Kingfisher
by Zakiyah

Part Thirteen
And now you're rising
Now you're breathing
Now you're coming back to me

Veronica sat on a carefully-placed branch in the middle of a clearing close to the stream, calling for all she was worth. Every so often she shifted instinctively on the branch, only to stop as the combined irritation of her sore belly and the leather loop around her ankle reminded her of the reasons why that wasn't a good idea.

Here, Neddy-Neddy, she sang. Come on, Ned, I know you're out there somewhere. I hope. I'm here; where are you?

"I hope this works," Challenger whispered to Roxton from their hastily-constructed hunting blind, a few feet from where Veronica sat.

It'll work a lot better if you stop making noise, Challenger. I can hear you quite well, Veronica thought in exasperation.

"Sh," Roxton admonished briefly. In contrast to the anxious scientist, the hunter's voice was barely discernable despite the slight distance. "As I told you, it's an old hunting trick. It will work."

"I only hope this doesn't attract a predator first."

If a bird could roll its eyes, Veronica would have. You hope so? You're not the one sitting out in the open, tied to branch, with half your wing-feathers cut off! Still, she understood why the two men had taken the precaution of cutting the primaries on her left wing so she couldn't fly, and tying her to the branch so she couldn't run. Twice in the short time she'd been with them, Veronica had found herself falling back into the consciousness of the bird, reacting instinctively instead of thinking. Trusting her instincts was so innate, it took constant mental vigilance to resist the pull. If she should ever slip back, she'd be no match for the dangers of the jungle, not with her clipped wing and the missing feathers from her belly, torn out by the birdlime. And Challenger at least still thought she thought she was a bird. Roxton… I think he suspects, but he won't contradict Challenger without direct proof.

"That's why we have our guns out, George," Roxton tried to soothe the scientist's concern. "But we won't attract anything if we aren't absolutely silent. And still."

Good luck with that, Veronica thought, carefully keeping her mind occupied. As good as Challenger was in the laboratory, and as sensible as he could be when actual danger threatened, he was absolutely awful at patient waiting with nothing to do. He says it's because he's too smart to stay still, and because there's always too much to do and too little time to do it in. I think it's just that he can't keep his mind on a task if it's not actually in front of him. He needs a focus.

Speaking of focus, I'd better keep my mind on what I'm supposed to be doing! Annoyed with herself, Veronica kept up her calls. Ned, please, show yourself! I need you!

A familiar answering call momentarily froze Veronica on her branch. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the two men still as well, muscles tensing in hope and anticipation as their eyes searched for the source of the call. Seeing them reminded Veronica to keep calling. Ned? Ned, is that you? Answer me!

Another call brought Veronica's attention to a nearby tree. High up in its branches, she caught a glimpse of blue. Ned? Malone??? Her body trembled with hope.

The bird fluttered down a few branches, drawing nearer and cocking its head, obviously studying her. Not Ned, Veronica realized with a pang. At least, if that's Ned, I don't think he knows who he is. It sure doesn't look like he knows who I am.

Come on, pretty birdie, she sang. Come closer. Don't I look nice? Nothing to fear, just come on down… Please, Ned!

The male kingfisher warily jumped down to another branch. He had been drawn here by an instinct he didn't entirely understand, a pull that brought him back to the dangerous territory where he'd been attacked. As he approached the area he had recognized the calls of his mate. He'd called back, hoping to see her winging towards him, but she only continued to sing. Now he could see her sitting on a branch very near the ground. What was she doing? Why was she in such a dangerous place? Why didn't she join him in the safety of the treetops, come with him to fish in their stream?

A slight movement in the bushes near his mate caused the male kingfisher to chirrup in alarm. What was that? A predator? He sounded another warning. She should fly, she should not be there!

Oh no! Ned, don't be afraid! Please just come down here! Veronica did her best to project reassurance in her calls, but she could feel the other bird's instinctive fear resonating in her own bird form. Fighting for mental control, she misstepped and leaned too far backwards. She flailed wildly with both wings, trying to stay on the branch. The lopsided lift caused by her pinioned wing only worsened the problem. Unable to help herself and still maintain a grasp on thought, Veronica fell from the branch only to be jerked to a stop by the leather tie around her ankle just before she could hit the ground. She dangled there, squawking furiously, trying not to lose herself in the panic and disorientation.

"Good heavens!" Challenger exclaimed, instinctively rising to try and help the spinning, shrieking bird.

"George, no!" Roxton warned, trying to tug him back down even while keeping a sharp eye on the other kingfisher, maddeningly still just out of range of the birdlimed branches, and too far within the tree to be reached with a thrown net.

At the sight of the humans, the male kingfisher started to launch himself into the air. However, one word re-awoke a hint of memory. Staring down at the two men, Malone tried to claw his way back to rational thought even as the bird's instincts shrieked at him to flee.

George…?

The sound of the other bird's distress sent him dancing from leg to leg, but he managed not to fly away.

…Challenger? Roxton?

The scientist reached for his trapped, dangling mate, and the male kingfisher could not be restrained. He dove from the tree towards the threatening human even as Malone continued to struggle.

Why am I so high? Why…why am I not staying so high? Oh no! Frantically trying to stop the bird's beak-first plunge at Challenger's face, Malone forced his wings wide, turning his dive into a glide. A lucky angle of his wings sent him soaring away from the scientist and towards the cover of the nearby stream. As his panic subsided slightly, he finally realized the significance of the other bird tied to the branch.

"Damnit!" Leaping from cover, Roxton chased after the retreating bird, twirling his net overhead so he could throw it the moment he had a clear chance at the small, agile target.

Veronica! That's Veronica! If they've caught her, then they can help us - if they can catch ME! He tried slowing his speed and turning to fly back towards the men, only to encounter fierce resistance from the bird part of himself. The bird either wanted to flee or to attack; it certainly wasn't going to meekly fly back in the direction of those creatures threatening its mate and territory. Swerving wildly as the two natures and multiple impulses fought for dominance, Malone and the male kingfisher were equally surprised when they flew headfirst into a tree.

Still hanging upside-down, Veronica saw Malone crash into the tree just as two huge hands closed over her body. Ned!

Roxton saw the bird drop to the ground fifteen feet away from him, stunned - or worse - but he couldn't worry about that just yet. Seizing his opportunity, he flung his net. The circular force of his throw sent the weighted ends spiraling outward, spreading the mesh wide just as it should. The net landed perfectly over the downed bird.

"Did you get it?" Challenger asked distractedly. He had managed to grab the dangling kingfisher, but needed both hands to hang onto the frenzied bird.

"I think so. I just hope it's all right. That was quite the crash," Roxton answered, approaching the net with care. He carefully picked up the fallen kingfisher, net and all; the last thing they needed now was a repeat of Challenger's earlier experience. He could feel the soft feathers of the bird within the net, but the bird wasn't moving. "George, you'd better have a look at it."

Hearing this, Veronica forced herself to become still. Never mind me, Challenger. Make sure Malone's all right!

"Just a moment." Despite the sudden docility of the bird he held, Challenger wasn't taking any chances this time, either. He looked over into the blind where he and Roxton had lain hidden. Spotting the handle of the branch-and-cord birdcage they had built earlier, he managed to hook it with one foot and drag the cage to his side. The tether on the bird was just long enough to allow him to stuff the bird into the cage and close the door without having to untie the leather. Challenger only loosed the tether from the branch after he was sure the door was firmly secured. Even then he took the extra precaution of retying the tether to the frame of the cage.

Within the cage, Veronica cheeped impatiently. All right, all right. I'm not going anywhere! Go tend to Ned!

"There, there," Challenger responded to the bird. "Just you wait a few minutes, and then you'll have a friend to keep you company." Giving the cage one final check, he lifted it up and carried it with him over to where Roxton stood with the netted bird. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"It's not moving, George. I'm pretty sure it's not dead, but I can't really tell what might be wrong underneath all this cord." Roxton didn't dare check too thoroughly before they had the bird better secured.

"Good heavens." Challenger set down the cage with a thump, jarring Veronica off her feet. "Let me see…"

Veronica couldn't see much from within the confines of the birdcage. The branches were thickly woven together and carefully bound with a great deal of cord. The two men were obviously more worried about keeping their catches secure than about the birds' view of the outside world. Frustrated, Veronica hopped from one bar to another, trying to see Malone. Is he all right? Challenger, Roxton, say something!

"I don't see anything grossly wrong," Challenger said at last. "It's just a guess, but I think this little fellow just stunned himself, that's all."

"Thank goodness," Roxton sighed in relief, looking down at the limp, terribly fragile-looking bird he held in his hands. A bird that was almost certainly a friend. Unbidden, a smile quirked his lips. "In which case I think this must be Malone."

"What?" Challenger looked at Roxton in surprise, not immediately getting the joke. Then the scientist could not restrain a guffaw. "Oh! Quite so."

Poor Ned. That isn't funny, Veronica thought from within the cage.

"How long do you think it will be before he recovers?" Roxton asked, quickly becoming serious again. "Because while it's going to be easier to clip his wing while he's like this, I don't know if we can risk moving him much until he's up and about. Birds can be very delicate."

"True." Challenger hesitated, weighing factors in his mind, and then surprised his friend by saying, "But I think we should take that risk and start back to the temple right away."

While this exactly agreed with Roxton's personal wishes, he still couldn't help but wonder at Challenger's reasons. "Why's that, George? I certainly want to get back as soon as possible, but we don't want to risk Malone. Or Veronica, if this is actually her."

The scientist wracked his brains for a plausible reason that didn't involve mentioning his concern over Marguerite's possible condition, or his worries about the petition they needed to make at the temple. He knew Roxton must want to return to Marguerite as quickly as possible, but he also knew the hunter wouldn't knowingly do anything that might endanger his friends without a reason. He quickly came up with one. "I don't think it's that much of a risk to carry him in the cage, even if he's stunned. And it's already the afternoon of the fifth day, John. We've a long way to go. If we run into any delays on the trail…"

"…we might not make it back to the temple before the seventh day is up," Roxton finished for him. "I agree. As long as the risk to the bird isn't too great, let's get going as soon as we can. With any luck, we should be saying hello to Marguerite before sundown tomorrow." And I'll have kept my promise to her, he added in the privacy of his thoughts. I told Marguerite we'd be back within the seven days, and so we will. She'll see again that she can trust me, and that I trusted her and did what she said. Despite his satisfaction at that, he couldn't help the worry he felt at the memory of his last sight of her. Without the distraction of a hunt and the need to focus on a task, he could feel the anxiety tightening around his gut. He quickly turned to what needed to be done before they could set out for the temple. "Here, help me with this wing."

That's right, Veronica realized, listening to the men's conversation and searching her memory for any recollection of the dark-haired woman. Marguerite isn't here. I wonder where she is? Bird-senses told her something else, something she wouldn't necessarily have known as a human. Roxton's worried about her, but so is Challenger, even more than Roxton. He's afraid! Veronica sidled uneasily within the cage, disturbed. What happened to Marguerite?

*****

The oracular fire crackled quietly, an oddly homey sound for a magical fire that did not actually consume wood as fuel. As if in response to the sound, eyes opened and silver light blossomed into the cella. A frail figure half-raised her head from her reclining position on the temple bench.

"They are coming?" The voice was scarcely more than a whisper and crackled more than the flames.

"Yes, my dear," Arthur encouraged, leaning forward on his stool and putting aside his pipe. "They have both birds and are hurrying back to the temple."

"They will not get here today, but they will arrive before sunset tomorrow," Adrienne added quickly, nervously picking at one fold of her silk skirt.

"The male birdbrain might even be awake for it," he opined.

For a moment it seemed unclear if the figure had heard any of these words. Then she lurched unsteadily to her feet. "If they are coming, we had best prepare," she rasped. "There is much to do." Her blue chiton swayed around her ankles as she made her uncertain way towards the fire.

*****

The campfire settled, sending a stream of sparks upwards as the logs burned low. Roxton stopped whittling flat, thin strips from a branch long enough to look towards his friend. "It's getting late, George, and we'll want to set out at first light. You should get some rest. I'll wake you for your watch."

"Not just yet," Challenger shrugged off the suggestion, vaguely curious about why the hunter was carving and joining long thin strips of wood, but more interested in the problem in front of him. In the grips of his longest pair of forceps he held yet another of the insect specimens he'd collected before they'd encountered the Greek temple in the grip of his longest pair of forceps. The bug's legs waved wildly as he repeatedly dangled it into the kingfisher's cage, hoping to entice one of the birds into eating something. So far he'd had no success. "They haven't eaten a thing since their capture. With their accelerated metabolisms, even a day without food isn't a good idea."

Roxton grunted noncommittally, tugging his jacket a little more tightly around his torso. The unusually cool weather continued unabated. If I were Malone or Veronica, I wouldn't exactly be falling all over myself to munch one of your bugs, George, he reflected.

I'm not eating your specimens, Challenger, Veronica thought at nearly the same time. It's nice of you to offer them up, but no thank you. I think I can live with being hungry for a little while longer.

A half-mutter from the other bird claimed her attention. Malone, I hope you're in there, she worried. Although awake, his eyes were glazed and largely unaware. Desperately wishing she had hands, Veronica made the best of the situation and gently preened his bedraggled feathers with her beak. A moment later she was incredibly heartened when he voluntarily moved closer to her. That's it, Ned. Come back to me.

"At least the previously-stunned kingfisher appears more aware," Challenger continued. "And they've both drunk some of the water we put in their cage." With an effort, the scientist kept from wincing as that statement led to a fraught association of ideas.

"That's a good sign," Roxton pointed out. The desultory conversation wasn't much, but at least it provided a partial distraction from his ever-growing anxiety over Marguerite. It didn't make sense. They were well on their way back to her. This whole ordeal was almost over, so why couldn't he shake the feeling that she was in danger? She's in no more danger than she was to start, he rationalized to himself, trying to quell the panic he could sense deep inside. She had to stay, and I had to go. She said she'd be careful. We each did what had to be done. "We didn't have a choice," he muttered aloud.

"What's that, John?" The scientist looked inquiringly at his friend, ginger hair even ruddier in the firelight.

"Nothing, George. I'm just wishing this were all over already," Roxton sighed.

Compassion and understanding softened Challenger's features. "She'll be all right, John," he said soothingly if not veraciously. "As will Veronica and Malone. You'll see." Or so I hope.

Concluded in Part 14
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