Chapter X.

20 May

A cedar waxwing with a big brown crest and velvety feathers looked down from the arching branch of a trumpetwood tree. A green and yellow siskin flew past the two human beings walking along the forest path. The chattering of a black and white pica magpie filled the still air.

“We are almost at the station,” said Saluma to her companion. “Do you think we will be allowed to see him?” She pivoted her head around and looked at Ban Nephis.

The latter did not reply at once, first biting his lower lip.

“I don’t know, because this Great Roosting of theirs may cause Lozon to shut off access to the entire station. We will see what the situation is at the entrance, and that will be very soon, Saluma.”

The pair began walking slower and slower. A red-and-white linnet hopped across the path a little before them, then fluttered away.

“Gauge will be in considerable danger should they figure out what he is doing there,” whispered the field watcher, her sapphire eyes aglow with concern. “The attempt on the life of Secretary Daisan shows how ruthless the clique about the Dux can become.”

The two stopped and gazed intently at each other.

“We shall all have to be careful,” warned the flier in a firm voice. “But there is no other path for us.”

Saluma answered by nodding. “Gauge is fortunate to have a friend such as you, Ban.”

He looked away, upward toward the raptorial station.

“I have not known him very long, yet feel greater trust in this foreigner than many of my fellow Avians. It seems that he has a similar effect on all those whom he meets.”

“Yes,” agreed Saluma, suddenly smiling. “Gauge is a rare kind of individual, that is evident to everybody.”

Gauge Krave halted his mover on the right side of his host’s desk.

Best not to let him know how much recovery has been completed, he told himself. Play the injured invalid as long as possible, using the condition to camouflage what I am actually up to. So considered Gauge.

Sud Lozon sat down and immediately addressed the main business at hand.

“It may have confused you to hear that particular question during the lecture,” he began, his hands folded in front of him. “I intended to explain these matters once you entered our ranks, sometime during the Roosting. But that cannot be delayed any longer, it now appears.”

After drawing a long breath, the falconer continued in a lower, guarded tone.

“Let me give you a definition first. A pointer is a raptor that locates a certain prey, then returns to its nesting site and leads the bird that has set an imprint upon it to that particular target. It is a finder, a kind of locater for another.

“A falco, buteo, or hierax may act as the pointer. Here at the raptorium station I have succeeded in imprinting all of these species and varieties. My experience has led to greater capacity, so that I can furnish pointers for all of our people and their hunter raptors.”

“For what purpose?” interrupted Krave.

The other gave him a searching look.

“Can’t you see what becomes possible with pointers? If a teratorn can be led to a selected prey, then its owner can be selected for punishment. In a country like Avia, where most of the population lives on the land and the pasturing of animals for meat and wool is so important, this becomes a decisive weapon of power.

“Let us say that a landowner is rebellious and agitating his malcontent neighbors. Several raids from the pointer-led teratorns will soon bring the troublemaker to his senses. Or else, in time the dissident faces complete financial ruin. Either way, any insurgency is nipped in the bud. Official authority becomes strengthened.

“Do you see, then, why the Dux of our country is so interested in a raptorial movement like mine?

“Through my teratorns, he can strike from the sky at the most precious possessions of his enemies. We have only begun, but already the birds have filled the countryside of Avia with fright and terror. The farms of members of the Raptorial Association are protected and serve as home bases for the operations of our birds.”

“I don’t see how any such process can be accomplished,” confessed Gauge, almost breathless with nervous excitement.

Lozon gave him a weak, forced grin.

“The pointers have been trained to fly in the direction they are released in. They find the nearest large prey in that particular direction. This takes them to a neighbor of a certain cult member, one who has been placed on the list of those suspected of disloyalty to the Dux.”

“How is the teratorn controlled?” asked Gauge with raging curiosity.

“As a smaller bird has been imprinted upon a big one, the reverse has also been carried out here at the raptorium, with terratorns able to control smaller raptors. We use the farmers’ own lorryvans to transport our birds under the influence of temporary drugs to their holdings all across Avia.

“Our members are trained in how to take care of both pointers and attackers. My assistants from the raptorium take charge when a raid has been ordered on an enemy.”

“By the Dux himself?”

Sud Lozon slowly nodded his head yes.

“He believes that these methods I have devised assure the stability of his regime. Never before has an Avian ruler possessed such great power through instruments from nature. In fact, his sway can now be extended far beyond the borders of our land, he believes.”

Gauge suddenly felt a dizziness in his head.

“International ambitions?” he managed to let out through his bewildered lips. “Beyond Avia itself?”

“Our Continent has never had one, unified system of government, has it?”

“No.”

“Urias Asaph has such a dream in the back of his mind.”

The ornithologist thought fast. “Landia would be the first country affected, I can foresee that. I am a specialist on the raptors in its various zones.”

“That is correct,” confirmed Lozon. “We will need your special knowledge, my friend. That is why you must join the Raptorial Association at once. Do you agree to become one of us?”

“Yes,” lied the guest. “I can envision the opportunities that your proposal offers me.” To ruin your evil scheme, said Gauge to himself.

“Good,” said Sud Lozon. “It will be possible for you to undergo initiation tonight.”

The falconer manning the gate did not wish to allow the two walkers onto the grounds of the raptorium.

“Unless you are associated with our Great Roosting, I cannot permit you to enter,” insisted the tall, husky woodsman in brown.

Saluma put up an argument at once. “But there is one individual unable to leave the grounds at all because of his physical injuries. It is important that we see him. He is our friend and expecting our visit today. It will upset his plans, as well as ours, if he fails to see us at the appointed time.”

“No, that is impossible today,” grumbled the raptorial. “Sorry, but you must come back after our Roasting is finished.”

An idea occurred to Ban. “Can you take a message from us to a resident inside the raptorium station?” he inquired of the stubborn gatekeeper.

The latter thought a few seconds before replying.

“I guess that I could,” he unexpectedly admitted.

“Good,” smiled Ban, taking a small writing cylinder and flimsy pad out of his jacket pocket. He jotted a few words, then handed the folded note to the astounded falconer. “Here, take this to Mr. Gauge Krave in the guest residence.”

The two visitors stared blankly at the guardian of the gate.

All at once, the lanky raptorial spun about and started ambling away.

Saluma turned to her walking companion, an expression of gratitude on her face.

“That was fast thinking,” she murmured under her breath.

“Let’s see if Gauge can get us in,” remarked the aviator.

When the falconer returned, his attitude appeared to be wholly transformed.

“Brother Gauge is eager to see both of you and share the good news about his initiation tonight.” The outdoorsman beamed at them. “He said to meet him on the rear veranda of his quarters.”

“We know the way,” muttered Ban as he led Saluma past the watchman.

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