Whiterock Chapter 6: Whiterock

Whiterock is my next novel, aiming for release in 2022. I have it all written but it still needs polishing so I’m sharing parts of it here to get your feedback. Have a quick read and tell me your impressions, or give me your critique, in the comment area below. Enjoy! (updated 14-Jul-2021)

What is Whiterock?

By Hal Aetus

©2019 Hal Aetus (aetusart.com). Please do not repost without permission of the author.

WARNING: There are some scenes throughout this novel that depict actions some may not consider suitable for children such as drinking of alcohol, mild gore and violence (as in close combat), romance, and mild sexual content. My target audience is adult (e.g., 18 years or older) so be advised.

The peaks around Sunrise Lake were part of a range known as the Coastal Mountains. Their sharp backs marched in rows as the birds flew east, finally giving way to graceful slopes of grass and flowers. These flowed downward and outward, like a giant soft cloak, before abruptly dropping into the sea. Capping one prominent bluff were tall mounds that at first appeared to be stone to Tristan. But they were regularly spaced, laid out in an unnatural grid-like pattern with symmetrical clefts of vegetation between. Their stone-like substance was bleached and crumbling in a manner quite unlike the nearby sea cliffs. And they were perforated with regularly-spaced, square holes and some had gaping gashes with exposed skeletons of rusted metal bones. It didn’t take Tristan long to surmise that the odd formations must be the ruins left by humans long ago.

Around the bases of the derelict buildings were mounds of rusted steel and decayed cement, draped with a succession of grasses, brush, vines, and trees. Vegetation was growing on any surface that was not occupied by birds, or hadn’t recently experienced a collapse. At the seaside edge of the ancient city, the land gave way to steep cliffs dropping dozens of meters into the foamy sea. Along this precipice, many of the buildings had split into pieces and toppled over in huge slabs revealing their hollow interiors, or leaving only their brick facades with only sky behind their empty windows. Wires dangled out like colorful vines and busted pipes smeared the ruins with streaks of rust. The sea beyond was a deep, dark blue and stretched off to a hazy infinity.

Thousands of seabirds reeled and darted above the town, coming and going from every direction and boiling in knots and swirls over areas of special interest. The raucous of their calls could be heard from a great distance, as the trio approached from the west. As they circled high above, Tristan saw something else.

The buildings were caked with thousands of smaller bird-made structures of wood, pebble, glass, and shell, cemented together with ash and mud. Tristan recognized the substance as bird cement, for he had helped Kor make it to use in maintaining the forge. The bird dwellings were more irregular, rounded, and organic in organization than the squarely constructed human dwellings. Tristan was amazed at how the bird dwellings were densely packed into every open window, every gaping hole, and every ledge and rooftop.

Tristan circled up close to Nyx and nodded at the buildings. “Are those human ruins?”

Nyx chirped out “Yes!” She tipped her right wing and pointed at a cluster of the tallest buildings. “That’s the heart of Whiterock, called Hightown. There are all sorts of merchants, cachers, prey sellers, crafters . . . You can find most anything here. The more well-off birds live in the tops of the ruins.”

Tristan looked down the coast to the south and saw that there was a faint and discontinuous pattern of city blocks and roads, for many kilometers, all but erased by nature, and kept alive only by variations in the vegetation.

As the trio glided out past the cliffs they could see that below the densest part of the town were layers of caves, and platforms, and connected perchways attached directly to the face of the cliffs.

Nyx called out, “That’s Lowtown. It’s a very busy place. Birds come from all over the world to trade for goods from Volatalia. If your gold seller is an albatross, that’s probably where he’ll be. But it’s also full of saloons, mating parlors, and scumbags. Birds with nothing in mind but their own pleasure. You can’t trust most of ’em. We’ll have to stick together and be careful.”

The wind shifted and an updraft of cool sea air, rich with the smell of guano and sea life spilled through their feathers.

“Oh my!” Tristan staggered in midflight with an unpleasant expression. He gagged, but tried to hide it from Pepro.

Nyx saw it and chortled in laughter. “What’s the matter? Never smelled the ocean before?”

“Is that what that is?”

“It is indeed!” Pepro chirped excitedly. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “Makes my mouth water!”

“Mine too! Like I’m getting ready to cast a pellet!”

Nyx called out, “You said you were going to the Avian Haven? Follow me!” Nyx pulled her wings in close and dropped like a stone.

“Wait!” said Pepro and Tristan in unison, trying to mimic her maneuver. Nyx grinned and pushed her wings and feet out to slow her plummeting body and allow the others to catch up.

They slipped down towards Hightown, angling towards a tall, dilapidated brick building. The base of it sloped out in mounds of soil green with grass and moss spattered with bird droppings. The walls were made of weathered brick with dozens of square windows that had no glass. On the side facing the ocean, each window had a wooden platform that protruded from the building. The platforms edged back into the windows and were encased at their backs by rounded walls of bird cement and each one had an arched, curtained opening.

One of the openings, near the top of the building, had a flag hanging from its end, lofting in the wind. It was blue with a white star. Two Stellar’s sea eagles stood on each side of the opening wearing armor exactly like that which King Vasili’s party had been wearing at Kor’s shop.

Tristan called to Pepro. “Look! King Vasili must be here!”

Nyx screeched back to them. “A lot of important birds stay here. It’s a classy place.”

 At the very top was a terrace of white tiles cemented together in a large mosaic. The predominant colors were various shades of blue and at the center was a black silhouette of a branching tree with a white crescent moon above it. There were slabs of dark slate along the north side, stacked into tables for basking. To the south side was a circular, tiled, pool of water for bathing. The western half of the rooftop was occupied by the remains of a penthouse, now heavily modified by bird construction to be a reception area and ballroom.

The trio fluttered to a stop on the edge of the terrace where an immaculate ring-billed gull was loafing on one of the stone slabs. It regarded them momentarily before lazily closing its golden eyes. The platform was spotless, and the trio could quickly see why. A crow was hopping about, studying the ground, and stabbing up stray feathers. It hopped away to the edge and dropped the debris over the side. Soft curtains of silky blue fabric hung down on either side of an arched doorway to the reception area. After taking it all in, the three glanced at each other.

Pepro spoke up. “This place is amazing! Thanks for guiding us here, Nyx. What do ya think, Tristan? Should we go see if Penelope is home?”

“That’s ‘Miss Penelope’ if you please!” came a smooth nasally call from within the parlor. The curtains parted and a well-groomed magpie strolled out to meet them. Her beak was glossy, smeared with fine oil to make it shine. Her eyelashes were longer than the usual magpie and her breast was round and plump. She swaggered her chest and tail as she waltzed out onto the porch to study her visitors. With narrow sparkling eyes she looked them up and down.

“Miss Penelope!” said Nyx bowing her head slightly. “I’m Nyx of Waycliffs. It’s a pleasure to see you again!”

Penelope flicked her third eyelid and made a pleasant trill. “Oh, my! So nice to have you here, dear. I’ve not seen you in, what? Three or four winters?”

“That’s right! Four winters ago, when I accompanied my parents to the Council.”

“Yes! That’s it. How are your parents, dear?”

“They’re well, still watching over Waycliffs. They send their love.”

“Ohh ho ho! Do tell them to come again when you see them. They’re always welcome here. And please introduce me to your handsome friends here.”

Nyx tilted her beak towards Pepro. “This is Pepro, an old friend from Waycliffs. And his companion is Tristan. They’re visiting from Gallinta to do some business.”

Pepro and Tristan bowed deeply. “Pleased to meet you Miss!”

“Oh, from Gallinta are you? Oh, ho, ho, myyy. How is old Kory?”

Pepro stammered. “Uh, um, you mean Kor, ma’am?”

Penelope smiled and fluttered her third eyelids again. “Yes! Yes! I apologize for the familiar expression, but he is such a dear friend.”

Tristan stifled a giggle.

Pepro replied, “Kor, our master, sends his best. He spoke very highly of you, and I can see why.”

Penelope fanned her tail and shivered her wings with delight. “Ohh myyy! He always made me melt like a lass in her first spring of courtship!” She clucked with laughter and fanned herself with a wing as she turned towards the parlor door. “Please come inside! I want to hear all about your adventure and all about dear Kory. Miss Schreider! Miss Schreider! Tea and treats for four, right away!”

“Yes, ma’am!” came a metallic reply from another magpie.

The three walked in through the curtains and gaped at what they saw. There was a large room with a long mirror across the back wall and crystals hanging in chains across the high, white-painted ceiling. There were window openings along the sides and front and columns around the periphery that lent support and provided an area for many round dining platforms, each one with upholstered perches around their perimeter. Crystal candle lanterns adorned the walls and columns, and although they were not burning, the room was bright and fresh with sea air and sunshine coming from the side windows.

Miss Penelope led her guests past the reception desk, back through the ballroom, and down a short, wide hallway to a private corner room. It was decorated with dark stained wood panels and colorful shells on the ceiling. Windows of warped glass let in colorful light from the outside and a round table filled the corner. As with the other tables, there was a red upholstered perch that surrounded it.

The four birds filed into the cozy room and took spots around the table. Soon a slim magpie returned carrying a basket in her beak and another strapped to her back. She stopped at the table and set out four small China cups. From a pot in the beak basket, she fille each cup with tea and then laid out a golden cake beside each one. She adjusted them a bit and Penelope said, “Thank you, Miss Schreider.”

“Yes, madame. Will there be anything else?”

“Yes!” Penelope said with a smile. “Please close the door and don’t let anyone disturb us.”

Miss Schreider left and slid the door shut behind her.

Miss Penelope swiveled her glittering eyes back towards her visitors and whispered “Now! Enjoy your tea and bugbread while you tell me everything!”

Tristan watched Miss Penelope bite off a bit of her bread, dip it into the tea, and swallow it daintily. “Uh, yes, madame. Master Kory, uh, Kor, is doing very well. We both feel very lucky to work with him.”

“Oh, come on, dear. I know that he’s a grumpy old bird to his apprentices. Relax. We speak only the truth here behind these doors.”

“Yes ma’am.” said Tristan. “Yes, he is a tough master and expects the best. But when he gets it, he’s generous in return.”

“Mmm. Does he eat well?” She looked them over. “It looks like he’s taking good care of you two. Is he still . . . single?” She batted her eyelids.

Pepro followed Penelope’s example and swallowed a piece of the tea-soaked bread. “Mmm! That’s quite tasty.”

Penelope smiled expectantly.

Tristan cleared his throat to stall as he thought of what to say about Kor’s love life. He and Pepro saw the way the raven’s eyes would sparkle when a female corvid dropped in or flew by. It was one of the few things that would divert his attention from the forge. His beak would dart up at the underfluffies of a passing maiden crow, and small feathery “ears” would rise up briefly on the top of his head. On more than one occasion, he came in to work a few minutes later than usual with a skip in his step and his feathers neatly oiled, shiny, and smelling of sweet grasses. But Tristan and Pepro never mentioned these observations to anyone but each other so Tristan smoothly replied “Uh, yes, ma’am, Kor is single. But, you know Kor. He’s all business around us. He seems married to the forge more than anything.”

“Yes, that sounds like Kor all right. He is such a sweet-talker and a warm-hearted soul underneath that soot but so serious about his trade. Alas, for a time, I had hoped I could make him serious about me!” Penelope dipped a piece of her bread into the tea and swallowed it. She sighed, “Ah well.”

Tristan motioned to Pepro. “Pepro! Give her the message from Kor!”

“Oh yes! It’s right here.” Pepro retrieved one of the sealed letters from his satchel and offered it to Miss Penelope. She excitedly took it in her beak and inhaled. “Oh my! A letter from dear Kory!” She hopped rather indelicately onto the table and stood on it with her feet while she broke the seal and spread it out.

Penelope read the note intently, beaking the words silently while she smiled. “You must be my guests, please!”

“Ma’am we have money” said Pepro.

“No, I won’t hear of it! You’re on an important mission for Kory and I’m happy to help. Besides, I know what an adventure this is for you two, and how you must work so hard all the time. You deserve to have the best time while you’re here and we will provide it!” She resumed reading the letter.

Tristan, Nyx, and Pepro looked at each other with smiles.

Penelope inhaled sharply. “You need to see Perry, do you? You’re in luck, I guess, if you can call it that.” There was a flinty edge to her voice. “He’s probably in town right now. I can point you in the right direction, but he hasn’t been welcome in my place for quite some time.” She dipped her beak in her tea curtly, her head feathers bristling.

Nyx cocked her head and opened her beak as if to speak when Penelope erupted into a torrent of words.

“We kicked that low-life out after he brought his louse-ridden floosies here and wrecked one of my rooms! It took days of scrubbing before we could get rid of the bugs, and those disgusting stains on the floor! Ugh!” She closed her eyes and reigned in her temper. She continued more calmly. “You best be careful hanging out with that worthless bag of fish fodder!”

Pepro and Tristan responded together, “Yes ma’am! We’ll be very careful.”

Nyx asked, “Is there anything you can tell us about Perry that might help us find him? Or deal with him?”

“He’s well known here, and was once a respectable member of the community. With his unique talent at finding treasures at sea, he could have become very successful. Something happened, though, about 10 winters ago and he’s been a vagabond ever since. He comes to town weighted down with magnificent things. But he sells them with poor judgment and squanders his earnings in the breeding parlors on loose hens and strong drink. The polite gossip is that he had a secret love, someone of some importance in fact. But it’s probably just gull droppings. You’ll most likely find him at one of the seedier brothels in Low Town. If not there, you’ll find him in jail at the Peacekeeper Citadel. You can’t miss it. It’s the big white rock at the north end of town.”

Miss Penelope hopped back to the floor and slanted her eyelids in a consternated glare, as though she had a growing headache right between her eyes. “I really hate to send you down to that dreadful place. I could recommend another source for your gold.”

“Thank you, ma’am. But Kor was very specific.”

“Well, if you must. But please keep your wits about you down there. Stay together. Stay sober. I suppose dear Kory knows what he’s sending you into.” Miss Penelope stopped talking then and dipped more tea into her beak. Tristan could read that she was clamming up, perhaps embarrassed that she had been talking too much, or just weary from conversation.

“Thank you, ma’am. That’s very helpful. Master Kor said that you were a good friend and someone we could trust.”

The sparkle returned to Penelope’s eyes. “Oh, did he now?” She smiled the corners of her beak and puffed her chest. “Wait! I didn’t finish the letter did I?”

She resumed reading and her beak in a broad smile as her eyes sparkled. “Screeee! Kory’s coming here! You’ve all been invited to the Royal Bonding!” She pattered her feet on the floor and covered her beak with her wings.

Penelope’s joy was contagious. Tristan, Pepro, and Nyx smiled at each other.

Penelope caught her breath. “The place is booked up tighter than a colony of bank swallows, but you’ll stay here, even if I have to put you up in my own residence!”

The three bowed and Tristan said, “Most generous, ma’am. I’ll let Kor know and I’m sure he’ll be excited to see you.”

Penelope fanned her face with a wing. “Hmm . . . Yes, Kor, dear Kory, oh my.” She panted with a smile and sat down on her haunches.

Pepro spoke. “Ma’am, we noticed Stellar’s sea eagles standing guard in front of one of the rooms. Is King Vasili staying here?”

“Why indeed he is! He just returned this morning. He’s here with some of his nobles and the Princess. Do you know him?”

Pepro’s eyes lit up. “We met him a couple of days ago when he commissioned Kor.”

“Oh he’s such a splendid fellow, isn’t he?”

“Yes, and very generous. Do you think he would mind visitors?”

Penelope closed her beak in thought. “He’s probably resting after his long flight here. And I know his dinner plans include meeting with Governor P’tilo in his suite. He’s been dreadfully busy with his wedding plans. His security has been tight too. If he knows you, there’s no harm in trying to visit. But tomorrow would be better, dear.

“But now we need to get you to your room! Miss Schreider!” Penelope cried out with her eyes darting to the door.

“Yes, Madam?” came a voice from close on the other side.

“I knew you were there listening, you old gossip! But I’m in too good a mood to care. Hurry, now, fetch up a room for these special visitors. One of the family suites. And please let the kitchen know that we’ll be having a falcon, a barn owl, and a bald eagle as dinner guests.”

“Yes, Madam, right away!” was the reply followed by a scurrying of claws on the floor.

Miss Penelope turned to the trio. “Schreider is quite the stealthy listener. Every gossip in town envies her. But she really is a top-notch hostess. I couldn’t run this place without her. She’ll return in a moment to show you to your room.”

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