The wadi was a half day's journey
south of the dry river and would soon be part of that watershed as
the fall rains swept north. The whole valley was full of
stalegrass and saltgrass and it was hard to keep their birds from
snatching mouthfuls all the way to the verge. Dag pulled her mucky
veils around herself and watched as the new flock spread out in the
shade all along the bottom of the cliff edge. They'd set up camp and wait for His
Radiance to come with the refugees from Nadumon and the Milari relief
force which would be coming across the dry river... just before it
flooded and became impassable. The Milar would have to come down
to the choke-point and cross on one of the Lainz bridges if they
wanted to pass at all... or they could stay on Lainz land until the
rains passed and the winter set in; and that would provide itself
with a whole different set of problems. Silly spit out his silk band and
croaked at her, tipping his head straight back to beg for a scratch.
She reached to rub around the edge of his beak. Something...
something wasn't right.
This valley was in the badlands,
surrounded by desert and rocky outcroppings where very little grew at
all. It was south of the river, south of where the Nadu had lived,
but not on the verge. Zazu, Harsha, and Nanatoya had scouted ahead
and they'd spooked two wild flocks of birds, scarlets and purple
dusters, driving them down the valley away from the waterhole, into
the standing clumps of blooming eyebleed and the thorny bloodburst. There were asparagus trees all
around waterhole and down the lowest parts of the valley where there
was underground water, the feathery green fronds full of spike mice.
Za...” Dag paused. “Did
you see any waxer dog sign?”
Zazu shook her head. “Not a
yellow turd in sight. I want to get into the shade and off my bird.”
She was a dozen metres away when
the roars came out of the bloodburst thicket. And the warbirds
shrieked and shied sideways, downslope and into the sun. Not just
one but three striped gray shapes burst out of the shadow.
Gray tigers, almost as tall as
the warbirds at the shoulder, tooth-filled maws open and spread wide
enough to engulf Dag's torso, clawed paws spread wide. Zazu was
screaming, half off her bird. Dag ducked, veil twisted, grabbing for
her long knife, feathers in her face as the lead tiger leaped high,
aiming for Silly's neck.
The young warbird screeched and
snatched the tiger out of the air with its beak, re-directing the
pounce, smashed the tiger onto the ground in front of him. The tiger
reached one paw, claws spread and Silly stamped on it. Then Dag clung with all her strength
to her saddle with both hands and her legs as her warbird jumped into
the air, pounding the tiger into grey-furred slush against the
hard-packed dirt. Racer, another of the flock, with empty saddle
shouldered in to help and though the tiger squalled once more, it
never managed to get up again, blood and feces splashing.
When Silly and Racer finally
stopped and began picking at the bloody mess on the sand, Dag finally
managed to unclamp her hands from her saddlepad and spit out her veil
to see two other clusters of warbirds, gulping down chunks of the other tigers.
Oh,” was all she managed to
say. She'd dropped her knife to stick in the sand and Zazu sat on a
rock, clutching one wrist. Other girls who hadn't managed to cling
to their saddles also stood, or sat near where they'd been thrown.
The Director had someone
checking the cliff-shade for more predators outside their normal
range, and drew the uninvolved flock into the shade of a tree, until
the excited warbirds could be calmed down. “Thank you, Silly
bird.” He didn't stop eating, but rolled one red eye back to look
at her and squawked with a full beak.