“So what the hell is a ‘cockadoodle?’” asked Kelly. His voice was muffled by the thick scarf wrapped around his face.
He and Lynald were seated by the crumbling wall of an ancient stable on the edge of Leandir’s field, giving them a clear view of the tree-line. Lynald's cousins were behind similar half-walls and rocks in various states of disintegration. Their breath hung in the air as each man shivered in the freezing dawn. The sun was in hiding today and the pearlescent morning made the dying trees and mown wheat-stalks look tired and old. Kelly fought another wave of sleep as Lynald took another long pull at his flask of coffee.
“I thought I was on this holiday to recuperate,” grumbled Kelly. “How does freezing my bollocks in a field at six in the morning fit into that plan?”
“You’re getting out in the fresh air and taking exercise. That’s how,” said Lynald.
“That’s what walks and outdoor luncheons are for!” complained Kelly. He eyed the long rifles next to him warily. “You know I don’t like guns.”
“Come now, don’t be such a spoil sport,” said Lynald yawning. “This will be jolly fun.”
“You can have jolly fun, Ly-o. I’d rather stay in bed and read a book. Wish I’d brought one now. What’s taking so long anyway?”
“Would you just shut up for two minutes together? I’m trying to enjoy the morning and it’s rather hard with your constant stream of whinging.”
“Oh, pardon me for ruining your morning. Never mind that you’ve already ruined mine.”
Just then there was a loud and rather wounded-sounding horn blast from the tree-line. A large orange cloth was being waved by Phelps the gamekeeper.
“That means we’re about to start.”
“You still haven’t explained to me what a cockadoodle is.”
“It’s a cross between a cockatrice and a dog,” replied Lynald.
“Good eating on ‘em?” asked Kelly.
“Of course not!” sniffed Lynald.
“Then why are you hunting them?” asked Kelly.
“For the sport of it,” said Lynald with a snort. “Besides, it’s the one species in the forest these days that isn’t in danger of growing extinct. They’re a damn nuisance and they breed like rabbits,” said Lynald.
“Then why have a gamekeeper and fosterers?” asked Kelly.
“Oh, that’s one of Leandir’s little ambitions. He’s trying to improve the breed.”
“He’s trying to breed a species of cockadoodle that can actually fly.”
“They don’t fly?” asked Kelly in astonishment. “Then how do we shoot them?”
“Ah, well, that’s the other reason for the gamekeeper and fosterers.”
“Huh?” asked Kelly.
“On your marks gentlemen!” came Cousin Leandir’s booming voice across the bare fields. “When you’re ready, Phelps!”
Lynald shouldered his rifle, but Kelly held back, desirous to see what was going on first.
“PULL!” shouted Phelps.
There were a series of twangs and simultaneously five feathery floppy creatures with beaks and long ears leaped into the air like they had been stuck with pins. There was a loud explosion as twelve rifles reported and clouds of smoke drifted across the foggy field. Kelly squinted, trying to get a better look at the proceedings when the wall next to him exploded. He felt a sharp sting on his cheek as he fell over backwards in his chair. Looking up, he saw a large bullet hole, the size of an apple in the crumbling stone wall.
“Nice shot, Cousin Algie!” cried Lynald in a dry unconcerned voice.
“Damn thing got away from me!” grumbled Algernon. “Alright there, Kenny?”
“Oh absolutely spiffing.” sneered Kelly under his breath.
“Tip top! No harm done!” said Lynald.
“PULL!” shouted Phelps, and again there was a twanging sound and a chorus of gunshots.
Through his safe spot on the ground, Kelly took advantage of his position and watched at a low hole in the masonry. There were a few more explosions of mortar and crumbling brick, this time Kelly could see that every shooting station was affected. Shots were hitting walls and landing in the dirt several feet from their guns, and a few set a couple of trilby hats spinning. Most of the cockadoodle, apart from the two shot stone dead by Leandir, had landed without incident, waddling unconcernedly on the ground. Occasionally they were forced to leap out of the way of a gunshot, but they fluttered heavily back into place and to continue scratching at the frozen ground.
Kelly tried to get a look at the fosterers and noticed that they were all wearing very heavy leather clothes and wore metal helmets on their head, like jousting knights. At their feet were several hundred cockadoodle milling about and preening good naturedly. A fosterer would then seize a bird-dog in his leather gloves and load him into a device. The device looked something like a large crossbow or slingshot with a stiff leather compartment near the stock. The animal was placed in the compartment and a crank was wound. When Phelps’s cry of “PULL” echoed across the field, the fosterer pulled a lever and the bird was shot ten feet into the air to land with a soft feathery “plop” in the dust. The survivors waddled back to the other cockadoodle by the fosterers.
Whether there was food over there, or they sought out the familiar fosterer, or whether they simply liked being flung into the air was anyone’s guess. It was clear after the first six volleys that there was no imminent danger. Kelly judged that only 10% of them were doomed to die in this exercise, those being the unfortunate birds under Leandir’s keen eye. The kills by his kinfolk however, were esoteric at best and included trilby hats, a straw bonnet, a rifle barrel, a box of cartridges, a pocket watch, six clumps of sod, a folding chair, three walls, and a chipmunk. There was one moment of family camaraderie when all the men and ladies took up arms to decimate a burlap sack that had been caught up by the wind.
Kelly dodged away from his section of wall as another chunk of it was blown into powder and debris. The only sound that could be heard above the reports was the occasional “sorry.”
“Dear God, it’s like a war zone!” cried Kelly gripping his hat and lying in the dirt.
“Pretty much. Better vittles though,” said Lynald taking a pull at his flask of coffee. It was shot from his hand by a sheepish-looking cousin in the next “foxhole” struggling with the weight of his rifle stock.
“Sorry there!” he cried, dropping the gun causing it to fire into the air. There was a soft thump near Lynald as a dead squirrel landed on Kelly’s bowler hat. “You alright?”
“I’m fine, Neelan?” called Lynald sighing. “Just a tip: don’t point a rifle at anything you don’t want to die.”
“Right-o!” answered Neelan, shouldering the rifle again, backwards. There was another shot and when the smoke cleared one of the servants near the chafing dishes had keeled over.
“Did he just kill a man?” gasped Kelly.
“No,” said Lynald. “He just dove for cover the big baby,” sniffed Lynald.
“He alright?” called Kelly.
“He’s fainted, sir!” replied one of the servants attending to a young man whose face was the colour of cold porridge.
“Well pick him up and send him to bed,” Neelan said to him. “But none of you lot get any ideas about falling over like big nancies. The next man to go under is getting shot in the foot.”
"Bloody Elves," moaned Kelly and decided to curl into a ball unpon the dusty ground until they went in to lunch.
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