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It’s been a bit of a struggle to get to this point, but I’ve just passed 50,000 words on Islespeaker which means I’m hopefully, approximately half-way through, unless the darn thing runs away with me the way books sometimes do. I’m still not quite sure what genre it is, if any, and I only have a vague idea where it’s going and an even vaguer idea how it ends, but it is turning out to be a lot of fun to write.

Here’s a bit, please excuse the first-drafty roughness and over-writing. I hope you enjoy it.

****

She was crouching to gather eggs from the reed-bed when she heard shouting from along the shore. She remained where she was, concealed by the long green stems, looking out between them to see the source of the commotion. Some lads from the city had come out the day before to stay at the Red Parrot, to canoe on the lake and, it had appeared, to drink the bar dry before their parents got wind of where they were. Now they were up and about and, by the sound of it, causing trouble.

She wondered if she could get back to the saloon before she attracted their attention. One of them was already nursing a black eye after he had got too hands-on with Natty the previous evening, and Jennicy had warned them both to be on their guard. Back on Atalay, Essie knew she could have held her own against any group of mouthy teenage boys. But she was a long way from Atalay now.
She set the basket down, hidden in the reeds. It was cumbersome and she could come back for it later. She risked another glance along the rough shore of the lake, and her heart sank. She was not going back to the saloon after all. She was going to have to sort this out.

There was a nest of young ostrich chicks on a drab patch of earth just up from the lake shore. She had marked it earlier and was keeping a wary eye on it, knowing male ostriches could be savage in defence of their chicks. Clearly no one had told these dumb city boys that; they were straying perilously close to the nest and through there was no sign of the father yet, he wouldn’t be far off.

“Hey!” Essie called. The young men ignored her. One of them was actually leaning over the nest now, reaching down to pick up a fluffy chick. “Hey, how dumb are you?”

The boy turned, saw her. His mouth dropped open in an expression of frozen horror. He wasn’t looking at her, but behind her.

Essie didn’t even need to look. She could hear the beat of powerful feet on the ground behind her and she threw herself to the floor, tucking herself into a ball and wrapping her arms around her head. She felt the rush of air at his passing, a thump against her that threw her on to her side and then she was up, on her feet and running, hopelessly far behind, hopelessly outdistanced by the bird’s acceleration.

The male ostrich bore down on the interlopers with the speed and ferocity of a tidal wave, and they scattered before his wrath. Dumb, so dumb; the kid still had the chick in his hands as if it hadn’t even occurred to him to let it go, and those bullet-black eyes and furiously flapping wings were coming for him, beak gaping open in a furious hiss.

“Put the fucking bird down!” She barely had the breath to shout, wasn’t sure if he heard her. Two of his friends had fled, the cowards, scrambling for the safety of the saloon. The third was trying to stay out of the way, yelling advice.

“Get in front of it, Jim! In front of it so it can’t kick you!”

Wrong, all wrong. They were only making things worse. The luckless Jim was running back towards her now, and the male was bearing down on him. She saw his foot lash out, saw Jim stumble forward and the chick tumbled from his hands. She dived forward and caught the flapping bundle of softness before it could hit the ground, putting it on the floor and retreating swiftly. The ostrich cock stood over the fallen boy, one foot raised as if to stamp down. Jim wasn’t moving. She wasn’t sure if that was because he had the sense to lay still, or whether he had passed out. Or worse. She didn’t want to think about worse.

“Hie! Hie hie hie!” She didn’t know how domesticated the bird was, if he would respond to her calls. She edged away, keeping her movements small, wishing she had a crook to wrangle him with. That beak could break bones if it hit her at the wrong angle. “Hie hie hie hie hie!”

The bird cocked his head to one side, and slowly lowered his stabbing foot so it rested on Jim’s hip.

“Come on.” She raised a hand slowly, beckoning it forward. She drew the knife from her belt and let the sunlight flash off it. “What’s this? What have I got?”
She could hear the other boy, Jim’s more courageous friend, moving through the reeds behind her. “Stand still!” she hissed out of the side of her mouth. “Don’t you fucking move!”

To his credit, he froze. Essie twisted the knife again and the bird took a step forward, trampling over Jim as if he was nothing more than a fallen log in his path. She tried not to wince at the sight of those great claws digging in.

“What’s down there?” She pointed with the knife, and the bird’s eyes followed the bright blade down to where the chick was struggling and cheeping in the grass. The cock bird bent, twisting its head this way and that as if inspecting it, before it ascertained that this was in fact his chick and lifted it high in the air, dangling upside down by one leg from his savage beak. The chick cheeped in undignified protest as it was carried, swinging upside down, back towards the nest. It seemed the cock bird had forgotten all about the interlopers who had stolen his charge.
Essie did not move, did not dare to even breathe loudly, until the ostrich had settled back on the nest and flounced his black feathers out to protect his brood. She walked over to Jim, forcing herself to move steadily, without drama, and as his friend tried to dart past her she caught his arm.

“Do you want to piss it off again?”

“But Jim -?”

“Just – move slowly. Follow my lead.”

“Who are you?”

“My name’s Essie. I work in the saloon.”

Jim was groaning. Not dead then, at least not yet.

“I’m Randrick.”

“Nice to meet you,” she replied absently. There was a lot of blood, pooling in the dips and hollows on the ground, mixing with the water until it looked as if the whole lakeshore was running red. It looked worse than it was. It had to, or Jim was a dead idiot.

****

All comments and criticisms welcome, hopefully I can reach the next milestone a little bit quicker!

 

 

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