Chapter 24: The Tale of Tata and the Bluebird King

There came a time when Tata thought himself the cleverest and craftiest creature in the land, and so he made a wager with Ki-Rabbil, the prince of prey. I don't know much of Ki-Rabbil. Doubtless the rabbils have their own name for him and stories too, though he and Tata might have shared a few adventures and borrowed a few tricks from one another, for Ki-Rabbil is just as full of tricks as he is. So the two decided to see who was the most cunning, and so confident he was of victory that Tata wagered his own tail on the outcome.

Well, their contest is a story in and of itself, but I can tell you that Tata tried time and time again to outwit the rabbil prince, only to find that Ki-Rabbil outsmarted him every time. For what Tata did not understand was that while he played his tricks for the sport of it, Ki-Rabbil played every day for his life and that of his people, and so at every turn he was ahead of Tata until there could be no question that he was the cleverest creature on all the islands.

Tata had no intention of upholding his side of the bet, so fond he was of his fluffy tail, but eventually he had to sleep, and Ki-Rabbil came in the night and gnawed it off. When Tata awoke, he tracked the rabbils down, and came across Ki-Rabbil sitting at the entrance to one of his great burrows. Stifling a snarl, he approached. "Where is my tail?"

"Your tail?" said Ki-Rabbil. "I think you will find it was mine the moment you lost your bet."

Tata wanted to strike down Ki-Rabbil right there were he sat, but he knew there were forces beyond what either of them could know that would retaliate if he did, and besides, the prince could tell him nothing if he was dead, so he swallowed his pride and anger and spoke some more. "I just wanted to know if you were making good use of it," he said. "It is a good tail, soft and warm. I know your people breed fast and have many children. I would hope it is lining the nests of your most beloved."

"Yes, it is a fine tail," said Ki-Rabbil, "and that is why you will not find it here. I'm afraid you are too late to get it back - and I know that's what you want, don't you try to flatter me. No, I gave it to the Bluebird King this morning, so that he would not carry me off. A fine bargain for a fine tail."

Inwardly Tata cursed the rabbils, but he knew how to pretend all was well. "Is that so? How do I know you're telling the truth, and it is not hiding in your burrow as we speak?"

"I thought you might ask that, so I let the king give me this, to prove we met," Ki-Rabbil moved his paw aside, and revealed a small yet brilliant blue feather underneath. "And because I know you will ask, no, you may not have it. Now leave. The longer you stay here, the more nervous my people become. I must keep them safe, and you know what I can do. If you want your tail back, that is your concern."

Tata stalked off, defeated. He knew that Ki-Rabbil spoke the truth, and there was no way he could get his tail back unless he faced the Bluebird King himself. But the king lived far away in the skies, in his kingdom of clouds, and even a winged nicheling cannot fly so far. So Tata hid away in his den, and thought for many days and nights about what he must do. At last he emerged with the first steps of a plan.

In his adventures, Tata had discovered the secret of rebirth, known only to the gods. How he learnt such a secret is yet another story in itself, as you well know, and he had used the gift before to slip into mortal tribes and push them this way or that for his own games. And he knew that the only way to reach the bluebird kingdom was to be carried off.

So he made his preparations and returned to the world as the child of a tribe long forgotten, although some called them the "Legend Hunters" for reasons now lost to time. They lived upon a warm island full of grass and trees, and in another time, Tata might have liked to stay and make a life here, but he could not afford to grow old. As always where there are cubs, there were bluebirds waiting to snatch them away. Tata had heard seem them many times circling the islands in his travels, and he had heard the screams of victory when they snatched his children. But now he ventured away from the nest, away from the watchful adults and out into the open, and waited to be taken.

Tata knew that bluebirds kill with a strike to the back with their talons. So he lay still and relaxed over the ground, though he could see their shadows pass over him and his body wanted to tense up in fear. There he lay until he heard the cry that sends cubs scattering for safety. A shadow came screaming from the sun, talons closed in around him, and in an instant he was lifted off on powerful wings.

He hung limp from the birds's talons, pretending to be dead, but through half closed eyes he saw a patch of greenery that had been his birth island, and beyond that the whole world, island after island scattered throughout the deeps, and beyond that the endless ocean and things you cannot dream of. Up and up the bluebird flew, until they passed through white mists that clouded Tata's vision, and then the mists parted and they flew over the kingdom of bluebirds, hidden away in the highest clouds.

What a magnificent sight it was! Great white cloud mountains loomed over the sky, as high as any peak on the land. The bluebird kingdom is a reflection of our own, as you see your face in the water when you go to drink. And so Tata saw rivers and forests and plains, but all were white cloud, and the sun shone unhindered upon the bluebirds as they flew from nest to nest, more bluebirds than Tata had seen in all his lives put together.

The bluebird carried him off to a nest of white branches build deep in the mountainside, and here Tata gave up his pretence of death. As the bird deposited him in there he bit deep into its throat. The bluebird screamed and Tata fled the nest in the chaos, leaping from crag to crag down the mountainside as the bird screeched in rage over its lost meal.

Tata did not look back, and at last he reached a field of soft cloud grasses, with tufted leaves at the top of a long thin stem. There he hid and plotted out the next part of his plan. Small though he was, he had been reborn with a mottled brown coat, which made him easy prey for the sharp eyed bluebirds against the white clouds. Luckily for him, he had also been granted big paws for digging up roots, and he made a burrow as a rabbil would, where he could hide away.

The ground was soft, and quite unlike any you or I have walked upon. As Tata dug his burrow, white wisps clung to his fur, and an idea came to him. In the safety of his den, he rolled around until his whole body was covered in white cloud-stuff. He even covered his single gem, so that when he emerged, he was no longer recognisable as a nicheling. Indeed, with his small size and white coating, he looked a little like a rabbil, and that was exactly what he wanted. Only the lack of a tail gave him away, because much to his irritation he had been born still missing it, but that was easily solved by using a strand of cloud-grass to fashion himself a new one that perfected his disguise. Now he was ready to face the Bluebird King, in his nest on the highest peak in the clouds. But he took the long way getting there, making all the preparations he needed and learning the shape of this new land.

When he finally arrived at the king's nest, after a long and difficult climb, he saw that it was so vast that a whole tribe of nichelings could sleep inside. In the middle sat the Bluebird King, and he was the biggest bluebird that Tata had ever seen. His claws were big as branches, his eyes as big as your head, and he could have carried off a bearyena if he had the mind to - and from the shape of some of the bones and furs lining his nest, that was exactly what he had done to decorate it. Tata tried not to tremble as the king watched him approach with eyes yellow as the sun. In the great raptor's claws he saw a tan shape, soft, fluffy, and limp - his tail, now the king's most treasured prize.

"Who are you?" demanded the king. "My dinner does not normally walk up to me!"

"Dinner?" Tata twitched his nose. "I am one of Ki-Rabbil's must trusted messengers and envoys! Eat me if you want, but he will have something to say about that!"

"I'd like to see him try!" said the king."But you don't need to tell me any more. He is looking for this, if he not?" He closed his talons around the severed tail, lifting it for Tata to see. "Well, he can't have it! Even he has to abide by the rules, and he gave it to me in a fair deal."

"Oh no, you have me all wrong!" said Tata. "Why would Ki-Rabbil want a smelly old nicheling's tail? No, I think you will find that it's Tata who wants his tail back. I'm told he is very vain, and very unhappy about losing it! Something about a bet with Ki-Rabbil... these nichelings never learn, you know. Why, he was threatening our warrens just this morning! That's why my prince sent me here, you see, to warn you."

"Warn me? What could a rabbil warn me of?"

"Because Tata is, and these were his exact words, 'an insolent nuisance'," said Tata. "My prince would like to see him gone, and he is sure you would love to tear him apart when he comes looking for your nest!"

Now if there was one thing Tata knew about bluebirds, it was that they are a proud and arrogant lot. They lay claim to the skies, where only a rare few nichelings can touch them. They steal our children as they wish. And because of that, they think the world is theirs for the taking, though they have no gems. Tata had never seen the Bluebird King before - no nicheling has. But he had played his tricks on bluebirds before, and these stories had reached the king, and Tata knew that the proudest leaders are the ones most fearful of their eventual fall.

"If what you say is true," said the king, "then I must thank you. But you are one of Ki-Rabbil's messengers, and I have heard of how he outwitted Tata. If you are of his inner circle, you must be nearly as clever as he."

"Oh, nowhere near, but I'm sure my prince will appreciate the word of his deeds," said Tata, though he knew where this was headed.

"And you must have come a long way," said the king.

"Yes, very far."

"I thought so," said the king. "So I know you won't mind if I offer you a place to stay for the night?" And two birds nearly as big as the king himself, descended upon great wings, on on either side of Tata.

They carried him off to a burrow in the mountainside, and at every moment they guarded the entrance. Up here in the mountains the clouds were packed so tight as to be like stone, so Tata could not tunnel his way out. But the king still believed him to be Ki-Rabbil's envoy, and so he was not cruel to him, because he knew what would happen if Ki-Rabbil caught word of his mistreatment. So the guards gave him their softest feathers to line his nest, and let him outside to nibble at the berries that grew on the mountainside, though they never once let him out of their sight.

But more importantly, Tata had seen this eventuality coming. So in the morning, when the guards summoned him back to the king's nest, he knew his plans had paid off.

"Good morning," said the king. "I hope you had a pleasant night."

"Oh, very much so," said Tata. "I shall have to tell Ki-Rabbil how well you treat your guests."

"If that is his terms, I am happy," said the king, who was preening his wings. "Now I brought you here to thank you. It seems you were telling the truth about Tata. My scouts have found his trails all over my kingdom."

"How careless!" exclaimed Tata.

"Indeed, the filthy creature has been shedding everywhere!" said the king. "It makes me feel dirty just to think of it." And he went back to his preening.

Tata would have wagged his tail if he had one (and it it wouldn't have given him away). Before seeking out the king, he had run up and down the kingdom, leaving his brown hairs lying around. He had even cast them to the wind and into the great sky-rivers, where the rain comes from, so that they would be carried even further than he could run. He knew that bluebirds had the keenest eyes of all the animals, and they would easily see the dark hairs against the white cloudscapes. From the skies, it must look like Tata was everywhere.

"Well then," he said, "am I free to go?"

"Not yet," said the king. "I wish to find Tata for myself, and if you are anywhere near as clever as your prince, you are going to help me."

And this, too, Tata had anticipated.

So Tata and the Bluebird King set off through the mountains and forests and plains of the cloud kingdom, and everywhere they went they found his shed hair. And Tata had another trick that the king did not suspect - being a bird the king could not smell what a nicheling or a rabbil can. Tata made a great show of sniffing out his own false trails, and he led the king exactly where he wanted him to be, and made sure he saw exactly what he wanted him to see.

As the day drew to a close and the sun lay low in the mountains, they climbed back up together to the king's nest. It was a difficult trek for Tata in this small body, so he asked to stop and rest. "You understand that I am not as big, or strong, or as powerful as you, with your great wings," he said. So the king gave him permission to a rest a while upon one of the many ledges that looked out over his domain. Inside, he seethed that Tata had run all over his kingdom and continued to evade capture, but on the outside he remained the magnificent king that the rabbil envoy knew him to be.

All of a sudden, a great boulder came crashing down the mountainside. It was so big that a tribe of nichelings could hide behind it, and so heavy that it would have crushed the king's wings and doomed him to a short life on the ground if he had been caught in his path. It glanced off the ledge's edge in a spray of shattered stone, hardly a tail's length away from the two, and crashed off toward the plains far below.

"My goodness!" said Tata, pressing against the king's side in startled shock. "Forgive me for speaking out of place, but I had no warning of that! Does this happen often in the mountains?"

The king flexed his talons and ruffled his feathers. "Tata! He must be nearby!"

"Yes, the trail is very fresh here," said Tata. "The whole mountainside stinks of him. You are lucky not to be able to smell it!" But there was no such scent, and Tata knew the boulder would fall, because he had spent a careful afternoon before meeting the king pushing it into place and balancing it so that it would fall with the right provocation. A stamp of his hind foot, unseen by the king, was all it took.

"He won't hide for long," said the king.

"I'm sure he won't," said Tata. "Am I free to go now?"

"Not as long as Tata roams free!" And the king let out a screaming call that echoed through the mountains, summoning his guards, and once again Tata was carried back to his prison.

And so Tata spent another night in the company of the bluebirds. Some of them gave him hungry looks, but they were still under orders to treat him as a guest, and he had seen this coming as well. So far, all had unfolded exactly as he planned. But as he curled up to sleep in the burrow's depths, he saw something that worried him. The cloud-grass that he wore as a tail had begun to wilt, and he could not get away from the guards to pick more. He had hoped to carry some underground with him, on the pretence of eating it, but the guards forbade it. Just like the king, they saw him as one of Ki-Rabbil's most trusted tribemates, and rightfully suspected a trick. But he needed only one more day, so he slept and trusted his luck.

When the guards roused him the next morning, their feathers were ruffled and their tempers shorter than usual. Tata kept quiet as hey led him to the king's nest. In this state, they might forget their orders not to make a meal of him.

The king was just as ill-tempered. His nest was in disarray, his feathers stuck out in every direction, and he preened and preened without end. "You!" he snapped at Tata. "What have you done?"

"How could I have done anything?" said Tata. "We both know I've been your honoured guest for these past two nights. Although I did feel the burrow was a little less clean than before..." He began to scratch at his side, careful not to damage his cloud-stuff disguise.

"That is exactly the problem!" bellowed the king. "All the nests on this mountain are full of fleas! And I see they have not spared you either, because you brought them here!"

"Surely not! I can't see all too well, but these are no rabbil fleas, let me tell you! I barely slept - not that your burrow wasn't very comfortable otherwise, you understand!" Tata rolled over, making a great show of being extremely itchy.

"No rabbil fleas, are they?" Rabbils do not have good eyesight, so the king parted his feathers to see for himself, and with his own keen eyes he closely scrutinised the insects hopping around amongst them. It was true - they were not rabbil fleas, but nicheling fleas. This must be Tata's doing! But Tata could not have come anywhere near his nest, for it was guarded night and day, and his severed tail was still there, right in the middle of all the bones and furs. The tail must be the source of the fleas! Of course Tata would turn his loss into a way to spite his enemies!

As the king watched the rabbil envoy scratching away before him, a plan formed in his mind. He knew nothing, of course, of where the fleas really came from. He did not suspect for a moment that Tata had transferred them to his body when he jumped, startled, when the boulder fell, or that they found his warm and sheltered nest full of old skins to be the perfect place to multiply and feed. All he knew was here was a chance to do as Tata did, and turn his tricks in his face. "Envoy of Ki-Rabbil," he said, "you have done well."

"I have?" said Tata, looking up from his writhing.

"Yes," said the king. You have warned me of Tata's tricks, and lured him right into my claws! He must be sniffing around these mountains as we speak. You deserve a reward. You are free to go, and please, take this with you." He plucked Tata's tail from his trophies and laid it before him.

"The tail of Tata?" Tata said. "But surely this is your greatest prize?"

"Oh, it is," said the king. "But do you see?" He leaned in close to Tata, so that all the nicheling could see were his yellow eyes and terrible sharp beak. "He's coming here for his tail. And when he gets here and finds it gone, I will tear him to pieces while he cries out that he came all this way for nothing!"

"A trick worthy of Ki-Rabbil himself!" said Tata, in the most awestruck voice he could manage. "Of course I am not worthy of such a prize myself, but I will bring it back to my prince, along with the news of how you bested Tata."

"Then go," said the king, "and my people will let you pass." If he had been alone, he would have laughed. How clever he was! Not only had he outsmarted Tata, but from the way the rabbil envoy had scratched and rolled on the ground, Ki-Rabbil's warrens would be swarming with fleas within days! Now everyone would remember him as the king who bested two tricksters in one strike.

As for Tata, he would have given his tail three times over to see the king's reaction when he realised nobody was coming for his tail and Ki-Rabbil would never see it again either, but he would have to settle for his imagination. His false tail was swiftly wilting, so with his real tail in his mouth, he ran for the cloud kingdom's borders, where he could leap back into his own world.

He might have made it without any further events, if a certain other bird hadn't been flying overhead that day. Remember that bluebirds are arrogant, and Tata had been relying on that all the time. In particular, he knew the bluebird who first carried him off would never speak a word of what happened. But his luck could only last so long, and that same bird flew overhead now, and she saw a strange creature running for the border.

She flew lower, her sharp eyes taking in every detail. Try as he might, Tata's cloud-stuff disguise had come loose when he pretended to be riddled with fleas, and now patches of mottled brown fur showed underneath. When he ran, his wilted old false tail caught on every snag, until it tore away and he was revealed for the tailless nicheling he was.

The bluebird knew nothing of the king's affairs, Tata's disguise, or why he was carrying a severed tail in his mouth. All she knew was here was the cub who evaded her before, and he would not make her look ridiculous again. Folding her wings, she fell into a stoop...

Below, Tata saw the bird's shadow pass over him, and he ran for the border, forgetting his disguise as he shed clouds in his wake. Closer and closer he came, but the bird was faster, and once again she had him in her claws and the cloudscape below was rapidly falling away from him.

But as they flew higher over the border, Tata caught sight of the ocean far below, and a tiny dark island set in the blue waters. He couldn't bite without letting go of his tail, but he still had his claws, and he raked them over the bluebird's eyes as she passed over the island. She cried out and let go, and he went falling, over and over...

A tangle of thorn bushes broke his fall, and he stumbled out onto land, bruised and with a back embedded with prickles, but still holding his tail. Shaken though he was, and lost on a far-away swampy speck of an island with not a single other nicheling in sight, Tata was back in his own world. Though it's a strange thing, but to this day tailless nichelings have backs covered in quills thanks to Tata's crash landing, and no bluebird will touch even the smallest of them for fear of bringing Tata back to their lands.

As for Ki-Rabbil and the Bluebird King, I don't know what happened to them. But it was a long time and many adventures before Tata could get home again, I can tell you that.

"How long did it take him?" said Prinu, when the story ended.

"Oh, a very long time," Laana said. "The bluebirds carried him a long way. Further than any of us will ever go, you can be sure of that." She touched a paw over her gems. "Actually, in the grand collective, Tata and the Bluebird King is just the precursor to a much longer saga of many stories. If you want to hear them, I'll be happy-"

She was cut off by a scream that carried through the jungle understory - the scream of a young nicheling.