It was completely quiet.
Quiet and still.
High, high up above the clouds, the glorious setting sunlight sparkled and glinted as it reflected and refracted from the nebulous shapes of cumulonimbus calvus and pilius, which appeared to be motionless and poised. Cast in a pink glow from the gradually disappearing celestial orb, these elegant and majestic sentinels faithfully guarded the gateway which separated the earth beneath from the heavens above.
But this apparent lack of movement was an illusion.
The clouds were, in fact, in constant motion, drifting slowly, so slowly as to make their subtle movement almost imperceptible, sailing with serenity through the atmosphere, gradually changing shape, never assuming the same one twice. Gently, so gently, rolling and twisting, following their random yet beautifully crafted pathways, being both unaware of, and unconcerned by, whatever may have been happening down on the surface of an odd little planet called Earth, far, far below.
They neither knew nor cared.
What mattered was to billow, slowly.
Slowly and exquisitely.
This was what they were made to do.
Quiet and still.
Then, without any form of announcement or ceremony, the stillness was suddenly broken, though the quietness remained.
Through a small gap in the clouds glided a lammergeier.
This bearded vulture was a massive bird. Its huge wingspan enabled it to travel for a substantial distance before it was necessary to deploy a single flap. This lion of the skies, with its bright red and orange plumage, had evolved to expend the minimum energy to remain in flight. With wings spread wide, it was happy to go with the flow, and be taken along on the prevailing current of air, whilst all the while watching the ground from its high vantage point, alert to the possibility of any suitable live prey, or the remains of carcasses which may have been left behind by other predators.
Still with the same lack of effort, the great bird slowly began to descend. Little by little, the vast carpet of green gradually distilled into individually discernible treetops. What had been thin grey lines, between indistinguishable irregular squares of land, became dry stone walls, separating verdant meadows.
Now the lammergeier was flying over country lanes and thatched cottages, whose inhabitants were hastily attending to their final chores of the day. They were hurrying now, keen to complete everything before the light vanished altogether, when they would, once again, have only the gentle flames of tallow candles to guide them through the dark hours which lay ahead.
But the bearded vulture, with its large, dark wings and red eyes, did not concern itself with the activities of these simple country folk. It gave barely a second glance to the landmarks in this small village. It glided on, ignoring the picturesque gardens, the tiny church and the hunting lodge on the outskirts of the Great Forest.
Its attention had been arrested by the aroma of barbecuing meat. At first, the smell had been barely detectable, borne on the gentle breeze across the gently undulating landscape, and upwards towards the clouds. However, as this regal feathered creature continued on its effortless way, and once it had soared over the roof of the Chateau von Tarlenheim, it drew nearer to the edge of the capital city, and the fragrant incense of seasoning and spice became much more pronounced.
Typically, the lammergeier would avoid being in close proximity to humans; but, for the last few days, hunting had not yielded the necessary sufficiency and he was now sufficiently ravenous to take a few risks. So it was fortunate for him that his hunger pains coincided with the annual garden party, hosted by the Lord High Chancellor, Erich von Berenstein, in the grounds of the Royal palace of Strelsau.
The starving vulture reached the boundary of the palace gardens and perched on the high brick wall which encircled the stately abode, eyeing keenly the immaculately turned out royal guards, lining the avenue from the main gate to the palace itself.
The delicious smells from the variety of cooked meats were much stronger now. However, hungry as he was, the bearded vulture knew better than to try and obtain his much-needed provender with all those people milling about. Later, though, after they had all gone home and the clearing up operation was in process, then there would be plenty of rich pickings available.
The vulture knew this, and he was patient, with the acquired wisdom of years. He folded his wings and, from his observation post on the wall, he watched.
Watched and waited.
Quiet and still.