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Aepyornis Ch4 First draft

by  andinadia

Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Word Count: 1596
Summary: As much feedback as possible would be very welcome. This is where the action begins to heat up, and where we first meet the ... well, read on!
Related Works: Aepyornis (working title) • Aepyornis Ch3 redraft • 

‘I can see masts!’ Alice shouted. ‘Come on grandpa.’ The rain had stopped and the cobbles of the street glinted in the morning sun. Alice took Harriet’s hand and they ran the rest of the distance from Gravesend station down to the quay. Alice’s grandfather followed some way behind.

Alice recognised the Retriever among the ships. Her grandfather caught up with them.

‘You lookin’ for the gen’lman from this ship?’ queried a heavily bearded man who was sitting on the base of a quayside crane. ‘In that ‘otel, over ther.’

When Alice’s grandfather had explained at the hotel who they were looking for, the porter yelled through to the breakfast room, ‘Mr Jones! Visitors.’

‘Alice, I hardly recognised you!’ Jacob said, as he entered and threw his arms around his little sister. Mr Jones stepped forward, and gripped his grandson by the shoulders. ‘Welcome back, Jacob.’

‘Jacob. This is Harriet,’ said Alice, beaming. ‘I told you about her in my letters.’

‘It was your letters that kept me going all these months, sis! Hattie – if I may call you that – it is a pleasure.’ He gave a small bow that pleased Harriet. ‘The good constable suggested the captain and I put up at this hotel for the night and enjoy an English breakfast. He said he would look after the ship.

‘Sir, I hope I have done the family proud,’ Jacob continued, to his grandfather.

He placed Alice’s arm through his own, with Harriet on the other side, and they walked – step for step – out of the hotel and down to the ship.

A man was darting about on the quayside, ordering people to set up a table and chairs and to prepare iced drinks.

‘Mr Mayor, did you receive my message?’ Jacob called to him.

‘If only I’d known,’ the mayor replied, in a flap. ‘You caught me fair unawares. Normally, now, I’d ‘ave laid on a proper spread, seeing as how I’m the mayor and it’s highly important people that we’re welcoming. A Sir’s on his way, you say. A proper Sir?’ He darted off again.

‘There is something I would like to show you, grandfather, before Sir Bartleby arrives,’ said Jacob. ‘It is unique. Only Alice and the crew know of it. I paid the men a handsome bonus yesterday, in recognition of their discretion.’

‘Can you bring it onto the quay?’ his grandfather asked. He was settling onto one of the chairs, and eying the iced lemonade. The walk from the station had been too quick.

‘It will need to be unloaded with the rest of the stock when we reach the port of London,’ Jacob replied. ‘For now, you’ll have to be content with Alice’s account! Follow me, sis!’

The girls followed Jacob up the slippery gangplank. The sails whipped above their heads. Jacob was surprised to see no-one on board. The captain was probably still in the hotel but none of the crew were on deck and he could not hear any sounds of the usual morning routines. Perhaps they had all been in the town the previous evening, celebrating their return, and were enjoying a late start to the day. Even the constable seemed to have vanished.

As he was wondering aloud to the two girls, a growl came from below deck. Harriet jumped.

‘The cargo’s getting restless!’ Jacob joked. He crouched and headed through a low doorway. They descended some narrow wooden steps. After so many months at sea, the smell below deck was pungent. Alice wondered how she would have coped if she had been on such a voyage. Jacob led them further inside. The girls’ eyes took time to adjust to the dimness. There were screeches, calls and grunts from here and there, and another growl that sounded very close.

Harriet was the first to see it. A thickly maned lion, lying just a few yards away from them, in front of the open door of a large wooden cage. Harriet’s attempt at a shriek was interrupted by Alice’s hand over her mouth. Although her heart was pumping so hard she could hear its rhythm, Alice found herself thinking that the lion was lying as a cat does, its legs splayed to one side, not rigidly upright like the statues. The girls froze. There was no possibility of making a dash for the staircase.

‘Not a sound, and don’t take your eyes off it,’ Jacob whispered.

From the corner of her eye, Alice saw Jacob reach out slowly, towards the wall. With a movement of his hand, two wooden grills fell to the floor, in front of and behind the lion, enclosing the animal and offering it only one route, back into the cage.

‘I installed these devices so that we could let the animals out while we cleaned the cages every week. Otherwise the stink would have been unbearable.’ Although Jacob’s explanation was matter of fact, Alice saw the concern on his face. He disappeared for a moment and returned with a piece of putrid meat that he threw to the back of the cage. Reluctantly the lion stood and padded over to inspect the meat, allowing Jacob to shut the cage door and swing the locking-arm into place.

‘It seems not to be hungry,’ Jacob said. He was trying hard to look calm.

‘How did it escape?’ Alice managed to say. Her mouth was dry.

Before Jacob could answer that he was as puzzled as she was, Harriet noticed a piece of rope, one end of which was tied to the cage door while the other end lay by the steps they had descended. The door to the cage had not been left open by accident.

‘I need to find the captain, and the constable,’ Jacob said. ‘But first,’ he added brightly, ‘I must show you the crown jewels.’ He guided them further into the dark hold and stood in front of another cage that was much taller than the lion’s. The two girls edged forward until they could touch the wooden slats. From a nearby porthole the morning sun projected a beam of light into the back of the cage. The girls became aware of a large mass, huddled in the corner. The three of them saw the creature lift its head. Its thick neck seemed to go on forever. It blinked and rotated its head slightly, this way and that, as if quizzing the girls. Then it shook its body, like a chicken fluffing its wings, and stood. It was the height of Alice and Hattie combined. Taller.

‘What … is it?’ Alice whispered.

Aepyornis maximus,’ Jacob replied.

‘An Elephant Bird!’ Hattie exclaimed. ‘But …?’

‘I know, it’s supposed to have died out hundreds of years ago.’

It was gigantic. It was impossible to think of it as a bird. Each claw was the thickness of Alice’s arm. One blow from such claws … Alice took a step back. But it was beautiful. Its neck feathers were a golden yellow, while even in the darkness its body feathers had a deep blue sheen. Alice looked at Hattie and saw that she too was staring wide-eyed into the jewel-like eyes of the creature.

‘How … where?’ Alice said, just loudly enough for Jacob to hear.

‘Madagascar. It’s an extraordinary story, which I’ll tell you. But later! Now, prepare yourselves again.’

There was a second cage, some distance but from the first, but with the same tall dimensions. It appeared to be empty. The girls saw Jacob’s look of concern return. As he opened the door and stepped inside, something moved at the back of the cage. The girls did not follow him inside. The shape was still. Then it spoke: ‘Naroansay.’

‘Who are you?’ Jacob shouted, as he leapt forward.

Naroansay, naroansay.’

Jacob pulled the man by the arm. He was dark-skinned, African, and younger than Jacob. His tattered clothes covered a thin body that seemed to be made almost only of bones. He had a severe wound to the head, and fear in his eyes. The wound had partly dried up, but Alice could smell the congealed blood.

They took the man up on deck. The Elephant Bird was forgotten for a moment.

‘Grandpa, we need a doctor,’ Alice shouted from the side of the ship. Alice’s grandfather was sitting with the mayor and a constable in uniform. The constable bounded up the gangplank. ‘Who’s this, then?’ he asked Jacob, indicating the stowaway. ‘I’ll have to take him to the station for questioning.’

‘He needs a doctor … urgently,’ said Alice.

‘Constable,’ Jacob said. ‘Sir Nicholas Bartleby, the President of the Zoological Society of London, will arrive at any moment and we are expected to sail to London with him. If you leave this young man with us, we will ensure that he visits the metropolitan police. And incidentally, what happened to the constable who was on duty here last night? By the name of Parsons.’

‘We have no constable Parsons in Gravesend, sir.’

Jacob had survived months at sea and encounters with creatures of all sizes, but a few hours in Gravesend had etched lines on his face.

‘Jacob, what was meant to be in that second cage?’ asked Harriet. Jacob looked at Harriet as if he had not thought she had understood that anything was missing.

‘It was a second bird,’ Jacob answered, as he walked back down the gangplank towards his waiting grandfather.

At this moment, the captain of the Retriever appeared from the hotel. ‘Wonderful breakfast, Mr Jacob. I hope you didn’t miss it!’