The bird calling down to the peacock so disrespectfully had a crest of red-brown feathers on his head, and was feared for his aggressive nature. He was a hoopoe, and his English was so flawless that he didn’t need Twigleg to interpret what he said, even if he spoke with a strong Indian accent. Ben had often noticed animals communicating in human language when there was a fabulous creature present.
‘A dragon is as much of a bird as a snake, O maharajah of all the vanities!’ cried the hoopoe in his mocking voice. ‘Furthermore, if I am correctly informed, your lord and master last showed himself in this temple over seven hundred years ago. Nor, to be perfectly accurate, was it ever just Garuda’s temple. He has a single niche to himself, and it’s in a rather remote spot, as you must admit. The rest of the place,’ continued the hoopoe, indicating the temple building around the courtyard with his beak, ‘is dedicated to Krishna. And very appropriate, if you ask me. After all, your lord and master is only the mount that Krishna rode!’
The peacock puffed himself up with indignation at such lack of respect. Every feathered eye on his tail seemed to flash fury. But the hoopoe uttered the loud cry of huphuphup that had earned him his Latin name of Upupa epos, like a challenge, whereupon the peacock, sulking, made off between the columns, tail and all. He wasn’t about to play around with a hoopoe, even if the bird was considerably smaller than he was. You had only to watch one spear its prey with its long beak, or smash it with a stone.
So far Ben had kept his mouth shut. Only when the hoopoe fell silent did he hesitantly step into the middle of the temple courtyard. Hundreds of birds’ eyes stared down at him from the ruined walls and towers.
‘The hoopoe is right!’ he cried. ‘Dragons do feel related to birds and snakes. And all mammals. And the fish in the sea. A dragon is life incarnate, in all its variety. This one wouldn’t hurt a single feather of any of you.’
The hoopoe uttered his cry of huphuphup again, and flew to a cracked column very close to Ben. In view of the bird’s long beak, Twigleg had to force himself to stay put, rather than disappearing into the pocket of Barnabas’s jacket.
‘It’s not exactly common for a human being to be friends with a dragon.’ The hoopoe’s crest stood up as it examined Ben with its cool, bird’s gaze. ‘What kind of help are you looking for here? I’m sure you haven’t come for the usual reason.’
‘May I ask what the usual reason for humans to come to this temple is?’ asked Barnabas, joining Ben.
‘Snakebite.’ The hoopoe caught a fly out of the air. ‘You humans think throwing the snakes off the walls in clay pots acts as an antidote to their venom. Pretty silly, if you ask me.’
He uttered another sarcastic huphuphup, and many of the other birds joined in. Ben thought he sensed the gaze of those countless eyes on his skin. Round, black eyes, so different from his own. He wondered what the birds came to ask Garuda for. Were their requests the same as human beings made to their gods?
Barnabas cleared his throat. It wasn’t easy to get a hearing in all the noise made by the birds. ‘I have heard,’ he called, ‘that many of you come to this temple from very far away. Has any of you present, by any chance, ever met a griffin on your travels?’
The silence that followed his words was as complete as if the birds looking down at them had all been turned to stone.
The bird that finally flew to the hoopoe’s side had almost as long a beak, but much more colourful plumage, shimmering in shades of orange, green and turquoise blue.
‘A green bee-eater,’ Twigleg whispered to Ben. ‘We don’t necessarily have to believe what it says. They have a reputation for being enthusiastic liars.’
The bee-eater didn’t speak English.
‘My cousin three times removed,’ Twigleg translated its excited twittering, ‘came upon a whole pride of griffins only a few days ago!’
‘Oh, really?’ said a bird ironically, spreading turquoise wings. ‘And where’s that supposed to have been, O master of all beaked liars?’
‘That’s an Indian roller,’ Twigleg whispered. Ben hadn’t realised that the homunculus knew so much about birds. On the other hand, what didn’t Twigleg know about? When Ben walked in the forests around MÍMAMEIÐR with him, Twigleg could tell him the name of every beetle.
‘Not far from here,’ chirped the bee-eater. ‘Near the temple of Mahavishnu.’
The Indian roller uttered a scornful whistle. ‘By the claws of Garuda! Nothing lives there but a flock of half-starved vultures! Griffins? They’re a fairy tale, that’s all! Thought up by human beings who can’t tell an eagle from a lion!’
The bee-eater began twittering in such agitation that Twigleg couldn’t even attempt to interpret – especially as the hoopoe was looking at him with so much interest that it was really hard for him to concentrate.
‘You! Spider-man!’ the hoopoe croaked when the homunculus finally returned his glance, annoyed. ‘I think you’d taste delicious. What are you? A descendant of Apasmara?’
Twigleg turned pale. Apasmara – even a long beak didn’t excuse anyone for comparing him to a dwarf considered a byword for stupidity!
‘If you don’t mind,’ he cried in such a high register that his own voice sounded to him like the shrill notes of a bird, ‘I’m a homunculus – and no, we don’t taste good at all,’ he added in perfect Hindi, to show how educated he was. ‘Far from it. We’re extremely poisonous.’
‘What did you say?’ Ben whispered.
‘Nothing,’ Twigleg replied, crossing his arms in front of his thin chest. ‘I’m just tired of these idiotic birds.’
‘All the same, my highly esteemed homunculus,’ Barnabas said quietly, ‘I’d be very grateful if you would go on interpreting. I get the feeling that there’s something else the Indian roller has to say.’
If that was the case, she was taking her time so as to heighten the suspense. The roller stuck her beak in the stone on which she was perching, pulled out a struggling, protesting insect, and with relish put her prey, countless legs and all, inside her hooked beak. Then the roller swallowed, cooed with satisfaction – and gave voice to a torrent of sounds that Ben couldn’t understand at all.
‘She says she knows a female parrot who’s met some griffins,’ Twigleg translated. ‘The parrot is a chattering lory who got away from a bird collector of some kind. Obviously there are many fugitives who have escaped from cages in these parts.’
‘And where can we find this parrot?’ asked Barnabas.