Chapter IX.

20 May

Saluma served breakfast, then sat down across from her father.

Ban Nephis and the Secretary of Nature took the two opposite sides of the table.

As the newcomer told his story, the others set down their porridge spoons and listened with absolute attention.

“Shot at in my own forest garden! I still cannot determine why the culprit failed to electrocute me. The charge was surely great enough to cause the death of anyone else. Maybe it was the twilight green, so obscure and darkening by the second. Whatever caused the effect, my luck held for that one moment when my fate was decided. Though stunned into something like an electrified trance, I survived and remain alive.

“My strength was nearly all gone, but there was just enough to allow me to crawl out of the garden. Somehow, I rose to my feet and made it to the cabin of a forest woodsman whom I happened to know fairly well. He was my salvation, taking me in and allowing me to sleep off my stupor from all the volts I had absorbed.

“It was necessary for me to get away as fast as possible. But where was I to flee? Nowhere else could it be, but right here, to my dear and trusted friends.

“But how was I to make such a journey?

“The woodsman informed me that a number of the cultists were on their way to Mount Gyps in the Aeries. I learned that a caravan of farm lorries was about to leave for the raptor station. My best chance was to join them through posing as a sect member from another region without a means of transportation to the common destination.

“I went to the local leader’s farm and presented myself as a stranded traveler who needed assistance. My act was convincing. I was placed in the back of a large carrier. Best to keep to myself and not talk much with the other passengers, that seemed logical. So, I kept mum and mostly listened to what the others said.

“The opportunity to learn about their activities was an enormous one.”

All eyes focused on the newly arrived official as he paused a moment.

“The raptorials who own farms have come here to obtain birds for themselves.”

No one voiced the question in their minds as they waited for further explanation.

“It has not been widely known at all that each cult member with a farm takes care of a particular gymnogyps from the raptorium. A special nest has been set up for the bird on each of the individual holdings of the group.

“At this Great Roosting, each of them will receive a new, second bird. That explains why Lozon has been breeding such a large population of teratorns.”

Dr. Talmon could not suppress the question rising inside his mind.

“But for what purpose, Cetab? Of what possible use are so many predatory birds over the Avian landscape?”

The Secretary pursed his lips into a sneer.

“I don’t know all the specifics, but the presence of gymnogyps is connected to the teratorns in some incredible fashion. When the cultists know that the giants are about to arrive, they are to release their own gymnogyps. Somehow, that facilitates the general purpose that all of them believe in.

“Beyond that, I would merely be guessing at how that will occur.”

“Perhaps Gauge Krave can uncover more about what their plans are,” speculated the Director. “Lozon will have to take him into his confidence if he is to be exploited by this strange movement of theirs.”

“Let us hope he does not expose himself to danger unintentionally,” remarked Saluma in a low, demure voice. “These people appear to be fierce and unmerciful in their secretive plans and operations.”

Gauge walked about the buildings with only a thin cane for support.

He sidled up alongside and behind recently arrived raptorials, listening for some hint that could be helpful in his investigation of the cult. I am an eavesdropper, sneaking up on my unknowing targets, picking up small snatches of talk.

“It is wonderful to see you once again, Terah.”

“My wife was ill all winter long, but is now much better.”

“The sheep will fetch a pretty price, believe you me.”

“I’ve never seen a crowd this size before at a Great Roosting.”

“Deliveries will be starting in a few days, I understand.”

What kind of deliveries was the speaker referring to? wondered the secret listener. Something was going to be taken from the raptorium to the farms of those landowners. But what could it turn out to be?

Realizing that the cult members did not discuss these deep, intimate secrets in casual conversation, Gauge headed back to the room he now slept in.

Sud Lozon would have to be the one to inform him, at the appropriate time. He would then be able to understand what the conversations referred to and meant.

It appeared that the moment was getting closer and closer.

From the window of his room, Gauge spotted a small redstart in a spicetree, singing as if nothing threatened it so near to the predator nests. A large ortolan, once valued as a table delicacy, darted through the morning air. Through the window screen came the discreet and unique notes of an amadavat, the tiny songbird often caged and kept for bloody fights. From somewhere afar there sounded the cry of a kittiwake dove, then the shrill wail of a crested lapwing, followed by a sweet bulbul note.

Gauge smiled as he listened to the “veery” call of a veery thrush. But then his mind returned to his immediate task. His presentation to the assembled Raptorial Association would soon be upon him. Could it be carried off smoothly? wondered the soon-to-be speaker. It might become possible for him to join the exotic cult, posing as an enthusiastic recruit. Was there any better way of probing into the hidden plans of Sud Lozon and the Dux of Avia?

A rapping sound made the man seated in the mover turn to the door as the head of the raptorium entered his bedroom.

“Good morning, my friend,” grinned the tall figure in country knickers. “Are you ready for your lecture to our members? They are gathering in the amphitheater to hear what you have to say to them. There is a mood of great excitement among those waiting to hear you.”

“Yes, I am eager to start,” replied the Landian, deftly concealing any signs of inner trepidation. He stole one last look out the window, then pointed the mover toward the open door and rolled on in that direction.

The audience, mostly in farmer’s brown, stared in silence at the seated stranger who was at the focal point of the semicircles that rose above him.

Gauge began slowly, naming the major raptors of his native land. There were few vultures or falcons there, he admitted that. “We rarely see a gyps or falco in Landia. Our most common raptors are the small buteo and the hierax, and these are found only in the southern mountain region. Buzzards and owls inhabit very narrow zones which I have personally studied out in the field.”

He proceeded to a geographic survey of the avian species and varieties. His manner of speech grew easier as the lecture went on. In an ever more confident voice, the ornithologist finished on a high note of enthusiasm.

Staring out at his listeners, Gauge grasped for what to say at the end. The words came out of him as if from an automaton. “Does anyone have a question?” he asked.

At first, no one took up the offer he presented. But then an elderly countryman in rough corduroy spoke up.

“Are there trainers in Landia who can turn out good pointers?”

Gauge felt stunned. What was this question about?

“I’m not exactly certain…” he began before an interruption occurred.

Sud Lozon suddenly rose from where he sat at the end of the first ring of listeners.

“There are matters beyond the limits of the topic that our guest agreed to discuss. I am sorry to say that the question just presented belongs among them. In the future, perhaps, this will be clearly understood, but not at the present time.”

He turned to Gauge with a forced smile on his lips, yellowish eyes piercing the man in the mover with raw kinetic force.

“I believe there will be time for inquiries in days to come. For now, it seems that we have overtaxed our lecturer. Shall we now proceed to the refectory where a delicious repast should be waiting for us?”

As the cultists started to leave the amphitheater, Lozon stepped close to the surprised bird scholar.

“Let’s go to my office, Gauge,” said the head of the raptorium. “We can discuss several matters there in private.”

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