The rain had been and come and gone through the late afternoon and evening and I woke to a clear day, with a brisk breeze carrying hints of the chill expected at this time of year.
After the usual chores, I decided to spend the morning in the forest, a mix of foraging and of noting the places likely to provide good harvests of autumn berries. I would no doubt be elbows deep in jam jars in a few weeks’ time.
I was well away from the house and heading for a clearing I liked to check every now and again. It was apparently a good resting point for certain winged creatures that weren’t supposed to exist and I would sometimes find disconcertingly large feathers dropped about the place. I’d yet to find a use for them, but took them home nonetheless, better to do that and worry about a purpose later than leave them for someone with foolish ideas to find.
I emerged from the trees to find the wind had changed to a blustery threat, and my bright, sunny sky was now near-black. Strange, I hadn’t noticed a change in the light under the trees. I stepped back under them, the breeze softened and the light brightened again.
I tucked a couple of wards around myself and went to investigate.
There was a large, muddy-coloured lump off to one side on the far edge. I sauntered towards it, slow and relaxed, and very, very careful.
The wind and clouds made good their threat by the time I was halfway across and stepped up into a full-blown thunderstorm. I sighed but kept going. I was going to get wet either way, may as well be constructive about it.
The lump was near shoulder-height on me and when I made it to a horse’s length of it, I began to circle it, trying to see what it was, while quietly forming a ward circle at the same time. Why take chances?
I completed the circle, and activated the ward. The thunderstorm eased and the bird pulled its head from under its wing and looked at me indignantly.
I’d never seen a Thunderbird before. Unfortunately, it looked like someone else had seen this one as well, and hadn’t reacted kindly. The poor thing had several arrows poking out of it. None that would cause a truly crippling injury, but they clearly hurt and there was one in particular, jabbing out of the wing, that must have been making flying uncomfortable.
I folded my arms and stood, looking at it, letting the silence stretch between us.
Its voice echoed into my mind. “Well, what are you waiting for? You’ve hurt me and pushed me to exhaustion, now you’ve trapped me. Finish me off and take your trophy.”
Well that was news.
“There are people hunting you?”
“You’re not one of them?”
“Certainly not. Trophy hunters are despicable people and I do not permit them on my mountain.”
Its cynical laugh presaged its next question. “How do you propose stopping them.”
“Oh that’s easy enough, so how about I deal with those arrows for you while we wait for them to arrive?’
The thunderbird shifted again and I opened my mind for its review. Whatever it chose to see in there calmed it and I stepped across my ward, reactivating it once inside. Yes, I was now being pelted with cold rain and wind, but rather that than arrows from the blundering fools I was about to chastise, severely.
It took them quite some time to arrive. I discovered later (thanks to a visit from the Mayor’s kitchen boy) that they’d had some trouble with the townsfolk, who had much the same view on that type of person as I did. My bees had taken something of a shine to the lad and, when he came to find and warn me of the group, they let him know I had it in hand. There are no better messengers than a highly mobile hive mind.
When they finally blundered out into the clearing, I had all the arrows out, the wounds dressed and was discussing the impact of flight on the wing injury.
There was some idiot in the middle of them. Dressed in shiny gold armour for Powers’ sake, chasing a thunderbird. He deserved to get toasted. So I let him have his little ‘now we have you foul fiend’ moment (I was glad to see half his party roll their eyes), then I lightly fried him with a borrowed lightning bolt.
I didn’t kill him, just left him on the ground, twitching and screaming and smoking a little in places.
His party scattered, a couple ran off but others cautiously approached us. None of them went to help his shininess, interesting.
One of the men raised his bow. “I don’t wish to harm you, Lady, please step away so we can slay the beast.”
I gave him my favourite silent stare.
He drew back his bow and loosed an arrow. It rebounded off my ward and hit him, pointy end first, in the leg. He dropped with a howl.
Now it was time to talk. “I do not like strangers walking onto my mountain and trying to kill or take what they shouldn’t. Explain to me why I should spare any of you from the Thunderbird’s fury?”
Another man, standing a little back and quietly watching the drama now spoke, brows furrowed. “It’s a thunderbird? Our Lord said we were chasing a phoenix.”
I asked. “What difference does it make?”
“The phoenix would rise from its ashes, so we wouldn’t have actually killed it.”
“And why would you need to kill a phoenix?”
“It’s the only way to take its crest feathers.”
“And you want the crest feathers because?”
“They help you control the weather…” A look came over his face and he stared at me. “He knew we weren’t chasing a phoenix didn’t he.”
“It certainly sounds like it. Phoenix feathers, which, incidentally, they give away quite happily if asked nicely, provide a source for flame when needed.”
He nodded, then turned, marched over to where the idiot was still groaning, and gave him a solid kick in the side. It seemed he knew where the armour didn’t cover.
Then he returned to our conversation.
“It seems we are at an impasse, Lady. My men and I need to be paid, and you and your friend here are our only source of possible income. Shall we make a deal?”
I couldn’t help it, honestly, I started laughing. It took me a little while to get enough breath to talk.
“There is no impasse, there will be no deal. You will leave, take your Lord with you and sell his armour if you’re that desperate.”
My reaction had clearly disconcerted all of them but he was nothing if not persistent. “Lady, we have you both trapped. You cannot move from where you are.”
At my look, the Thunderbird stood and we both walked forward. A moving ward isn’t easy, but I can do it if I have to. Of course we’d run into problems at the treeline – my companion was not the type to do well in tight quarters – but I’d sent my bees for a little backup some time ago and she was due to appear at any minute.
The same bowman as before, clearly cut from the same cloth as their lord, shot again, and took another arrow for his efforts.
Before the group had time to fully understand the situation, my backup arrived. Those bully-boys may have been happy to go up against a woman and an injured bird. They felt rather differently when a dragon thumped down into the clearing and glared.
All but three of them ran. The only ones remaining were the still-incapacitated golden boy, the bowman with two arrows in his leg and the leader, who clearly had more guts than sense.
After a quick discussion, the dragon scooped up the now-screaming bowman and the shiny lord for delivery to the monastery one mountain over. The monks were used to her bringing them people with more adventure than sense and rather enjoyed the variation she brought to their quiet lives.
That left the attempted diplomat. I decided to have a little fun. I dropped my ward, dug into my cardigan pocket and pulled out the smudgy ball of black the cursed portrait had flung at me, then threw it at the man. There was a howl, a bang, a black cloud and now I had another badger – this one with a leather jerkin on.
I popped a net over him (did I ever mention how much I love my cardigan?) while I made my farewells to the now-chortling Thunderbird. It rolled an eye at the now-furry soldier and very deliberately removed a feather from its chest, presenting it to me with flared wings and bowed head.
I accepted it with thanks and it took off, heading who-knew-where, while I trundled the fuming badger down the mountain and handed him over to one of his more sensible men once I caught up with them.
I also mentioned the monastery where they might find their other two companions, should they care to look, and he sensibly forbore to mention either of the creatures in the clearing. I think he’ll do well if he can find himself better company.