"Nothing you have read, or seen, or been told by me could entirely prepare you for this moment," Inkstain intoned. One hand was grasping the final door. The other hand held within it a heavy key.
Thumbprint took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"Good. On we go." There was a twinkle in his eye, one of pride in his offspring rather than delight for what she was about to find inside. A twist and a turn later, the aviary was open. Inkstain bid his daughter enter with a turn of his head.
She did so to the atonal sounds of someone singing to themselves. "BREE TEEE DREEE! BREE TEEE DREEE! BREEEKA OOOKAA AAA ó uh?!" A flash of red behind the troll-sized golden gate opposite a large desk grabbed her eyes. The next thing she saw was a wild flailing of mounds of blue-green moonmoss, one after the next. Then nothing; whatever had moved was now hiding. Curious, but cautious, Thumbprint tiptoed past the desk. Reaching the gate, she peered past the glare of the glowing plant, trying to seek out the stealthy one. It took a second pass to find a plume of leathery lines, quivering of its own volition for there was no breeze. Betrayed by the fringe of its hat, the young Scholar was able to track her eyes down to the head of the creature crouching behind moss-cluster.
It had honey-yellow eyes.
It was red as a ripe berry.
It was legend made real.
And it was staring at her. Cautious curiosity in its countenance.
Trickleclaw swallowed. "Hello?"
There was no answer, save a whisper-thin trill of timid breath.
"Trickleclaw, this is my daughter, Thumbprint," came her father's voice behind her, followed by the sound of the door locking. "You've heard me speak of her, remember?"
The litle red brow furrowed. Then eyes lit up bright and knowing. It bolted upright. So quickly that the troll-maid stepped back on sheer instinct, never mind the solid barrier between them. "Yes yes yes! Trickleclaw remembers! Is time for cradlesoft munchbasket now?"
Thumbprint hadnít yet had time to ask what the creature meant by that odd combination of phrases when her father scooted her out of the way of the door. "Do step back, dear." He lay his hand upon a bent iron rod, the only thing keeping the gilded gate closed. "Thumbprint has heard me speak of you, as well, Trickleclaw. She is quite eager to meet you properly."
Inkstain's words thus far had been part of a prepared exchange. Next came Thumbprint's part, delivered to Trickleclaw, in a calm and confident voice. "Yes, I am. And I should like to have many more visits, indeed. If you do not mind."
Trickleclaw lowered itself as the iron pin was removed, legs tensing for a great leap. The instant the door was open wide enough to get its wings through, it shot out towards her. She gasped in shock as it circled round her, under her, over her. Thumbprint tried to spin, duck, twist about, whatever it took to keep her eyes on the creature, but it was impossible to track all its movements. And any limb she moved out to keep her balance was corkscrewed by a silver-red bolt. The creature came to a dead stop in the air, giving her the first full glimpse of the slender specimen. Suddenly fascinated with the female's leather shoes, it dove for the ground. Again taken by instinct, she inched herself back a bit, out of reach of its hands, as it landed.
"Newface Dig-Dig gots hardfoots!" Trickleclaw stated, scratching its cocked head. It looked up at her. "Whyfor Dig-Dig have headtopper stuffs on footsies?" As if to illustrate the oddness it found on the situation, the red bug slapped its hand across the two knots of leather atop its worn brown 'helmet', sending the bands of leather string about all over again. It pointed over to the room's only remaining occupant. "Scritchscratch Dig-Dig gots comfynice footybare like Trickleclaw!" It cocked a foot up, wriggled four clawed, birdlike, toes.
'Really?' was the look Thumbprint gave her father.
'Answer it!' was the motion he returned.
This was most definitely not on the list of topics she had prepared to discuss with the prisoner. Thrown off her guard, and still breathless from the introductory 'dance', Thumprint stumbled through an answer, "I, you see, I have, somewhat, softer feet than most. Than many. That's the wrong word. More sensitive? I'm not flatfooted! But too much walking around on the cold stone down here ó"
Satisfied with half an answer, or too impatient to hear the rest, the bug blasted into the air again. "Keep-say no more smalldarks?" it pressed, hands on hips.
'Keep-say means promise, 'smalldark' means 'tiny cage'' Thumbprint reminded herself. "I donít see any reason why I would ever want to put you in such a situation. So, in that spirit, of course I promise." That topic of discussion she had prepared for. Inkstain had been asked to make the same vow, as had his predecessor, and back on down the line. The caveat 'in that spirit' had been well rehearsed.
Trickleclaw chirped "BREEEETEET!" and flew over to within a troll-hand's length from Inkstain, a satisfied look upon its face. "Girl-thing do!"