Wings out, tail down, claws out – and I landed, gripping the edge of the cliff where the family nest sat. I shook out my wing feathers and folded them neatly in. Then my hair. I tried giving it a good shake, but it was so matted and muddy, it didn’t really help.

“You need to clean up, sis.”

My brother, Pirree, was fastidious and shining. Somehow he never got a feather out of place.

I said, “not much I can do in this weather. Pick up a mouse and get mud from nose to tail.”

He neatly picked at a claw that was already perfect. “You should at least clean your claws, Kirlee. They’ll blunt if you don’t.”

He repeated mum and dad as if I didn’t know. I tried, but not everything came off. I dutifully started biting and licking at them anyway. They were full of blood. I’d had a good day down the marshes and was feeling nest-ready for once.

Pirree cocked his head and stared at me. Now I felt like a mouse. “What now, Pirr?”

“Your hair. It’s a real mess. The body mage over at Raven’s Hee could cut it for you. That should make things easier.”

I changed to the other foot. I could feel the sting in my cheeks, but Pirree was of the same clutch as me and I told him, “I still owe him from last time. I only got enough to feed myself today. The mage wants a whole rabbit, and all I gave him last time was a squirrel baby.” The body mages are useful for a species without hands, but he knew he was useful and he knew he was exclusive, and if he hadn’t been in control of his own body, too, he’d be too fat to fly. I’ve always wished I didn’t need him, but what can a Tsik do when the weather is autumn from equinox to equinox?

Also, hair grows – unlike feathers.

“Well, you will have to fly there and pay him back at least. Maybe a pigeon up front will get you started on the next cleanup.”

As if I could even find a spare pigeon those days. The prey bred worse than us. Me and Pirree, we used to have another clutch sibling. He survived hatching but not much more.

We heard a squawk of greeting. It was from our big sis Sirril. She’s from the clutch the year before, and she flew wider and got better prey than any of us. “Hey, baby chicks!”

That’s a tease. Both I and Pirree had our adult feathers, and hoped to find our own mates and nests that season. Well, he had a chance at least. Not so sure about me. The good males don’t really like a partner who looks like a ball of owl-spit. Sirril was good to us, she’d let me stay until I find someone, even if this was technically her territory now, after mum and dad decided to migrate to the islands. I’ve occasionally wondered if mum and dad were right. There’s fish out by the islands, and the rumours say it’s better pickings than here on the Grey Peaks – but that’s neither here nor there to the story.

Anyway, Sirril said, “did you hear about the nest down by Marri-dale? Nobody has seen the pair in almost a greatmoon-cycle!”

Marri-dale. That’s a decent territory. It’s low altitude so you wouldn’t see much, but there’s trout in the Marrilit rivers and loads of creatures trek to the streams. “What do you think happened to the owners,” I asked. Though I had my suspicions. There’s a human town by the Marrilit/Grey river fork.

Sirril echoed my thoughts. “Humans probably. Though killing the whole pair is harsh. I hope they didn’t have chicks.”

I shuddered. One, two, maybe three hatchlings just getting their first real wing feathers, but no chance of learning to fly or feed themselves. “And no-one would know to adopt them in time before they starve.” Killing the whole pair was harsh.

“Why did they hunt together,” asked Pirree. As if we could answer that. “The council should forbid hunting on human farms!”

I ate a chicken once. It was the best meal I ever caught with my own two feet. I told Pirree that.

Sirril licked her lips. Pirree stomped and shook himself, head to tailtip. “No,” he said. “It’s not worth the risk. Kirlee – I don’t want you dead.”

“Oh, you just have to think about what you’re doing,” said Sirril. “Not just focus on the prey, but the surroundings and circumstances too. A mama thrush will flee when you pick her nest, so you’d never worry about it, but taking from human farms is more complicated.” She grinned. “Some of us like a challenge.”

And the way the pickings were that year, some of us had to. “Maybe the nest is open for new owners,” I said.

The day after, my belly was rumbling again, my hair still looked like owl-spit, and Sirril woke far too early. The overhang kept the nest dryish, but there were droplets all over her, and when she flapped her wings, I got a load in my face. “Thanks,” I muttered.

“Makes you fresh and awake, baby chick. You hungry? I am.”

“Someone started talking about chickens last night,” I sighed.

Sirril gave me a sidelong glance, her black eyes glittered under the blonde locks. “I’m thinking we could get a better view of the humans if there’s more of us,” she said.

“You two are crazy,” the curled up shape of Pirree said. He drew his head out from under his wing and yawned. “I said yesterday I don’t want you killed – and that goes for both of you. I’m serious. Just don’t.”

“I’m hungry,” I said, as way of explanation. “And the body mage at Raven’s Hee will probably clean me nose to tailfeather and back to claws for a full chicken.”

“One each might be pushing it,” said Sirril, “but a half chicken should be enough both to fill your belly and to get you that haircut at least.”

She was serious. She really wanted to hunt farms.

Pirree stared at us. Then he stuffed his face back under the wing. It was muffled, but “I will have no part in this,” we heard him say.

So I and big sis flew. Circled first at the high end of the Deep Vale, checked the Vale holts, then stopped at the Foggy Lake. There were some nice looking ducks, and Pirree said “how about mallard?” Apparantly he’d followed us anyway.

“Thought you said you wanted no part of it,” said Sirril.

“I have to look out for you,” he said.

Yep, it was dangerous. I said, “mallard is good.”

“Baby chick! You running out on me? Come on, that farm on the south bank looks promising.”

It did. Some good trees around it to scout from, a good upwind from the lake to the cliffs, and the chicken coop was behind the barn.

“Anyway,” Sirril continued, “the territory owners won’t like if we take their ducks.”

“Will they like that you take their chickens,” asked Pirree.

“No, but there’s none on my rocks. It is getting a bit sparse, especially with the three of us.”

She liked us, but still… “You want us gone soon, right?” I said. “Find your own mate instead?”

Sirril sighed. “That would still make it me plus one plus chicks. Unless I can expand with the mate’s territory as well. I was checking out our neighbour on the east side. He’s a kind guy, but then I had to ask the Memory Keeper and unfortunately she needed only recite lineages for three breaths before finding a common ancestor. So no expanding that way at least.”

We flew in to perch on a copse of tall spruce behind the main house of the farm. From that angle we could see the farmer had built a tight lattice work of beams around and above an open area where the dumb clucks wandered around pecking at the ground and each other.

“Okey,” I said. “How are we getting through that fence thing?”

Sirril started bobbing her head back and forth. She was measuring for much longer than I would have done – but then again, I didn’t think that fence was possible to maneuver through anyway.

Sirril said finally, “come. Watch me.”

We closed in; me, I landed on the barn roof. Sirril swooped down to the coop, and then she did a maneuver that defies words. It was a combination of a side slide, a tail twist – and then she folded in everything and somehow slipped through the tiny space between the beams. I’ve seen swallows do that sort of thing. I can’t catch those. I’ve never thought a full grown Tsik could do it. I might consider practicing that sort of fold in at two hundred feet above the ground. But not two feet above. The chance of crashing was crazy high.

Sirril was airborne again with a chicken in her claws. She headed for the same opening.

She was almost through.

And what did I do? I did what she said – I watched her.

But I didn’t do what she said last night – watch her surroundings and circumstances.

So when the farmer and the shovel turned up out of nowhere, I heard Pirree shriek from the copse before I saw it, and Sirril didn’t see in time at all.

Gods, I heard that shovel hit her head.

To be continued…

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