Chapter IV.

17 May

Ban Nephis volunteered to climb up into the ornither to retrieve whatever was salvageable from the damaged craft. “You and Saluma stay down here. Perhaps there will be a chance to see a monster bird this morning.”

The pilot gave Gauge the reel recorder that was still there. “Here, you’ll have two of them now, chum. Maybe mine will bring you some luck in your future projects.”

As Ban slowly made his way up the tall devilwood, the other two strolled to the rim of the ridge and looked out toward Gyps Mountain.

“Are you good at bird identifications?” asked the young woman with a laugh at the end of her question.

“I think so, but today will provide a test of my skill in the field.”

In their first half hour, Gauge Krave named and photorecorded a purple martin, red-eyed vireo, rose-breasted grosbeak finch, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and a white-eye. He successfully captured all of them on videx reel. All of this caused him to feel the emotion of joy.

“You are ahead of me, my friend,” smiled his partner, who had seen only a red-headed woodpecker and a goldfinch on her own by that time.

“I think it was mere luck on my part.” He looked away, toward the blue mist above the opposite mountain. “It is very exciting for me, observing these species in the wild, rather than through a library viewer.”

Saluma looked at him from the side, a pleasant smile on her dark-skinned face.

“Many foreigners used to visit Avia to engage in bird watching, father says. I was only a child when our present Dux replaced his predecessor and changed that. We don’t see observers from other countries today. They do not feel welcome to carry out observations of their own.”

“The regime of Urias Asaph has not promoted ornithological tourism,” noted the Landian. “Only a small trickle of watchers ever travels here any more. Is that due to intentional discouragement, do you think?” He turned his head and gave her a questioning look.

Her brow suddenly furrowed. “Father believes that in a dictatorship all important currents start from the top. The country’s life comes to reflect what is in the mind of the one person who makes all the crucial decisions for everyone. His mood and attitudes come to be prevalent and general.”

Nodding in agreement, Gauge noticed that her sapphire eyes were focused upon something in the distance. He whirled about quickly to see what it might be.

A large party in dark brown hunting togs could be seen ascending a steep path on one of the ridges of Gyps Mountain.

Saluma knew who they were at once. “The Dux and his retinue,” she gasped. “Can you make out the lanky man in front with a falx sitting on his arm? That’s Sud Lozon, the one who runs the raptorium. He is supposed to be the best falconer in all Avia, everyone says.”

“They are out to accomplish some hawking, then?” surmised Gauge.

“It appears that way. They are headed in our direction, too.”

Her companion lifted his recorder near his face and looked into its viewfinder. “I can make out each of the individuals quite clearly using a special lens.” He looked up at her. “Would it be of any possible value to record what the dictator’s party does during their hunt?”

She thought for only a moment.

“Why not? We can review the reels at home tonight. There might be something worth preserving recorded on the film.”

Knave pushed the tab that started the apparatus going and began to take down the progress of the Dux and his fellow hunters.

It was going to be a most interesting morning, he sensed.

Urias Asaph looked admiringly at the falx perched on his host’s right forearm.

“What magnificent plumage your bird has on it!” beamed the Dux in almost a rhapsody. “Is it a haggard that was captured in its adult stage?”

“No, Your Greatness. I myself removed the young eyas from a nest on a high craig, then raised it at the raptorium.” Sud Lozon sauntered on, his gait prideful and slow.

“It is a nestling, then. But can it hunt as well as a haggard?”

“You shall see for yourself, Sir.” The falconer halted and faced the dictator directly. “Would you like to set this bird on its pursuit of game of some sort? That might turn out to be highly interesting to watch.”

First came a start, then a smile of delight on the ruler’s sallow face.

“I would like to try the hooded falx, if you permit me. That would be wonderful for me.”

Permission granted to the all-powerful Urias Asaph! thought Lozon. What person on the Continent is a greater autocrat than this tubby bowl of fat? Who else enjoys such unquestioned authority?

“Of course, Dux,” he obsequiously replied. “I know that hunting with birds delights you. It is an activity that brings you untold joy.”

“Since I came to office, there has been little time for my old hobby.” The guest’s tiny black eyes became sadly regretful. “There is no opportunity for me to return to our ancestral estate. When I was a boy, my closest chum was the son of my father’s austringer. He trained my father’s accipiters, making these hawks into perfectly controlled hunters. I spent many hours with these servitors of ours, learning the secrets of Avian hawkery.” He paused for a moment, then started again. “In our region, we are more familiar with the hierax than the falx. The hawk is considered more favorably than the falcon.”

“That does not matter, Dux,” soothed Sud Lozon. “The pinciples of falconry and hawkery are almost exactly the same. I assure you, there will be no difficulty at all. You will take to it quickly, with ease. That is certain.”

“I will attempt it, then.”

The procession moved forward once again.

The pair of bird watchers witnessed the dictator’s success on his first try with the falx. Gauge recorded the details of the hunt. The Dux placed thick leather gloves on both his hands as the falconer removed the hood from the becalmed falx.

Slowly and gradually, the bird was transferred to the hand of Urias Anaph himself. The latter stood motionless.

“That is the ruler of Avia,” whispered Saluma with dread in her voice. “The tall man who gave him the falcon is the chief of the raptorials.”

“Sud Lozon?”

“Precisely,” she answered.

Next, the falconer unstrapped the jesses, freeing the bird for flight.

A single upward movement of the dictator’s arm was sufficient to start a soaring climb into the bright green sky. The falx, surveying the mountain landscape, found what its instincts told it to pursue. Reaching its maximum pitch of altitude, the raptor reversed and began its downward slide. Faster and faster it fell toward the discovered prey.

“The bird is coming toward us,” warned Gauge.

Suddenly, it vanished from sight for the two watchers. They turned to each other and gaped.

“This will bring the entire party our way,” muttered the woman. “If the game proves too heavy to carry back, they will follow their hunter to where it left what it killed.”

“What should we do, then, Saluma?”

She thought a moment. “If the Dux and his friends approach too close, we will have to get away quickly.”

“But Ban is still at the ornither,” remembered Gauge. “What about him?”

“We’ll get him out with us as fast as we can.”

The pair observed what was happening for several more minutes, recording on reel what was taking place on Mt. Gyps and in the valley. Ever closer came the men in dark brown, toward where the falx had landed. When the hunters were about a hundred span away, Saluma finally gave the signal that her companion nervously awaited.

“We had better move on at once,” she calmly told him. “Let’s go and get our friend in the devilwood tree.”

The two placed their recorders into the holders hanging from the shoulder of each of them, then started along the narrow path that led past the devilwood atop which the ornither was perched. Their steps were energetic, taking them speedily to the spot where they had left Ban Nephis. From high above, the pilot caught sight of the two of them. “What’s wrong?” he called out from his high position.

“A party of hunters is coming in our direction,” shouted Saluma with urgency. “We must return to the Observatory before we cross paths with the Dux and his entourage. They are headed in our direction.”

“I’ll be down at once.”

Gauge and Saluma watched as the pilot climbed down, branch by branch. He was both careful and quick in his jumps and moves. The seconds passed with mounting tension. Where was the pack of men in dark brown? wondered Gauge. When will they arrive where we happen to be?

Ban had descended about four-fifths of the way to the ground, when a cracking noise became audible to all three of them. Their heads and eyes rose toward the high branches where the vehicle rested. Saluma voiced the truth that the two men also saw.

“The limb holding up the ornither is breaking!”

Indeed, it was now free of the trunk that exact moment. The sphere began to fall downward, crashing through lower limbs in a gradual descent. It would hold for a second or two, then continue to fall.

Gauge gaped in consternation. The flyer was directly beneath the mass of metal. A disaster was about to occur unless something could be done at once. Quicker than thought, the Landian rushed to a point under Ban.

“Jump. I’ll catch you.”

There was no time left for climbing down in any ordinary way. The ornither had fallen even more, till it hung only a dozen or so span above him. The decision to jump could not be delayed a second more. It was a situation of severe danger.

The impact of a heavy weight falling on him pushed Gauge to the ground. He rolled over, raising his head to see what had happened to the pilot.

The fallen one lay prone, gasping for breath.

A frightful rushing sound came from the devilwood above them.

“Move fast,” yelled Saluma, gazing spellbound at the final fall of the flying sphere.

The crash into the ground had a solemn finality to it.

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