Fantasy Historical birds Giants World War II aviation

Whistles and Trills

By Kat Otis
Jan 13, 2020 · 4,044 words · 15 minutes

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Art by © IWM (CH 7781).  

From the author: Of all the fates Morgaine had feared – frozen to death, shot by Nazis, crushed by giants – being taken prisoner by a chough hadn't even been on her radar.


Humans were never meant to fly.

That thought consumed Morgaine as she stared out the Mosquito's windscreen at the thickly-falling snow.  If humans knew what was good for them, they would be content to fight over earth and leave air to the corvidae, water to the leviathans, and frost to the giants.  Unfortunately, humans had never been very good at sharing – among themselves or with the other great species of the world.

Her pilot, Walter, pushed forward on the stick and she braced herself as they swooped lower, towards the surface of the mountain.  She was nominally the navigator – she held the compass – but as the weather had worsened they'd been reduced to following the railroad tracks that wound their way through the Alps. 

It was supposed to have been a simple mission to ferry the Mosquito over the mountains, but the weather had been marginal even when they took off and had quickly degenerated into an all-out storm.  Forget the Nazis, the weather was the most dangerous enemy Morgaine had encountered in the three years since she'd crossed the Pond to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

Well, the weather or her pilots.

"Hold your altitude," she warned, eying the snowy peaks rising around them.

Walter responded by pulling back on the throttle, dumping speed, and then taking them even lower, "There, you see that?"

Morgaine bit her tongue to keep from snapping, Does hold mean something different in British English than American?  Needling him with reminders of her foreignness would only goad him into worse antics.  “No,” she said instead.  "What am I supposed to be seeing?"  For all that Walter only had one eye, he still had remarkably sharp vision.

"Train ahead."

A train?  Morgaine leaned forward and squinted, trying to see through the increasingly fat snowflakes. 

The Frost Chieftaincies had fiercely defended their neutrality for the first years of the war, cutting off all ground transportation through the Alps.  If there was a train on the tracks now, it could only mean that one of the Frost Chieftaincies was flirting with joining the Axis Powers.  Or worse – that the flirting was over and the alliance concluded.

"Derailed," Walter added, just as the blurred shape of a train became clear to Morgaine.  It snaked along the tracks, motionless.

"By giants, do you think?" Morgaine asked, hopefully.  Though if the giants had attacked the train, it wouldn't have been merely derailed – it would have been crushed.

"I'm going to orbit here for a minute," Walter said.

"Don't!" Morgaine protested, as he began to bank the plane.  "We need to report this as soon as possible."

"We need to know what we're reporting."

"It doesn't matter why their train derailed, it matters that they're here."

"One orbit's not going to – shite!"  The windscreen frosted over with shocking abruptness, becoming completely opaque in seconds.

Morgaine glanced out the side windows.  Her stomach lurched as Walter leveled out the Mosquito, but it wasn't the motion that disturbed her.  The fat snowflakes had dissolved into sleeting rain that was freezing the instant it struck them; already ice was building up on the leading edge of the Mosquito's wings.  "We have ice on the wings!"

Walter's cursing increased in creativity and volume.  Morgaine only understood one word in three, but somewhere in there she hoped there was a request for her navigation.  They had to land now.  Every moment they delayed increased the likelihood that Walter would lose control of the airplane and they'd have an unpleasant reunion with the ground.

"There's a field maybe a mile from the train, at your two o'clock," Morgaine offered, trying not to think about who might have been on the train.  Maybe it had derailed years ago and just been abandoned.  Maybe the storm had finished off its crew.  Or maybe they were about to go down into enemy fire.

"Right-oh."  Walter altered their heading.

Morgaine grabbed her pocket checklist and began calling out the list for Walter.  Gas.  Undercarriage.  Mixture.  Prop.  Then there was nothing to do but brace herself for impact.

The front wheels touched down first.  Bounced up.  Set down again.  Then the tail wheel was down.  They were going fast – too fast – but for a moment Morgaine hoped.

Then the Mosquito nosed over with a crash of wood and ice shattering.

Morgaine woke to the sound of tapping.

She blinked open her eyes and found herself hanging from her harness, staring straight down at the ground.  Walter hung limply from his own harness below and to the side of her.  The tapping was coming from above her, a maddening rhythm that didn't quite synch with the pounding in her skull.  Blearily, she lifted her head to look through the cracked canopy.

There was a wickedly sharp yellow beak, inches from her face.

Morgaine yelped in shock and jerked against the harness. 

Bird.  A bird staring at her with preternatural intelligence as it finally stopped its tapping, which meant it wasn't just any bird – it was a corvid. 

She racked her memory, trying to determine what kind and whether it was friend or foe.  Its black feathers could have belonged to any number of corvidae subspecies.  Red legs meant nothing to her.  But their current location, high in the Alps, limited options considerably.  The Alpine choughs were an aloof species, generally more concerned with their own nests than global politics.

That didn't mean they would be happy when Allied airplanes crash-landed near those nests.

"Walter?" Morgaine called, softly, unable to tear her gaze away from the chough.

In response, the chough let out a rolling trill and launched itself into the air.

"Walter!" Morgaine reached out and shook Walter's shoulder.  The motion carried through his entire body, which remained limp under her hands.  She swallowed her panic and checked the pulse on his neck.  Steady and strong.  His breath was misting the canopy in front of him and he didn't seem to be bleeding.

Morgaine fumbled at the buckles on her harness.  She'd intended to carefully lower herself down into the nose of the airplane, but her muscles spasmed and she fell on her side with a yelp of pain.  She lay there for a few seconds, catching her breath, then looked back up at Walter.  His nose was crooked towards his eye patch and an enormous red mark covered half his forehead where he must have hit it on the console.  There was no telling when – or if – he would regain consciousness.  Her attempt to lower him gently didn't go much better than her own descent, but at least she managed not to drop him on his already-injured head.

She pushed up her goggles and checked the radio tubes next: smashed beyond repair.  So much for calling for help, even if she'd dared break radio silence. No point in checking the rest of the systems – the Mosquito would never fly again – so she turned her attention to the escape hatch.  The leather strap holding the handle in place had sheared off, but when she yanked on the handle, the hatch wouldn't move.  Something was jammed.  She braced herself against the side of Walter's seat, pushing and shoving, but it didn't budge an inch.

They were trapped.

Morgaine slid down to sit on the console again, breathing harder now.  She wasn't used to exerting herself at this altitude and the panic she could barely hold in check wasn't helping.  Think.  Think, think, think.  The canopy was made of armored glass, but the crash had cracked it in several places.  Surely there had to be something she could use to break through it and get free.

With an odd whistle, the chough descended upon the canopy again.  Morgaine flinched at the noise, then stared at the knife it held in its claws.  There was a small swastika emblazoned on its hilt.

The chough tapped its beak against the cap covering the flare gun hole, whistled impatiently, then tapped again.  Morgaine studied the chough, trying to determine what it thought it was doing.  She didn't dare believe it was trying to help – not after seeing that swastika – but it could hardly attack her through that small of a hole.  Warily, she reached up and removed the cap, then watched in amazement as the chough expertly maneuvered the knife through the hole, even tilting it a little to angle in the hilt.

The knife clattered to the nose of the Mosquito.

Morgaine snatched up the knife, feeling ridiculously better to be armed, even with a puny Nazi knife.  The chough trilled at her, then tapped its beak at the worst of the cracks in the glass canopy.  She hesitated, considered its gift, then experimentally tapped the hilt against the inside of the glass.  The chough trilled again then flew a few feet away to perch on the broken remnants of the Mosquito's wing.

"Here's hoping," Morgaine muttered, then shielded her face with her left arm and struck the hilt against the cracked canopy with all her strength.

Glass shattered and tinkled down around her, followed by a freezing wind carrying the same miserable sleet that had brought them down in the first place.  It took her a half dozen more blows to make a hole large enough to escape through.  She blessed the protection of her sheepskin flight jacket and gloves as she scrambled through the broken glass then lowered herself into the nearest snow bank with more grace than she'd shown inside the cockpit.

Free.

With a shrill whistle, the chough descended upon her, buffeting her with its wings before landing on her right shoulder and digging its claws all the way through her flight jacket.  She yelped, then held herself very still as the chough twisted its head around so that the tip of its beak was so close to her eye her eyelashes brushed it when she blinked.

Morgaine dropped the knife into the snow and bit back a laugh that she knew was edging over the border of hysteria.  Of all the fates she had feared – frozen to death, shot by Nazis, crushed by giants – being taken prisoner by a chough hadn't even been on her radar.  Why, oh why, had she removed her flight goggles?  Of course, that beak could probably have pierced her throat just as easily as her eye.

The chough whistled again, the noise piercing her skull the way she hoped its beak wouldn't.  Walter looked dashing with his eye patch but she had no desire to match him.  "I don't know what you want."

Another whistle, then the chough gave her a few inches' blinking space and flapped its right wing.  Cautiously, Morgaine began to turn in a clockwise circle.  At about her four o'clock, the chough whistled again and she stopped.  It was obvious what direction the chough wanted her to go, but Morgaine hesitated, unwilling to just leave Walter.  "My pilot-"

The chough whistled, more menacingly this time.

Morgaine swallowed hard.  "This way it is, then."

Bracing herself against the wind, Morgaine and the chough headed into the storm.

Although Morgaine held on to hope, she wasn't very surprised to realize that the chough was leading her straight to the derailed train.

She tensed, expecting Nazis to come boiling out at any moment, but the train remained eerily still as she approached.  Maybe they just saw no reason to come out into the sleet when the chough had her well in hand.  She squinted, trying to see the locomotive, which had come off the tracks completely and accordioned the freight carriages behind it.  Or maybe, there was no one left....

Instinct guided her toward the locomotive and the chough didn't object.  As she neared, she began to discern odd lumps in the snow.  Swallowing hard, she leaned down and brushed some of the new-fallen snow aside to find herself face-to-face with a man's body in a Nazi uniform.  But it wasn't the crash that had killed him, or the elements, or angry giants.

His eyes and throat had been gouged out by something very large and sharp – like a corvid's beak.

Morgaine swallowed bile.  "I'm not with them," she told the chough, shakily.  "I'm with the British, not the Germans.  British."  She wished she didn't have a jacket on over her service tunic, so her insignia could prove her allegiance, but hopefully her English would be enough.  Then again, it was probably as baffled by her words as she was by its whistles and trills.

The chough regarded her with those bright, intelligent eyes and didn't respond.  But it also didn't attack her.  She'd count her blessings while they lasted.

Morgaine met its gaze for a few seconds, then turned away from the locomotive.  There was nothing else she wanted to see there.  Instead she headed for the nearest freight carriage, whose doors had been broken open in the crash.

The chough threw open its wings and launched itself from her shoulder as she reached the lip of the carriage.  For the briefest of moments, she considered trying to run back to Walter.  But she was already out of breath from the altitude and the inside of the carriage promised her shelter from the sleet and the wind, so she scrambled up through the door and leaned her back against the edge while she waited for her eyes to adjust.  

For a moment, there was absolute silence.  Then the air around her exploded into whistles, caws, and the flapping of wings.

Instinctively, Morgaine raised her arms to protect her face, but nothing happened.  After a few seconds, she lowered her hands and blinked.  The carriage was indeed full of birds – corvidae all, staring at her with shining, intelligent eyes from between the bars of rank upon rank of wooden cages.

It was a prisoner transport.

The chough landed on the floor beside two smaller choughs who were together working a pair of wires in and out on one of the cage locks.  Morgaine shivered a little at the display of their intelligence; she knew humans who weren't half as capable.  The entire bottom row of cages was empty – the choughs had clearly been working their way up and down the carriage for some time, trying to free as many of their corvid cousins as they could.  But the upper rows were still crammed with corvidae of every size and color.  Picking a lock was challenging enough for the choughs on the floor of the carriage.  In mid-air, it was impossible.

"Is there a key?" Morgaine wondered, reaching for the nearest lock to inspect its keyhole.

The corvid inside the cage poked its beak through, as if it were going to peck her.  Morgaine flinched back, then belatedly realized its beak was wired shut. Cruelty upon cruelty.  Before she could lose her nerve, she grabbed the end of the wire and began to unwind it.  Four quick twists and the corvid was free, cawing as it withdrew its head into the cage.

When she turned away from the cage, she found her chough studying her, intently.

"I'll help," she told it.  "Of course I'll help.  Wait here."

Her back itched as she turned away, half-expecting the chough to attack as she clambered back out of the carriage and headed for the locomotive.  She detoured around any suspicious mounds in the snow, determinedly not thinking about what might be hidden beneath.  The locomotive itself was thankfully empty of humans.  It only took her a minute to find the fire ax, which had been dislodged from its housing in the crash.

One of the smaller choughs whistled in alarm upon her return, dropping its wire and bursting into flight.  A trill from her chough brought it back to the floor again, though it continued to regard her warily as she approached the first cage.

Two strikes with the axe broke the cage door from its hinges and the corvid inside burst free in a flurry of motion and exultant caws.

Her chough trilled from the floor.

"You're welcome," Morgaine told it, then set to work.

They quickly settled into a rhythm – she broke the doors from the cages and the choughs worked to unwind the wires that bound the beaks of all but the smallest corvidae.  When she finished the first carriage, she went to the second, where she found more choughs working to pick the locks.  A quick exchange of trills must have explained the plan, because the new choughs quickly fell in line.  The sleet finally cleared off about the time she was finishing the third carriage and the skies began to clear.  By the time she reached the fifth, and last, of the carriages, the shadows were lengthening, the sun sliding down behind the peaks that rose around them.  She raced the sun and hacked the last door free just as the first stars dotted the sky above.

Her arms were shaking from weariness as she leaned against the door and let the axe fall to the earth outside.  The temperature would be dropping fast, now that the sun was down.  She ought to return to the locomotive, scavenge anything she could, and return to the Mosquito. 

Hopefully, Walter had awakened.  Hopefully, he hadn't done something foolish, like wander off in search of her.  Hopefully, together they'd be able to come up with a plan to keep from freezing to death in the middle of the Alps, where giants would eat their bodies and no one would ever know how they died.

A dull thump echoed through the growing night.  For one dazed moment, Morgaine didn't understand what it meant, then a second and third thump followed. Footsteps.  Giant footsteps.

Heart pounding, Morgaine grabbed the edge of the carriage and leaned out the door.  Enormous silhouettes blotted out the stars.  She ducked back inside, gasping for breath.  Of all the stupid... of course the giants would come to investigate the missing train now that the storm was over.  She ought to have known, to have worked faster once she realized the sleet had begun to clear off.  Too late for regrets now, though.

But it wasn't too late for the corvidae.

"Go!"  Morgaine hissed, waving her arm at the birds that still milled about the floor of the carriage.  A few had taken off as soon as they were freed, but most had flocked together, unwilling to set out on their own in unfamiliar skies.  She waved both her arms, silently willing them to understand.  "Go, go, now!"

One of the choughs – her chough, she was sure of it – flew to the door, then darted back in again, trilling urgently.  A chorus of whistles and trills, caws and chirps, sounded from the flock.  Then, as one, they burst into flight and fled the carriage.  In the moments that followed, corvidae erupted from the other four carriages as well.  At least they would escape, thousands of lives saved in exchange for her own.  Plenty of aviators had died for far less.

But the corvidae didn't head for the safety of the open skies – they headed for the giants.

Morgaine stared at them, dumbly, trying to understand.  Had she been wrong?  Were the corvidae the giants' allies, after all?  It was only when she heard the first roar of pain that she understood.  There was little the corvidae could do to stop the giants, but they could provide her a few seconds' worth of distraction.

A few seconds was all she needed; adrenaline coursing through her veins, exhaustion and shortness of breath forgotten, Morgaine bolted into the snow.

The sleet had frozen Morgaine’s footsteps into the snow and left her a clear path to follow back to the Mosquito, despite the growing darkness.  As she tripped and slipped across the ice, she silently cursed and blessed the dark with equal fervor.  Even as it obscured her vision, it kept the giants from spotting her.  The thuds of their footsteps and roars of their anger slowly faded, but not entirely.

As she caught sight of the poor Mosquito's tail, pointing straight up to the sky like a beacon, she slowed her headlong rush and listened for sounds that the airplane had been discovered.  The wind was picking up again, whistling through the valley and making it impossible to hear anything other than the distant roaring.  But there were no looming silhouettes blocking out the stars and Morgaine doubted anyone from the train had survived the choughs' wrath.  As she approached the airplane the wind abruptly shifted and carried with it the sound of familiar curses.

"Walter?" Morgaine scrambled up the last rise to find him pouring oil over a pile of wood he'd made on and around the Mosquito's wings.

"Morgaine!" Walter dropped the canister and raised his arms to wave.  "Where have you been?  I was building a signal fire-"

"Don't!" Morgaine yelped, nearly falling in her haste to reach his side.  "We need to hide, now.  I don't know if the giants spotted me-"

  Walter's eyes widened.  He grabbed the edge of the wing and made as if to climb it – the better to see back in the direction she'd come from – but almost immediately swayed then toppled over sideways, clutching his head.  "Ow, bloody-"

The distant roaring was growing louder again, almost swallowing the sound of Walter's newest curses.  Morgaine didn't wait to see how badly he was hurt.  She grabbed his arm, hauled him up, and propelled him forward.  "Hurry-"

"No, no, wait, look!"  Walter tried to pull free, pointing upwards.

Morgaine ignored him and he hadn't the strength to pull away.  The roaring shifted in pitch to something closer to a deep whine.  "Move it, Walter!"

Instead of moving, Walter stubbornly folded his legs underneath him and sat down in the snow.  The motion tore his arm from her grip.  "I'm concussed, not blind.  Trust me and look."

Morgaine spun and squinted upwards.  An enormous silhouette blotted out the stars now and all she could hear was the whine growing closer and closer until it was too late to run even if she'd tried....

A star peeped out through the silhouette and vanished again.  Another star twinkled into the middle of the darkness and was gone just as swiftly.  Morgaine blinked and the dark shape suddenly resolved itself, not into a silhouette but into dozens of smaller silhouettes.

Corvidae descended upon them, wheeling around the downed Mosquito.  One dove straight for Morgaine, claws extended.  She braced herself and a moment later the chough landed with staggering force on her shoulder.  Its triumphant trill was only just audible over the deep whine of the Royal Air Force Hoverfly that followed in its wake.

Walter wasted no time in running to the helicopter, ducking to avoid its still-spinning rotors.  Morgaine dashed after him, the chough balanced carefully on her shoulder.

The pilot leaned over and opened the cabin door, eyes wide as he stared at the chough – and the corvidae still circling and giving the Hoverfly a wide berth.  "Well, blow me down..."

Walter almost dove into the cabin, claiming the second seat.  Morgaine scrambled up after him, planted herself on his lap, then leaned towards the door to give the chough space to launch itself back into the air.

The chough trilled at her.

"Shut the door," the pilot said, already lifting off again.

Walter grabbed the edge of the door and slammed it shut as he shouted over the Hoverfly's whining engine, "We must notify the High Command immediately – at least one of the Frost Chieftaincies has joined the Axis powers."

The Hoverfly pilot's curses had nothing on Walter's.

Morgaine braced herself against the door and the floor as best she could, trying to provide a steady base for the chough still perched on her shoulder.  An alliance between the Nazis and the Frost Chieftaincies was a game changer, yes, but...  "I don't think the Nazis are the only one with new allies."

She still didn't entirely understand the corvidae, but she knew enough to recognize the self-satisfaction in her chough friend's trill.

This story originally appeared in Corvidae.