By Martin Lambert Edited by Paige Busby
Cinioch came to me highly recommended. He was a hunter late of a destroyed clan of Hallenck from this area and was willing to work as a guide. He was a slim man, just a finger length over five feet in height. Like most Hallenck, he was covered in piercings, small carvings of bone pushed through his cheeks, nose, eyebrows and ears. Most were animal figures, like the blue woad tattoos that covered the parts of his face, neck and hands that I could see. His tan leathers covered all the rest. His brilliant green eyes were a shocking contrast to his copper face and wild windblown black hair. He looked up at me as I explained the purpose of the expedition and just grunted. He stared for a moment, making it a bit uncomfortable for a civilized woman if I am honest. This was my first time leading an expedition though I had been on a couple as a scribe and junior naturalist. We were to gather information for The Naturalist’s Guild on the sinopteryx, a large avian hunter of the endless plains of the Golden Sea. I had grown up in the salons and soirees of high society in the trade cities of the Great River Region and wasn’t used to the more savage areas. If I was to be a fellow of the Naturalist’s Guild, this was part of the job - bringing back lore from even the most barbaric or dangerous areas to the masters and also to our patrons. It came with the territory, and I was fit enough and even dressed for the part.
“Mmmmm, aye. I’ll find ye birds. They aren’t rare in the grasslands.” His voice was deeper than one would expect for someone so small.
“Yes, very good. We’ll leave in the morning. Do you have your own supplies?” I asked. He grunted again and nodded. This probably wouldn’t be a trip filled with scintillating conversation.
Days later we were in the heart of the grasslands several leagues from the nearest road or trail. Cinioch had found several feathers hanging onto the grasses. Most were white, bushy spines and only sharp eyes would pick them out in the blowing grasses where they blended so well. Many of the grasses were close to my own height which is just a hand under six feet, I could see above them but just barely. Beneath a copse of trees, we came upon some depressions scraped into the ground and filled with shed feathers, offal and feces. Surrounding the dirt pits were huge footprints which seemed to be formed by the long feet of the avians. The three front facing toes with their long scimitar claws made distinctive marks in the ground. The sinopteryx are known for digging offal pits a few hundred yards from their nests. They should be close now.
We had a goat staked out in a clearing near one of the mess holes as bait. It was bleating and tugging on the rope as we hid under one of the rare trees. Cinioch laid his spear in front of him, and I was armed with my journal and quill. We stayed as still as possible for some time watching the goat struggle, the grass blow in the breeze and the sun crawling across the sky. Finally, a throaty trill came from the grasses to our left. The goat went wild, bucking and moaning. Another trill, much louder, came from straight ahead. The tall grasses at the edge of the clearing seemed to explode and revealed a ten foot tall avian sprinting towards the goat. The huge bird kicked at the poor creature and laid open its belly in one long slash from the razor edged spur on the back of its foot. The goat bleated weakly and collapsed, kicking at its tormentor and shaking its horned head. The sinopteryx leaned down with its serpentine neck and snipped the billy’s head off using its curved beak like a pair of scissors. It trilled again, much louder and longer, almost like a high pitched yodel. Then it dipped its long neck down to its kill and began biting off chunks, throwing its head up and shaking it to swallowing them whole. The baggy skin under its beak called the crop began to expand with stored meat. I scribbled my observations to make sure all the information was captured for my report.
That earlier trill from the left sounded again. Another of the huge birds slowly emerged from the tall grasses around its lean body, both short wings spread wide as if in challenge. The length of the tail feathers and height of the feathers on top of the head marked them both as males. The first one lifted grass green eyes from the poor goat and spat up the meat it had swallowed with a choking cough. I continued to write down every detail. This could be a territory battle between rival pack leaders!
The two pranced towards each other, stepping high and moving slowly. The crests of feathers across their heads stood straight up, and the fan of feathers on their tail spread wide almost like a peacock. They both started making a harsh coughing sound, and each time they did, their heads dipped and raised back to full height. It looked like a stylized dance. Cinioch slithered closer to his spear. I tapped his shoulder and indicated he should stay still. He gritted his teeth and shook his head slightly and pursed his lips as if to speak but got lower in the grasses where we were hiding.
Smaller sinopteryx were emerging from the grasses. There were at least ten, though it was difficult to keep count since they weren’t coming completely into sight and blended in so well. It appeared both packs had assembled and were watching the dance battle between the males. Those that had gathered seemed to be females based on their smaller size and more golden colored feathers. They all started making a strange zoothing sound, almost like the noise made by softly blowing through a harmonica.
The males continued to pose and cough at each other for several minutes while the females kept making the odd noise. Both males were on one foot and stretched out their neck, making a rasping buzz and never taking their huge round eyes from one another. They stood still for a long, tense moment. Finally, with some signal I couldn’t perceive, they squawked and rushed at each other. They slashed with the spurs on their spring loaded feet and leaped impossible heights into the air. Their little vestigial wings flapped uselessly and their serrated beaks clashed against each other. Bloody feathers covered the small clearing.
The females of the pack squawked and hopped around excitedly. I had completely lost count of them, and a few were within easy arm’s reach of our hiding spot. Fortunately, they weren’t looking at anything other than the battle over the goat carcass. Cinioch slowly spread some grasses he had picked over us as minimal cover. I blew a piece out of my face and continued writing.
Both males were in bad shape now, weaving and dodging a bit more slowly. The one that killed the goat, recognizable because of the fur and blood on the sides of his long neck, finally got a deep slash in with his left spur. The intruder fell to his knees with a low trill. The now dominant male turned his back to the other and scraped dirt on him with both feet and cawed loudly. The dominant male’s females all gathered around the goat carcass and began to feed while those who had been in the pack with the defeated male gathered around the victor and licked his injuries with their raspy tongues.
After a few minutes the defeated male got weakly to his feet and wandered off through the grasses alone.
Cinioch began to slide backwards and indicated I should do the same. We had plenty of information, so I agreed to the retreat. It was painstaking trying not to attract the attention of the dozen gigantic predators nearby. My heart was pounding with excitement. We had recorded a territory battle between sinopteryx packs - far more than expected from this trip.
In short the birds of a feather all battle together when they meet.
Lisel Stormscribe – Journeyman member of Thunder Falls Naturalist Guild.