The night was no longer thick with darkness, and the chill air had the feel of early morning, when the flapping and thrashing noise exploded atop the covered wagon's canvas roof. The noise jarred Chance out of some kind of pleasantly mournful dream, whose content vanished entirely, leaving only a feeling behind, the instant his eyes came open. His first conscious thought was: This time Mitra's made a really rough landing. Stupid damned owl. His second thought was: Something's seriously wrong.
In the next moment, all thinking was shocked into a temporary halt. A little more than a meter above his face, the canvas sagged alarmingly. The slender wooden hoops that held it above the wagon's body were giving way, as if the whole weight of some creature considerably heavier than a giant owl had suddenly been dumped aboard.
It was a rare event, though not unheard of, for the bird to come down on the wagon's top. Mitra's preferred and much more practical landing place was right at the front, on the narrow bench of the driver's seat, which was otherwise unoccupied at the predawn hour when the owl generally returned.
Chance called out: "Mitra?" His voice cracked in the middle of the word, as it sometimes did these days. By now he was sitting up straight, confusedly brushing dark hair out of his eyes. The movement had brought his head close to the inward-bulging fabric just above, and the slash that came next, as if in answer to his call, opening up tough canvas like so much gossamer, sounded deafeningly loud. He threw up his hands to shield his face.
First the bird's large predatory foot appeared, armed with razor claws. Next there droppedinto Chance's hand a diminutive object that felt like a loop of fine chain with one small, irregular lump attached. His fingers closed automatically on this unexpected offering, just as the owl's foot vanished. Its place in the opening was immediately taken by a monstrous face, totally strange and alien, looming within an arm's length of Chance's own. The sheer visual shock of the apparition knocked him flat, cringing on his back.
Two staring eyes, somewhat mismatched in size but each fully large enough to have been human, peered down into the wagon through the fresh gap in the canvas. They flanked a vaguely human nose, that no one could possibly mistake for the great bird Mitra's short but powerful hooked beak. The eyes now boring in at Chance seemed something either more or less than animal, and they were certainly all wrong for any bird. They glowed in a way that no owl's ever could.
Instinct sent Chance's wiry, fifteen-year-old body rolling sideways, trying to put space between him and the hideous vision. Even as the boy moved, the thin, curving, wood supports upholding the wagon's roof sprang back into place above him, affording no clue as to just what solid weight had so deformed them, or what had happened to suddenly relieve the pressure. The fresh gap in the overhead canvas, abruptly emptied of nightmare, showed only the grayish blankness of the predawn sky.
Horror had vanished, or at least retreated, but uproar continued. Chance's ears informed him that the noisy presence had already left the wagon's top, landing with an audible thump and wounded-sounding flutter somewhere on the nearby ground. The great bird was still uttering cries that were almost musical even in its terror.
Springing into a crouch, shoeless but clad in shirt and trousers, Chance tossed blankets aside, jumped to the canvas door flap and pulled it wide open. The huge owl, one of its long wings extended in a way that suggested injury, met him in the doorway. The bird was struggling to get in, to reach the safety of its sheltered nest inside the wagon even as Chance kept trying to get out.
"Mitra? What was it? Mitra?" The bulk of dark, puffed-out feathers magnified Mitra's apparent size to that of a large dog. The boy bent himself out of the way as best he could, the bird screaming tunefully in his ear as she squeezed by. If Mitra was trying to utter words in answer to his question, as he halfway expected she must be in this situation, he could not make them out.
Bursting out into the open air, he stepped over the narrow driver's bench and dropped lightly to the ground, frosty grass shocking his bare feet. Around him in the grayish predawn light, the compact campsite of the small caravan was so far showing no great signs of alarm. The other two wagons, and the row of soldiers' small tent shelters just beyond them, were dark and still. In the dimness Chance could see movement only at the doorway of the larger single tent nearby, the shelter of the military captain of the expedition--he was the only soldier with a shelter big enough to stand up in. Certainly there had been enough noise to begin to stir things up. Even the phlegmatic loadbeasts, night-hobbled beside the stream an easy stone's throw distant, had raised their heads alertly.
The small central fire had burned itself away to graying embers. Many days ago, before the caravan had even passed the first of several borders, Captain Horkos had thought it necessary for the camp to keep a fire going all night to ward off beasts of prey. But that routine precaution had gradually been abandoned. On the great plain over which they had been traveling for the last few days, large predators were rare to the point of nonexistence. And wood for fires was scarce; the only plentiful fuel was chips of the sun-dried dung of wild herdbeasts, and even that was often in short supply.
The single sentry currently on watch, a trooper uniformed in the colors of Sarasvati, was standing some thirty meters off, and beginning to take an interest in the proceedings. Like everyone else he was used to the bird's comings and goings, which sometimes tended to be noisy. Evidently the soldier had not seen anything wildly out of the ordinary, for his concern had not yet risen to the point where he would raise an alarm, and his short sword was still sheathed at his side.
None of the sentry's comrades were yet stirring from their places in the row of low shelter tents and blankets, though they would soon be out and about. At first light, one of the privates in the military escort routinely began to build up the central campfire, with the intention of brewing tea and cooking breakfast.
Hastily Chance made his way around the wagon, looking carefully under the vehicle and in all directions. He could see no sign anywhere of any intruding bird or person, no trace of any more exotic creature that might have landed weightily on the wagon's top, then ripped it open--of course the big owl's formidable beak or talons could have accomplished that. In any case, the owner of that ghastly face had disappeared.
As completely as if it had been a vision, or a dream....Chance had been deceived by dreams before, though he had never experienced one as sharply detailed and realistic as this. Dreaming was part of an ancient family tradition, considered by some to be a curse.
A vague awareness that his left fist was still clenched reminded him of the object dropped into his hand. Looking down stupidly at his closed fingers, Chance for the first time became fully aware of a tingling in that palm, a sensation that was already fading. It continued to do so as he turned over his hand and opened it, to reveal...
Nothing. It was as if whatever the owl had given him had dissolved into the air, or somehow melted into his skin. Of course, he must have let it fall somewhere.
In a moment he realized that at least one bit of solid evidence of the visitation was still in sight. It appeared that someone--or something--might have been using a net to try to catch the owl, because there was an abandoned net, of a size that might have snared a big bird. One end of it was caught somehow atop the wagon, from which modest height it hung down like coarse lace drapery along one curving bulge of canvas.
Chance grabbed quickly at the net, his mind working on some half-formed impulse to prevent this second bit of evidence from disappearing. The small mass of coarse mesh easily pulled free from the wagon and he began to look it over. He had barely started to do this when he caught sight of Jervase, the Scholar, leader of the expedition, emerging from his private wagon. A few paces away, Horkos, commander of the cavalry escort, was stepping out of his own wagon, a luxury to which his military rank entitled him. In a moment the pair of them had reached Chance's side.
Horkos had his sword in hand, but Jervase had not bothered to bring his along. The Scholar was half a head taller than Chance, and approximately twice his age. His brown hair and beard had been kept neatly trimmed despite the inconveniences of camp life. Moving at his usual brisk pace, his lean, half-clad body blanket-wrapped in the frosty dawn, Jervase was first to reach the boy.
"What have you got there?" the man demanded in his precisely articulated voice, staring at the net. Then, more urgently: "What's happened to the owl?"
Chance was shaking his head, still trying to clear his mind. He wanted to stop and think before he got into a discussion of the vision of that ghastly face. All he said was: "Strange things are going on. I think the bird is hurt." The fingers of his left hand, which remained empty, were opening and closing as if of their own accord.
Meanwhile, Mitra had disappeared into the familiar haven of her nest, from which invisible source there drifted out a fluttering, hooting uproar. Jervase reacted with alarm to the news about the owl, and moved at once to follow Mitra into the wagon. Captain Horkos, about the same age as Jervase, stocky yet nimble, had already sheathed his sword and turned aside to begin questioning the sentry, who had moved closer.
In a moment Chance had joined the Scholar under the canvas top, where the boy immediately began to soothe the injured bird, while Jervase tried to inspect her wing.
Mitra's hooked beak opened, her small tongue vibrated, and she garbled words at Chance, recognizable sounds mixed in with other noises that might or might not have been crafted to carry meaning. Judging by his many past attempts to gain useful information from the owl, Chance thought it unlikely that Mitra would ever give anyone a coherent explanation of what had just happened. Certainly they weren't going to get one while she was still excited.
Jervase had given up trying to inspect the wing, his efforts simply driving the owl deeper into a panic. Now he crouched under the low wagon top making awkward little motions with both hands, as if determined to do something useful but not sure just what it ought to be. Chance was actually more experienced in caring for the bird; he had been acting as its chief caretaker for almost a month, not at all the way he had expected to spend his days when they were setting out from home. His official title on the expedition was the vague one of special assistant to Jervase. In practice this had turned out to mean spending a great deal of time keeping the bird company whenever the Scholar himself was absent--which was coming to be a greater and greater portion of every day and night. Among other things, Jervase thought it important that someone should write down everything that Mitra said--or seemed to say.
Captain Horkos had rejoined them, having concluded his brief talk with the sentry, and three humans were now inside the wagon, whose whole interior was not much bigger than a good-sized double bed. Though it had never contained more than the one bird, and was aired out every night while the owl was absent, its interior atmosphere assailed the nose with the spicy mustiness of a coop heavily populated with barnyard fowl.
All three of the current human occupants were long used to the stink, and none were paying it any attention. The Scholar was scowling up at the ripped canvas. "What happened here? Mitra did that?"
"Yes, I believe she did." Having got that far, Chance hesitated, clearing his throat; he wanted to give his report calmly, so the leaders of the expedition would not think he had been dreaming, or had gone mad.
But the proper moment had not yet come--the Scholar was fussing with the owl again. One of the bird's wings did seem to be hurt, and it appeared unlikely that the owl was going to be flying for at least a few days.
The door flap of canvas moved again, and another human head intruded, this one's dark hair styled distinctively above a middle-aged woman's sweet, still pretty face. Her usual air was one of purposeful competence.
The enchantress Ayaba spent the nights sleeping or working in her own private wagon. Most of her daylight hours were also spent under its painted canvas, from which she emerged at intervals to pass on to the Scholar or the captain information or suggestions she had received from her unseen powers.
Now she, the Scholar, and the military commander were all demanding to know what was going on. "My Lord," was how the Lady Ayaba, being something of a stickler for formality, addressed Chance in her soft and pleasant voice.
"Lady Ayaba." Chance answered politely, with a nod that had in it something of a bow; women of her profession were generally given that title by courtesy, regardless of what rank or lack of rank might be their due because of family connections or lack thereof.
In odd corners of the wagon, and under the nest of old blankets, were a few small bones. Mitra had now and then brought home a small mammal or reptile of modest size for her own dinner. Big owls were a rare, exotic species, and of their number only a few possessed the power of speech. Mitra was one of these, but rarely spoke, and never when excited.
The quivering bird was silent. Chance thought she was not only in pain, but terrified.
When a moment came in which no one else had anything to say, he offered: "I think I know what scared her."
People gave Chance their attention, and he ran through his story. The tale was very short, but he was sure that he would have to go over it several more times.
"Then I thought Mitra dropped something into my hand," he concluded, holding it out palm up. As he spoke he flexed the fingers yet again; by this time all trace of the tingling sensation had also disappeared.
The lady was studying him keenly. "Dropped something? You mean deliberately?"
"I thought so."
"What did she give you, Lord Chance?"
The young lord spread his eight fingers and two thumbs. "I don't know. It felt like--like a small chain. With some object f-fastened to it. Like..."
"Like an amulet or locket?"
"But you say that it then vanished."
The bird's eyes were shielded with a soft hood and the enchantress furnished a light--it appeared in the form of a small, half-animate, darting thing; a minor servant of the Lady Ayaba, coming and going at her bidding. The people in the wagon searched the floor minutely, but they found nothing remotely resembling Chance's description among the odd bits and fragments that might be expected in any living space used by a large bird and several people.
Lady Ayaba produced from somewhere a short wand, with which she conducted a brief magical survey of the young lord's person and the wagon's whole interior. The curious stone set in her thumb ring flashed. Soon she put her wand away, signing that she had discovered nothing.
Her voice was calm and reassuring, and she spoke to Chance as if to a child. "I don't think it could have been of much importance, whatever it was the owl dropped into your hand."
But I wasn't dreaming it. While his audience was still making a desultory attempt to scan the wagon's floor, Chance tried to explain what had happened. "I'm certain there was someone--or something--else on top of the wagon with the bird. For just a moment, when it landed. I saw an odd..." He stalled again.
Jervase was brisk, though patient, determined to be thorough. "An odd what?"
"Face. Very odd."
For a moment all three of Chance's listeners stared at him in silence. He could plainly hear the chorus of unspoken comment: Having nightmares again, are we?
The enchantress ducked outside, murmuring that she wished to look around.
It was the captain who offered the first spoken observation. "This whole business doesn't make any sense, young sir. Not the way you're telling it. Bird's not going to be able to pick up a human being, even a small child, and carry him home like a rabbit." The captain himself had once held a considerably higher position, in civilian life, before a certain event had happened to bring about a sharp demotion. Chance didn't know the precise nature of the catastrophe, and had no particular desire to find out.
Horkos still tended to slide into an easy informality with people who were nominally well above his current rank, as for example young Chance Rolfson, who was not only a member of an ancient and illustrious family, but the lineal descendant of Rolf himself. That was quite all right with Chance, who did not care much for formality under any conditions, and ceremony of any kind seemed definitely out of place while camping in the wilderness.
"No, of course not," Chance agreed. He was shaking his head before the captain was halfway through with his objection. At the same time, Chance was insisting stubbornly, in his own mind: Someone, or something as heavy as a man, was really up there.
There would be no use in trying to argue the point. "I didn't say the bird was carrying anyone. And I don't suppose the...the thing, the person, whatever it was...carried the bird home either. But something besides the owl was up there." And Chance jerked a thumb toward the overhead.
Judging from the expressions on the faces of his audience, he was perfectly sure that none of them believed him.
"Truly, I wasn't dreaming," he added finally. "Some of you must have heard the noise."
The enchantress, Ayaba, remaining properly formal, rejoined them inside the wagon carrying the net, which she had just picked up outside. Favoring Chance with an intense gaze as she made her way completely inside, she studied the interior of the wagon, half of the small space occupied by the bird's nest, the other half strewn with the modest litter of Chance's personal belongings.
Presently she declared that whatever might have happened, no particular magic seemed to have been involved.
Her small, capable fingers stretched out the net to allow everyone a good look at it. She said: "The bird must have become entangled in this somewhere, and that threw her into a panic. She dragged the net with her, and she was home before she could get free of it."
The three who heard Chance's description of the monstrous intruding face all attributed it to his somewhat overactive imagination--somehow they connected that with sleepwalking, which had afflicted him a couple of times earlier in the journey. From early childhood he had had a tendency to vivid and often frightening dreams.
Still, there was the hole slashed in the canvas. And the strange net, which resembled no piece of equipment that the expedition had ever carried.
Eventually the three leaders were able to agree on what seemed to them a plausible explanation:
The lady summed it up: "The net must have been set in a tree somewhere, as a snare, by someone who was trying to catch another kind of bird--or some kind of flying creature.
"Somehow Mitra accidentally became entangled in the mesh, but managed to tear herself out of the tree and fly home. She was in a panic, flying almost out of control, and landed atop the wagon instead of on the driver's seat as usual. Then she clawed open the wagon top before she could get free of the net."
Her colleagues' heads nodded in agreement. All members of this company had at some time taken a good look at Mitra's talons, which were not only sharply pointed, but razor-edged for half their considerable length. Chance could see that the three leaders were ready to find this explanation satisfying. He was not convinced, but it seemed pointless to argue, unless he could come up with some new evidence. This time he knew what he had seen.
Tying on his shoes, he climbed out of the wagon again and looked around. Daylight was growing, though the sun had not yet actually made it over the horizon, and the camp was peaceful in the morning light. A loadbeast made a lowing sound. The sergeant hovered in the background, waiting calmly for the day's orders. The rest of the men of the escort, by now all thoroughly awake, were grumbling and murmuring their way into the routines of breakfast.
Copyright © 2006 by Fred Saberhagen