There was no answer. The gibbon had gone. TerTaWa, Patah, Kupo… tonight all of them were interested in just one thing: rescuing Shrii, the griffin who had risked his life to protect them. Who could hold that against them?

So now it was only to be hoped that Kraa would sleep through the monkeys’ rescue operation. Twigleg looked up at the basket where Shrii was held captive. The only guard he could spot was a sleepy macaque.

‘Hey, Humpklupus! How about lending me a hand?’

Lola was already gnawing her way through the mud exterior of the palace nest. Hothbrodd had made the saw that she was holding out to Twigleg out of a seashell. All the equipment they had left were the few things that Lola and Twigleg had found in the hollow tree, but a stone was a good enough tool for the troll. He had made not just the saw, but also a few knives and shields and clubs for Ben and Winston, to protect them and the dragons from the claws and beaks of the griffins if necessary. Then he had fitted them all out with wooden breastplates, including TerTaWa and some of the monkeys. Of course Patah had turned down the offer of one with a scornful gesture, and when Kupo had asked quietly for a knife and protection for her own narrow breast, Hothbrodd’s answer had been a brusque No! The troll hadn’t forgotten how covetously the loris had put her tiny hand out to his own knife in the hollow tree, but in the end he provided Kupo too with a breastplate and a knife that fitted into her little hand perfectly. By way of a thank-you, she carved a surprisingly good likeness of the troll with it.

Yes, Barnabas had been right. Bringing Hothbrodd along on this journey really had been a good idea. The solid wood that Twigleg felt under his jacket at least made his heart beat a little more slowly.

‘I think that’ll do, Hummelklups!’ Lola took the creeper that TerTaWa had pulled out of the trees for them off her shoulder.

There was a hole in the roof of Kraa’s nest – a hole just large enough for a rat and a homunculus.

‘But the jackal scorpions…!’ Twigleg peered over the cornice that surrounded Kraa’s palace with gilded battlements. They were still awake! And one of the brutes was just below them. Lola, however, only shrugged her shoulders.

‘Huh! Barnabas will see to them!’ she said – and pressed the creeper into Twigleg’s hand.

Twigleg had expected Kraa’s palace to be dark at this time of night, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The huge nest into which they let themselves down was alarmingly bright. Countless shining glow-worms lit up the ornamental frescoes that the lorises had made along the interior walls of the nest. They showed pictures of events in Kraa’s long life. They told the tale of his time as treasurer to Cambyses, three times crowned king, and of battles when the griffin had flown in the vanguard of human armies. Oh yes, Kraa had dragged generals from their horses with his claws, and had eaten them before the eyes of their men. He had scraped gold off the walls of royal palaces, and screamed his name triumphantly into the hot wind blowing through the deserts that he still missed.

The griffin growled in his sleep as Twigleg and Lola made their way down the creeper, hand over hand. The pictures followed Kraa into his dreams, his tawny, gold-clad dreams. In the middle of his nest, the griffin slept on a platform that the lorises had built from the bones of his prey. It gleamed like polished marble in the light of the glow-worms, and Kraa’s snake-tail wound back and forth on the smooth surface, while he thrust his claws into the necks of invisible enemies. He had dark dreams, as he had done every night since he had found himself on this island, where his feathers were damp with rain all the time, and his sister’s son was born with plumage as ridiculously vivid as a parrot’s. It’s Tchraee’s fault, Nakal whispered to him in his dream. It was Tchraee who wanted to fly on further east! Nakal was right. What a fool he had been. But he knew better now. He trusted no one. No one!

Kraa’s growl sounded so angry that Twigleg, trembling, stopped moving – too long for Lola’s liking, of course. She climbed over Twigleg and with a single leap landed on the platform, only a few metres away from Kraa’s claws. But the griffin didn’t hear her. Not even Twigleg’s racing heart woke Kraa. Twigleg just wished his heart would finally get used to danger and adventures! Wasn’t he giving it enough opportunities? Evidently not; it stumbled and raced and beat so loudly that Twigleg was always afraid it would give him away. Oh, please! he implored whatever god protected homunculi and human boys (Twigleg always pictured this god in a huge glass bottle), please let us get hold of this dratted feather without waking the beaked brute!

Kraa growled again. His head was resting between the mighty claws, and his wings rose and fell with every breath he took.

Lola stood still, and listened for sounds from outside.

Only the noises of the jungle came through the mud walls – the chorus of cicadas, the croaking of toads, the cry of a marbled cat pouncing on prey – and if everything was going to plan, then Patah, TerTaWa and the others had already overpowered the sleepy macaque and set Shrii free.

They had to hurry!

The rescue of Shrii could still raise the alarm before they had the feather! Or Kraa might wake as they plucked it out before Shrii was liberated, and… no, no, no! Twigleg felt thought paralysing his limbs. Lola was always saying, ‘Don’t think, Humpelkluss!’ But easier said than done! Apart from the fact that Twigleg wasn’t sure whether it was really good advice.

Lola for one wouldn’t be wasting a moment on thinking while she scurried over to the sleeping griffin. Rodents. Yes, that must be it. Rodents were braver, that was all.

The sun-feathers were high up on Kraa’s feathered throat. But as he was sleeping with his head between his claws, they were easier to reach. Twigleg just had to climb on Lola’s shoulders, pull himself up by Kraa’s plumage, then give a gentle tug and… oh, this was lunacy! How come they had ever thought it was a good idea for the smallest members of the team to carry out the most important part of this suicidal mission? It was the rat’s fault, of course. Twigleg could still hear Lola’s voice only too clearly – his heart had turned to ice at her words. ‘Right, it’s a done deal. The humklupuss and I get hold of the feather. All the monkeys have to do is rescue Shrii, and as for the rest of you… you’re too big and you make too much noise!’

A done deal! Lola was kneeling on the platform. The griffin’s leonine chest was breathing behind her. In and out. It could swallow him as easily as the mist-ravens snacked on strawberries.

Oh dear. Lola was getting impatient!

As he climbed on her shoulders, the griffin’s breath was like a hot wind passing over his face. But hard as he stretched out, he couldn’t reach the lowest of the sun-feathers!

Okay, Twigleg. You know what to do.

No, he wanted to say. No! The world really doesn’t need flying horses! But his mind was already assessing the distance between his fingers and the bright feather. The thing about courage is that in many people it shows up only when it’s really needed. And Twigleg was considerably more courageous than he thought. He reached into Kraa’s tawny feathers and ruffled them up. Only a little further, and he would be able to take hold of the sun-feather.

‘Humklupus!’ he heard Lola hissing. ‘What are you doing?’

But Twigleg was already reaching out his trembling hand…

CHAPTER FORTY

The Other Mission

I will not be clapped in a hood,

Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist,

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