The place Pankhi had begun referring to as 'Torture Towers' had finally closed for the day. The peacock eyed the wobbly line of survivors trudging beyond the courtyard's blue arch, a vast, upright herd filing away in twos and threes, all solemn and slump-shouldered. This in marked contrast to how they had arrived that same morning, with jaunty steps and a cheerful demeanour.
Pankhi had asked so many questions already that his neck was sore from looking up at the massive Shire. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to risk another. "Why?"
Stouthoof gave a brief toss of his mane, the equivalent of a shrug, Pankhi hoped, rather than impatience. "Mayhap they grieve for their kin. The ones who didn't make it."
The peacock twitched his crown in puzzlement, mindful that Stouthoof had been resident here long before all the noise, smoke and towering steel, in the days when animals roamed free within these sprawling grounds and the shabby ruin to their rear was a proud stately home.
"It’s just that I find their mournful stride and weary humour very much at odds," said Pankhi, at last.
"With what, pray?" queried the big steed, nuzzling at the greener shoots of grass growing by the peacock's side of the fence.
"Well, suppose you or I had emerged unscathed from such a trial of whirling leaps and death plunges, surviving being spun at high velocity and tethered to sky-bound projectiles all day. Would we depart so subdued at the climax, so crestfallen? I for one, should be cock-a-hoop with relief!"
The other's giant flank shivered, as though recoiling at the thought of such a thing. "A fair point," he conceded. "It is as though they've enjoyed their ordeal and now feel rueful at its conclusion."
"Exactly. And on that same point," Pankhi rejoined, "would we deem it necessary - be positively anxious in fact - to return, bright and early the following morning to repeat the experience? To sing, cheer and punch the air, sprinting gladly for our doom, as did this very throng at cock crow today?"
The old Shire chewed on his cud for a moment before replying, simply. "I fear we will never truly understand our twoleg overlords."
But Pankhi was determined to do exactly that. It might, after all, prove his only way out of here. "And what terrible crimes must have they committed to merit this vilest of punishments? Finally, what - for Goat's sake - is our part in the process? Judge? Jury? Executioner?"
"A host of theories and half-truths exist," Stouthoof ventured, "Some stranger than others."
A squeak of galoshes began sounding up the path. Pankhi joined the Shire's bowed head at the foot of his fence and pretended to forage for stray bits of grain. "Then I would gladly know more, and of these strange environs too." He lowered his thoughts to a murmur, concentrating them at the twitching ear of his confidant. "In return, and as reward for your patient schooling thus far, please feel free to avail yourself of the fruits of my pasture, such as it is."
The shire uprooted another hummock of succulent turf and gave a satisfied nicker. "Forsooth, the grass truly is greener, and more you shall hear, my friend. But fear not the eavesdropping of twolegs. Our languages are as distinct as ever. We trading wisdom head-to-head, as it were, and saving tongue-speech for battle and distress, while they remain closed-minded and wage their gibberish aloud."
"Perhaps it would be easier to countenance this whole sorry business, were it not so."
The Shire's broad face lifted, his creamy blaze accentuating limpid brown eyes. "A luxury, as ever, we regrettably lack. Discretion between ourselves is advisable, however," he went on. "Some here have suffered more than others, losing family and friends in the recent... difficulties. And if they would rebut the opinions of allies such as myself, they might take harder still against the words of a stranger."
Pankhi's interest was piqued, his mind suddenly racing with questions, but there was no further opportunity. The green-garbed stable hand had arrived to lead Stouthoof away and Pankhi now hastened to his own coop, anxious to avoid any more grasping hands, of which he had had quite enough for one day, perhaps even a lifetime.
Most of the other animals were now tucked up in their various abodes and already snoozing. Pankhi had not yet become accustomed to the sound of the giant mass of ironwork above his head, creaking as it cooled, nor the dying smell of the fuel that powered its occupant, a fearsome flame-red Dragon, ferrying an endless payload of screaming passengers to the bowels of the earth, dozens of times a day.
Pankhi realised, with a pang of misery and homesickness that this was to be his life now, together with the other creatures, transported here from the tranquil greenery of their homes. He wondered how those who were born here stood it. Aside from the obvious and worrying 'difficulties' the old horse had referred to, though, what other cause was there for complaint? They were fed and groomed, kept largely safe from predators. And in return? Their only obligation, it seemed, was to be cooed at and stroked, occasionally blinded by lightning that sprang forth from a small box, carried usually in the hands of an older, taller twolegs.
Certainly there was risk of a sort. Small, cruel hands capable of inflicting casual malice. Tugging rather than petting, for example, unmindful of a creature's tender parts. But Pankhi had learned to squirm from such minor skirmishes, to weave and dodge, strutting for safety. Among such other tiny assailants were the pluckers and throttlers, of whom he had gleaned valuable advice from Gawain, the farm's red rooster in those first, bewildering days.
"Yer plucker wants a trophy, see?" he warned. "And believe me, those 'andsome fevvers of yours’d make a fine one f'rem." The best way of foiling these miscreants, he said, was to "'ave a 'bolt'ole' in mind and make straight for it, sharpish like, the minute you feel one of those teeny-tiny mitts on your derriere."
"At least we've the run of the yard," Pankhi said. "I feel sorry for the pigs and goats confined to their pens, whether they've plumage to fret about or not."
Gawain assured him they all tried to look out for each other, best they could. Worse than the plucker, though, he said, was the throttler. Not always bigger kids either. Some of the littlest ones had the fiercest tempers and the meatiest grips. "You 'ave to look for a certain gleam in their eye, a shiftiness they have about 'em. The kind of leer that smacks of malice aforethought."
And in those cases, and only those, mind, you should do whatever was necessary to survive, because it might literally be you or them, see. When such an encounter occurred, often in a cacophony of shrieks and a cloud of feathers, the other animals might be relied on to close ranks and make it difficult for the greengarbs to find a culprit from within the melee.
"A sharp biff to the boko with the old pecker should settle their hash," Gawaine confided, from atop his fence-post perch. "Or else use the claws that Goat gave you." Careful not to leave any marks, though, he'd cautioned. Those who did and were subsequently caught, whether in self-defence or not, got carted off to the brown shed apparently, sometimes never to be seen again.
Pankhi thanked his gaudier bedfellow, vowing that whatever help he was capable of, he would gladly provide.
"As a matter o'fact," sniffed the rooster. "I've a mind that big showy fan o'yorn - singularly useless in any other aspect - might be put to good use in such a situation, as a sort of feathery smokescreen, like. Which is why I reckon we should look arter one anuvver, fowl to fowl, in a manner o' speakin'."
Pankhi bobbed his sleek, turquoise head, dumbstruck for the moment at being lumped in the same genus as a common cockerel and quite appalled by the suggested misuse of his magnificent train. Before he could argue against this heavy cost of inclusion into the rooster's alliance, however, Gawain ploughed on, clearly having taken the peacock's mute series of nods as a vote of approval.
"Oh, there's one last type I forgot to mention. Worst of all in many respects."
"Worse than throttlers?" Pankhi said, already convinced he had been consigned to a special kind of hell.
"Because of 'ow innocent they seem," the Rooster crowed, pecking at the ground and making those darting, dabbing movements typical of his breed. "We call 'em the 'feeders'."
"It might well be somethin' scrummy lookin'," he blinked. "But if you want my advice, never give in to temptation, no matter 'ow 'ungry you might feel. Why, only last week this hen o'mine, Gertie, got herself all gummed up with some blob of stretchy goo she was slipped. Swears blind it was forced on her, but I'm not so sure. She gave in to temptation is my guess, and paid the price." He gestured toward the brown shed with a glint of rue.
"'Sides which, it ain't allowed. The greengarbs don't take kindly to it. You're just as likely to get carted off and poked and rattled till you cough it up. So - stand on me - it ain't worth the risk."
Pankhi settled down into his nest of shabby straw, his head still humming from the noise and heat of the day. Beyond the tall oaks that fringed the farm, an owl hooted. The animals wriggled and rustled in their own beds. With a last thought for his new comrades, and a prayer of remembrance for those they had come to replace, the peacock fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.