The Green Ladies: Part 9-The Argentavis
Hello, everyone! Thanks to all those who have been reading. At this point, this chapter is halfway through the work, and I'm reluctant to post any more on ABCTales to preserve some copyright security. So, this will be the last part I'll post from the first installment.
If anyone wants to finish the story, I managed to get the thing published on Amazon, I have the link posted on my profile. Thanks again to all, and I hope you enjoy!
The smell of open air was the first thing he awoke to. That, and the sound of rushing water.
He was in a cage, just barely big enough to allow him sitting space. He blinked and his eyes cleared. He first found that his guns and knife were missing. No surprise there. His eyes then went to his cage.
The cage was made of faded, rotting wood that made both the bottom and top. Black cords connected the thing to the bars that held him in. Bars that, as Hawthorn looked closer, were made of bone. Hawthorn crawled forward as much as he could.
The cage itself was suspended by a cracked and scraggly rope over a narrow gorge that yawned deeply below him. Several other cages, some intact, but most ripped and mauled to absolute shreds, also dangled from the rope. He could make out the river, its foaming waters storming in white masses. Above him, casting a narrow shadow, was singular mesa peak that resembled a sharp needle.
Hawthorn knew where he was now.
“Enjoying the view?”
Hawthorn looked up at the cliff-side. Gordonson was standing there with about a dozen more men.
Hawthorn cursed the colonel under his breath. “Yeah. Why don’t you come down here and join me? I saved a spot for you under my boot here.”
Gordonson laughed. “Always the clever one, Hawthorn. But in this case that sharp mouth of yours finally bit off more than it could chew.” The colonel pointed a gloved finger to the peak ahead.
“With a knowledge of the Wilds as prolific as yours, Brute Killer, I expect you know what that peak is over yonder?”
“I do,” Hawthorn growled.
He spoke with his hands on his hips, his chest puffing out like a rooster’s. “Then I hope you feel honored. The Neotok think of the mighty Argentavis as a god. Before we drove them from this cursed strip of barren earth, they’d take prisoners, slaves, hell, even their own chief’s kids and leave him here in these cages to be fed to that monster. They thought the thing was the guardian of the river, and by sacrificing to him they’d ensure a most bountiful harvest.”
“Funny, I never took you for a man of religion, Gordonson,” Hawthorn said.
“Well, I am today, Hawthorn. I hope you enjoy becoming sanctified.” He laughed, and his men joined him. They turned to walk away, but Gordonson stopped one final time. “Oh, and don’t worry about that bounty on Dance’s head. I’ll be sure to make good on it. The Army could always use a few more spare funds, what with those policies swimming in the Senate now…” The colonel went to grumbling and walked away. Soon, he and the soldiers were gone.
They left him to the wind and water. Hawthorn looked down again at the rushing river, then at the jagged walls of dusty orange rock that flanked both his sides. The drop wouldn’t kill him, but it sure would make him sore. And the cliffs. Maybe if he could break from the cage, he could shimmy across on the rope to the cliffs. But the rope looked on the point of busting already.
Hawthorn thought. One thing was for certain. If he didn’t get out of the cage soon, that damned Agentavis would show…
Suddenly a horrid, sharp screech echoed across the gorge with the force of thunder. The sound grated its way through Hawthorn’s ears, which made him clasp his hands as close to his head as possible. A dark shape had taken form high in the sky, streaking black across the sun’s gold face. It flew far past the horizon, vanishing in the blue. At that distance, it had appeared no larger than the average eagle.
Hawthorn knew better.
He grabbed the bone bars of the cage and pulled. The bones were old, grimy and dusty, but still strong. He gritted his teeth, the teeth of his necklace jingling, the fang from his ear shaking, and the snake tattoos shining. He pulled, and pulled, straining his muscles. The cords were like iron.
He gave up with his hands.
“Alright,” he gasped. He decided to try another approach. He scooted back as far in the box-like cag as his tall body would allow. He brought his legs in, and kicked. The bottoms of his black, snakeskin boots slammed hard against the bones, the spurs grating across the old wood.
Nothing. The bones still held. He cursed and tried again. Still nothing. He decided not to curse and tried again.
A crack. The bone splintered a bit. He uttered an excited laugh and kicked again. And again.
Two bars of the bone cage snapped, leaving sharp remains behind. It wasn’t a hole big enough for him to crawl out of, and it had made the thing rock on the rope. Hawthorn crawled forward. He grabbed one of the bits of bone he’d broken, his strikes having reduced it to a sharp spike. He yanked it free from the cords. He took his positon again and was ready to kick. He looked at the sky.
No sign of the bird.
He sighed with relief. Maybe the thing decided to eat something else’s flesh. He hoped it had. He kicked again, managing to snap another bar off and shake the thing mightily when a gust of wind suddenly slammed the cage, making it rock worse. Hawthorn grabbed the insides of the cage, thinking he heard something snap.
Then things darkened. A shadow passed over him, blotting out the sun completely and stretching over the cliffs, bleeding down their sides. For a sheer moment, everything was shrouded in that shadow. Then the light reached in again.
Hawthorn had gone still. Now, he crept up and peeked out the breach in the cage. The sky was clear and blue. Nothing.
He went back to his position.
Then a claw, as big as his arm, pierced the cage’s top. Hawthorn went to his back, his legs pinned against the walls, boots up against the roof where the claw wasn’t. Another claw wrapped around the cage’s outside, covering every inch of opening. The cage had stopped rocking, held still by the big bird’s grip. A foul stench descended like a cloud, burning Hawthorn’s eyes.
Then an eye looked into the cage. It was blood red, the sclera white as bone, and the pupil black. A black point in white nothing, surrounded by pale, pinkish flesh.
Hawthorn gripped the bone shard tight.
Then the cage was torn. Shards of bone and wood clogged the air and exploded through the confined space. Hawthorn’s vision went blurry, obscured by debris. Splinters scratched his arms and face in a storm of shrapnel. He covered his eyes. The cage’s bottom gave out. He fell.
The world spun and cascaded around him, all going too fast in a whirling
blur. He caught sight of something coming at him. A big talon. It grabbed for his legs. Hawthorn, still in control of his freefall, twisted out of the talon’s clutch just in time. Then he reached forward, a bit blindly, and caught onto the rearmost talon.
The Argentavis released its scream again.
Most would be able to tell why the Neotok thought of the bird as a god. It was easily the size of an engorged barn. Its tremendous wings nearly spanned the width of the canyon. Its feathers were blacker than night, and its ancient, vulture-like head was colored a bloody pink and covered with flaps of bulgy flesh that dangled from its neck and temples like sacks. It craned its long neck high into the sky and screeched again, its pale beak opened wide. Hawthorn briefly wondered how many carcasses had been consumed in its big belly. But only briefly.
He had the bone shard in his hand. He reached up and stabbed the shard into the giant bird’s leg. The bird’s flesh was a lot harder than he anticipated. But the bone shard stuck nonetheless. The Argentavis screeched, its body shuddered from the sudden prick.
He reached up with his free hand and clutched a tuft of feathers.
The Argentavis was getting violent now. Its long, pink and bald vulture head looked down at him. It started shaking its leg. Hawthorn held on for dear life. His head spun, his vision jostling as the Argentavis tried to shake him off, rattling his insides.
“Alright, you overgrown buzzard…”
He braced his boots against the bird’s toes and launched himself up. He was under the bird’s massive wing now, the wind whipping his hair. Hawthorn turned in time to see the big beak coming at him. Hawthorn let go of the feathers, making it
out of the way by the skin of his teeth. The beak with its rough and stinking surface grazed his face.
For a moment, Hawthorn was in free fall again. He quickly grabbed hold of the beak. The neck swung back, again trying to detach him. Hawthorn grunted, cursed. He was lying flat on his chest on top of the beak. The bird’s white and red eyes stared him, big as ponds. He still had the bone shard.
The Argentavis opened its mouth for another screech. Again, the world went right on its end. Hawthorn gritted his teeth as the blood rushed to his head, then his face.
He was getting tired of this. He let go of the beak and let himself slide over the rough surface. The Argentavis’s face rushed up to him. He got the bone shard ready. He came face to face with the bird’s right eye. It glistened coldly like a still pond. He jabbed the bone right into it.
Now the bird really screamed.
Hawthorn stayed lodged on the beak, letting the gore from the pierced eye ooze over his arm. He dug the bone shard in as hard and far as he could. The Argentavis’s giant head shook like a snake’s rattler. Hawthorn was getting dizzy, but he held on.
The Argentavis’s flight went wild. Hawthorn flattened himself against the bird’s beak as much as possible to avoid being cut in half by a sharp cliff-edge. They struck something. Hawthorn’s whole body jarred and shook.
The bird had crashed into the side of the gorge with a harsh crack that echoed off the rocky walls. Its head snapped backed and a big gash had nearly rent its
skull in two. The bird fell. The water rushed up to them, its roaring filling all space. Hawthorn let go of the shard and fell with the Argentavis.
He slammed into the water. The impact stunned him for a moment, along with the sudden burst of cool water soaking him to the skin. The Argentavis crashed at the same time. Its impact sent a pluming explosion of glittering water high into the air, along with an instant tidal wave that sent Hawthorn hurtling down the river. He rolled and spun under the water like a barrel of apples, trying hard to keep water from flooding his lungs. Things went by at blurring speed. He finally managed to break the river’s foamy surface and catch a breath. He choked and sputtered.
He turned around to see the Argentavis’s body coming fast at him. He took a quick breath and dove again, narrowly missing one of its limp wings sweeping him up. The water went dark as night as the enormous carcass tumbled over him with a muffled rumble. As soon as the sun shone through the water again, he dove upward.
He was out of the gorge. Hilly, rocky land appeared around him. He made a course for the sandy bank. A lone dogwood stood there, its branches groping out over the water from between some rocks. Hawthorn, struggling against the current, grabbed hold of a branch from the crooked tree. He hauled himself onto the bank, then fell on his back into the soft dirt. He drank the air.
He turned his face and looked at the glittering waters in the noon sun. The Argentavis’s dead body rolled on by, carried by the water like the hands that carried a corpse to its coffin. There was something almost peaceful in it. Grotesquely peaceful. He sighed and looked away, thinking about how he had just killed a god.