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Child of Thunder
Chapter Six: White Vulture
I woke up with a start, ready for a fight. Part of me expected to rise in the exact place I’d fallen, as though I’d only been unconscious mere seconds. This was not the case, however.
I wasn’t draped across Daale’s back either, but instead I lay in a surprisingly cozy bed. I’d been covered with a wool blanket that was a bit itchy but wonderfully warm. For a half second, I was tempted to lie back down. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been this comfortable.
It was enough to make me wonder if it had all been a dream. I felt a surge of panic until I checked my ankle and found the furrowed scars where I the bear had clawed me up in capture. I looked up and saw to my utter shock that I seemed to be back in my own world. This was the simple log cabin in Iowa I’d called home once… before my family had permanently taken to the road. Same bed, same fire crackling away in the hearth.
The door rattled. I saw the corner of a dress striped blue and white. “Mother,” I began.
“Yes dear?” a voice came. But it wasn’t my mother who peeked her head around the corner at all. It was Basson in a woman’s dress, the silver streak on his face seeming to glimmer in the low light. But then, as if unzipping a costume, the bear removed its skin and fur, revealing a big white vulture with wide red eyes.
Once more I woke suddenly, letting out a strangled cry of fear. I was immediately shushed, a heavy, furred hand pressed against my mouth. “Shh, lad.” Daale whispered gruffly. “We’re very close to the camp. The slightest noise could give us away. Don’t want to provoke an attack.”
I nodded and sat up. I had been leaned against a tree. As before, I woke up feeling alert. I just wanted to know what was going on. That was the worst thing about spending so much time unconscious. I felt like I never understood anything.
But Daale was quick to remedy this. He’d been peering through a bush all this time, and for me he spread its branches a little wider so I could see what he was looking at so intently. A valley carefully nestled away in the mountains dipped before us.
I had expected much from the labor camp. I had pictured it dry as a bone, desolate, and miserable. What spread below us was perhaps the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. It was all buildings of stark white stone, ruins draped with coats of thick moss and the reaching tendrils of many vines. Tall trees grew everywhere, all in varying shades of dark green.
I wanted to explore more than anything. This was a labor camp? It took me a moment’s study, but I began to see how it had earned its name. Slightly to our right, at the valley’s lowest point, a high watchtower stood. It wasn’t like the other buildings. It was made of wood and seemed a little sloppily built, as if it had been constructed hastily. In a slender clearing around it, there were about a dozen equally haphazard buildings. Most prominent following the tower was a windmill.
I could also see several fields where it looked like crops were being strained and sweated over. In addition, I noticed there was one particular ruin that still looked quite inhabited. A more modern looking chimney had been roughly fitted on its roof and it was belching smoke skyward in long plumes.
“What’s the plan?” I whispered.
“Infiltrate, take out the guard, liberate the prisoners, escape.”
He made it sound so simple, but I had a feeling it would be a lot more complicated than that.
But wasn’t it always?
I rose and stretched langorously. As I stood, I heard a rustling in the brush surrounding our cramped hiding spot. I raised my hand, ready to defend myself the only way I knew how.
“You going to set the forest up in flames?” Gryndor asked casually, stepping past me. “Better teach you a new spell sooner rather than later, hadn’t I?”
“Would you?” I asked excitedly.
“Better still if he were taught how to fight.” Daale said.
“Agreed, but do you really think your fighting style will be of much benefit?” Gryndor replied.
Daale sighed and shook his head. “I suppose not. Let us be about this business and quickly on our way then.”
Given the way things had gone thus far, I expected crazy to happen in a big hurry. I didn’t know what our fate would be exactly, only that I wanted to rescue Needha and explore that strange landscape. “What did you mean by infiltrate?” I asked Daale.
“I meant that the labor camp just found its two newest workers,” the bear prince responded. “I will be recognized, but news does not always travel fast. Word of my apparent treachery will probably not have reached the white vulture just yet.”
I gasped. “What did you say?”
“This place is run by a foul white vulture skilled in sorcerous arts,” Gryndor interjected. “Why?”
“No reason… just wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.” Gryndor eyed me strangely but said nothing. I didn’t know what to make of the strange dream I’d had so I’d elected not to mention it, afraid of sounding insane.
From then on we gave up on stealth, making for a broad road that cut a path through the forest. The vegetation here was so thick we could hardly see the sky save for a narrow strip of blue directly above. The walking was easy, as the path wound downhill at a comfortably steady pace. It was an idyllic here, quietly beautiful.
A sense of foreboding was beginning to come upon me, in spite of my previous excitement. A deep dread was pouring into my bones, settling in so far I feared it might never leave. We ate on the road, berries and fish that Gryndor had apparently obtained. I hoped the fish didn’t mind being snatched up and devoured.
After nearly an hour’s walk we found ourselves emerging into that immense clearing we’d seen from above. Two fields straddled either side of the road, both filled with animals of all sorts hunched over their work. Every face I spied was a mask of misery. The beasts tending the fields looked underfed, and their fur was patchy where they’d been struck or burnt or both.
My resolve to see our mission through strengthened.
Bears seemed to be overseeing everything, but I also saw a couple of panthers and one wolf too, and here and there a vulture hunched from fenceposts and the eaves of rooftops. The feathers of every bird was coal dark, however. Not a one of them was white, and none of them had red eyes. I was relieved at that, because of all things in this new world so far, that bird alone terrified me.
To keep up the sham, Gryndor and I kept our hands behind our backs, marching ahead of Daale. I’d only been taught a little of our plot. I knew it involved a sleeping potion, and stealing keys. As to what else would happen, I could not say exactly and I didn’t really care. I was content to follow my companions lead as we walked into danger.
What the full particulars of that plan were I would never learn regardless. We were walking through a central lane that seemed to be broadening as we neared the tower that was at the heart of the labor camp. Dark shadows fell across the dirt and gravel path. Bear and prisoner alike looked up in fear as the white vulture from my nightmare swooped in, flanked by two vultures whose feathers were speckled light and dark.
We'd been discovered already.
“Greetings, Xyd." Daale called in a forced, jovial tone. Gryndor turned his head down, playing the part of downtrodden prisoner. I tried to do the same, but I couldn't help peeking at the white vulture out of curiosity.
It was the spitting image of my dream, red eyes and all. I shivered in fear and quickly looked to the ground.
"What is the son of treachery doing in his father's kingdom? the bird rasped harshly in a clear but deadly quiet voice.
The bear prince feigned surprise. "What do you mean?" As I looked ahead and down I noticed that both the speckled vultures had wicked steel claws wrapped around their talons.
"The disgraced prince flees his home in shame and come to Xyd for help? Do not think I have not forseen your actions!"
Daale hesitated, and in the end it was that moment of hesitation that cost us dearly. Xyd did not enwrap his feet in metal like his bodyguards. Rather, he wore leather studded with iron spikes that were rimmed with reddish rust.
One of these he stripped off, awkwardly but quickly placing one foot over the other, then pulling. With this newly freed talon he quickly cast a spell on us with but a single word.
Gryndor raised a hand and seemed to yell something, but he was suddenly mute. I tried to launch a fireball into the beast's gut but I found that I too was incapable of speech. Without words, we could not use magic.
This left Daale alone free to defend us.
He hefted the mighty broadsword veiled beneath his cloak and swung his arms back for a blow mighty enough to see trees hewn and felled. Both the speckled guards attacked in the wake of their master's devastating enchantment, but only one survived to flap away for a second attack.
The bird that had been stricken by Daale’s sword fell to the ground, but its corpse did not bleed as I expected it to. Instead, it began to melt, quickly transforming into a gooey pile of sludge which began to sink into the earth, but not before releasing a noxious black vapor.
Gryndor finally found his tongue and let out a guttural word that I did not understand. At once that foul black cloud swirled into a little tornado that flew towards Xyd. It washed over the bird, coating him in black slime. Xyd doubled over in a coughing fit, red eyes watering.
Before I could launch an attack of my own with my suddenly regained powers of speech, a dozen bears flooded in around us, backing up the two remaining birds. Our chances were now far slimmer. “Xyxophes,” the white vulture cried, casting another dark spell.
Ropes sprouted from the earth and wrapped themselves around our wrists and ankles. They squeezed roughly and I lost my footing. I hit the dirt path so hard the wind was knocked out of me.
“Take them to the prison ward,” Xyd commanded, sounding even more hoarse than before. He barely managed to release the words before hacking again. It didn’t seem to be handling Gryndor’s strike very well.
“And make sure the deer is well bound! He’s a sorcerer!” Those were the last words I heard as the three of us were hauled off, once more in the carelessly brutal custody of bears.
They didn’t throw us into a dank cell as I expected, but a white stone ruin. It wasn’t the one with the chimney I’d seen previously, but one hidden by the veritable jungle growing in this lush valley. We were dumped on our stomachs in a large, open room. The bears left us all tied up to lay there uncomfortably, but not before they gagged Gryndor so he could work no spells.
There were free animals around us, timid little things hiding in the shadows. No one came to our aid, however. We were on our own. I wasn’t terribly troubled yet, just disappointed I hadn’t spied Needha anywhere.
“Well…” Daale murmured, voice muffled against the ground. “This could be a problem.”
We lay there unattended for a very long time. I began to forget my arms and legs as they grew increasingly numb. I may have slept but I was never quite sure. I certainly at no time felt rested, that much I can assure you.
After much time poorly passed one of the quiet little shadows lurking at the edges of the room crept forward. I caught sight of pale yellow fur and long, floppy ears.
A rabbit to the rescue.
I sighed, assuming we were no better off than we had been since we arrived in this awful place. “Don’t you worry now… Colonel Hayfinch Yarwood will have you outta those ropes in half a jif.” I could hear but not see a small yet confident voice coming from somewhere to my left.
Gryndor let out a muffled grunt. Then another, more insistent one. He couldn’t talk around his gag. I heard the rabbit pull it out, allowing the deer’s words to burst out like champagne from an uncorked bottle.
“The ropes are magic,” Gryndor told our rabbit to the rescue. “You’ll need to rub them with water and goose down or they won’t loosen.”
“Goose down? What’s geesers got to do with it?” the “colonel” replied indignantly. After a moment’s work he gave up in frustration. “Well I ain’t got a goose. What do you think of that?”
“I think you should borrow my knife,” Gryndor replied. I heard grunting and shuffling as the deer apparently freed a dagger from somewhere on his person. It clattered noisily on the stone floor, causing the shadows along the edges of the walls to quiver.
“Oh… the deer’s got a knife. Well why didn’t you say so in the first place, leafeater?” Seconds later Gryndor was free. He took the little weapon from the rabbit and freed Daale and I, allowing us a much needed chance to stand and stretch.
Looking around, I found the room we were in had only one exit, which I had to assume was being closely guarded. I was surprised no one had intervened yet. There were a couple of windows which let in the hazy light of the valley, but they were all high and barred off.
When I looked on the rabbit I saw the creature was hunched a bit, and seemed a little haggard, but he was cheerful and bold. Surprising features for such a small creature, in such a place as this. I say small, but really he stood only a few inches shorter than I, and he was taller if you counted the ears. The rabbit was dressed in a navy blue uniform that wouldn’t have been out of place on a soldier in the U.S. Army.
“You’re a soldier?” I asked curiously.
“Just so, little mole-child. Rather… I’m not just a soldier, I’m the whole shebang. All that remains of the Grand Army of the Republic. Since it disbanded, I’m the only one left, y’see.” The rabbit frowned and looked off in the distance, as if recollecting a bad memory. “I was just a private, but I felt it prudent to give myself a promotion… since I’m the only one who did not desert following our surrender.”
“Why not just make yourself a general then?” Gryndor cut in drily.
“Well… generals don’t often see battle, and I’m more the sort for frontlines action.” Hayfinch said the words a bit sheepishly. His people had been conquered, but he’d clung to his honor by the barest thread. I guess when you lost everything, your traditions would be a hard thing to let go.
Daale got on his knees so he could meet the colonel at eye level. “I was sorry to hear about the fall of your people,” he said sincerely. “The rabbit nation was a bright beacon in the darkness. Our world reels from the blow still.”
“Was! And she will be again, God willing.” The rabbit looked at me and winked. “So am I right in assuming your capture was part of an elaborate plan? What’s the next step, if I may ask?”
Daale hesitated. “The plan is… a little off track. We… we’re working on it as we go.”
“There isn’t really a plan anymore.” Gryndor said helpfully. “We’re playing it by ear.”
The rabbit said only one thing, and it seemed to articulate all our feelings accurately.