Returning after the day’s haul, Poysenberry noticed a strange commotion taking place near the edge of the gate. Several Axies were gathered in a semi-circle looking at something in the sands.
Poysenberry edged closer, hearing a tussle and a murmur of comments from the crowd. He pushed through to the front where he saw a lone plant facing off against three slimy one-eyed Toadies. The Plant rushed at the first Toady, stabbed its orb-like body with her feather spear then whipped around and smacked the creature with her spicy tail.
The first Toady’s eye popped out as its green body disintegrated. Without hesitation, the second remaining Toady jumped at her, bashing its body onto her back. She fell to the ground as the Toady slammed into her a second time, then a third. Most of the crowd gasped, while a few Axies within the crowd cheered on the attackers.
The Plant regained her stance and shot a glob of water from the red can on her back at the second Toady. She tried to move her legs but found herself bogged down by a sticky goo.
‘Somebody should help her!’
The Axie nearest to Poysenberry scoffed. ‘She got herself into this mess. Why should I risk my own hide for her mistake?’
‘You’ve got a prickly cactus, you can do something!’
The Axie rolled his eyes at Poysenberry and moved elsewhere in the crowd.
The Plant shot another glob of water at the second Toady but failed to disintegrate it. The third Toady slammed hard and fast into her side, covering her in a metallic substance.
By this point, she could hardly move.
Poysenberry could tell she was close to entering last stand. He looked around at the crowd, but everyone seemed more interested in watching the battle than to help their fellow worker out. He saw plenty of strong fighters amongst them but none made any move to step in.
He dithered, swaying back and forth, watching the Toadies prepare for their next attack while the Plant seemed to have no more energy to spare.
‘Looks like the end for Miss Feather Lunge.’
‘She should’ve minded her own business.’
The Toadies healed themselves. Then the second one pounced right at her.
In a split second, Poysenberry threw himself between the attacking Toady and the injured Plant. He hardened the hermit shell on his back and activated his yam. As the Toady crashed into him, it bounced off his shell and took a dose of poison from his yam. The third Toady threw itself at him, knocking into the lower half of his shell and crashing partially into Poysenberry’s body.
He tumbled over onto his side and landed close to his weakened co-worker who was still stuck in the goo. With a quick glance, he saw that Miss Feather Lunge was badly hit. Her breath was laboured and her eyes began to glaze over.
The two Toadies healed themselves and began thumping up and down, readying themselves for a final attack.
Poysenberry hardened his hermit shell once more and crawled in front of his fellow worker. If he had any more energy he would have activated his yam once more but this was all he could muster.
Miss Feather Lunge looked up at him, their eyes meeting. Absolute fear was written across her face.
‘It’ll be okay,’ he said. ‘Just hold on.’
She nodded, while he bit his upper lip, bracing for the next slams. The Toady jumped at him, he closed his eyes, and focused on his shell.
Poysenberry heard the Toady crash into a pile of timber. He was confused why his shell would make such a noise and furthermore why he had not felt anything from the hit.
He peeked around the side and saw Woodman taking the brunt of the hit with the pile of timber on his back. The Toady returned to its place and before the third could jump at Woodman, the old Plant rushed after the second Toady, did a half-flip in the air and dropped his entire weight onto the creature.
His pile of timber squashed the Toady underneath him, but instead of lingering over his victory, he rolled himself onto his feet and charged after the last Toady, stabbing him once with his Beech wood, then pulled back and stabbed again, this time disintegrating the Toady onto the sands.
The crowed hushed. Only the sound of Woodman’s panting could be heard. He remained motionless for some time. The old Plant caught his breath and then turned around to look at the crowd. They were silent as he stared at them.
‘Go on and get out of here!’ he shouted. ‘You bunch of cowards!’
They stayed in place.
He faked a charge at them and the crowd scattered.
‘Good for nothings.’
Woodman moved toward Miss Feather and checked the slime bogging her down. ‘They got you good.’ He leaned down and used his horn as a wedge between the goo and her body.
She propped onto her feet. The remaining goo stretched into a long thin strand until it finally broke apart.
Woodman looked at Poysenberry. ‘You’re not hurt are you?’
Poysenberry shook his head.
‘Then go take care of yourself,’ he said, ‘while I get her to Whistler.’
‘I can help you?’
Woodman scowled at him for prolonged moment, then he jutted his chin aside, motioning for Poysenberry to tag along.
Scurrying to the other side of Miss Feather, Poysenberry helped to raise her to her feet and guide her toward the Hyacinthus Roots patch in the outer field.
‘This isn’t right,’ said Woodman. ‘It just doesn’t feel right these days.’
‘What doesn’t feel right?’ said Poysenberry.
But Woodman didn’t answer. Instead, he seemed to withdraw into himself, mumbling all the way to the Hyacinthus patch. When they arrived, they saw an Axie with long, green hair, braids in his fur, and matted dreads wrapped round the pumpkin on his back.
Poysenberry slowed his pace as they approached the Axie. He’d run into this Axie once before in the dormitory when he accidentally mistook him for a mat and tried to flatten him out to lay on.
The Axie turned around, showing his swirled eyes and curled lips. Poysenberry understood why he was called Whistler now – because he looked as if he were either going to pucker up for a kiss or flute a tune. But that was not the most shocking part of his appearance, no, the most shocking was the third eye he had protruding out the top of his forehead.
It blinked at them, measuring each of them over.
‘What brings you to the Hyacinthus patch today, my old friend?’
Woodman ushered Miss Feather forward. ‘She’s been attacked,’ he said. ‘A couple of Toadies broke in through the gates.’
‘Again,’ he said. ‘How many this time?’
‘Their numbers are increasing,’ he said. ‘Lunacia seems out of balance these days.’
Woodman grunted. ‘Maybe it’s a fluke.’
‘Reminds me of our old times out in the Arctic.’
Woodman cleared his throat, his face reddening. ‘Uh, anyway,’ he said. ‘We’ve got a Plant pretty bad off here.’
Whistler’s third eye lowered and stretched ahead of himself as he examined Miss Feather. ‘Bring her to me then.’ He began to tsk while they helped her ahead.
Miss Feather’s right leg collapsed underneath her weight, but they caught her before she could hit the ground.
‘Hold her steady will you?’
Both Poysenberry and Woodman nodded.
Then he whistled a soft, sweet tune. The melody rang through the air, comforting the plants, easing their minds and bodies, while the winds stilled and little particles circled around Miss Feather. Whistler’s eyes swirled round and round while his third remained shut.
Poysenberry felt a tingling sensation in himself. For a brief second, he thought he might float up into the air or grow roots right then and there and turn into a wise old tree.
An image of his mother appeared in his mind, making him want to cry. She too had the same lips. In fact when he first hatched from his egg, she had whistled the same tune for him.
Miss Feather gasped for air as if emerging from under water. Poysenberry broke from his trance and lost the image.
The song ended. Whistler opened his eye and stopped swirling his other two. ‘Better?’ he said.
Miss Feather stood on her own and checked the bruises on her body. They had faded into dull black and blue marks. She then raised her sights up to Whistler, tears welling.
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I thought that I might. . . thank you so much.’
‘You’re welcome,’ said Whistler. ‘It’s fortunate that Woodman and this other young Axie were there to help you.’
Feather lifted her head to listen fully.
‘You may not know it,’ said Whistler. ‘But there’s more to the Axies working here then you may realise. Each with their own unique story. And a reason for winding up here.’
Miss Feather continued to watch him.
‘Time’s almost up for the day’s collection,’ he said. ‘Best get back to it before the bell rings.’
They agreed but lingered for a while longer. Woodman spoke with Whistler and passed him some SLP as Poysenberry’s mind drifted elsewhere.
In time, they left the Hyacinthus patch. Poysenberry went back to his harvesting, staying close to his two new friends. The day came and went. But all the while he could not stop thinking of the image he saw earlier of his mother. And how he’d forgotten up until now how she looked.
To be continued…