Kellai watched the sun sink behind the hills of the valley. The killing day was done. Where the last sunlight fell on his feathers, he felt warmth, and a sensation of summer, slipping away with the evening chill.
In his hands he held a long wooden stick, the dried-out branch of a gathamur tree. It had helped him wander across the uneven ground of the scrublands. He had run a long way, leaving behind the shouts and screams. The words of his father still echoed, furious and disappointed.
Today he was meant to take his first kill. The brightly feathered pterosaurs came to the cliffs near his village for a few days each year, feeding on the swallows and other little birds that roosted there. The pterosaurs only remained only a day or two, before resuming their long migration to the north.
He should have taken a knife to one of the beasts, spilled its blood and painted his own feathers. But he could not bring himself to do it.
The last of the sunlight fell away. He should make his way home soon. Although he knew the safer pathways through the scrublands, it was not wise to be out at night. Sometimes packs of raptors were seen.
Kellai looked at his hand, clenched tightly around the stick. Thin blue fingers, tufted with small feathers, sharp claws at the tips. Perfect for carving words into wood, or breaking open a nut, but useless against the long talons of a raptor.
High above, swallows flew by, darting and dancing. He tried to imagine how it must feel to fly, to soar through the skies. Stories told that his people, the pterokin, once had wings. That they flew amongst the clouds, eating and even sleeping in the skies. They had given that up when they came to the land. Although the pterokin kept their talons and feathers, they lost their wings.
He rose and moved from the rocks, skirting along the dusty path. There were tree stumps here and there, remnants of the bushlands. To the east, the sky was already dark.
He might be lucky enough to slip in while the clan worked, plucking and cleaning the pterosaur feathers, laying them out to dry. The feathers would be sold to the Stegokin traders that came in autumn. Kellai should be helping. Everyone played a part.
A cry rang out and Kellai froze. He wasn’t paying attention, and he’d strayed from the path. The half-moon spilled a silvery glow, but he could not see what had made the noise.
The cry came again. It wasn’t a raptor, nor anything larger. It wasn’t the bleat of some furry mammal either.
Kellai squinted to the south where a line of smoke appeared as a smudge against the night. The village. He could follow that home. He should, and yet, when the cry came again he shifted, uncertain.
It sounded pained.
He moved through the grass, poking with the gathamur branch. Better that a snake bite the stick than him.
The cry came again, sounding almost like words. Could it be a pterokin? Had someone come for him?
Kellai moved forwards slowly. Then he stopped. Ahead, the grasses were bent, crushed. Something was there. It shifted and let out a lilting coo that ended with a wheeze.
The beast hadn’t seen him. It might have been three feet long, a youngling probably. Its bat-like form lay tangled. The two short legs were limp, the talons curled in. Its wings were spread out, one torn down the middle.
Its bright feathers were covered in blood.
Kellai took a step closer and felt the dusty sand shift beneath him. Although he made barely any noise, the pterosaur glanced up. Its large black eyes fixed on Kellai and it shrieked loudly.
Kellai fell, dropping the gathamur branch. He shimmied backwards, keeping his eye on the beast. Pterosaurs could be dangerous. Their talons were sharp enough to slit a pterokin’s throat.
Kellai’s heart thundered in his chest. Run! He thought. Go!
He knew he should leave it. Go to the village. He might tell them he had found it. Take a few feathers with him. Perhaps he’d not be in as much trouble then.
He lifted the gathamur branch. If the beast tried anything he’d whack it in the head. It was hurt and surely wouldn’t be able to chase or kill him now. It must have been injured at the cliffs, but not enough to have been captured. The pterokin teamed up for this task. One man with a spear, one with a net. When the pterosaurs flew low, the spearthrowers would aim and hurl, hoping to send their quarry tumbling to the rocks. Sometimes the beasts would struggle and try to pull the spears out with their beaks or talons. In that case the nets would be thrown to entangle and trap. Kills had to be quick, otherwise the beasts would thrash and struggle, damaging their beautiful feathers.
Kellai noticed that this pterosaur had a gaping wound in its side.
He crawled closer. The beast trembled and flapped its wings weakly although its talons didn’t move. It turned its head and let out a cry.
Kellai leaned in. He’d never seen a live pterosaur this close before. Its eyes blinked and he noticed the iridescent pupils shining. It was hard to tell in the light but this one had a mottled pattern to its feathers. Maybe white and green? Rare, but he’d seen these before.
“Ulla Ullaan,” it cooed.
Kellai cursed softly. He’d never heard these sounds before either. Sometimes you would hear one let loose a pealing cry, and on the killing day, it was mostly screams and shrieks.
“Hey,” said Kellai, feeling a little foolish.
It curled and turned to him.
Words. They must be words.
“Can you understand me?” asked Kellai.
It wheezed and blinked.
Kellai turned to its side. The wound was large, and the blood caked the beast’s fuzzy down feathers. He reached forwards and touched it, shocked by the warmth. It flinched and shrieked.
“Sorry,” said Kellai.
He examined the wound again. This beast was worthless now. Its feathers were bloodied and broken. No one would care about it. Maybe he could fix it. With his claws, he carefully pulled at some small stones and dirt stuck in the wound.
The beast yowled and snapped its jaws. Kellai hushed it, then wiped at the wound with his hands.
“I’m sorry this happened to you,” he said quietly.
“What are you saying?” asked Kellai, amazed at this strange situation he was in. If his father saw this, he’d be whipped.
“Ulaan zallet zollan.”
This was stupid. He was near it now. Maybe it was tricking him. Those talons perhaps weren’t useless. Maybe it would reach up and grab at him, clench around his neck and kill him. Maybe it would lash out with its jaws.
Kellai pushed these thoughts away, running his fingers gently along its body. He could feel the tightly coiled muscles within, and he imagined it in flight, spreading its wings wide and soaring on the hot winds that rose in the valley.
Kellai lay his head on the earth. “What can I do?”
He stared into the beast’s eyes. He watched as the night grew colder and the stars shifted above. It was late.
Kellai yipped. The pterosaur had gripped his wrist with its talons, the sharp ends curled neatly around his arm without breaking the skin.
There was something in its warbling. A message, but one that he could not understand. He placed his hands on its feathered side and felt its breath grow shallow. Its eyes glimmered, black as night.
The wind danced in the tall grass. Kellai could feel the earth beneath him, cold and sandy. Above, the sky was strangely orange and filled with stars. Was it dawn? Had he slept?
The pterosaur was gone.
No. He was gone.
He was somewhere else.
He breathed in and smelt bush smoke.
Kellai gasped and leaped, shrieking and stumbling in shock. He was not himself. Instead of his feathered arms, he had long wings, with proper feathers for flying. Instead of his thick legs and feet, his body narrowed to small clawed feet, capped with sharp talons.
Something whizzed by above. A shape darted across the sky, wings unfurling as it slowed. It flapped and disappeared into the grass, not far away.
There was a noise behind him and he turned. A copse of trees clung to a low hill, where flickers of light came.
He heard the shouts. Pterokin hunters, banging pots and beams, shaking nets with stones. Kellai’s muscles tensed and he tried to run, moving awkwardly within this strange body. He flapped his wings, half-flying and half-scrambling.
He dashed through the grass, as the noise grew louder. The pterokin hunters were gaining. They’d see him soon and might spear him.
He felt the ground slope downwards and then he saw a gleam up ahead. A river? A lake?
He reached the edge and felt his feet slop in the muddy shores. No, not feet he remembered. Talons.
“Unborn,” came a voice.
He turned and looked up along the water’s edge.
The pterosaur. Its feathers were beautiful, no longer marred by the jagged wound and crimson stains. They shimmered now, pearl white with splotches of emerald. It curved its great wings and leaned out over the water.
“Go!” cried Kellai.
“They’re coming. They’ll kill you.”
“They come for you.”
The noise was louder now. He could smell fire and hear the shaking sounds. They would be here any moment.
“What’s happening?” he asked, suddenly scared.
There was light and fire and Kellai saw a spear hurtling towards him.
Kellai juddered and flinched, rolling to his side. He blinked and retched, coughing loudly.
He was shivering. The sky above was blue, but it was chilly. Heart pounding, he glanced this way and that. There was nothing around. No sound.
No bush smoke.
The Pterosaur lay still beside him. Its feathers were dull now, caked with dirt and drops of dew.
Kellai rubbed his frozen hands together, and instinctively checked himself, feeling his arms and long legs. His stomach grumbled, and his mouth was dry, but he stretched and began to walk.
He had to make it to the village. As he moved across the grass the sun rose higher and he felt the valley warming again. He paced himself, breathing deep and slow, easing into a rhythm. Running kept him focused, easing away at the thoughts that fluttered in his mind.
When the sun was near the noon zenith, Kellai came to a stream. He was close to home now. He sat by the water and drank from it, taking not too much.
Movement caught his eye and he gazed out to the west where the plains rolled on. There was a cloud of dust, kicked up into the sky. It shimmered yellow in the daylight. A herd of triceratops, marching in single file.
Then he saw something else, and he jumped. Not far from him, kneeling by the stream there was a person.
A tricokin, staring right at Kellai.
“Uhh. Hey,” Kellai said.
Tricokin were very strong, with two short horns rising from their heads and a beak-like horn that blended into their nose. Many of them were scholars and would visit the villages, researching or exploring. Kellai knew this tricokin was unusual.
It wore no clothes.
“Hark, pterokin,” said the tricokin, rising to its full height, eight feet or maybe more.
The tricokin was covered in mud, but Kellai realized she was female.
“What are you doing here, away from your kin?” she asked, her voice low and coarse.
“I, was hunting. I got… lost.”
“Ah,” said the tricokin. “Killing day. Mmm-yes. Spilling blood on the cliffs. Has the bounty been rich this season?”
Kellai blushed and turned away.
“Mmm-yes. Young you are. Not yet a hunter. No, there’s no lust for death within you.”
Kellai’s muscles tensed, ready to jump and run. But something in the tricokin’s gaze held him.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Following my folk.”
“But you’re all alone”
“Not true. I am with my kin,” she said, tilting her head.
“What… the triceratops?”
“They are my kin, yes. Although,” the tricokin spread her arms wide. “We have been cleaved.”
Kellai blinked, his mouth dry again.
“We all see the cleave. My horns and beak, my green scales. We once were one, but some magic split us.”
“But why? You can’t be with them. You’re not the same,” said Kellai, but the words felt wrong in his mouth. “You’re a tricokin.”
“They are my kin and I am their kin. I study, I reflect. Eventually, I will find my way to the herd. I shall mend the cleave and we will be one again.”
With that, the tricokin turned and began to walk.
Kellai rose to his feet, watching as she marched towards the triceratops, dust flicking up behind her.
“But how?” Kellai yelled.
“We must cast all away,” came the tricokin’s voice, chopped by the wind. “Give ourselves to them!”
Kellai watched her fade away in the grass, until he could not distinguish her dust from the triceratops herd.
“Boy,” hissed Borett. “You’re lucky I don’t pluck you bare!”
Kellai raised his hand and wiped at his cheek, rubbing away the stinging pain from his father’s slap.
“You’ll work with me today. You’ll make your kill.”
Kellai blinked away tears and got to his feet only to have his father grab him by the shoulder and push him forwards. His sister Ginerva walked alongside.
They followed the clan up to the cliffs. Heat from the afternoon sun reflected from the rocks.
“Where did you go?” whispered Ginerva, handing him a knife.
Kellai hefted the blade in his hands. He didn’t want to mention the pterosaur he’d found.
“I got lost,” he whispered.
Ginerva frowned. The ground beneath them was dark, the blood having seeped into the rocks and dust overnight. Pterosaur feathers lay scattered about.
“Ginerva,” he said, when their father was out of earshot.
She tilted her head.
“Do you think… Do you think it’s true? That once we flew?”
“We never flew,” she said. “Look at us. Do you see wings?”
“But we have feathers. Why? Some of the elder songs say that we wronged our kin, that we lost our wings and forgot how to fly. They say—”
“Those are legends,” she hissed.
Some of the hunters wore smaller pterosaur feathers on bands around their necks. The best were in the village where the rest of the clan would be cleaning them and preparing them for the Stegokin traders.
One had brought a hat once, one of the caps that noble kin in the great cities wore. The feathers were twisted and twined into great bonnets that looked ridiculous to Kellai. Who would want to wear such a thing?
The beasts were visible now, swooping and soaring high above.
For as long as anyone could remember the clan had hunted, taking the feathers and using the meats. They said there were less now. That in days gone by the sky was so filled with pterosaurs that you simply needed to reach your arm up and pluck a feather.
Kellai gazed at the knife in his hand and imagined how many it had killed. How many beasts felled and bled out in the rocks.
“Ready!” came a gruff cry.
There was a whooshing as a man to his right threw his spear skywards. A shriek tore through the noise and a pterosaur crashed into the rocks headfirst, twitching in agony as men ran towards it.
Borett grabbed Kellai by the wrist, dragging him to the cliff edge.
“That one!” yelled his father and his netman nodded.
The pterosaurs flew in low, seeking out the swallows. Noise crashed all around, a terrible cacophony of violence. The steel and iron, stones shaking. The shouts of hunters and the screeching cries of the pterosaurs tumbling to the rocks. Borett knelt on the rocks, gazing with one eye closed, the muscles in his arms tight. He stretched his arm, ready to throw.
Kellai leapt forwards and pushed out, his hands catching his father right in the chest. The big hunter dropped the spear and tumbled back, arms flailing out to catch himself. He slipped and fell over the edge and was gone.
“Kellai!” Ginerva screamed.
Men were shouting and screaming.
“What have you done!?” yelled a man.
“He’s killed Borett!” came a shriek.
A hand appeared over the edge, then another and Borett’s face appeared. He dragged himself higher, his eyes wild with rage. Blood streamed from a cut on his brow, soaking his beard feathers.
“You!” he yelled at Kellai.
The crowd was gathering, shifting closer. The killing was forgotten, for now. They leaned in, building a circle as Borett reclaimed his spear. He leaned into it, breathing heavily.
“You disgrace me! You disgrace us all!”
Kellai’s heart shook. All eyes were on him, staring without speaking.
“You are not one of us!” growled Borett, moving closer.
Kellai took a deep breath. Out behind his father the sky beckoned, blue and clear and wide open. Pterosaurs shrieked as they rode on the currents. They were moving away, leaving the cliffs, swooping north. He thought of warm thermals guiding him upwards. He imagined the sensation of soaring.
There was a crunching sound and a popping under his skin. His body shuddered and shook. People began to shriek and scream. Even Borett paused, his eyes so wide the whites were visible.
Kellai fell forwards, stumbling, gaping at his shadow. It rippled and shifted as he raised his arms, the space between is fingers and torso filling as wings unfurled.
Kellai ran as his legs shrank, flapping his arms, feeling them clutch and hold the hot air, lifting him up. He skipped, jumping up, catching the wind. Borett reached out to grab him, but Kellai leapt high, over his father and past the cliff edge.
The wind roared as he fell, beating his wings, beautiful and bright with all the colours in the sky. He twisted himself until he felt the air flow over and under his body, guiding himself out of the descent. Unsteadily at first, he swept his wings up and down as the great feathers carried him upwards.
The Pterosaurs called out as they flew northwards. As Kellai soared among them, he heard their words, and now, he knew their meaning.