A young man, a giant crow, and a very important mission...
|The view from the top of the giant conifer was breathtaking. Far below, a sea of open grassland stretched between the mountains, cut through by a clear, sparkling stream. The grazing cattle appeared only as russet colored specks from the highest branches of the Pinophyte. Long, waxy needles stirred in the mountain breeze, gently kissing the wavy hair of the young man sleeping among them.
His youthful face had been tanned and chapped by years of weather. His dark eyelashes contrasted sharply with the sun-lightened streaks of his usually brown hair. The young man breathed deeply in his slumber, taking in the crisp, piney scent of the air around him. His head drooped and came to rest on his padded shoulder strap.
A sudden throw of his weight jolted him from his sleep. "Hey-! No-no-no, WAIT!" He fell over sideways, grasping frantically in the open air. His helmet tumbled over the back of his neck. "Damn you, Raffa!" The young man caught his helmet strap just in time, watching it dangle below his reddening face. Hundreds of feet spanned the distance between his blond curls and the needle-covered floor of the forest. "Pull me back up, ya big bird-brain!"
Raffa's gargling cackle filled the treetops before the young man was yanked upright and jostled into place. "Yeah, yeah. Very funny." The young man tightened a strap over one thigh. Thick black feathers rose up around his saddle, cueing him to hold the pommel while the bird shook its giant body. "Coulda lost my helmet there, ya know," the man complained.
The Corvid's feathers shimmered iridescent blue as he turned his head. "Spadix sleepy," he croaked amiably. "Like nestelling chick." Raffa blinked a tawny eye at his rider.
"Hey, cut me a break," Spadix replied. "I didn't get much sleep last night."
"Kaw! Raffa know!" The massive bird happily bounced his weight on his perch, shaking the long needles around him. "Spadix play at dark-time. All dark-time. Raffa know!"
"Quit bouncing, or I'll be sick all over your pin-feathered back!" Spadix sighed, rubbing the sleep from his unshaven face. "And it wasn't all night. Just…" He glanced lazily over the scenery far below. "Just most of it."
"Captain. We've got trouble."
Spadix put a hand to his earpiece, pressing the other into Raffa's feathers. "Whatcha got, Catkin?" Raffa settled himself after his rider's signal.
"Your favorite. That split-taloned Buteo. You got a visual?"
Spadix lifted the binoculars that were harnessed to his chest and peered through the branches to his right. "Yeah, I got 'er," he said after a moment. "Persistent buzzard. Men, do you copy?"
"Calyx at the ready, Captain."
"Spike here. Ready, Sir."
Spadix pressed his earpiece, squinting through the trees for the approaching bird. "Spike," he commanded, "she's gonna be at your three. Calyx, at your nine. Wait for my signal. You're gonna flank her once Lieutenant Catkin's got on himself on her tail. Over."
"Copy loud an' clear, Captain."
"Captain, I’m off. She's coming in fast!"
"Copy ya, Lieutenant." The young man smacked his animal's side. "Hear that, Raffa? It's time for some action." He sat up straight in his saddle, then adjusted his binoculars harness tightly against his chest. "Catkin and Sparra are coming in quick. Get us an angle. Hurry!"
Raffa launched himself from his post, swiftly spreading his massive wings and soaring among the branches. Carefully dropping his altitude, he threaded his way to the edge of the forest and came to rest on a sturdy perch. Spadix fumbled with his helmet, still dangling from its nylon strap.
"Raffa no fly. Spadix keep Raffa in tree." The bird's rough voice carried an anxious tone.
"Look, I'm puttin' it on, alright?" Spadix had shoved his helmet over his head and was hurriedly adjusting his goggles over his face. "Not like I can't do it in the air."
"Spadix fall, break head. Like baby egg-shell, is Spadix head!"
The young man smirked. "Thanks for the warning," he said, clicking a final strap under his chin. Then he leaned forward. "Look, there she is!"
The Captain and his Corvid watched the foreboding form of a golden-speckled Buteo floating high over the valley. Its short pointed beak was a dazzling yellow, its long tail banded black and white. The powerful animal barely moved its enormous wings, gliding silently over the wide pastures of grazing cattle and sheep.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" Spadix whispered. He glanced further back, behind the approaching predator, and caught a glimpse of a black Corvid sporting a crimson-jacketed rider. "There's the Lieutenant. Get ready, Raffa."
The two waited as the incredible Buteo soared past. Ignoring his Lieutenant following close behind, Spadix kept his focus on the bird's banded tail. When it passed the long, broken branch of an exceptionally tall conifer, the Captain delivered a swift kick to Raffa's side.
"Kawaaw!" The Corvid cried aloud, scattering tiny songbirds from their perches in the trees. His cry echoed throughout the valley. "Kawaaw, Kawaaw!" Spadix leaned far over Raffa's warm, feathery neck, watching two more Corvids flap out of the trees and join the Buteo on either side.
"Let's go, buddy!"
Raffa hopped joyfully into the air, suspended for just a moment. Spadix felt his stomach lurch as the two fell into a full-feathered glide toward the Buteo. He leaned low in his saddle, clenching the bird's body with his closely bent legs. Raffa flapped his giant wings, jostling his rider so that he had to clutch the pommel. Down the valley, the two flanking Corvids were already counting coup with the Buteo, viciously nipping its carpals at every chance.
"Nice work, men," Spadix announced over his intercom. He watched the rear Corvid swing in close for a nip at the Buteo's tail. "Spike. Calyx. Descend by ten or twenty. I don't want that buzzard dropping any closer to the herd."
Spadix and Raffa had quickly covered the distance, and were now flying high above the Buteo. Leaning over Raffa's eagerly pumping shoulder, Spadix watched the left-flanking bird drop low into the predator's shadow. The Corvid's third and fourth primary feathers were missing.
"You didn't tell me Kalla had lost another pair, Spike," he shouted with a smile. "What's she doin' molting in the middle of summer, anyway?"
"Who knows?" came the friendly voice of his wingmate. "But you'd better pull your move before she loses any more!"
Spadix answered with a hearty laugh. "Point taken. Here we come!" Pressing his palms into the feathered back beneath him, Spadix called out to his bird. "Hoo-EEE!" Raffa instantly folded his broad winds to his sides, tipped forward, and plunged toward the unsuspecting predator. Wind whipped sharply against Spadix's face, screaming in his ears and billowing his crimson leather jacket. The Buteo's golden-speckled back loomed quickly toward them. Spadix pulled out a silver pistol just before Raffa dove in.
"Kaw!" Spadix watched Raffa duck his head for a sharp peck, then steadied himself against the bodily jolt. He leaned back and turned to fire a yellow capsule at the Buteo's rear.
"Nice work, Raffa!" Spadix watched over his shoulder as the Buteo reacted with a mid-air twist and accompanying scream. "Aw, that didn't sting ya, did it?" He chuckled as Raffa banked sharply to the right and looped down to rejoin the others.
"I'm going under. Cover me, Spike."
Raffa's body descended quickly past the giant Buteo and her black-feathered escorts. Swiftly, he positioned himself forty feet below the muscular predator's white breast.
"She's lookin' mighty comfortable up here, Sir. She's used to bein' shot in the ass."
Spadix glanced up at the partially albinated Corvid to his right. "Think you're right, Calyx. Let's give 'er something else to think about." Wielding his silver pistol, Spadix fired two more shots into the Buteo's soft feathers. Her immediate upward tilt was answered by the conglomerate attack of the three other Corvids, who nabbed the tips of her feathers and pulled with quick jerks of their heads. The Buteo let out another angry scream, making Spadix groan and turn an ear to his shoulder.
"Damn it, girl! I'm gonna be deaf for two days!" Spadix yanked out his earpiece and shoved it into the other ear. "Nice ascent, men," he said, watching the four birds floating quickly upward. "I think she's got the message. Let's escort her out of here!"
"I'm comin' on her left. Calyx, get Sakka to give her some room."
Spadix proudly watched Sparra and his Lieutenant pull around the left side of the massive creature, joining Kalla and Spike as the white-winged Sakka banked off to the right. Reading her escorts' movements, the speckled Buteo gently began her tedious right turn over the valley. Sakka and Calyx glided in beside their comrades, helping to herd the Buteo back from whence she came.
Raffa was frantically pumping his black wings, straining to catch up with the departing flock of birds. "Easy, now, Raffa." Spadix pressed a palm to his back. "She's movin' out, so don't push yourself."
"Sharpbeak try trick," he squawked. "Raffa know. Raffa know!"
"What? Hey, calm down. She's not gonna try anyth-"
A chorus of protesting cries erupted from the Corvids up ahead. Spadix gasped at the sight of the powerful Buteo twisting into a sharp leftward bank, slamming Sparra in the keel before diving down toward the grassy fields. The agile Kalla and Sakka had escaped her frightening movements, but floundered clumsily as their riders struggled to bring them under control.
"Busted bloodfeathers, she's gotten away!" Spadix threw his weight over Raffa's neck. "Come on boy. I'm not losin' a single calf to that buzzard!"
Raffa had already obliged. The two were once again screaming through the air, swiftly chasing the giant predator that threatened their precious land. "Kawaaw! Kawaaw!" Spadix felt the forceful contraction in his bird's thorax as it cried out its battle call. The Buteo's banded tail grew swiftly larger below them.
"Captain, pull out!" Lieutenant Catkin cried over the intercom. "She's dropping too fast. You'll never get 'er in time!"
"Faster, Raffa!" Spadix yelled over his saddle. "Let's get 'er once and for all! Hoo-EEE!"
Raffa's shiny black beak opened wide, plunging toward the Buteo's feathered thigh. Spadix jolted in his seat. The Buteo squealed in pain, then twisted from Raffa's sharp piercing and threw out a scaly, four-taloned foot.
"Raffa, MOVE!" Spadix flinched backward. Then suddenly his bird's wings were buffeting violently about his head. His body was thrown upside-down, the air knocked from his lungs, his vision blurred by a dazzling onslaught of black and golden feathers. Spadix shielded his face with his arm, squinting through the mayhem and trying to ignore the giant shafts that whipped and beat his body. For an instant, he could see the ginger colored scales of the Buteo's toes, grasping tightly the wide leather strap of Raffa's harness. Spadix immediately drew out a short, double-bladed knife from his side holster.
"You let go of my bird, ya damned buzzard!" Spadix sliced his left thigh strap, freeing his leg from the saddle and allowing him to pull himself up the right side of his Corvid. Sticking the knife squarely under the harness strap, Spadix worked quickly to shear the restraining structure in two. Raffa's violent movements finished the job with a final tear of the fibers, and in seconds the buffeting black feathers were gone.
Spadix groaned in relief, letting his weight drop and dangle from his right leg, still attached to the saddle and harness. He craned his neck down to view the russet colored cattle still grazing in the fields. His chest was heaving with strained, tired breaths.
"Oh, no ya don't!" Spadix had felt the Buteo's bodily jerk, and was ready when she pulled him up to meet her yellow-beaked face. "The only thing you're gettin' to eat is this!" He shot another capsule into the bird's gaping mouth, making her twist and shake her head in the air. A steel buckle from his broken harness smacked against Spadix's face, and he yelled out in frustration.
"Sorry I can't stay, beauty," he quipped with a gritty scowl. "But I'll look forward to our next encounter." His remaining thigh strap squeaked under the knife, then snapped, and the Captain's body fell freely out of the saddle. Spadix pulled himself into a ball, waiting to reach an adequate distance below the Buteo. Then he spread his arms and legs, and smiled at the familiar thrill of a free-fall.
"You turkey-brained fool!" Catkin's voice blasted in his ear. "Are you tryin' to scare the damned feathers off your Flightmates?!"
"I take it you're alright, then," Spadix answered with a grin. "Did Raffa make it out okay?"
"Yeah. He's back with us now. The Buteo turned tail already."
"Good. Thanks, Lieutenant. I'll see you at Base. Over."
Spadix reached across his chest, grasped the bright blue cord from his shoulder strap, and yanked it firmly to release his parachute.