Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 7

Angry Birds

The Corps of Discovery stood atop a ridge overlooking the intermontane plateau and peered at the ground below through far-viewers.

"I cannot tell much from this high up. Has anyone spotted giant birds down there?" Finn asked.

"I have." Dahlderon answered.

"I am looking through the eyes of a hawk which is soaring only a couple of hundred feet about ground level. What Owen told us is true. This is an avian paradise. There are the usual flying species in the trees plus many unfamiliar species of ground dwellers including some real giants. Mammals are very much second class denizens down there."

"Is it safe, sir?" Hugh asked.

Finn snorted.

"With our numbers and our air guns and magical powers we have nothing to fear from birds however large. However, anyone can be the target of a surprise attack, so keep your eyes peeled."

"Can't we just observe from a safe distance. Why not orbit overhead down where that hawk is flying, make our observations, then fly away beyond where the giant birds hunt."

"I don't think that is going to happen, do you Lord Dahlderon?"

"Hardly, I want to study this strange avian fauna up close. Remember as a druid I can control animals much as a beast master does. You would be in no danger in my presence, Scout Loring. I won't let them attack you."

"The druid is right Loring," Finn agreed. "Now where shall we set down? Er… what's that you are pointing to Lord Dahlderon?"

"That butte near the middle is where we should make camp. Its sides are nearly vertical, and its top is more than a hundred feet high. No ground birds will get us there during our stay."

"How long a stay are we talking about?"

"Oh, I think we'll be staying for four or five days."

Hugh groaned. Chief Borden shot him a sharp look to shut him up, but then realized that Hugh needed help not a chewing out.

"Scout Loring, sometimes the best way to deal with your fears is to face them squarely. Why do these birds frighten you so?"

Hugh explained that as a boy he had been chased and badly injured by the kick of an ostrich after he had stumbled on its nest.

"Ah, that explains why you are so leery of big birds." Corwin observed.

"Aren't you sir?"

"Of carnivorous birds yes, but I once mounted an ostrich and stayed on its back for some minutes before dismounting. It was exciting — a lot of fun really."

"How did you dismount safely? It would have tried to kick you."

"That is just what it would have done, Hugh, if I hadn't used healing magic to put it to sleep."

"Ah!"

There was plenty of room atop the butte for their four autogyros. In short order they had set up camp including a garderobe at the edge of the butte which Jemsen formed with earth magic. Now stone cannot flow into a new shape as earth does. It either breaks or in this case crumbles into dust which Karel blew away with a jet of air. Left behind was an incised rectangle containing a two seat latrine. Wastes dropped down the undercut cliff straight to the bottom.

The top of the butte also held a shallow pond, a depression filled intermittently by rain showers. So they had a place to bathe. Drinking water came from water butts filled earlier at a stream then purified by healing magic.

Meanwhile Dahlderon and Drew got ready to take off in Drew's speedster.

"There's room for three. Coming Scout Loring?" the druid asked. Hugh hesitated then set his jaw.

"Sure, I'll get my gear."

That drew an approving nod from Borden and a clap on the shoulder from his boyfriend Evan.

The trio flew slow and low, landing from time to time to get close to examine particular specimens. The druid kept the animals docile as he studied them not only with his eyes but with his psychic senses and even peered through their eyes to see the world as they saw it.

Both Dahl and Drew Altair drew sketches of the various species. A stick figure of a man would let viewers gauge size. Hugh kept his air gun at the ready just in case.

One heavy bird was as tall as a man. Dahl recognized it as Diatryma. It was a very large bird with a short torso and neck and vestigial wings like those of a cassowary plus a massive skull and a huge beak.

"It's such a fearsome creature." Hugh opined.

"Not to worry, Loring." Dahl assured him.

"Admittedly it looks fierce, but it's really harmless. Look close, see how the tip of the beak is straight without the hook familiar to you from avian raptors like eagles and hawks. The toes on its feet have no claws. No, this is no hunter. This is a herbivore. The large beak lets it feed on tough plant material and seeds. Just don't get too close. If it feels threatened it will kick at you. Claws or not, a kick driven by its powerful leg muscles would hurt."

Later Dahl observed

"Now this other somewhat large specimen is a scavenger. It intimidates the smaller avian predators with its size and drives them from their kills so that it might feed."

Finally the trio got really close to a terror bird, not quite close enough to touch but near about.

"Here is the most fearsome of the lot, the apex predator of this region. Owen called them terror birds, and we can see why. The top of its back is eight feet above the ground but with its head held high it stands twelve or thirteen feet. Like the others it has a short torso, a massive skull and large beak — in this case positioned at the end of a long and highly flexible neck that can suddenly stretch out farther than its prey might imagine. And see the raptorial hook at the end of the beak? There is no doubt about it. This is a predator."

"I've killed a tiger with this air gun of mine so I guess I could drop an overgrown chicken with it too, if it comes to that!" Hugh said gamely.

"That's the spirit!"

Dahl released the terror bird so he could watch it in action. Sure enough it took after a flightless bird as big as a bustard. Its long legs let it cover ground fast. At top speed it ran thirty miles an hour. When it caught up with its prey the terror bird gave it a hard kick to inflict an injury severe enough to immobilize it.

Standing over its victim and holding it down with its huge claws it struck downward with its fearsome beak, finishing its prey off with pecks and slashes finally using the raptorial tip to rip the flesh from the bones.

The trio collected feathers which the birds had lost and even the skull of a terror bird and the bones from one leg, but left the rest of the disarticulated skeleton where they found it.

When the autogyro returned to the top of the butte Jemsen and Karel were just gearing up. Drew asked if they wanted a lift, offering to drop them anywhere they wanted.

"Thanks, Drew but we can get down and back up on our own."

"Okay but where is the rest of your gear? No air guns, just a kukri? That is not a good idea."

"It will be OK. We're not going trophy hunting. We're just going to tease the terror birds and get them to chase us. It'll be fun! Besides, we need the exercise to stay in shape. Travel by autogyro makes you soft and lazy."

"Are you guys crazy? You're armed only with your kukris and are stripped down to laced up moccasins and breechclouts plus those safety helmets and goggles. Like what is wrong with this picture?"

"Why there is nothing wrong at all. Watch and see."

"All right, but if you guys get yourselves killed don't come complaining to me."

"You must have greater faith in us Drew. After all, are we not the Dragon Slayers?"

Drew rolled his eyes and said to the others. "These guys are starting to take their press clippings entirely too seriously."

Karel hopped up piggyback on Jemsen who shuffled forward then stepped off the edge of the butte. Of course the twins did not plummet to their deaths. Jemsen was an earth wizard who used gravitational repulsion to slow their descent.

After they touched down the twins walked toward a terror bird which regarded them with suspicion, wondering why such potential prey should be approaching it instead of running away. It straightened up, its great head and beak towering more than twice their own height and glared at the interlopers. The boys yelled and waved and taunted the bird with their version of the broken wing trick. It worked. Hungry and angry the avian predator charged at them.

The twins turned and literally ran with the wind at their backs. As an air wizard Karel could call a jet of air to push them along as they ran. This was a well practiced maneuver which took advantage of the fact that, with every stride, a human runner was airborne for just an instant. The jet of air lifted and propelled them during those instants so that instead of taking strides of less than two yards, theirs were six or seven yards. That let them reach a sustained speed of a mile a minute, twice the terror bird's best speed.

Only boys like the twins with enhanced physiques and reflexes could have managed so stay on their feet as they rushed headlong at a mile a minute. A runner with the wind at his back had to watch the ground ahead carefully, lest he trip and fall and likely break bones. At least their heads were protected by the helmet and their eyes shielded by goggles from the wind of their own passage.

The twins showed the terror bird their heels and laughed and waved to their friends above. They ran secure in the knowledge that Karel had taken the precaution of forming a small air blade just overhead which kept pace with them as they ran.

At one point a second terror bird raced to intercept but Jemsen blocked it with a ridge of earth he suddenly rose forcing it to veer off. That left it frustrated but unhurt. Karel's air blade would have cut it in half.

The twins circled the butte just the once. Satisfied that they had made their point, they halted and rose to the top of the butte via gravitational repulsion.

"That was wild!" Karel chortled.

"Yes, it was." Finn told him in a severe tone.

"It was wild, irresponsible, risky, and totally unnecessary. There will be no repetition of such nonsense, no stunts, no practical jokes from anyone during the rest of our mission. Are we all clear on that?"

Everyone nodded.

"Anyone who wants a closer look at a terror bird should just look through a far-viewer," he declared before stalking away.

"Sometimes Finn takes himself too seriously." Karel grumbled to no one in particular.

Ifans shook his head. "Maybe, but not this time, Karel. That was a damn fool stunt just now. For all the mischief in your soul, you are level-headed enough that you will soon realize that yourself."

Karel hung his head. Finn and Ifans were right. He and Jemsen had behaved like a pair of jackasses. Well, when you were in the wrong, you admitted it and apologized.

"Sorry Finn, I mean Sir. We shouldn't have let our animal spirits get the better of us. It won't happen again."

Finn's nod ended the matter. He was satisfied that the irrepressible twins had learned their lesson.

Around the campfire that night Dahl remarked to Corwin that the plateau deserved a full scale survey by a team of natural philosophers like the one they had met in Elysion. Their leader was Professor Scolari, a botanist and mycologist, an expert on mushrooms, but their zoologist was Evander Blok. The third member of their team was a geologist named Johan Klutz.

Dahl agreed. He too had met the scientific team, though later in Elysion.

"Why don't you pack up those feathers and bones along with your sketches and send them to Evander Blok right away through a space portal? That should pique their interest. I am sure Blok would be grateful for a chance to describe a type specimen in the scientific literature."

Hugh wondered how an expedition of scientists would protect themselves.

"First of all they would fly in and set up camp here atop the butte. In case of a confrontation Evander Blok can throw levin bolts and Johan Klutz is a powerful fetcher. Both served with the forces in Amazonia against the trolls. So they would not quail, you should pardon the expression, at terror birds."

"Hey, I just thought of something." Corwin began.

"The natural philosophers should hire forest ranger Dylan. He is a beast master and so could keep them safe without harming the animals they want to study. Of course they will want to take specimens. In that case Dylan can hold them still while Blok and the others take pot shots at them with their air guns."

Dahl agreed that all it would take was one look at his and Drew's sketches to set things in motion. Their institute would very likely dispatch an expedition which would almost certainl set up camp on the very spot they were on, atop the butte.

With their insatiable curiosity Jemsen and Karel wanted to know why the isolated plateau was the realm of birds rather than of mammals. Had not terror birds gone extinct on Old Urth long before humanity built its first civilizations much less voyaged to the stars?

Dahl explained that Haven was a planetary refuge not only for humans, elves, dwarves, giants, and other sapients, but also for many species of animals and plants including those long extinct but brought back to life by the super science of the galactic empire of yore.

The mix of species was artificial but intentionally so. Not even the ancients, wise as they were, could predict how the biosphere of Haven would evolve. So many species were introduced with the expectation that those most adapted to conditions would succeed and survive while others would lose out in the struggle for existence and die out.

Corwin and Drew put the finishing touches on several news-paper articles which described their findings, accomplishments, and adventures so far. Dahl linked with Axel Wilde via Mind Speech and read through it, mentally dictating the journalists' copy to the wizard's aide whose gift of eidetic memory let him mentally record the texts. After the druid broke contact, Axel transcribed the copy and got it over to the Capital Intelligencer.

As they prepared to go to sleep, Chief Borden pointed out that they were safe and secure atop the butte so they really needed only one sentry at night. That let the scouts enjoy a respite from their two sentry regime.

Evan and his new boyfriend Hugh Loring put their opportunity to good use. Randy young lads that they were and just getting to know one another, their couplings were enthusiastic and acrobatic, as they explored each other's bodies and learned what each like to do and have done to him.

The others paired off too. Corwin went with Jemsen, Dahl with Karel, and Finn with Drew. Their relationships were of long standing, so their lovemaking were a way to express the romantic love they had for each other. But it was also an affirmation of their friendship, their comradeship, and their implicit faith in one another.

The next morning the lovers woke up to the smell of kaffay, bacon and scrambled eggs. In that avian realm there was no shortage of eggs some of them larger than an ostrich's. Dahl had pointed out a nest where the eggs were fresh laid. Drew had been about to fetch eggs from a nest where chicks were about to emerge from their shells. That would never do. With his telekinetic powers Drew filched three recently laid eggs from the nest to contribute to their larder.

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