The night before a big storm is often calm. Not tonight.
Kibbe shivered. His lean bare legs dangled over the edge of the cliff overlooking Turtle Cove. Nervous, he absently kicked his heels against the side, sending rocks and debris clattering down to the rocks below. In response to yet another blast of the stinging off-shore wind, he drew his legs up, pulling them into a trembling embrace.
Wave after angry wave erupted against the rocks—natural jetties that protected the beach from the worst of Garomoa’s wrath. Backlit by the near-full moon, the breakers glowed eerily, and Kibbe thought they looked like livid, grasping hands. The storm clouds hovered over the horizon, a long black snake. The moon seemed small and forlorn as it fought to outrun the advancing storm.
Tonight’s turtles are going to have a rough journey. He sucked in the night air between clattering teeth, deeply filling his lungs with the gratifying taste of stormy sea air. He smiled. It was a wonderful smell, brisk and fresh as nothing else.
Kibbe shuddered and rubbed at his bare arms and legs. It should be soon now. He squinted, searching for even the smallest movement across the dim sand below. Not quite a perfect night for watching the turtles emerge. He hoped he’d chosen the right night, for tomorrow the storm would wash over the island, and Kibbe didn’t want to be caught out here when it hit.
It would be even worse for them—those tiny, newly-hatched turtles. Tomorrow the swells would be higher, and the surf would pummel the rocks. Even tonight, the hatchlings would have a time of it, first pushing their way up and out from the nest where their mother had laid her clutch of eggs. Then they’d have a struggle to reach the sea.
Let it be tonight.
Two moons ago, on another windy—if less stormy—night, Kibbe had sat in this very spot, watching the dim, scattered gleam on the sand below. A great dark hill of a turtle lumbered ashore and crawled up the beach. Waves of excitement rippled through Kibbe, causing a different kind of trembling. He had marveled as the mother turtle carefully set to the task of using her flipper-feet to push away the sand, then lovingly deposit and bury her clutch of fragile eggs. The moon had been higher and brighter on that night—and Kibbe had kept a metered eye on its size since, counting the days until the hatching. Tonight was the night. Tonight, or tomorrow.
Frowning, he whispered—perhaps to Garomoa herself—“Let it be tonight.”
He’d seen this miracle only a handful of times in his fourteen summers, whenever he could steal himself away from the village. Honu’s children didn’t nest every year, but the crab-men always brought news of turtle-sign. For the longest time, Kibbe couldn’t say why he was drawn to the turtle nesting. Nonetheless, he would sneak out to catch a glimpse of the magnificent creatures.
During the nesting, he’d always felt a gnawing, lonely longing deep inside him as he watched the mother crawl back into the sea, abandoning her children. Moons later, he’d to return to the cove to root for the safety of the hatchlings as they fought their way out of the sand and into the endless ocean.
Did they ever see their mother again? Kibbe doubted it.
It was a kinship with these strange little creatures—he’d finally decided—that brought him back again and again. Of course it wasn’t the same, he knew. In the turtle world, it was natural for parents to leave their children behind. Doing so must help them survive, give them strength. But for Kibbe, watching the turtles—witnessing them escape to the sea—eased some of his hurt, knowing that those little ones were free.
He wished he were one of the turtles, emerging from the cruel dark sands of his troubled and tortured life. He swallowed, trying to push down a trembling in his chest. Kibbe wanted nothing more than to be one of the turtles, to crawl to the ocean and leave Turtle Cove forever behind him.
It was a hopeful thought, exciting. But as he mulled it around in his mind, Kibbe found himself with more questions than answers. Where would I go? How would I survive? Could I even follow the other turtles—out into the deep ocean?
Where do they go, anyway? The turtles can’t just keep going forever, he reasoned. But some of them come back every year. The females return, he knew, to lay their eggs. Does that mean the males are nearby as well, even if they don’t come ashore? Kibbe absently pushed his hand through his short, fine hair. Fine. Not rough and kinky like everyone else’s.
Well, if I were a turtle, I’d never come back. Not to this wretched island. There are lots of islands, and many lands beyond to explore. I’d have no reason to ever return to Turtle Cove.
Kibbe snorted. Childish nonsense. Now that he was approaching his blooding, he had to stop thinking such foolish things. Blooded men didn’t have stupid thoughts like those. Ritten told him as much. Over and again. “You are a foolish boy.” The old fisherman chided and scolded him every chance he got. Though Ritten had taken him in—given him a corner of his hut, provided food, taught him—he wasn’t Kibbe’s father, and he’d made it more than clear that his pale, green-eyed adopted demon-boy wasn’t a son to him, but burden he’d been saddled with.
I won’t ever escape, Kibbe thought sullenly. Still, the thought of leaving the island had clutched at his heart for… well, for as long as Kibbe could remember. Even before Jeth was banished.
Taking another cleansing breath, Kibbe scoured the familiar crescent bend of the cove, to the lighter-hued sandy beach that curved for all the world like a pale moon, late in its cycle. A moon that Iloa hadn’t quite finished eating. He witnessed no movement, no sign of the turtles.
He tried to remember where the mother had dug her nest, but it was too dark down there now. A tendril of black cloud had snaked across the moon, shrouding the beach in shadow. Kibbe squinted, concentrating.
Wait. Was that movement down there?
Just then, from behind, Kibbe heard a shrill, far-away hooting sound. He nearly jumped out of his skin. Distant, it had been muffled by the wind, and must have come from the woods, high up the hill above the cove.
Skycrawler; a filthy tree fox!
The cry was echoed by another, closer yowl. This one from the small hillock known as the lookout. The foxes must have caught the scent of the turtles, carried high above on the wind. Kibbe perked and spun around. He raked the darkness, but saw no movement.
The gangly predators would not bother him, Kibbe knew. Skycrawlers avoided men—with their fire and weapons. But a turtle would make a tasty mouthful for the loathsome, winged things. Kibbe realized he was shivering again.
Kibbe clambered to his feet, listening, looking for any sign of movement. To the north, tiny specks of glowing amber—torches and hearth fires from the village—peeked through the trees lining the far side of the cove. The only movement was from the dark trees, permanently bent by the wind. He found no shadows, man-shaped or otherwise, lurking between here and there. Few of the tribe ventured out after dark, and those who did would carry light with them. Kibbe let out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. The tree foxes had quieted. No village bullies lurked about. He was safe now, alone with only the chorus of the wind as his company, and perhaps the turtles, down there on the beach.
He let out a frustrated sigh. He needed to be closer. He needed to be down there, on the beach.
What he had a mind to do was against custom, but damn their custom. And damn them. He just wanted a better look. The hatchlings would be near impossible to spot even before the moon drifted behind the distant clouds. The high haze above had dimmed the light from the ancestral constellations. To top it off, they were such tiny creatures, no bigger than his fist. To Iloa and Maku with the custom. He’d never see them unless he got a closer look. Besides, it wasn’t like he was going to eat the turtles.
If the stories were true, other tribes—those from other, distant islands in the archipelago—actually ate turtles. It was rumored they were tender and delicious. Kibbe’s guts quaked, and he sneered, dismissing the notion; turtles were sacred. Nobody would eat them, surely. Elder Varu would have erupted at those strangers, if the stories were true. His punishment would have been overbearing and terrible, like always. Of course, that would certainly explain why Kibbe hadn’t ever seen villagers from the other islands. Varu’s temper could sour Mac’ianni milk, and certainly turn away even good-natured outlanders.
Kibbe set his jaw and his mind, and climbed down the rock face.
Descending was easy, even in the dark. Excitement had heightened his senses. He gulped the stormy air through a wide-mouthed grin. Sure-footed and confident, he’d had plenty of practice climbing. This rocky shore, and the coast south of Turtle Cove was his true home; the only place he felt truly sure of himself.
He hopped down the last of the mossy rocks onto the cool sand; still moist from the receding tide, it pressed up between his toes. It felt nice. He crept out of the lee of the cliff for a better vantage. The thin clouds might blur the ancestors above, but they gave off just enough light to now make out a dark shimmer on the beach ahead.
As he started toward what he was sure were the turtles, a dim shape swept across the silhouette of the cliff’s shadow at Kibbe’s feet. He swiveled, raking his eyes up to the top of the dark, looming cliff. An unruly tuft of grass waved in the wind, and he concluded its shadow must have been what he’d seen. He closed his eyes, listening for another call, but heard only the breakers and the sharp whine of the wind. Still, worried that skycrawlers might be lurking about, Kibbe picked up a fist sized rock, just in case, then padded forward.
Not far ahead, he spotted several clutches of egg shells—hundreds of them or more. Still thick with slime, they lay scattered amidst the freshly churned, wet sand. It was amazing how these precious creatures could survive being buried alive, inside those frail eggs no less. Kibbe wondered if it felt anything like the weight of the villager’s scorn, their cruelty. He knelt, daring to examine the shells. To his surprise, they weren’t thin and fragile like bird’s eggs, but leathery. Not at all how he’d imagined.
Ahead, the beach swarmed with movement, and Kibbe stifled an excited squeal. Thousands of tiny turtles, like a shimmering dark wave, rippled toward the tide pools and the rolling sea beyond. Kibbe’s cheeks hurt from smiling, but he didn’t care. He didn’t smile much, not around people. But there were no people here. Only his little turtle friends.
The moon broke free from the distant clouds, its pale light now glistening off countless skittering, still-soft-shelled creatures.
Just then, two things caught Kibbe’s attention. Ahead, a thunderous wave crashed high over the rocks. Its dappled shadow reached all the way to where Kibbe stood, even if the water’s spray hadn’t. And over the heavy thrum of the wave, he heard the clear, piercing squeal of a skycrawler.
Kibbe spun toward the cliff and saw it. The winged silhouette bounded over the precipice, gliding on the wind. The creature arced southward, directly for the turtles. Kibbe’s heart met his throat, and he clung onto his rock, ready for the worst. He gave a fretful glance toward the shore, and the turtles. Most of them had safely made it into the shallows of the tide pool, just this side of the rocks. But that untimely breaking wave had washed a dozen or so turtles back onto the beach, away from the safety of the water. Many of them were overturned, struggling to right themselves.
With a chittering howl, the skycrawler swooped down on its vulnerable prey.
Thawock! Kibbe’s rock pelted the fox in the shoulder, where its leathery wing jutted from the night-black, furry torso. It flinched, dropping onto the beach in a graceless roll before regaining its balance and glaring at Kibbe. The moon reflected red from its huge round eyes, giving the thing a fierce, evil quality. The tree fox opened its tapered muzzle, in what almost looked like a yawn. It hissed, baring two long fangs, crimson in the moonlight.
Kibbe’s chest thundered. He had just thrown away his only weapon. He scanned the beach, but saw nothing but thin driftwood twigs and pale broken seashells. He swallowed and lurched toward the beast. It wasn’t even a third of his size, but Kibbe’s chest pounded nonetheless.
The skycrawler squealed, then bolted away up the beach, awkwardly clambering along, the talons on its wings digging into the ground and kicking up flurries of sand. Kibbe ran after the coward, wildly waving his arms and screaming “ayyeeeeeee.”
He only pursued it briefly, stopping after it took wing and disappeared into the shadows of the cliff.
Kibbe panted, grateful the winged beast had fled. His only concern now was for the safety of the hatchlings. What would he do if others swooped down? Or came at them in numbers? Frantic, Kibbe hurried toward the hatchlings, his feet slapping at the wet, cold sand, the sting of ocean spray biting at his face.
A pair of fox-calls echoed across the cove behind him. Damn.
Several of the turtles were still upturned, writhing and fighting to get off their backs. Kibbe ran to the closes pair, and without a thought, gently righted one of them, then another. They were cold; their shells soft and wet. He quickly noted a handful more, struggling, frantically beating their flippers. Another breaking wave roared against the rocks, pelting Kibbe with hard, icy spray. He scooped up a turtle in each hand just before the accompanying rolling wave washed past him. It pushed at his knees and he nearly toppled over. Several dark shapes floated past on the wake of the wave. No!
Kibbe set the two turtles into the backwash flow and stumbled through its forceful pull, toppling to his knees under the wave’s retreat. Dismayed, he only spotted one turtle struggling to right itself on the glistening sand. It wasn’t more than seven or eight paces up the beach. Where were the others? Had they been able to ride the backwash of the wave?
A dusky shape swooped out of the dark sky, slapping the beach as it landed, sending sand and water in all directions. This one was even larger than the first. It tilted a pointed muzzle in Kibbe’s direction, snarling even more fiercely than had its mate. Its head jerked as it spotted the hatchling, still wary of Kibbe. It let out a loud, high-pitched hoot. Its mate echoed the call from up the beach.
Kibbe tensed, and let out a yell of his own. He clambered to his feet and rushed to save the little turtle.
The fox dug his forewing claws into the sand pushed off with his strong, hind legs. It rushed, half-gliding, half-loping, and reached the turtle first. It snatched up the helpless overturned creature in its narrow, sharp-toothed maw.
Kibbe didn’t think. He jumped, pushing off the soft sand with all his strength. He might be small for his age—lighter than the other village boys—but he was at least double the size and weight of the skycrawler. He bared his teeth, more fiercely than the creature had, and pounced. Kibbe caught the predator just under its shoulder and knocked it backwards. They landed on the wet sand with a splat. The creature launched into a fury. It writhed, shrieking and flailing winged arms, raking with surprisingly powerful legs. It stank of fetid wet fur.
Kibbe’s fingers found the soft fur of its thin neck and he squeezed, even as he felt the hot sting of the creature’s rear claws raking at his stomach.
“Let. It. Go!” he screamed, slamming its hairy head into the sand again and again. Kibbe caught the wicked rake of a forewing claw across his face, and he let go, instinctively bringing his hands up in defense. The creature’s teeth sank into his forearm, and Kibbe yelped in pain. His grimace was quickly replaced with a jubilant smile. For he suddenly realized in order for the fox to bite him, it must have let go of the turtle.
He rolled up and flung the fox away, then pushed to his feet. His temple and cheek stung and he could feel the heat of his blood on his face, stinging his eye. Kibbe blinked, but couldn’t clear the vision on that side. His arm throbbed where it had bitten him, now torn free.
The skycrawler scrambled to its feet and raised up on its haunches. It lifted spindly forearms above its head, and howled threateningly—its thin, hairy wings spread wide and menacing, glowing a sinister transparent pink in the moonlight.
He chanced a quick glance for the turtle, to no avail. Another skycrawler screamed wildly, swooping down. It dove directly for Kibbe.
Blood surged though him as he dove out of the way. He felt the creature rush by, and heard the thin ripple of its membranous wings. A burst of stinging sea wind deflected it from its course, and the fox slammed into the beach, squeaky puffs of air forced from its lungs as the furry menace tumbled end over end.
Kibbe rolled to his feet once more. Sand stuck to his skin, and his chest, and arm burned from the salty brine, but he was not about to let these overgrown rodents get the best of him. He rushed the first, larger creature, flapping his arms wildly and howling for all he was worth. If he showed the same intimidating defiance, maybe they would see him as superior to them. He was, after all, bigger than both of them combined.
His instincts paid off.
As he dashed forward, the creature’s beady eyes widened—large and round as ku’iki nuts. It yelped in fear and scurried back, leaping into the air and letting the wind carry it away. Its mate howled in defiant anguish, but fled as well.
Kibbe stopped, hands on his knees, panting, chest pounding and his whole body stinging. He watched the gutless monsters glide off into the darkness of the cliff. He steadied his breath, not risking a glance back toward the shore until his pulse had slowed to normal and he was sure the skycrawlers wouldn’t return. He’d never liked those filthy creatures. They usually kept to the forest, preying on rodents and insects, or eating plants and roots. The scent of the turtles must have lured the wicked beasts down to the beach. Lucky they don’t group up like their cave-bat cousins that live high in the mountains. Kibbe didn’t quite see how the tree foxes and bats were related, but Loreteller Haol claimed they are all spawn of The Great Bat, Iloa. “Treacherous,” he’d lectured, “and bitter enemy to Honu the Turtle.” Now Kibbe understood.
Kibbe thought he saw movement along the north side of the cliff, nearest the village, but at the sound of a sharp cry, he soon spotted one of the skycrawlers hunched atop an outcropping on the cliff at the southern tip of the cove. It scrutinized Kibbe, its posture hostile, or so he thought. Soon its mate awkwardly glided up and over the edge to join it. The two dark silhouettes bobbed, then hollered in frustration, finally bounding away to disappear behind the high cliff.
“That’s right. No turtles for you, you wretches,” he roared. It was a small triumph, but Kibbe took his few victories where he could get them, even if this one caused him some scratches. Injuries he was certain he’d pay for, back in the village.
The flying threats gone at last, Kibbe swept the beach for signs of his little friends. A calm swept over him like a wave of relief. He could see none of the hatchlings in the now brilliant moonlight. The last of the them had escaped, carried away by the foamy breakers and swallowed by the still-angry sea. Their only remaining trace was the delicate indentations of hundreds of tiny flippers left in the sand. Even those would soon be obscured by the relentless waves of the rising tide.
The moon, bright and beguiling, stood watch over the orphans now. It floated above the storm clouds like a sentry.
“Will you ever return?” Kibbe whispered. He knew the answer. The hardy ones will. The ones that survive.