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BlackEagle Girls
The Sacred Secret

Chapter 16 - Skewered

The light was starting to fade as the group ventured into the heights of the Ironbound Ranges, heading along a rocky coastline. Within half an hour they were struggling over the stony slopes, climbing higher into a biting wind.

'It will soon be dark,' said Fon Jien, looking at the sky, 'and we will have need to find a place to rest, ah! Look here!'
The group gathered around him as he bent and carefully picked up a sodden cigarette butt. 'This is not weathered, only recently discarded, and since neither of your fathers are victims of this disgusting habit, I presume it to be from their pursuers. If that is so, it would appear that they, like we, have come from the same direction and are driving your fathers before them.'

'Please, over here!' said Tsuang Tsu, pointing at another object. It was a crumpled beer can and there were several more butts and a crushed cola can nearby.

'I shall collect them,' said Fon Jien, producing a plastic bag from his pack, 'it is sacrilege to litter such pristine areas as these, even though we are so far away from the tourist track that it would be unlikely for anybody to ever stumble upon this refuse. Yet since we have halted, here is where I believe we should make camp for the night... '

'But Monique's Dad and my Dad are out there somewhere!' exclaimed Priscilla. 'We can't just stop searching! We've got these night-sight goggles, can't we... ' she was interrupted by the sound of a single  sharp report that echoed along the cliffs before fading into silence.

'That was a gunshot,' said Fon Jien, peering in the direction of the sound through the coming darkness. 'I think Priscilla is right. Best we use these goggles and go forward in single file. I will lead, follow in my footsteps and do not deviate from them. Keep conversation to a minimum, so that we can hear as clearly as possible.'

The going was slow and arduous as the little group found their way over rough terrain, picking a path toward the sound that had alerted them of people somewhere ahead. The black night, illuminated by starlight and the last vestige of the waning moon was all that any ordinary traveller could possibly navigate by, yet with the aid of the night-site goggles, the company made better time and at last saw a faint beacon, glimmering in the distance.
'Now we need approach with utmost caution,' said Fon Jien, 'for we do not know who or what lies before us. Therefore shall we go forward with ears and eyes alert.'

'... I still reckon it was one of 'em. Who else 'ud be crazy enough to be out 'ere in tha middle of nowhere?'
A man's harsh voice came out of the darkness as the group closed to within ten meters. With the aid of their goggles they could see the outline of two figures, one crouching by the shielded glow of a fuel lamp, that was the only illumination, the other standing, with what looked like a rifle in his hand.

'Maybe, or it mighta been a wild animal or a bird, ferrel pig... Or a tiger, yeah Shorty, what about a tiger?'

The man called Shorty, who was in fact as tall as Matthew Black, tipped a can to his mouth and took a long guzzle before replying. 'You goin' stupid in yer old age? All that talk about tigers is just for the tourists, gets 'em in. Tassie tigers haven't been around since before you was born. And yeah I know,' he held up his can to silence the next comment from his companion, 'there's always somebody that says they've seen one or found some tracks or had a beer with one, but that's all just garbage. Anyhow, if they was still around and I happened to pot one in the dark, so what?'

The squatting man said, 'Yeah, well anyway I don't reckon it's a good idea to start shooting at things at night, ya might really hit one of those blokes instead of just scaring 'em off. I mean ta say, we've chased 'em all this way, maybe, come the mornin' we should make tracks back to the Stand.'

'Ya think so, do ya Tommy?' said the one called Shorty, leaning his rifle against a backpack of some kind and crushing the can with his other hand before heaving it to within a few paces of the group. 'Yeah, yer could be right at that. Gotta get back ta good old hidden valley and get on with knockin' down those Huons before anyone else comes stumblin' over our little doin's. After all, I s'pose we're the last Piners left around now, and we better get what's goin' before any one's the wiser.'

Tommy coughed nervously. 'So we'll make a start back in the mornin' ? Rich will be wonderin' about us. I mean not that we'd get ourselves inta trouble, just like, bein' gone an' all, slows things down a bit... '

'An' we don't want that now, do we Tommy? After all, it's taken a long time ta get this operation set. We wouldn't want ta have Richo worryin' about us when we're on target for Christmas day.' Shorty reached down and fumbled in the pack. 'Sure ya don't want a beer Tommy? Still a few left.'

'Ah, no... No thanks Shorty. I thought I might do us some beans to have with the tinned ham. Ya gonna get the tent set up?'

'Yeah, in a minute,' said Shorty. There was an audible click as he pulled the ring on the beer can, and Tommy appeared to wince. 'Mind you, Christmas day's a long ways off yet, plenty o' time ta get those big suckers harvested and trimmed down. It's a good plan we got goin' for us, don't ya reckon?'

'Yeah, sure Shorty, sure,' said Tommy, fiddling with several tins and a pot. 'You and Rich got it all sorted real good, what with findin' that Stand o' Huons where no one else has, an' figuring what they was worth and how ta get 'em out.'

'Bit a genius that,' replied Shorty, raising the beer to his mouth and taking a long pull. 'Ahhh! Yeah, yer right enough again old son, we find the pines where none should rightly be, and mark 'em out fer fellin', then we gets everythin' planned ta do tha cut, tha cover-up and tha transport. Selection! That's what it's all about. Find 'em, pick the best of tha crop an' keep 'em separated out so's that Forestry can't pick it from the air. No clear-fellin' here mate. Best o' the bunch! Lay 'em under the forest mantle and keep plenty o' greenery around while we cut off the crap an' bare the logs. They're gonna be worth big bucks when we get 'em out. And what a time ta get 'em outta here. Christmas Day, when everyone's half whacked an' full a cheer.'

'Yeah,' said Tommy, sounding slightly more at ease as he wound a can opener around a tin, 'Trucks roll inta tha place carryin' timber for the hiker's walk ways, and roll out empty. Who could pick it?'

'That's right, Tommy me lad, who could figger that some of the planks are part of the shoring we're gonna use to road those Huons down ta the water where they gets chained and punted offshore out ta where our pals are waitin'. By Boxing Day, that crop o' pines will be on their way to parts unknown. Some of it'll probably end up back here as chairs for Minister's rears up in Canberra, who knows?'

'Yeah,' agreed Tommy, 'who knows?'

'I'll tell ya who knows!' said Shorty, suddenly leaning down in a threatening manner. 'Those couple o' city slickers, that's who knows!'

'Take it easy Shorty, they might not have cottoned on ta what we was doin'. I mean we stopped 'em from gettin' too close to the Stand.'

'Yeah, but not before one of 'em give me this!' said Shorty, gesturing to his face with his can hand. As he leaned in closer toward Tommy, the group could see that his left eye was almost closed and very black.
'Reckon I'm gonna forget it in a hurry. Not on ya Nelly! I owe 'em, and if I'd had me gun at the time I'd a blown their tyres before they got away. Didn't expect us ta follow 'em though, did they?'

'No Shorty, they sure didn't, I mean they left their vans locked up and headed off on foot. Maybe they really were down here to make a pictcha, like they did have cameras an' stuff.'

'Yeah right! An' they was gonna go lookin' for a tiger too, like they said. So they's makin' filums an' stickin' their beaks inta other peoples business, or they's Greenies or Govament spies or Forestry. Well in any case,' and here he leered into Tommy's face and grabbed him by the collar, 'we're not goin' back just yet! Don't forget they give you a thick lip, an' I'n gonna square up fer this shiner see! In tha mornin' we're gonna keep lookin', get it!'

'Yeah, sure Shorty, sure,' said Tommy, choking for breath, 'but when we catches 'em, what are ya gonna do?'

'Do?' said Shorty, easing his grip, 'I'n gonna scare 'em to death. That's what I'n gonna do!' Roughly he let go of Tommy's shirt. 'Think I need a gasper,' he said, reaching into his jacket pocket and dragging out a packet of cigarettes. 'Gimme that lamp before ya start playin' around with tea... '

'We have got to find my Father and Mister Black before they do!' whispered Monique, although she could have spoken out loud since neither of the men would have seen or heard her if she had been standing right next to them.

'Yes of course, ' said Fon Jien. 'And your father's will have been alerted by that gunshot, if they weren't already. However we are now in something of a dilemma. Should we stay here somewhere nearby and follow these two ruffians, or go off blindly, wandering about the cliff heights on the chance of stumbling over your fathers? And even if we were fortunate enough to actually locate them, what then, I wonder? We cannot openly interfere. We are not even here in an historical point of fact. We can only observe and, under certain circumstances, jangle the bell-pull of discord.'

'The bell... Boy!' said Priscilla in exasperation. 'We don't have time to jangle anything but nerves! Harry!' she hissed into the Hand Activator, 'what can we do?'

'Get a good night's sleep, seems to be the way to go,' said Harry's cheerful voice. 'Skewer will be in touch come dawn or soon after. Hang in there and do as Fon Jien tells you, right now I'm going out to check the roses.'

'Harry! Harry!' Oh! That little... !'

'Probably the best thing will be to skirt these men and put ourselves a good distance ahead of them. They are going to sleep tonight and we should do the same, but in shifts. Before dawn we shall set off again and try to keep ourselves ahead of them,' said Fon Jien. 'I am sure Skewer will show us the way after that.'

'But even if Mister Skewer does and takes us to the girl's Fathers, what then?' said John Wynd, who had kept silent for most of the journey.

'That remains to be seen Mister Wynd, or do you prefer to be called Warragal ?' said Fon Jien.

'That is my chosen name, by my people, I consider it my real name,' answered the young lad, with a hint of defiance in his tone.

'Very well Warragal, when we get as far as that, will be time enough to make a judgement as to what can be done. Now, however, follow me, and let us pass these villains and be on our way.'
So saying, Fon Jien strode forward, the others following him in single file, coming so close to the two men that Priscilla could see the bruises on Tommy's mouth and the angry bulge of Shorty's black eye.
To the two men, of course, nothing more than the stirring of the breeze ruffled their hair as they went about getting their tent up.

Dawn was still a little way off when Fon Jien woke the four girls. He and Warragal had taken the last shift together in the waning hours of the night, and already had folded up their tent and prepared a quick breakfast of dried fruits, chocolate bars, nuts and milk.
Within minutes, the girls had wriggled from their nylon bags, rubbed the sleep from their eyes, and made ready to go on.

The first streaks of pale light were staining the eastern sky as the little group followed the cliff line south and east. They could see the ocean on all the southern horizon now, where it stretched away toward the far distant Antarctic, and hear the faint sound of waves booming against reared cliffs hundreds of meters beneath their boots. To the left, the range rose steadily into lofty, wild and desolate heights.

'Don't see any sign of this Mister Skewer,' said Priscilla, turning a full circle. 'Have you ever met him Tsu?'

'No, and neither has Fon Jien, but Harry says that he is very reliable... '

'Ohh! Look at the bird!' exclaimed Terri, pointing east into the rapidly lightening sky.

The others, alerted, turned their gaze to where she indicated and saw a magnificent site approaching on slow beating wings.

'It is an eagle,' said Monique, awed.

'It is a sea-eagle,' added Fon Jien, shading his eyes as the creature glided closer.

'Heck, it's pretty big!' exclaimed John Wynd.

'And it's coming really... Oh! Like straight for us!' shouted Priscilla, as the eagle descended rapidly and swooped, side-slipping directly toward the group.
Before they could run, before they could so much as move, the great wings swept down, threatening to engulf them and the clawed feet extended as it raked to a halt, catching at the rocky crags.
The girls and John Wynd regarded the bird with wide-eyed shock.

'Hello Lovies,' it said. 'Been looking everywhere for you. Nice to see.'

'Are you Mister Skewer?' asked Priscilla, muttering into her Hand Activator, 'Harry, you didn't tell us about this bit, you little... ohh, thingy pooch!'

'No,' replied the sea-eagle, 'Mister Skewer can't be with you at the moment. He's away where eagle's dare. I am Adelle, Missus Skewer that is.'

'Adelle?' said Priscilla, her eyes almost sliding together.

'What did you expect Lovey? Tweetie?' Adelle Skewer replied, trimming her rather elegant feathers with a more than adequate beak that looked like it could take a decent steak out of a cow at one peck.

'Adelle, I am so pleased to meet you,' said Fon Jien in his soft manner. 'May I introduce our group?'

'No need, Harry has told us all about you,' said Adelle, waddling forward to gaze with piercing eyes at the others. 'Now we have no time to lose, there is an emergency. It happened through the night, and I am afraid the two men you are seeking are in a bad way. Follow me, I'll have to fly to indicate their position!'
So saying, Adelle took several awkward running steps along the rocky escarpment before launching herself into space and sailing out from the cliffs. Within seconds she caught the upward draught of sea-blown wind and soared high above, bearing away eastward.

'Come!' called Fon Jien, hastening forward, 'watch your footing as we go, quickly now!'

Forty minutes later the group drew up, struggling for breath, at the border of cliffs that dropped sheer, away to the ocean and the rocks that it relentlessly battered. Here, the sea-eagle spiralled slowly away
beyond their sight until, lying flat and peering carefully over the edge, the party looked down and saw the figures of two men lying on a narrow, stony outcrop some distance below.

'It's them!' said Priscilla stating the obvious with a mixture of relief and urgency in her voice. 'We've got to climb down there and help!'

'Climbing down there appears to be extremely dangerous,' Fon Jien answered, 'judging by the way the cliff has crumbled. Look at all the debris about them. It is a wonder that they were not carried over the edge. We cannot risk another slide of rocks.'

'Have we got ropes?' asked Monique, her voice trembling in shock.

'No, and even if we did, we could not use them. We are not here, remember?' said Tsuang Tsu.

'Well we've just got to do something, looks like they're both hurt,' muttered Priscilla, fumbling with her Hand Activator.

'You'd better do whatever pretty quickly,' said Warragal, staring off into the gloom westward, 'Shorty and his mate are heading in this direction!'

The others turned to where he pointed and could just make out the figures of the two men a few hundred yards away, slowly nosing along like a couple of blood hounds on the trail.

'Fon Jien, could we use our tents as some sort of screen if we stretched them out above Dad and Jean-Michael?' asked Priscilla.

'That might be possible, although it would require most of us to get them in place and we should have to hover close above your Father's heads to do it. Still, with levitation we could give it a try. First we need to see if Harry can manage to project an illusion of rocks across the tent surfaces to cover the space where they are lying,' said Fon Jien, considering for a moment. 'But it is our only chance,' he decided, 'I shall make contact with Harry now. Tsu, Terri, unroll the tents, Warragal give the girls a hand!'

But John Wynd was already loping off toward the approaching men. 'I'll hold them up as long as I can!' he shouted, moving with surprising agility over the rough outcrops of the stony ranges.

'Come on Monique, we've got to get down to them!' cried Priscilla, and before anyone could stop her she leaped off the cliffs and into the void.

On the way down, Harry's words came back to her, "Levitation is a limited resource only to be used at utmost need."

'This is utmost need!' she cried, as the wind tore at her and she plummeted like a stone past the crumbling ledge where the two men were huddled, and down toward the sea and the waiting, ocean drenched rocks.
'HARRRYYYYYY!' she screamed, hitting buttons randomly on the Hand Activator, 'DDDDOOOO SSSOOMMETHHINNGGG!' She hit the first sheet of rising salt-spray at an accelerating rate that smacked her body with the impact and jarred her mind into sharp awareness that in the next moments she would be smashed against sea and submerged stones.

'It's a good thing that somebody can hear you scream at the bottom of Tasmania,' said a faint voice that, vaguely, Priscilla realised was Harry's.
Drenched, she was literally plucked from certain death, to rise, only a fraction of a second before impact.
'Now reset the buttons on the Activator! Come on Miss Priscilla! Get it together! The others need your help! Your Father needs you!' came Harry's voice again. 'I've got you, you're alright. You just took on too much too soon. Steady yourself and take it slowly, you're in control, close down the open buttons and let's get on with it. You're rising, don't go into shock, you've got to help save your Dad!'

On the cliffs above, Monique, helpless and horrified, had watched Priscilla's plunge toward the ocean and then felt the sudden lift of weightlessness as Harry cut in the levitation factor. Now, she and the others had all assumed the same floating ability, and as Priscilla rose up toward them they began to slowly descend, bearing the two tents, hastily lashed together to form some kind of camouflage barrier against the eyes of the hunters.
'Here, quickly Priscilla, take hold of a corner, the wind is beginning to pick up and we'll need all hands to keep the tents steady,' said Fon Jien.

'Am I in trouble for nearly killing myself,' she panted, struggling to hang on to the nylon tent ropes.

'No time for that now,' said Harry's voice from her Hand Activator, 'I've created an image to cover the tent surfaces, not a bad job if I do say so myself, looks just like a deserted rocky outcrop, and I'm bringing the BlackEagle over the ranges. It will be here... now, up on the cliffs...'

Just at that moment a gunshot rang out, followed in quick succession by two more.

'Young John seems to be doing all he can to delay those guys,' said Harry, 'he's trying to act as a decoy by throwing stones in other directions, that's what the shooting's all about. I'll let him know you're all set. Hopefully, if they do check along here, they'll see nothing.'

'It's only rocks fallin' from higher up!' cried Tommy, his eyes wide as he stared about the heights, 'No need ta go blastin' away fer nuthin, ya might cause a big slide!'

'Shuddup!' spat Shorty, glaring around wildly and seeing only empty slopes and the cliff line ahead, unaware that both John Wynd and the BlackEagle were less than fifty metres away from where he stood.
'C'mon, get goin', we ain't finished yet. Keep lookin' along the rocks up there while I check the cliff edges.'
He nudged Tommy roughly with the butt of his rifle and the smaller man reluctantly moved off.

'See anything?' called Shorty as he carefully picked his way over the rough terrain close to the precipitous drops that fell sheer to the ocean.

'Na! Nuthin. Stones seem ta keep rattlin' around though. Reckon they's got away by now,' Tommy called, wincing every time a rock clattered behind him.

'Yeah?' answered Shorty, his good eye squinting this way and that, 'Well I ain't satisfied with... ' He halted, noticing the signs of a recent collapse at the edge of the cliffs. 'Ey, over 'ere!' Beckoning he knelt down on one knee and gingerly leaned forward so that he could look below. To his annoyance and frustration there was nothing more than an empty outcrop of rock jutting over the drop to the distant sea-battered rocks.

'I think it's working!' called Terri, struggling hard to maintain her hold on the buffeting sheets of their tents as the group fought the treacherous wind currents that swirled around them, threatening to lift them or simply blow them aside.

'Well... I hope he buggers off soon!' Priscilla managed against her chattering teeth, as sea water drizzled from her coveralls. 'I wanna get warm and dry... '

'Alright! Don't shoot! We're both unable to climb! Give us some help and you can take it out on us later!
This man has a broken leg and concussion and I twisted my ankle trying to get down to him. Throw us a line or at least go and find others!' It was Jean-Michael's voice, coming from only metres beneath the levitating group and their hiding device.
Only then did it occur to them that even though Shorty, peering down from above, could not see through the camouflage of Harry's contrivance, Jean-Michael and Mathew Black would see straight through the shield, which was invisible to them as were the entire group holding it, and look directly up into the eyes of Shorty.

'Bloody hell Monique!' said Priscilla. 'Why did your Father have to call out now!'
At precisely that moment, the wind capriciously roared against the reared cliffs and hurled the group aside like so many tossing leaves, scattering them and breaking their hold on the two tents, which went spinning off out to sea.

'Oh no!' cried Priscilla, struggling to maintain her position as she and Monique almost collided in mid air.
'That guy isn't going to help our Dads!'

Suddenly Shorty's vision seemed to clear and he shook his head, thinking it was due to his half-shut eye. There they were, both men, lying helpless together on the rock sticking out over the sea.
'C'mere!' he snarled at Tommy, 'do ya see 'em?'

'Yere, sure Shorty... They's both look hurt, whatcha gonna do now? Try ta get 'em off that ledge?'

Shorty sniggered. 'Yeah that's right Tommy lad, I'n gonna get 'em off that ledge orright!' He shifted his gaze back to Jean-Michael's upturned face. 'Tommy here thinks we should get you both off the ledge, an' I reckon he's right!' he shouted, a nasty grin spreading from ear to ear and distorting his bulging black eye even further, as he shrugged off his pack and set it on the ground before him.

'Thanks,' called Jean-Michael, 'my friend here is a little bit delirious, I had to get down to him quickly when the edge crumbled and he fell or he could have gone all the way. That's how I came to sprain my ankle. No hard feelings about your eye, you can blacken mine when you get us out of here.'

'That's right, no hard feelin's,' shouted Shorty, leaning the rifle on the pack and training it down at Mathew and Jean-Michael.

'He's going to shoot them!' cried Priscilla, who was hovering at Monique's side, close to where their fathers lay. 'What can we do Fon Jien, Harry!?'

But before Fon Jien or Harry could answer, Tommy took hold of Shorty's shoulder and heaved him back from the edge. 'Ya can't just shoot 'em Shorty! That'ud be murder! Trees or no trees, I ain't gettin involved with no murder!'

'Let go me arm Tommy! I ain't gonna plug 'em, less I has ta. Nah! They's both goin' for a little swim. That's not murder Tommy, just an accident see. They's fallen off the cliffs and got smashed ta bits darn below.' Shorty grabbed Tommy's wrist in his free hand and wrenched it away as Tommy shouted, 'That's as good as murder Shorty! An' I ain't standin' for it see! Richo wouldn't either... '

Before he could say more, Shorty caught him a sudden, glancing blow to the side of the head with the rifle butt and knocked him senseless to the hard stone. 'Then don't stand fer it!' he said contemptuously before turning again to the men below. 'Now sport! Yeah you! Push yer mate over the edge an' then take a dive yerself.'

'But that is insane, we will both be killed!' shouted Jean-Michael.

'That's the general idea!' said Shorty, pulling the trigger. The sound of the rifle cracked around the cliffs as the bullet struck the rocks and ricocheted away, a hand-width from Mathew's broken leg. The echo of the gunshot reverberated along the walls and into the heights. Shale sprinkled ominously from the high slopes.

'Keep doing that and the whole mountain will come down upon us!' shouted Jean-Michael, defiantly rising on his twisted ankle.

'Yer goin' in Froggy! Push 'im over and jump! That's the best yer gonna get! Ya both seen too much! Move!' Shorty pulled the trigger again and fragments of stone flew around Jean-Michael's feet.

Priscilla and the others watched in fascinated horror as Monique's Father struggled with Mathew Black's large frame, dragging the semi-conscious man to the furthest side of the ledge where they had most hope of survival from impact below.

'Tha's good Froggy, think ya can make it?' Shorty laughed mockingly. 'You'se haven' got a hope in Hades. See ya's all in Hell... '

A shadow loomed behind him.
Priscilla and the others only saw it as it swept out of the north, immediately before it clipped Shorty and burst across the cliffs heading over the waters.
Shorty, spun dizzyingly almost off his feet, twisted around and took aim. The gun barked and the eagle, hit in a shower of feathers, veered and fell toward the ocean.

'That was Adelle! He's killed Adelle!' screamed Priscilla, struggling to rise higher whilst Tsuang Tsu and Terri held her in check.
'We cannot interfere, it is not permitted!' cried Fon Jien, his restraining hand on Monique's shoulder.

'Bloody bird!' spat Shorty, returning to his kneeling position. 'Wanna try me aim Froggy? Nah, thought not, takes yer chances in the ocean yeah, or else you'll end up like that... '

'Psst! Psst!' An insistent voice close by Shorty's ear said, 'Bullies and plunderers of our lands, like you, deserve everything they get!'

These were the last words Shorty ever heard. He turned, his one good eye searching for the owner of the voice, and fleetingly saw the figure of a young boy dressed all in white, hovering off the ground like an avenging angel, and he heard the sound of wings, but they weren't angels wings. A great, pinioned form swept, swift as an arrow, the talons raking Shorty's head and shoulders and pitching him backwards over the edge of the cliffs. As he fell he struck the ledge and frantically tried to catch hold of something, anything to stay his descent; for a single heart-beat his fingers scrabbled wildly and then he was falling again, and this time there was nothing between him and death as it reached greedily to take him.

'That will be Mister Skewer now,' called Adelle, flapping slowly up toward Priscilla and the others. 'Oh dear, my tail-feathers will never be the same, Lovies.'

Chapter 17 [next]

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