What a crazy, crazy day. Mathlos awoke us at dawn with news that the crop lift was imminent. We climbed out of the shelter and found the camp a hive of activity. Men were hauling fat sacks out of two storage shelters and piling them into a great net that was laid out on a flattened, earthy patch of ground close to the fields. Several fires were blazing around the edges of the clearing. There wasn’t a whisper of wind. Dark pillars of smoke rose cleanly into the sky from the fires.
Once the storage shelters were empty, the net was tied into a bale using thick lengths of rope. Mathlos told us to keep watching the smoke. If we saw any sign of turbulence we were to dive through the nearest hatch.
I never took my eyes off that smoke –at least not until the birds came. There were four of them, jet black and as big as eagles. They circled in great arcs high above the smoke before two swooped and took position on trees overlooking the clearing. Scout birds. I was sure of it. Mathlos confirmed this when I questioned him. A low hush fell about the clearing while the remaining birds circled high. Everything stopped. Time stood still. For the next few minutes nobody moved or spoke. All I remember hearing was the crackle of the fires and the sound of my own breathing. Even Armbranch seemed rooted to the spot with anticipation.
A low whooshing sound grew above the trees off to our right. At first I thought it might be a spirit storm. But when nobody budged, I stopped looking around for a bolthole and focussed on the tree line.
Another bird appeared. At least I think it was a bird. It was so big, so fast. Its wingspan was fifty feet if it was an inch. Everything happened so quickly. It made one great sweep over the clearing, shattering the smoke pillars, and sending a back draught of air down that swept across the fields like a great, invisible wave. It had no feathers. I remember that much. Its wings were webbed and leathery. I couldn’t see the rest of its body because it was covered with chain mail that glittered in the early sun and made me partly shield my eyes. Its head was covered too. All I saw were its eyes, yellow eyes that blazed as hot as any furnace.
It swooped low, seized the bale of crops, and soared off above the trees with one great beat of its wings. Moments later the scout birds were gone and the clearing was silent again.
It was a long time after it had left before I could catch my breath.
After that, the rest of the day was an anticlimax. Mathlos left us to wander about on our own and we divided the afternoon between exploring the fields and resting in the shelter. Yet, though Mathlos stayed away, there was always someone watching us. We’ve agreed not to get separated no matter what happens. And it was like Mathlos had heard us because barely twenty minutes after we’d made that decision a messenger arrived with an invitation from Mathlos to eat with him tonight. It’s a special meal, a stew made from the crops and a special type fungus the bird delivered with the supplies.
Armbranch wasn’t mentioned. The messenger just kept repeating that Mathlos had some important issues to discuss with me. He must have said those words a dozen times, like they’d been programmed into his mind.
Questions. I’m sure of it. Mathlos is finally going to start asking his questions.