"Toad-breeding, yes," Robin said firmly. Harrick hung back to watch the man walk, but he seemed solid, his feet touched the floor and so forth. But there was definitely something weird going on.
"Since you're from Crapaud, I don't suppose any of you would be interested in our quality, discounted toad products that we have for sale here," he said hopefully. Regretfully, they declined.
"Well, it was worth a shot. Have you seen everything you want to see in here? I have to lock the room up, go through the official toad-feeding, that was just to keep them quiet while I was giving the tour."
"We can move on," Robin said.
"I'm sure the parrot'll show you to the next building."
"Yes, I'm sure it will."
The parrot met them again. "I hope you enjoyed the tour, would you like to move on to the next building? Nice weather we're having, huh?"
"Yes, it is," Robin said when it seemed that the thing was just going to wait until it got a response.
"Actually it's hideous, hideous weather, I may die soon," Terzin told it.
"Sure is a pretty spring day," the bird pronounced.
The third building held other, non-toad animals. The group exchanged a lot of raised eyebrows. There were two stuffed griffons, and a statue of a sphinx, and other things that they, at least, had certainly never seen, or even heard of anyone seeing, in the northern woods. An eighteen-point buck was labeled "Average Northern Deer." They'd never seen Trapper bring back anything bigger than a four-point.
"We find that people like things to be big," a voice said by way of explanation. "Hi, how are you?" He looked identical to the other two.
"You again," Harrick muttered.
"Hah. You admitted a fact about yourself! You haven't seen us before!" Terzin said triumphantly.
"Of course I haven't seen you before, you just came into the building. You did seem surprised by our griffons, though."
"Why, yes," Robin admitted.
"Of course there are griffons in the northern woods!"
"What part of the northern woods?" Harrick asked skeptically.
"Well, actually they're more southern, they use the Charity River to navigate back and forth on their migration, but they sometimes get lost up the Greenbriar and end up here, and I've heard that there are lots of them further north... you know, in the hidden parts of the woods."
"How about the sphinx?"
The guide drew himself up rather indignantly. "There are legitimate reports of at least one full-grown adult sphinx within the length of the Greenbriar Woods, somewhere. So, where you from?"
"Why, we're from Crapaud," Harrick said brightly, playing along with the routine.
"Really? Which means that you might run into the sphinx someday. Would you like a book of riddles?" He produced one from a pocket, much to their collective amusement.
"How much for the book of riddles?" Harrick inquired, to the surprise of his companions.
"It's on sale, because it's our off season, going for a mere pence."
Robin, assuming that he was joking about the price, laughed aloud.
"Off season, huh?" Harrick inquired. "And what are your on-season prices for a book of riddles?"
"You have to guess," Jared inserted with a rare grin.
"Oh, they can get pretty expensive," the guide assured him. "That was good, I'll have to use that," he added to Jared. "There's the binding, the paper stock.... And of course the arduous fact-checking of the riddles. We have to go out and find lists of riddles that sphinxes have actually asked and, or, responded to, and as you can see in the section of the back is the list of the riddles you should use, because they're ones that we've found out that sphinxes generally do not know the answers to. A lot of research and effort has gone into this."
"Oh, hell." Much to everyone's astonishment, Harrick forked over a silver penny. The book was actually of very nice quality. The dedication was to all those who had given their lives in the course of researching the riddles.
The pale man waved them off as they left the building.
"Hope you enjoyed your tour," the parrot squawked. "Boy, that King Daniel's a wonderful king, isn't he?" It fluttered away toward the next building.
This one turned out to be the bird building. A couple of sturges in a glass cage were labeled as being normal ones, but the sign indicated that there were far more dangerous kinds. Birds of prey, prey birds, possibly a few birds praying for one outcome or the other in the prey relationship... lots of birds. Again, they had seen most of them before, but there were also some brightly colored ones like the parrot; their existence in the forest was a matter of legend, because they generally avoided human beings. When one of the group got too close to a cage, there was a great fluffing of feathers as the terrified creature made itself look three times its true size in an attempt to scare them off. They were quite pretty.
"Of course there are predatory versions of that species," someone behind them said. They were expecting it by now.
"Hi, we're from Crapaud," Robin said, somewhat wearily.
"Oh really! Do you get many of these birds in Crapaud? I know that you probably see the more common ones, but not the deep woods varieties, some of which can be downright nasty."
"Oh can they?" she asked, always interested in downright nasty creatures that weren't toads.
"M-hm. Violent, carnivorous, that's why we don't keep any of them here. Same reason you didn't find any wasp-monkeys back at the--
"Wasp-monkeys?" Jared inquired.
"Wasp-monkeys," the guide repeated cheerfully.
"Here, let me show you a picture." The guide went to a cupboard and pulled out a large book. "Of course, wasp-monkeys aren't in here, this is a book of ornithology."
The book had a number of lovely color illustrations. The guide pointed to one. "This is what is generally referred to as a bloodhawk. They're native to this area, although you have to get fairly deep into the woods, and have a diet of other birds, ippi dogs, varmints, and of course when they operate in packs, toads."
"How big do these things get?" Robin asked, aghast at the idea of a bird taking on a toad. Terzin tried to flip through the book, but the man was still holding it.
"You can purchase your own copy," he was informed.
"Do you have the great horned beakersnipe in there?" Terzin asked, making the name up on the spot.
Blank look. "No."
"Can't be that comprehensive, then," he sniffed.
The bloodhawk did look nasty, aside from the bright parrot-like plumage.
"That allows it to fit in with its prey," the green man explained. "Generally the bloodhawk will operate in one of two ways, depending on the time of year. It will either infiltrate larger flocks of the various-plumed birds of the northern area, and then kill them slowly, one at a time. Then during the spring mating season, which we're coming up on, if you go deep enough into the woods they'll gather together in groups of oh, three, four, five hundred...."
"Whereupon they hunt down and eat ELK," Harrick put in.
"Um, yes. Among other things."
"Among anything they want to, with the possible exception of cockatrice." Five hundred of those things?
"Oh, there are no cockatrice in this area, they're completely non-native to this environment," the man assured them. The travelers exchanged a look.
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Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers