'd exhausted herself, and had slept the remainder of the day. She still hadn't awakened by the time he'd gone out hunting this morning, and both he and the other villagers had gone about their daily activities, convinced that - even if she tried to run when she did awaken - she wouldn't get far. She'd torn - and probably continued to fly with anyway - a muscle in her wing, so she wouldn't be flying for a few days. Or so they'd thought.

        She was splashing about in the water when he finally caught up with her. It seemed an unusual thing for a bird to do - his kind took sand- or dirt-baths - but, then, she was covered in tree sap. When it became obvious that she intended to remain by the river for a time - preening - he took a moment to seek out one of the trees she had landed on - and immediately realized just why she was covered in sap. From the low branch she landed on to the high one she took flight from stretched parallel lines of holes in the tree's bark - holes that were oozing with sap. She'd climbed the distance between the branches. And then doubtless glided to the next branch. Painful, but still possible with her injury.

        He returned to the riverside to find her finished with preening and now simply dawdling. That seemed odd to him, until he realized she was looking up and down the river, as if at a loss for the direction she should take. Which would make sense, given how turned-around she had to be. Or perhaps she knew where the pygmy settlement she'd sought out was located, but remembered that it was no longer standing. He needed to persuade her to return to the village. The pygmies would not help her now - they would stay hidden in their caves, traveling down cramped tunnels to other settlements, never to return to the one she knew of. That was how the pygmies were - wasteful. Never mind that the settlement could be salvaged, rebuilt - they would abandon it, without even bothering to clear the area of the marks they had made on it. But his tribe would help her. She was a star-traveler, she had to be - that was the only thing that explained the battle that had been raging over the pygmy settlement - and it followed that hers was the silver bird the black birds had captured. That was why no one had come looking for her. There was no one to come looking for her.

        The Hawks would take care of her now - but in order for them to help her, she needed to trust them. Which she obviously did not - although between the stories the pygmies had no doubt told her and the fact that he had chased her, he doubted that trust would come easily. Still, there was only one way to start the process…

        He stepped out into the clearing. She saw him immediately, her feathers standing on end as she crouched, wings half-spread, ready to take flight should he move another inch. She squawked at him, a warning screech - an avian growl, if birds could make such sounds - and fluttered her wings, snapping them open and closed so quickly they blurred. In Hawk society, that move warned the recipient that they were very close to being attacked. Seeing that at least some of their behaviors apparently overlapped, he flattened his feathers close to his body and ducked low, taking a half-step back and fanning his wings back in a supplicating bow, a submissive gesture. That seemed to work, as she relaxed her stance a bit, cocking her head to the side with an inquisitive chirp. She'd been expecting an attack - or at least a steadfast opponent - not a retreat, and his stance confused her. That was the opening he needed - she didn't trust him, but she was curious of his actions - and, no doubt, as to why she'd been looked after in the village. If he just moved slowly…

        …gods, he hoped she understood their language…

        "I am Skye, of the Red-Tailed Hawk Clan," he greeted her, bowing again, "and we've gotten off to a poor start. Allow me to explain."


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