Birds of Prey
Two beings inhabit The Dome.
They are Barciro and The Wikler.
Lord of The Sticks
The great shine casts high noon over the still waters of Mother Monksville. The osprey, eyes heavy, twires from the edge of The Sticks.
His branch is a thick one, the ancient bleached wood sturdy and embellished with talon gashes from base to tip. The tree itself isn’t all that impressive – it’s not the tallest spire in The Sticks nor the tallest spire bordering The Sticks, but Lord Hilaetos perches here for a reason: the courtyard of his keep seems to have been invaded.
Unfortunately, this is nothing out of the ordinary – a large flock of hawks with a thirst for blood so strong it turned their tailfeathers scarlet took up residence along the Wanaque River a few cycles back when food was still plentiful; whoever it is that gives them orders has been sending more and more scouts to Monksville with each passing shinecycle, and each passing shinecycle they’re chased back from whence they came. To repeat the same exact course of action endlessly while expecting different results is the very definition of insanity, the mark of a mind left to wander blindly down a rabbit’s hole to seek refuge from a looming flood, and yet the hawks still fly. A very questionable decision, to say the least.
As is the hawks’ settling of the Wanaque River in the first place; even now, however many cycles it is after the hawks originally tried and failed to bring their estranged flock to roost in The Sticks, the osprey cannot figure it out. Hilaetos himself is a fish eater, and a damned good one at that – he’s not known as the Sea Hawk for his ‘munkie sac’ing abilities – as are the pair eagles and the gulls; as for the vultures? They’ll eat anything, living or dead. In truth they prefer the deader meats – they get some kind of odd spiritual thrill out of stuffing their shine-bleached beaks with a days-old rancid carcass, regardless if that putrid carcass has been left to marinate in Monksville’s lifeblood or to sizzle in the rays of the great shine. It is a disgusting way to live a life, as hideous to watch as it is downright blasphemous to so much as think about, but The Vultress is a mystic; if Hilaetos were to learn that flagrant hexes were not thrown on each and every one of her flockers with every rise of the moon, he’d fall off the branch his talons now cling to. The hawks are like the nocturne witch doctor, they seek out landwalkers who feel confident enough to dash across open land without the cover of the canopy; they cannot catch fish from the water, they probably couldn’t even catch a beached fish, and if they did? Hilaetos doubts they would have any idea what to do with it.
A gentle breeze blows across The Basin, stirring the waters ever so slightly. Small waves slap against the soggy base of Hilaetos’s tree. He spans his eagle’s wings to revel in the sensation of the wind through his feathers. It’s similar to a giant running its fingers through its hair, he has to imagine, except the wind feels much, much better, especially when it makes the regal black flecks of his snowdrift belly dance like giants in a river valley.
As the wind dies down the osprey keeps his wings spanned, golden eyes glued to his target. A bass – likely a bumbling largemouth, as the smallmouth bass are far too intelligent to travel up the Northern Leg into The Basin – fancies itself a surfaceswimmer.
The channel opens, ‘The fool likely wishes to warm himself, to bask under the rays of high noon. A poor fool indeed, but one with fair timing,’ then closes again. The osprey flaps his wings twice and shrieks war into the open air before him. Splinters whirl in the wind as he takes flight. The branch doesn’t shake a bit.
Hilaetos swiftly gains altitude and stiffens his wings, catching a heated thermal and riding it in a vast circle around The Basin, even crossing over into the Northern Leg momentarily, and then he circles ‘round again. This maneuver is not done for the osprey’s sake – he spotted the lakebreather plainly from his perch, sticking out like a red fox in a green berry bush, and the dead-eyed thing hasn’t moved a feather’s width – but for the sake of that which he circles. The Lord of The Sticks’s courtyard has been invaded this balmy autumn afternoon, but not by any hawks, not yet at least; a sole giant, perched in his little mobile island, floats in The Basin on this day.
Lord Hilaetos completes his second circle and shrieks again, breaking The Giant from his fishcatching trance. He watches the osprey dive, sharp talons lurched before his beak and wings tightening into a vicious triangle as it approaches the line between atmosphere and Reservoir. Then, the bird breaks the surface and submerges itself completely; a moment later it rises from the water like a dipper duck and takes to the air with an unlucky bass – smallmouth, by the look of it – skewered in its talons. The Giant nearly drops his pole into the lake – never before has he seen a bird dive with such effortless grace, with such merciless killer instinct. He’s in awe, he can’t take his eyes away.
Lord Hilaetos returns to his talon-scored perch and pins his prey to the wood, shrieking a final time to assert his dominance over the kingdom. Let the giant float on his little island, he’s as harmless as a wingless goose.
Dead scales drift on the wind like slimy snowflakes in winter on their return to Mother Monksville; the bass’s skeleton, not picked clean by the most lenient of vultric standards, is not afforded the same courtesy. A sly seagull swoops in and snatches it out of the air before the lake’s surface is disturbed. With the slain lakebreather stuffed between her yellow beak, the seagull squawks gratitude. She’s long gone before the osprey nods his head solemnly, closing his eyes as he does so. Ospreys have a white head, like a bald eagle, with a brown band of feathers wrapped around at eye level like the mask of a raccoon – that has nothing to do with the story, small giants, it’s simply very beautiful and rarely seen and I felt the need to describe it for you. Blissful shinerays hit his back and Hilaetos is warmed from both sides, out- and in-.
A giant floating in a hollow log, a surfaceborne bass, and a balmy, hawkless afternoon – ’tis a strange day in The Sticks indeed. Another gentle gust of wind ruffles the osprey’s feathers, but he does not span his wings – all in the vicinity of Monksville know perfectly well who holds perch over The Basin, over the entirety of the Northern Leg. After that grand showing, the osprey’s mere presence alone is enough to dissuade any ‘munkie business, and so the Lord of the Sticks simply perches there, golden eyes a’twire, belly full of succulent bassmeat.
The last sliver of the intruding giant’s little island slowly disappears under the raised roadway which bridges the Minelands to The Northlands. The osprey, finally alone in his own house, bends his strong legs in roost and watches keenly over the courtyard. No more lakebreathers dare to test him. Moments later a bald eagle releases a series of chirps overhead. Lord Hilaetos detects a twang of hunger in those chirps – yet another unsuccessful patrol, then. Glorious.
Whether the birds are of Lake or of Prey matters not, as all wingflappers of the Monksville Res’ carry a duty to their watery Mother: they must keep the populations of the breed-happy denizens down to a controllable level. The eagles patrol The Basin and the shallow woodlands around it during the day, scouring the surface, shorelines, and shrubberies for any and all sign of lakebreathers and landwalkers alike. In the night, the bats hunt the air for insects and the mystic owl haunts the forests; this leaves the water open and untouched after the moon brings the starpool to Monksville, but this is all part of the system. If lakebreathers were ripped from that which they breathe without a nightly chance for reprieve and rejuvenation, their populations would bottom out and more than just pike would be extinct in Monksville’s waters. The eagles do a bit of scavenging too, as do the gulls, who embark across the long Northern Leg each morning and sweep back across it as dusk falls. Any carcasses they miss (as well as those too putrid and rancid to be approached, let alone consumed) are left for the vulture flock.
The turkey vultures, though technically aligned with the Birds of Prey, sustain a presence across the entirety of Monksville, and they likely dip over the beavers’ dam into the Wanaque wildlands as well. They are never bothered for it by the lowly web-footed Birds of Lake. This is wise of the halfbreeds, at least as far as the osprey is concerned – to evoke the undaunting wrath of The Vultress is risky business indeed. The vultures may default to scavenging, but their talons are perfectly capable of ending the life of living game. Capable and willing.
The eagle shrieks again before touching down on the grassy shores opposite Hilaetos’s perch. They lock eyes across The Basin, their stares equally heavy even though the weights are of different gravities. Lord Hilaetos hopes Lysander is merely taking a rest, that he doesn’t mean to cross over and perch here on this tree and smell the fishy aroma of triumph and lordship on his beak, that Lysander doesn’t mean to pick the remaining fish scales from his plumage like the last time the eagles went hungry, and perhaps Lysander was considering so much at first, but he changes his mind. For now, at least; the eagle shrieks again and takes off for the forests, hopefully in pursuit of smallbirds and ‘munkies, perhaps even ground squirrels. Good. The fruits of the woodlands are more than ripe, and population control cannot be left up to the owl and the owl alone. The eagles have no need to consume lakebreathers when there are landwalkers ditzing around who don’t yet know they wish to die.
Lysandra flaps up from behind and makes perch next to Hilaetos. The Sea Hawk damn near falls off his branch. The channel opens.
‘Lord Hilaetos, I bring news from the greater Basin.’
‘High Lysandra, you startled me! You must remember to shriek before you approach me, or at least chirp upon your arrival. I almost fell into the water, and you know I cannot swim unless I dive.’
Lysandra leers at Hilaetos with grave hazel eyes, then utters a single chirp. Lord Hilaetos ruffles his wings and adjusts the placement of his talons.
‘I apologize, my lord, but I did not have the energy. It’s been shinecycles since my soulpair has eaten. I’m lucky I was able to fly here.’
‘Shinecycles?!’ sends Lord Hilaetos, hardly a feather’s width away from losing his shit and flapping wing out of pure unadulterated rage. The eagles dwarf the osprey in size and their beaks are twice as long at the very least. Their wings span farther, their bodies weigh more, and their population doubles the number of ospreys a’roost on this lake. ‘How is it possible? You lot have no reason to go hungry, you’re fearsome hunters and you make even the vulture flock nervous with your scavenging abilities.’
It is now the bald eagle who fluffs her mighty wings. ‘You send so, Lord Hilaetos, and I do receive your thought, but you so quickly assume our hunger comes down to our own incompetence.’
‘Would you send differently?’
Lord Hilaetos no longer faces the hungry bald eagle. His eyes scan the surface for stray lakebreathers in hopes of making a second demonstration.
‘I do, lord osprey. You know just as well as I that the lakebreathers have thinned out considerably over cycles of late. You cannot possibly ignore it any longer.’
But he does, and does so with silent oomph. ‘And the landwalkers?’
The bald eagle blinks thrice and debates dunking the Lord of The Sticks to teach the pomp fool a lesson, but in truth she never would. Lord Hilaetos has done much for the pair eagles; when they first came to The Sticks (back when the keep was more than a jungle of shinebleached skeletons), The Vultress threatened to end their lives on the spot, but the Sea Hawk flapped in. He didn’t need to intervene, and perhaps if Lysandra knew the osprey only did what he did because he wanted avian company who didn’t have repulsive vermillion domes like the buzzards she would feel less gratitude towards Lord Hilaetos, but the Great Spirit works in mysterious and often deceitful ways, so no wingflapper is tossed to the drink.
‘Why do you ignore the famine, my lord? You must be ‘ware of it. Ever since the flare fell from the great starpool above many cycles ago the food supply in The Basin has been short and regrettably not stout.’
‘Has ih–’ the osprey begins to send. He’s cut off by the eagle’s will.
‘The greater Reservoir is on the decline, Hilaetos; the gulls feel it, the owl feels it, even the vultures must feel it.’
‘The buzzards feel nothing, Lysandra! They’re fiends who live off grizzled death, they’re wingflappers of The Void come to wreak havoc, they–’
A raspy, guttural squall booms from deep within The Sticks, shaking the hollow wing bones of the conversing Birds of Prey. They both shudder, as does Lysander, who watches unseen from high in the forest’s canopy a short eastbound flight from The Sticks. He does not trust the osprey no matter how his soulbride may feel toward his lordship. Any lord who bows to the whim of another is not a lord but a mere pawn, a peasant bestowed with a fat allowance in exchange for meek subservience. Lord of The Sticks. Indeed.
No thoughts are sent nor received for a moment, a moment that stretches on mercilessly into infinity. In the distance a sole gull, exhausted by the look of the half-hearted flap of his white wings, returns to The Basin and attempts to land on the bridge. He misses his mark and falls to the water’s surface; the struggle doesn’t last very long. Bubbles take his place, then a broken white feather floats to the surface. It’s given nervous glances as it floats there daintily, the tide pulling it towards the rocky shore.
‘Has she been receiving this whole time?’ Lysandra sends after an eon of unease, looking nervously into the osprey’s brilliant golden eyes.
‘I believe so, though there’s no way to know. There aren’t many who flock to this crescent lake as wily as The Vultress, sh–’
Another deep squall booms from The Sticks, this one woven with vicious whines. She’s involved the troops.
‘I must go to her.’
‘My lord, I don’t believe we’re done he–’
‘Silence,’ sent with direct eye contact.
Lysander prepares to take flight and rip those eyes out of the osprey’s inflated head, then changes his mind. By the sound of that squall, The Vultress may be preparing to do the same.
Lysandra furrows her white brow then and stands up straight, towering over the measly osprey, scenting the fishy aroma drifting from his gaping little beak. ‘You dare silence a starving eagle? You’d be wise to receive these thoughts, Lord Hilaetos. You’d be very wise indeed.’
Without faltering, ‘I’d be wise to answer the call of The Vultress, High Lysandra, as you know her wrath has no bounds.’
‘And why do the mystics both call out to you on this day, Lord Hilaetos?’ sent with more than a suggestion of suspicion. ‘It is rare for the mystics to make any noise at all, let alone issue a summons… yet both of them request your council today…’
In answer the osprey leaps from the scored branch and glides out over The Basin, shreds the surface with his talons, then flaps high into the air. The channel closes as he circles back and takes flight deep into the marshlands. Lysandra watches him go.
She’s joined by Lysander shortly after. They share a look. Many feelings are exchanged without the need for thoughts to carry them across the channel.
The Early Birds
A small flock of green-headed mallards are floating in the middle of a ring of dead trees. They think of themselves as The Early Birds; migrating before the onset of winter, while temporarily segregating them from the ladies up north, will come in handy when the first icy flakes start falling. A flight through a snowstorm is not impossible, but that doesn’t quite make it a good time, either, and no mallard can rightly build themselves a nest after landing with fresh ice coating their feathers. That’s not to say The Early Birds have nested yet – they just arrived here this morning, and they’ve not migrated to Monksville ever before – but they’re working on it. A quick dip to rest their tired wings would do the mallards well, at least as far as Rhyac is concerned. He led his flock of fertile males south early based on intuition and nothing else, and his head gets broken at the neck when Lord Hilaetos swoops low and drops a talon at the right moment.
Green feathers run a deep red as the remaining Early Birds scatter frantically to the air without a single quack of mourning shared among them. They will mourn Rhyac later, for now they must flee; the scent of freshly spilled blood often marks the approach of the local vulture flock.
A large tree along the edge of The Sticks, girthier than the perch held by the osprey before he took off, suddenly trembles as if struck by the dome of a large creature deep beneath the surface, a mad creature attracted to the scent of bloody water. Rhyac’s decapitated carcass is not given the chance to rot.
A Dirty Pupil
As he weaves through the dead shinebleached trees like a cardinal through thin saplings on the mainland, Lord Hilaetos raises one talon to his beak and steals a taste of the slain mallard’s hot blood. It tastes salty and rich, not terribly unlike the flesh of a lakebreather; perhaps he’ll return for his carcass after his meeting with The Vultress – that is, if her lackeys don’t take it first.
Vines slither up the dead trees. Once vibrant patches of greenery sprouting from the low stumps which lost their tops during one thunderstorm or another are now a faded yellow-brown. The thick and spongey surface algae prevalent over the summer is nowhere to be found. The current cycle nears its timely end as autumn approaches winter, and Mother Monksville began to change colors long ago. It’s been quite a few shinesets since the osprey has ventured this deep into his keep; this is not because he is afraid of The Vultress – if he knew you so much as thought of such he’d do you like he did the mallard – but because fishcatching is damn near impossible to practice in The Sticks. Hilaetos requires a wide berth to properly snare stray lakebreathers from that which they breathe; fishing in this petrified jungle is asking, nay, begging for a wing to be skewered on a rogue broken branch. As a bird of no nest, the Lord of The Sticks merely takes roost on the various border trees; it suits him just fine. Makes for easier feeding, too. Perhaps if the pair eagles took after him rather than roosting inland they’d not be so hungry.
Lord Hilaetos flies past a batbox made by giants. The slumbering nightguard makes not a sound.
Deep within The Sticks where the dark water grows shallow and cattails spring from muddy shores is where the vulture flock makes its nest. Nest doesn’t really do it justice, just as hive doesn’t do justice to the squirrelhorde occupation in The Crater; it’s more of a smorgasbord of nests, easily two dozen of them arranged like the huts in the giants’ villages, though without the pit of fire to mark the middle. This vultric village of nests built of shredded thicket and broken branch surrounds a single massive nest which once belonged to a great blue heron before it was chased out by the greater vulture flock. This nest has since been built up and now stands tall above the rest like a black bear before a raccoon, and in this nest roosts The Vultress. Many ashy-headed hatchlings have risen from this nest, all of them, in fact – The Vultress is the only female of her militia of a flock, and she commands her bloody-beaked males well indeed. No less than thirteen of them surround the osprey on all sides the moment he lands upon one of the many perches extending outwards from the central nest.
For a moment their tense stance is held. Hilaetos, standing up straight to assert dominance, is the last white cloud in a black and stormy sky, a cloud which quickly shrinks down as his legs bend to offer the resident mystic a bow. The vultures back off a bit, but not very much.
The channel opens narrow. Only silence is sent at first, silence and contempt brought about by the Lord of The Sticks’s blatant nervousness.
Then, ‘I’ll have your report, Lord Hilaetos.’
Lord Hilaetos blinks twice. ‘I’ve seen not a hawk in the skies above The Basin, Vultress. Not since yesterday’s shineset. Perhaps they’ve finally learned their lesson.’
The Vultress hisses at this but jovially, as if the brute meant to laugh. The surrounding vultures don’t make a sound, their eyes speaking volumes. ‘I never took you for a fool, osprey, but you may be taken yet. What do you know of this hawk flock? What experience do you have with their scarlet tails?’
‘Only the sight of them disappearing into the forest as they’re chased back from whence they came. The hawks are hungry, Vultress, as are the pair eagles; I believe the eagles may be on the brink of leaving The Sticks.’
She cocks her head sideways at this. ‘That’s not what I received through the channel, Hilaetos, and my fiends are apt to agree with me.’ Three more vultures join the huddle around the osprey, a dirty pupil inside a red iris with blacks where the whites should be. ‘The eagles are no closer to migration than you are, Sea Hawk, though we may all be much closer than any of us would suspect.’
‘Vultress?’ the osprey cautions, his head mimicking hers.
Above them a hawk shrieks, garnering attention from all but one. Two red-tails approach from The Basin, as if riding the tailwinds of the osprey. They circle the muster once and then both shriek in unison before beelining to the mouth of the Wanaque River. When Lord Hilaetos looks back, he catches the stony leer of The Vultress.
‘They’ve not sent multiple scouts before, Hilaetos. At least, not at once. They came from your courtyard – did you not know you were being followed?’
The osprey fluffs his feathers, erecting the ones on his head in a display of confidence. Every king needs a proper crown, and Hilaetos just put his on. ‘I know for a fact that I was not; I’ve been perched at the edge since shinerise, scouring the lake’s surface for lakebreathers. At one point a giant ca–’
‘A giant, you send? In The Basin?’ sends The Vultress, her feathers ruffled and unkempt from distress.
‘Yes, but he drew not a single fish and kept his vessel out of The Sticks. Regardless, the giants gave us this lake, Vultress. Surely you cannot wish to drive them out, too.’
‘Yes, too. As you did the hawks.’
Another triad of vultures join the huddle. The flame begins to smolder, suffocated by smoke.
The Vultress sends, ‘You are a damned fool after all, Hilaetos, a damned one indeed,’ before rising to her gray-skinned feet and spanning her great wings, the feathers black as bedrock scorched by the dying embers of the giants’ nightly bonfires.
The huddling buzzards, all nineteen of them, back off at once, returning with haste to their proxy nests.
‘Come, Hilaetos. We’ve something to discuss.’
As he watches her take flight, Hilaetos sends, ‘Where will you take me, Vultress? I must soon return to the pair eagles an–‘
‘No such promise was made, Lord Hilaetos,’ the Lord Hilaetos sent with a less than subtle hint of disdain. ‘We’ll tour the Northern Leg down to North Cove and no further. Perhaps you’ll return with both wings unclipped.’
The osprey prepares to flap wing. Before he takes off, he receives, ‘Or perhaps you’ll find a new roost to take.’
The channel closes with a pang perceived only by the vulture flock. The osprey flaps high above The Sticks and pursues the gliding turkey buzzard, his belly full of fish, his head full of rage, his eyes fixed to her naked neck, his talons clenched tightly beneath his tail.
The flight is short. They pass many vultures perched on the shores and in the trees beside gulls and smallbirds alike. Not a single denizen floats upon the surface of the Res’, though Lord Hilaetos does not notice. The Vultress is the center of his attention.
The Vultress lands upon the shoreline tree first, near the base of the branch, not far off from a hole about the size of a gull’s beak. The branch wobbles wildly under her weight. Lord Hilaetos lands closer to the stick end of this branch. It doesn’t move, doesn’t budge a feather’s width. Hilaetos attributes this to grace; The Vultress attributes this to weakness of spirit.
The channel opens up narrow and The Vultress sends first.
‘Tell me, osprey: where would you go were you cast away from The Sticks?’
‘To the Northern Leg, of course, where Birds of Prey reign supreme.’
‘Birds of Prey reign supreme the world over, Hilaetos, but your sentiment is taken. And where will you go when my flock chases you from the Northern Leg?’
Hilaetos clicks his beak once, then, ‘They would not, Vultress.’
Not so much as a blink of her gray-brown eyes. ‘You do not really mean to test me, osprey. Surely you must know better.’
The osprey clicks his beak again and adjusts his grip on the thin branch, but not his footing. Not now. ‘Indeed I do; I merely mean to state that, were your vulture flock to attempt to chase me from the skies of my birthright, I would be killed in my retaliation.’ After a moment of intense eye contact, ‘And I would not be the only one.’
‘Tis now The Vultress who clicks her beak, the ivory tone a sharp contrast to that of the osprey’s onyx maw. The channel closes and they perch in solitude for more than a passing moment; when high noon is long gone, the channel opens again, wide as the Southern Expanse.
‘Fret not, Lord Hilaetos, as those residing in The Sticks shall hold their roost until Monskville either dries or fills past the peaks of the mountains.’
The channel then narrows and Lord Hilaetos feels the presence of The Vultress cleaner than he ever has before. They’re the only two in the channel, though eye contact remains broken, never established in the first place.
‘I shall tell you a tale, Lord Hilaetos, a tale you’ve never heard and a tale you’ll not repeat. When you came to this valley you found only my flock, and we welcomed you to The Sticks with shine-warmed wings.’
‘More than was afforded to the pair eagles,’ the osprey sends slyly.
‘And more than you deserved, that much is clear to me now.’
‘And what of the owl and the gulls, then? Did you give them the warm welcome you so kindly offered me, or did you attempt to pluck the feathers from their skin so your flock could win an easy meal?’
‘The gulls predated all wingflapping denizens of this Reservoir, Hilaetos. ‘Twas Lúaloch who brought my flock to where we now nest.’
‘Of course, the owl. How apt of mystics to look out for one another.’
A sinister hiss escapes the beak of The Vultress. ‘The witch doctor deserves to be worshiped by the likes of you, Sea Hawk, and don’t mistake that moniker as a gentle endearment. Any comparison to the hawks escaping my featherless head carries with it the dead weight of shame and disgust. You’re best to approach Lúaloch with respect later this eve’ when you answer his summons, Hilaetos; the channel opens wide at night.’
‘The channel opens on its own accord, as far as I am aware… unless you’d like to correct me, High Vultress?’
The Vultress sends nothing, but considers the osprey. Even considers looking him in the eye. Then, ‘I did not have you fly out here with me to be convinced that you deserve purification, Lord Hilaetos.’
‘Then why?!’ followed by a challenging shriek. The vultures perched along North Cove’s edge all turn their heads at this, but none take flight. Not yet.
‘It’s a wonder you perch in the same tree every night, Hilaetos, though I don’t even know you capable of that much. I came to tell you a tale and a tale I will tell you; whether I finish telling this tale or drop your lifeless body down into the Reservoir to be consumed by whatever it is that curses these holy waters is your–’
‘Nothing curses the waters, you–’
The osprey dips his beak into his flecked plumage.
‘I shall send you the tale of the vulture flock’s coming to Monksville, Hilaetos, and you’ll receive it very well. We once flocked over a mysterious faraway land, a barren forest of pines dominated by darkness where a devilish creature flapped its batlike wings and tore the throats from any giants to meet it between the trees.’
The osprey gulps. This shall be a long story.
As The Giant makes his way into The Basin, two hawks gather on a flat-topped boulder. Below them the Wanaque River roars, the water still cold with the chill of the night. On a branch above them perches a third hawk, his talons coated in sticky crimson. The channel is narrowly open, held so by a dead hawk’s tarsus.
‘Another was spotted today, gliding over the patch of isles.’
‘Another?’ asks King Beuto, picking scales from his wings. ‘You send of yesterday’s interloper, do you not?’
Mousetalon flaps his wings twice but not a flap more, nor at full span, lest he be clipped again. ‘I do not, though my tailfeathers quiver at the thought. Yesterday’s white rat was properly sac’d and stripped of its feathers and less hawks went supperless than normal, though that supper was thin as a smallbird’s feather.’
Hawk King Beuto acutely adjusts the fold in his wings and stares obtusely at the pair of hawk scouts below him. He sends them no thoughts, though plenty of sentiments are received.
Scartail picks up the slack. ‘My Liege, thus far today another of our flock fell victim to the Wanaque River. Two gulls were spotted flapping their dirty wings through our forest, likely in search of shellfish and other morsels we are not equipped to take. The same foolish action brought the downfall of one of their flockmates yesterday, but yet they repeat. The famine is evidently growing quite dire, even outside the bounds of the river; Mousetalon does not quiver his tailfeathers in fear, Highest Beuto, merely out of hunger. Our flock has been hard-pressed to find a new ‘munkie burrow, as you well know, and if things don’t impro–’
‘Quell your plumage, rodent eater. Now’s no time fo–’
An ice-shattering shriek echoes from deep within the forest where the river approaches its source. King Beuto’s branch, dried rotten and infested with termites, shatters at the pitch of this mad shriek. He begins to fall, quickly catching himself with flapped wings before flying back to land on the part of the branch still intact. The two scouts share a look, then point that look in the direction of the shriek.
With wings spanned and feathers fanned, Hawk King Beuto decrees, ‘Scouts, I’ll have you run a mission today. Make for skies west until you hit Green Turtle Pond, then bank south by southeast. When you are airborne, shriek not – the sucklers of Mother Monksville’s teet musn’t be made privy to your presence, especially not that osprey the vultric hag’s bent under the weight of her constantly fed belly; I’ve already sent decoys to distract her. You will ride the Northern Leg to North Cove; take notice of where the dayguard perch and where any vultures scavenging the shores are positioned. Secondarily you will snag any prey you’re able to whilst staying hidden. Circumnavigate The Sticks and return via the river to my highest perch with your findings before shineset. Clear?’
Hawk King Beuto leaps and flaps wing towards the source of the mighty shriek before either of the brothers hawk have a chance to ask questions. When he’s gone, Mousetalon bends over to pick a morsel from the groove between his middle right talon and his foot, but his beak clicks against the keratin; he’s not affirmed his namesake in at least three shinecycles. His claws have been picked clean many times over. The nights have grown longer as of late, and ever more sleepless at that – never in the red-tailed hawk’s life has he felt so exhausted, so frail. This morning’s flight to his master’s lower perch was tiresome enough, but to Monksville by way of Green Turtle Pond? That’s a long haul to flap.
Scartail sees the look on his brother’s face and flaps his wings twice in preparation to fly, but it takes a lot out of him. Too much. Perhaps they are psyching themselves out. Perhaps it’s best to just wing it.
The flight to Queen Jemcis’s perch is a long one, longer than the flight to Green Turtle Pond, but King Beuto does not tire. He has eaten well on this day and has plenty of energy to spare. The river’s flow falters in strength as it approaches the source, frothy rapids replaced with gentle waterfalls over rocks covered in green moss.
High Queen Jemcis sees him approaching and tears the last leg off the dead ‘munkie at her feet. She throws it up in the air and, as King Beuto lands, the leg falls into her insatiable pit of a mouth. She swallows the morsel whole.
King Beuto bows upon landing, sending, ‘My queen.’
‘Snake Eater,’ she replies, piercing the ‘munkie’s belly and starting in on its guts. ‘Have you given the orders?’
‘Indeed; the brother scouts are to scan the Northern Leg of Monksville and take note of where the vultures and dayguard are positioned. They’ll return through The Sticks an–’
‘And shall they report to me, Beuto?’
‘To us, yes; they’re meant to return via the river and come directly here with their findings, and also a portion of any kills they might make saved specially for you, of course.’
The Red Hawkess sends naught for more than a few moments, her attention stolen by the second sac’d rodent she’s consumed today. She means to have another one by high noon, and twice as many before the day is done.
Then, ‘And what of you, Beuto? What occupies your time on this autumn day?’
Beuto takes a step backwards, his eyes flickering with black flames of doubt. Then he corrects, sending, ‘I shall do what I always do, my queen: scour the river and the forest alike in search of snakes. I’ve already taken one today, and one should last me for a few shinesets at least, but one cannot eat too much in these days of famine, as I’m sure you’d agree.’
What remains of the ‘munkie’s innards slides down the hawk queen’s throat. ‘And if you find no snakes?’
King Beuto’s brow furrows. ‘There are always snakes to be found, my queen. What is this ab–’
A shrill war cry explodes from behind Queen Jemcis’s nest. Beuto bends at the knees in reaction, but the queen makes not a move.
‘Jemcis, what was–’
‘Perhaps there are… but perhaps the snakes shall be eaten by another.’
‘My queen, you must be mistaken. No other hawk is capable of the feat; I and I alone was born with the gift to slay the legless bastards.’
Queen Jemcis kees softly then, as if to address a mere hatchling. ‘The gift, you say? That’s charming, Beuto, as charming as your habit of calling me your queen. You kill the snakes well enough, but do you share your winnings? Do you offer the hawk queen a piece of your morsels? Do you offer any to my subjects who flap their empty bellies across Monksville and back for you? You do not, and you shall not. You will never have the chance to make your mistake again.’
Hawk King Beuto backs two steps this time, spanning his wings and shrieking with rage. ‘How dare you send such vituperation, and with a belly full of sac’d ‘munkie! ‘Munkie which hasn’t been tasted by half the hawks in my flock since the summer!’
‘ Your flock?’ she challenges, rising from the nest and gripping the rim with her talons. Her stained talons, the hue matching that of her tail.
‘Yes, my flock. You may not remember – or do you purposely forget? – this flock was long established before you lucked upon it in the forest that day. Before you were so graciously welcomed into it. We were doing perfectly well for ourselves before you–’
‘Before I woke your oblivious tail up and forced you to abandon Green Turtle Pond? The food had run out ages before we migrated, Beuto, and solely because of your inability to manage who eats and when. A hawk or two may perish with every rise of the great shine in present days, I will not deny that, but when you alone held perch over this flock? Dozens fell dead to the forest floor with every set of the great shine, and those that fell into the pond? Opportunities for sustenance stolen from the open beaks of desperate hawks by the shelled cretin buried in the pond’s muddy bottom. The very cretin you refused to take action against!’
‘How dare yo–’
Another war shriek, this one louder. Closer.
Queen Jemcis begins to send, but Beuto cuts her off with ferocity. ‘You came alone to Green Turtle Pond as a starving, wandering vagrant, a flying feathered rat with nowhere to go, and you found me, and I–’
‘What I found was usefulness,’ as she slowly raises a bloody talon and points it at Beuto, ‘a usefulness which has dried up like the waters of the Wanaque Reservoir in the dry season. The snake is eaten, Beuto; the perch you once held here is gone.’
Beuto tries to argue but the channel snaps closed. A third terrible war shriek booms from overhead, dragging Beuto’s eyes away from the foul queen and up towards the impending coup.
The air is still, a state of calm which precedes a storm. Then it happens. Sparks fly as the diving hawk’s talons scream against rock, Beuto dodging the strike by the vane of his feathers. He flaps himself to the edge of the rock and folds his wings tight before shrieking bloody war to the blue sky. The bomber doubles back to the queen and composes himself in midair. He slowly lands next to her, his tailfeathers dark as the rock upon which they rest, his shoulders a burning red, as his tailfeathers should be.
Beuto summons all his will and the channel opens slightly. It staggers, but it opens nonetheless. ‘What is the meaning of this, Jemcis? You dare enact regicide to me?! I should have known; only a wandering flockless hawk would roost so pathetically as you, demanding the other feathers of her adopted flock feed her their hard-killed carcasses.’ He glances at the other hawk, its eyes empty and darker than the starpool. Then, ‘And every mutineer requires a damn accomplice. Who is he, Jemcis, he with a tail so dirtied?’
The hawk queen sends nothing at all. The dirty-tailed hawk clicks his beak and ruffles his feathers.
‘Address me!’ His brown wings spanned, Beuto sends another war shriek skyward. ‘Address your king or feed him!’
‘Fool!’ booms the mind of the foreign hawk. ‘You dare threaten Snake Eater High Laentus, King of the Red Hawk Flock? You wil–’
A pair of nasally squarks interrupts the hawks’ power struggle. Beuto gazes downriver to see two yellowbeaked gulls approaching from Monksville. His scouts were not mistaken, good; the flock will eat well tonight, they shall eat well indeed, and if they don’t favor the taste of gull? A pair of slain hawks shall do just fine.
Beuto looks back just in time to see the blacks of King Leantus’s talons before they pierce his shoulders. Streams of red flow down the hawk king’s frontside and back – it’s over, they got him. He’s been clipped. Beuto kees in pain and stumbles backwards, wings flailing, whilst the dastardly red-shouldered hawk lands and folds his wings with pristinity. The queen returns to her nest and gets to work on her next offering.
The gulls flap by and pay no attention as Beuto’s back talons slip off the edge of the roosting boulder. His front claws grip divots in the rock face, his clipped wings flap madly – the pain is too great for flight but maybe he can lift himself back on the rock, maybe he can still salvage this, maybe these traitors will live to rue this day after all.
The gentle serene hum of the flowing Wanaque River drags these thoughts from King Beuto’s mind and slings fear in their place.
Laentus saunters up to the edge slowly, wings folded and eyes half closed, as if he’s enjoying this moment. He pierces each of Beuto’s fingers clasped to the rock with the points of his talons, relishing in the pained shrieks of the fallen king. They stare into each other’s eyes for what seems like an eternity, but is really only enough time for Queen Jemcis to tear the front paw off what was once a whole ‘munkie.
Hawk King Laentus sends, ‘Long live the birds who flock together long after the puma has come,’ and releases his grip.
The channel closes. Beuto, shoulders bled redder than those of his successor, embraces the Wanaque River. He’s taken by the icy babble, his body carried until the current pins him against a sunken rock, drowning him.
If, that is, he wasn’t killed by the fall.
‘He won’t hold perch for long, you know,’ sent from high above the canopy of The Crater. The squirrelhorde buzzes below, throwing a crass crinkle into the air, a crinkle the hawks pretend not to notice more for their own sake than for that of the squirrels.
‘You seem to think it so, brother,’ Mousetalon returns, intently averting his eyes from the buzzing buffet below, ‘yet here we are doing his bidding.’
‘I’d hardly call this doing his bidding. Shall we move up along the leg? I can’t stand being in the air above those rodents, the smell is too much. I might dive and blow the entire operation if I have to keep bathing in it like this.’
The brothers hawk flap up through the Northern Leg. There’s not a terrible lot of activity going on today; a few seagulls flutter here and there, a vulture or two sits on the shore and tries to find meat on a pile of bones that dried out at least a cycle ago, a lakebreather will occasionally pop up to the surface before disappearing, almost as if it was pulled into the depths by a senseless monster.
‘King Beuto said to turn back at North Cove, didn’t he?’
‘He did,’ sends Scartail. ‘What of it?’
‘I believe we’ve gone too far, brother. I see North Cove right up ahead, we must have passed it on our way down. Why have we gone against the wishes of our king?’
‘Because he’s less of a king and more of an old child who has no idea what it means to lead a flock. Have you forgotten?’
‘No, brother, starpools no,’ Mousetalon sends, his eyes smiling. ‘I just love to be reminded.’
When the brothers hawk reach the cove they descend from high altitudes and perch on a specific branch of a specific shoreline tree. It wobbles under their weight, the movement garnering stares from the vultures and gulls perched along the shore. Up in the clouds, even with their sharp hawk eyes, they didn’t see any feathered denizens squirming about; now that they’re close to the action, they realize their mistake. Threatening hisses and low, warbly squawks are whispered back and forth. A flock of many smallbirds takes for the skies.
The channel narrows to the length of a branch. ‘We’re being stared at, Scartail.’
‘I see that, brother, and sense their presence too; what would you have me do about it?’ with tones of irritation and hanger.
‘I wouldn’t have you do anything, per se…’ he sends, then trails off as the branch wobbles again.
The brothers hawk look to the end of their branch to find a beefy turkey buzzard perched there, its sleek black talons splitting the tree’s bark with the intensity of the thing’s grip. It stares at them with its dark, soulless eyes, two bottomless pits, like a black bear gouged its ugly head and broke the claws off in the sockets when he was done. Another vulture lands near the base of the branch and three gulls circle from above as if stalking dead prey.
‘Brother,’ Mousetalon sends quietly, as if he believed the other wingflappers might be dipping into the channel. ‘I believe we’ve been made.’
The pair vultures hiss in haunting unison. The gulls holler a mighty squeal before diving like the Birds of Prey they wish they were. The brothers hawk take off at the last moment, narrowly dodging the two flanking gulls and rejoicing at the muffled hoots of the center one trying to unstick its beak from the branch. No matter how badly they crave it, they cannot look back to see the hilarity ensue; a large black cloud emerges in the sky and casts its inky shadow upon the hawks, but it’s not a cloud at all. It’s the vultures, the turkey vultures! They must have half their entire flock up there, the fiends are blocking out the great shine!
The brothers hawk dive close to the Res’s surface and extend their wings at the last moment, catching a warm thermal and propelling themselves across the Southern Expanse out of the shadow of the buzzards. Bombastic honks blast from all around as the shores grow farther and farther apart and the beavers’ dam draws near. Their pace does not slow yet the shadow of the black buzzard flock catches them, engulfing them in its darkness. Then, the feathers fly – one after another the turkey vultures dive, wings tight, talons clamped beneath their thick tails, ivory beaks forward like the antlers on a charging buck whitetail, and one by one they all miss their mark. Some break and regain altitude while others plummet directly into the Reservoir, too full of shame and grief for failing to embody the will of their Vultress. They cannot go back to her if these hawks live, they’d rather end their lives right here and now. Those meek ones who try swimming do not struggle in the water very long; they’re pulled under and snapped up in a grisly, sharptoothed maw, the maw of a raging false god. The maw of a beast.
The cloud dissipates when the hawks clear Lure Cove, but they don’t dump an iota of their speed. They’ll return to their king the Snake Eater, oh yes, they’ll return to him with all the information he could ever need, but not yet. First, they shall go to the Wanaque Reservoir. First, they shall eat their fill and then some more, and they shan’t be saving even a scrap of fur for the queen.
The brothers hawk eat exceptionally well down below in the neutral zone that is the Wanaque Reservoir, staying clear of Monksville all day, just as The Vultress believed they would. Still, she felt it appropriate to make perch on this branch, the very branch they landed on before her flock chased them off in case their return is as stealthy as their entry was.
That is to say, the decoys fooled no one.
She meant to perch here until shineset and that’s just what she did, but time passes slowly when one waits for nothing to happen, more slowly than a tortoise climbing up a hill – so she had the osprey tag along, and to pass the time, she wove him the sinewy yarn (well, a version of it) of where her vulture flock originated, how they came to Monksville (‘twas called The Crescent Moon Valley when they first arrived), and how High Lúaloch, the wise owl witch doctor, not only found her through the channel, not only welcomed her scrawny and malnourished flock, but how he taught them the purpose of their life.
‘Bones,’ he sent on that day, to an audience of wide-eyed buzzards. ‘Bones make the plants grow. Bones feed the crops the giants plant in the wide fields abundant in this valley you now call home. The bones of any creature will do – mouse, vole, even smallbirds, though they’re much harder to catch; that is my purpose, my new friends, to convert the living to bones and deposit them in the dirt so the crops may grow.’
The owl made a demonstration that night, giving his spectators the show of a lifetime – silent flight, a most incredible trick. The owl had the vultures shut their eyes and then he took off, making no less than seven passes, some coming within a mere feather’s width of the bald, sensitive heads of the vulture flock, all to the awareness of none. Halfway through the fifth pass one of them sent, ‘Is he go’n’a go yet or what?’ and the wise old owl couldn’t help but wish he had the capacity to laugh. Then again, a laugh would have blown his cover, and while five silent passes may be enough to satiate most wingflappers, the witch doctor needed to complete those extra two. He had something to prove; whether that was to himself or the vulture flock was unclear in the moment, but he knew he had to prove it, and prove it he did. The most shocking part: when he had them open their eyes, the flock was greeted by the sight of a dead mouse clenched in the owl’s curved beak. He then consumed it in front of them, and later on in that night which lasted longer than most, he released a plump pellet from his posterior and, given how the vulture flock consumes dead meat on a daily basis, asked one to break his produce apart with its talons and see for themselves what lied inside. So one brave vulture stepped up and did just that, and what did he find? Bones. A complete skeleton relieved of meat and hide as if picked clean by one of the vultures themselves.
‘My body takes in living creatures and strips them of all I may need, then deposits the rest upon the Earth. The bones in my pellets, when discovered by the giants, are always stamped into the ground and buried next to their crop fields, and the crops fed by my poo always rear the largest fruits. Everything is a cycle, my dear new friends,’ he sent, his large eyes smiling, his mighty horns pointed skywards like little mountains protruding from his head. ‘The small rodents are born in the fields, live off the crops planted in the fields, die in the fields, then feed the crops they once lived off. We are much alike, vulture flock, we both pick our carcasses clean; we both complete the cycle of life for other denizens. The only difference is I come in before they’ve perished; you flock come in after the deed’s been done. You perform a service for the Earth that most don’t dare think of, and it’s a beautiful service indeed.’
He gave them the official word of welcome then, and told the flock of a prime nesting ground in the northern end of the river valley where the jungle encroached down the slope around the last stretch of the Wanaque River. Perhaps he told them of this location because he knew of the heron and he didn’t want competition in the way of crawdad slaying, or perhaps he was simply happy to have the company of another mystic in the valley. Regardless, the very next day the flock came upon the slain carcass of a whitetail deer. It was totally intact, aside from what appeared to be a mink-sized burrow into its guts and a cavity at the burrow’s end, but that didn’t perturb them. The first Rite of Renewal was performed that day, and though the owl slept when it happened, he witnessed it in his dream from the perspective of a jay who happened to be flying by. The Vultress visited him that night and did not sleep, nor did the owl hunt; they merely shared in the channel and discussed their theories of where life came from, where one might go after passing through the great transition, why the giants naturally know to care for the land. ‘Twas a lovely and mystical night, one The Vultress still remembers clearly even all these cycles later.
‘His horns were a bit pointier back then,’ The Vultress reflects pleasantly, though Hilaetos could not care less if he tried. ‘They’ve dulled with age, though his mind has only grown sharper.’
She tells many more tales like this – how the hawks once stalked the vultures, how the vultures managed to lose them, how the vultures began to stalk the hawks and clean up all the half-picked carcasses they’d left around, and once all her tales are told, she tells them again, and again, and then again. When the burning edge of the great shine begins its slow descent behind the mountains, The Vultress is claiming for the umpteenth time that the red-tailed hawks deserve to starve for the sheer amount of food they’ve allowed to go to waste over the cycles.
If the osprey has to hear her repeat herself one more time, he’s going to… well, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but it won’t be graceful. Not at all. Not even a little bit.
Finally, when The Vultress starts in on that dreadful story about the backwoods pond with the turtle in it for the umpteen-and-a-halfth time, Sea Hawk Lord Hilaetos of The Sticks flaps his eagle’s wings wildly, kicking up a crosswind. The few small feathers still a’sprout from The Vultress’s head shimmy about, and one of them falls out. Neither make a move as it slowly drifts to the surface of the Reservoir and lands without making a wave.
‘Hilaetos, why have you–’
‘ Highest Vultress,’ the osprey pleads, ‘the day is late and my mind grows hazy as the fog. If I am to meet with the witch doctor tonight – which we both know I intend to do – I must have ample energy.’
‘I don’t see the problem,’ Vultress sends innocently enough. ‘If you mean to send something then send it, do not circle from above like my flock does to deaded meat. You’re no good at it, you don’t have the plumage for the act.’
The osprey is taken aback. Why would he even want to circle over deadmeat, why would any self-respecting Bird of Prey wish to denigrate themselves to such a level where they would actually prefer meat without a pulse, meat with blood that does not flow but rather coagulates into a gross, thick, jelly-like… just why? But, at the same time, ‘And just what’s wrong with my plumage, Highest Vultress? Are my flecks not regal enough for you? Does the white of my chest and arms contrast too vivaciously against the earthy brown of my flight feathers? Please, educate me. I beg it of you.’
If only the Vultress could laugh. ‘No’no, nothing of the sort, Sea Hawk. My flockers are feathered black as a bear is furred, while you are white as bones with the wings of an eagle. You’ve quite the beautiful plumage…’
Upon receiving this, Lord Hilaetos damn near falls off the branch.
‘… but scavenging is not the life for you. The eagles perhaps, but not you.’
‘I cannot help but agree,’ as he anxiously adjusts his footing. ‘Do you know of what the witch doctor wishes to send during my palaver with him tonight?’
The Vultress gives something of a smile – as close to a smile as a turkey vulture can manage – and sends, ‘I do indeed know. Just like you do yourself.’
Hiletos displays confusion. Vultress drops her gaze to the still waters. Not a single wave churns. The surface is a mirror; the Birds of Prey are perched on a lone branch caught between two deep, infinite skies.
‘Even if you will not admit it to yourself, Sea Hawk, you know it as well as I.’
That sent, The Vultress flaps wing and gains altitude before settling into a gentle waft. She glides back to The Sticks alone, deep in thought.
Lord Hilaetos watches The Vultress shrink into the velvet scarlet skyscape until she’s no more than a wing’ed dot. After a moment of catching obnoxious glances from the vultures in the surrounding trees, he rolls his eyes and leaps, taking off for The Basin. As he does, two well-fed hawks top out over the dam and land for a quick rest before making their stealthy return trip.
Across the Northern Leg, masses of vultures and gulls alike lift in clouds from the shores and the trees.
The witch doctor is woken by the distant scream of a pair eagles. An osprey’s shriek follows this scream, but ‘tis not a shriek of war. Discerning the purpose of the shriek will have to wait, though; the time for Lúaloch to rise is not yet upon Monksville. Bright golden rays still ignite the floor of his hollow, but the owl is not a meek homemaker – this tree hollow has levels, and Lúaloch sleeps soundly in his raised nest at the top where darkness encroaches even on the brightest of summer days. Still… perhaps he should up and rise. He’s to attend a meeting with royalty, after all.
Last night’s gamehunting endeavor was a successful one. Moments after Lúaloch emerged from his hollow he heard the unmistakable thump’thump of the beating of a ‘munkie’s heart from below. He slowly glanced down and, son of a munk’, there it was, just sitting there panting. It tried to make a move for one of the many holes in the long pile of rocks when it noticed the phantasm descending from above, but the owl was too fast. The owl is always too fast. Had it the brains the ‘munkie would have rejoiced – its cycle had been brought one flap closer to completion, and soon the inland giant village would grow a healthy crop.
The owl’s tree stands at the end of a long wall of piled rocks, likely left behind by whoever lived here before the current tribe of giants claimed their residence from the strange cloaked beings. The owl’s lived in this valley ever since it was an actual valley and he never saw those two cloaks before the day the giants appeared from below the waterfall. They didn’t possess a malignant aura, yet their presence felt off all the same. Displaced, one could say, or perhaps unstuck. Or perhaps they lived here all along and they simply evaded the eyes of the old witch doctor, it’s surely possible. Tremendously unlikely, believe you me, but possible; only one denizen in these forests has been known to evade the owl, a landwalker of a tan coat, its tail the length of its body, its eyes a ghostly yellow-green.
But that beast hasn’t shown its face for many’a cycle. There is a new beast in the valley today, that much is sure, but The Beast has no quarrel with the owl. Lúaloch is a wingflapper and The Beast is a lakebreather, and that’s all the witch doctor needs to know on the subject.
Lúaloch nods off, not entirely on purpose. The Lord of The Sticks is left to wait.
If the channel was not open, Lysander would have torn it open by talon and beak.
‘You’ve gone mad, Sea Hawk, and you’ll not drag us down with you!’
The osprey perches alone on a skinny tree branch. Below him, perched on a branch of a different tree, stands the pair eagles. The vulture flock and the dayguard have both returned to the keep. The many batboxes stir as the nightguard begins to wake.
The osprey flaps his wings once, and swiftly at that, as if to wave the bald eagle off. Lysandra shoots Hilaetos a sour look for this, but sends nothing.
‘You call me mad, Lysander, but I am the only sane one left. The hawks are Birds of Prey just like yourself, just like the gulls, just like the vultures.’
‘The damn gulls aren’t Birds of Prey!’ sends Lysandra, entering into the fray. ‘They’re Birds of Lake dorming here under conscription and nothing else, and you know it to be true! They are servants to The Sticks, same as the bats and buzzards and us, same as you… or have you forgotten you are not the biggest wingflapper on Monksville?’
‘If you have,’ Lysander continues, ‘we would be happy, no, we would be honored to remind you of your true size.’
The osprey makes to take a step backwards, then he remembers he’s on a skinny branch. ‘Even so, you’re only proving my point. You reserve a hospitality for a sect of Birds of Lake while at the same time turning your tail-feathers on a flock of fellow Birds of Prey. It’s shameful, pair eagles, and I am guilty of it too; we disgracefully turn our backs on our own kind and give support to those who we once considered our enemy.’
The eagles stare solemnly at the osprey. Then, ‘Once an enemy is now a friend. The hawks have never been a friend to Monksville, Hi–’
‘Nor were you two upon arrival. Then I flapped in and convinced The Vultress otherwise, and in return I’ve asked nothing. Perhaps we bicker over the wrong matter, perhaps it is the vulture flock that should be evicted. They’re neither Birds of Prey nor Lake, they merely clean up the scraps left behind by their neighbors.’
‘The vulture flock has been here the longest of all of you,’ sends the mind of the old witch doctor, its presence ghastly and foreign in the heads of the other flappers of wing, ‘and they shall not be removed from their rightful homeland, Hilaetos. Rest well now, high pair eagles; your Sea Hawk and I have much to discuss.’
With that the channel closes, as if by command, and the pair eagles look smugly into the osprey’s eyes. They then take for the trees where a small nest awaits them. They’ve been planning for a family for a few cycles now, but they cannot rear eaglets in The Sticks, the petrified jungle is too crowded. They know better than to assume none will come flapping in search of an easy meal – Eggs of Lake are known to fill a hungry belly during the annual hatching come springtime; if anything, a hearty Egg of Prey is more desirable, as it offers sustenance along with bragging rights.
The osprey takes flight into the fleeting light of the shineset, making for North Cove.
The Great Transition
‘Jemcis, my queen,’ sends Mousetalon upon landing on the plateau. Scartail joins him shortly after and bows low, his beak a feather’s width from the rock.
‘Scouts,’ Queen Jemcis sends, solitary in her nest. The Wanaque River babbles below, the sound of its undulating flow soothing to the ears of the tired hawks. ‘What report do you have for me?’
The brothers hawk look to each other from the sides of their sepia eyes, never facing away from their queen. She roosts alone in her nest this evening and their king is nowhere to be found. A peculiar energy grips the air, they can all feel it, though one pretends not to. Another hawk circles above, a hawk with shoulders feathered as its tail should be.
‘Where is King Beuto?’
The queen sends nothing, she merely gazes down at her scouts with eyes half-shut, appearing sleepy, but the scouts know better. The queen eats well daily, better than the brothers hawk ate today – she’s ample energy for an attack, and if it comes – when it comes – it shall come suddenly and unprovoked. A shriek echoes from above, driving peculiarity into graveness.
‘The vultures and gulls perch sneakily beneath the canopy,’ sends Scartail. His brother looks to him warily and turns back to see the queen staring at him with eyes that strike like lightning. ‘When soaring in the clouds we didn’t see much, the Res’ appeared empty and barren. But when we swooped low and took perch in North Cove, we saw them – they perch on the shoreline and in the trees which grow there. They likely appear as invisible to the surfaceswimming lakebreathers as they did to us.’
The hawk queen turns her head to face Scartail with a look that drives a tremor through his bones. He wants to look to his brother for comfort, support, anything, but he simply cannot.
‘You landed in North Cove?’
‘Yes, High Queen Jemcis, w–’
‘And were you spotted?’
The brothers hawk taste fear writhing in their beaks. They swallow it in awkward unison, making a loud gulp.
Mousetalon is the one to send. ‘We were, High Queen Jemcis, and we were pursued by buzzard and gull alike. They made attempts at our lives but we outmaneuvered them easily enough. We were followed into the Southern Expanse, but as we neared the beavers’ dam they relented their pursuit.’
Jemcis processes this, peering skywards as she does. She makes no attempt to hide this peering. ‘And then you returned?’
Another side-eyed glance goes shared by the brothers hawk. The blood of the red-tailed queen boils.
‘Enough stalling, send it!’
‘We made a detour, my queen,’ sends Scartail, ‘to the forests of the wildlands, far past where the giants settle. The food is ample there and the skies are unguarded, it seems to be a land of splendor. We could likely flock there today without retribution if we move swiftly enough. The opportunity may nev–’
‘You disobeyed me, then.’ The queen peers to the sky again and the channel closes for a moment, or rather it narrows. The brothers hawk, more aware of the change than oblivious to it, splay their flight feathers in a show of nervous aggression. It’s a poor show, one not taken kindly by their queen.
‘With all due respect,’ once his feathers have flattened, ‘’twas not you who gave our orders. I ask again, where is King Beuto, my queen?’
The hawk above shrieks again, and though they can’t see it, Hawk King Laentus wears a dirty smirk beneath his blood red eyes. This should answer their question – should have answered it before it was asked, surely – but these are red-tailed hawks, and they are cultier than other Birds of Prey. They do not associate with wingflappers of other flocks, not even with other hawk flocks (well, save for one red-tail foreigner, one who demands sacrifices be made in her name); they are not very worldly and they are not very wise, and so they stay oblivious to their new king circling in the sky.
It’s now High Queen Jemcis who smirks dirtily, and the brothers hawk begin to hear the message. To drive it home, she sends, ‘The old Snake Eater has passed through the great transition, and not long after he sent you off.’
The hawk scouts go still upon receiving this thought, their blood growing chilled as the evening does the same. For a moment – a long, breathless moment – neither send a thing. They merely perch there on that flat-topped rock, that plateaued crag hanging high above the source of the Monksville and Wanaque Reservoirs, as their brains spin and a bleak ooze of mourning puts weight in their hearts. They did not love King Beuto, the old king didn’t even love himself, but he led them from the impoverished hell that was Green Turtle Pond. Though the food supply around the river is short in current cycles, it was not always like this. Beuto brought them from starvation into splendor, even though that splendor did not last long; he deserves to be mourned. He deserves a ceremony to see him off, at the very least. A vultric Rite of Renewal, mayhap, but that could never happen. Would never happen. Not after what happened before the hawks flocked Green Turtle Pond.
The extended silence puts Jemcis on edge. She lifts from the nest and flaps wing twice – once to go airborne and once to soften her landing. Between those flaps, she executes a swift glide and roll with her talons drawn and clips the wing of Mousetalon. The scout hawk is pushed back but lands on one knee – Scartail doesn’t dare look, even as his brother begins to chwirk in pain. Above, the circling hawk watches as the last fragment of daylight is swallowed up by the encroaching starpool. He watches it all with eyes as hungry as the bottomless pit in his chest.
As if nothing happened, Jemcis sends, ‘So, they have guards stationed across the Northern Leg in positions hidden to the flying eye, guards primed to pursue… how did you return?’
‘Via the Wanaque River, my queen,’ Scartail sends, his talons clenched tightly. White streaks are scored into the crag. ‘Just as instructed.’
‘And you were not chased?’
‘We heard a battle scream, likely from the bald eagles, but there was another shriek.’
The hawk queen waits patiently, her eyes wide.
‘It was not the call of a vulture, of that much I am sure. Couldn’t have been a gull either; those white-winged rats may flock with the Birds of Prey, but they are of Lake in nature. They cannot make our calls.’
The channel is quiet for a long moment. Mousetalon summons all of his strength to straighten his bent leg and stands up tall. A small trickle of blood drips down from his shoulder and stains the crag with rust. Then, Jemcis sends once more.
‘You’ve gathered very useful information for our flock, boys. Despite your full bellies and lack of an offering for your queen, I graciously thank you both. Now, begone; the king and I have much planning to do.’
‘The king?’ Scartail sends, his tone bewildered. ‘But, my queen, you said King Beu–’
A terrible war shriek from above provides Scartail his explanation. The channel closes as the scouts fly away. Mousetalon’s wingflap is a hobble and nothing else.
Snake Eater High Laentus swoops low and lands in the nest beside his queen, his scarlet shoulder feathers fluffed from the high-altitude crosswinds he rode like a leaf on a wave. The channel opens narrow and they share many thoughts. The fate of Monksville’s avian kingdom is sealed.
Green Turtle Pond
The osprey meets the owl at North Cove. They land upon the branch scored by talons and the beak of an ambitious seagull, the very branch upon which The Vultress told her stories many times earlier in the day. The night’s chill seizes the air as the two Birds of Prey stare intently into one another’s eyes, one another’s souls, neither backing down, neither relinquishing dominance, neither so much as blinking a single eye. Then, the witch doctor balances on one taloned foot, spans his wings wide, and swivels his head ‘round and ‘round, releasing a series of ethereal hoots. The osprey submits, bending his legs in a bow.
‘High Lord Hilaetos,’ sends the witch doctor, returning to mortal perch.
‘High Lúaloch,’ sends the osprey, holding his bow.
A bright sliver of moon emerges from behind the tall snowcapped mountain, painting the lake a ghostly silver.
‘What reason have you for your quarrel with the keep you perch and serve, Lord Hilaetos? Is The Sticks not vast enough for your liking? Do you have nowhere to roost?’
‘The Sticks is a grand keep, Lúaloch, and The Basin a spectacular courtyard. I’m very grateful for my position on this lake, you know it to be true; my quarrel is not with any of Monksville’s kingdoms, especially not my own, but with those who lie outside the jungle in which I roost at night.’
‘The hawks of the scarlet tails, yes,’ Lúaloch sends, bobbing his head in a nod. ‘They’ve outgrown their home along the river which feeds our lake, it seems.’
‘Not so, witch doctor.’
Lúaloch waits for the osprey to expound, but the Sea Hawk seems content with his statement. ‘Then why do they flock to our waters, Lord Hilaetos?’
At this ridiculous remark, from a flapper of wing so exalted as Monksville’s screeching nocturne no less, the osprey cannot help but roll his tired eyes. Lúaloch waits patiently on the branch, getting ready to swivel his head again if need be.
‘These waters are not ours, High Lúaloch, you know it as well as I do. We occupy these trees on borrowed time; sooner or later we shall all perish, none know that better than you. Our lives are sustained on the death of lesser beings, and I don’t mean to change that in the slightest – nothing brings me joy like snagging a lakebreather and emerging from the water in the fashion of High Dopper – but our position here is not guaranteed.’
The owl closes his eye of blurred sight and looks the osprey up and down with the other. ‘You seem different to me tonight, Lord Hilaetos, changed in your mind. These notions you send of, these are thoughts I’ve received from The Vultress. What brought you to these conclusions?’
‘I suppose I’ve always felt this way, High Lúaloch, ever since the day of my hatching. To eat we must first kill, and when we are killed it’s done unto us so something larger may eat as well. Whether that something larger be a proud wingflapper, a hairy landwalker, the slimiest of lakebreathers, or even the Mother Monksville herself, our death sustains the life of another. It is so because a higher intelligence makes it so.’
Lúaloch nods in patient understanding but fails to see where this is going; so much is apparent in his stare, as blank as the look on any ‘munkie’s face.
‘We exclude the hawks from our flocking grounds for what reason, their flock is large in number? They’ve been meaning to roost here since many and many’a cycle ago, and no matter how many of them are chased off, they keep coming back. Something is bringing them here, do you not see? Perhaps it is foolish to fly against the wind.’
The screeching nocturne cannot sigh, so he droops his horns instead. As the landscape darkens around Lord Hilaetos, it only grows clearer in the eyes of the owl.
‘You speak so surely on matters of which you know nothing about, Lord Hilaetos. I do admire your conviction and envy your confidence, but I am afraid I must break both. There are things you do not know about the hawk flock and the vulture flock, a certain history you’d do very well to learn.’
The osprey sends, ‘I’m all ears,’ and fails to fight the temptation to chwirk at the irony; although, if birds were to communicate with sounds in the physical realm like the doting landwalkers, perhaps the wind would blow differently. Perhaps things would be better.
Or perhaps they would be worse.
‘Long ago, before the giants herded to the valley, I was the lone resident of what now is The Sticks. The ‘munkies ran rampant and the squirrels nested in the trees as Birds of Prey do now. I had a hollow, similar to my home near Muskellunge Cove, but not as grand, not as deep. During that time, the vultures flocked to Green Turtle Pond and held perch there, much like they do in The Sticks now. But that all changed when the hawk flock arrived.
‘A mighty creature, a reptilian goliath with a shell of armor and jaws that could split a tree trunk lived at the bottom of that pond. It did not have a name, not one The Vultress could find – she probed his mind from time to time, shared the channel with the turtle, but it rarely sent any thought. Didn’t seem to receive any, either, although that much is impossible to know. The pond belonged to the turtle and the vultures were its guests, and they knew it beyond truth. Other turtles occupied this pond with the behemoth, turtles of smaller shell and more tepid temper, turtles that would sooner eat of the coontail stalks which sprout from the pond’s floor than so much as nibble on the leg of another denizen. The only rule was to refrain from consuming the smaller turtles, and the vulture flock obeyed – only after they perished would the vultures pick the carcasses, and from the behemoth’s single rule The Vultress’s religion has its roots. Her flockers fell into it immediately, grateful for an explanation for why they, unlike most other flappers of wing, crave the taste of rancid deaded meat. They lived together in harmony for many cycles, the vultures and the turtles, engaging in a certain kind of symbiosis that neither I nor The Vultress have seen since.’
The osprey wonders, privately, when the witch doctor would have seen any symbiosis between other species, for he’s not left the spread of Monksville once since the osprey himself arrived.
‘Then, on a particularly bright spring day, a small dole of turtles had climbed up on a large rock bound to the eastern shore of the pond. The rock was covered in moss on the top, but the sides were bare and easily climbable. No less than four and no more than seven young turtles – the number seems to change each time I try to remember it, as though the reality around us has phased since then – were basking on the rock’s mossy carpet, absorbing the warming rays of the great shine and raising their blood to a soothing boil. They never heard the hawks coming… not that it would have made a difference. Turtles are speedy in the water, but on land? They’re slower than a tortoise, and equally as bumbling. None of the dole survived, but then again, neither did the hawks – the snapper rose from the water and, in horror, slipped into a vicious bloodrage, decimating every one of the unwelcomed guests, though he did not consume a single one of his kills. The vultures ate well that day, though the weight in their fattened bellies was heavy long after the food digested.’
Hilaetos shudders at the thought of such merciless avian slaughter. The owl’s relieved at this; perhaps there is hope left in him.
‘The next day, The Vultress had her entire flock perch in guard stance in the canopy around the pond whilst she went searching for food. She was gone from shinerise to shineset, as she had much food to gather for her hungry flock of scavengers, and even as she flapped in return, she could sense something was very wrong. The channel was quiet, deserted, as if her flock had flown the coop… if only they had flown the coop. Perhaps things would now be different. Perhaps the straits would not be so dire.’
‘But they didn’t,’ injects the osprey, absorbed by the owl’s tale, ‘did they?’
‘No. They are a good flock, obedient to The Vultress first and the snapping turtle second, steadfastly so. When The Vultress returned, she nearly dropped wing and fell from the sky out of pure astonishment. The vultures, her flock… they were dead, all of them, slain by the red-tails, their carcasses picked clean as if by her own kind. Slain turtles were scattered amongst the dead as well, but not the snapper. The snapper is powerful, truly a force to be reckoned with, but he is not without wit. He knows when he is outnumbered. The Vultress shared a channel with him briefly before fleeing, and they exchanged thoughts.’
‘A landwalker, sending through the channel?’ Lord Hilaetos sends, his wings flapping wildly. ‘Impossible!’
‘‘Twas a lakewalker, Lord Hilaetos, a hybrid of sorts. Not many of them exist; no wingflapper knows what they are capable of.’
Hilaetos calms down and folds his wings. ‘What did the scaled thing send, then?’
‘It sent, Bare southeast and flap, High Vultress, there are deeper ponds than this. It was the last she heard from him, the last anyone heard from him. One day I felt a new presence in the channel and flapped to the north end of the valley and found her perched on a branch, her eyes jeweled with hot tears of sorrow. The only upside was that she had been prepared for The Hatching.’ The owl nods fondly as he sends this, then, ‘I helped her raise that first batch of hatchlings. You’d be amazed; though their feathers are dark as night in maturity, the vulture chicks come out white as the full moon. Like little shaking balls of snow they are, with gray beaked faces.’
The osprey pictures the size of the vulture flock now and his mind begins to spin with the implications of this new information he’s received. The owl, aware of the Sea Hawk’s distress, continues as he was.
‘Many vultures have come and gone since then. She’s bred with many travelers, even when they did not stay to help raise their young, all for the sake of her flock. It is all she has; The Vultress truly is a mother at heart, a mother to many and a grandmother to more. You may not see this side of her, osprey, but know it is there. Know it very well.’
The owl turns then to take off into the night. Hilaetos, wanting not to be left alone in the darkness, sends, ‘Wait! Surely you’ve more to tell me, highest witch doctor. Surely you didn’t summon me to your presence to tell stories of times long passed. Surely you’ll explain to me why The Vultress sent me a vastly different tale today than that which you’ve sent me tonight?’
‘There’s nothing else to tell, Hilaetos. You know as well as I what direction the wind blows; whether you fly with it or against it will be decided in due time. When the seasons change you’ll not be forced to change with them; the choice will be yours to make.’
With that the old owl flaps wing and leaves a slight bounce in the branch, closing the channel in his wake. The osprey grips the swaying perch with all his might, flapping his wings to keep balance until the tree stills like the surface of the Reservoir. He leers into the darkness to the east and sees little, then into the south and sees less. Fine, then; Sea Hawk Hilaetos, Lord of The Sticks, shall roost in North Cove on this night. The fluffy winter down sprouting beneath his feathers wards off the chill of the air and he falls peacefully into sleep.
Time Will Tell
The chattering of a lone squirrel attracts the witch doctor to the rocky shores of the Minelands. He strikes silently and true, opening a vacancy within a rogue nest of the rank squirrelhorde. The channel opens narrow, though it is stretched a great distance.
‘How did it go?’ sends The Vultress, her eyelids heavy with sleep. Sending thought over a distance is easy work when the air is clear as it is tonight, but the day was long and the Vultress is nodding.
‘He knows what he must know,’ returns Lúaloch as he plucks the useless tail from his kill. Perhaps he’ll leave it next to his pellet in the gardens so a giant may craft a hat. ‘The decision is his to make, High Vultress. You know as well as I we musn’t interfere with the movements of the mortals. If they’re to learn, they must fail and do it themselves.’
‘I do indeed, High Lúaloch, but I fear for my flock. We cannot flee from Monksville, another turkey vulture flock populates the lowlands and we’ve nowhere else to go. With the cycle’s end on the horizon we would not survive the flight, let alone the upcoming winter. The famine is always worse in the wintertime…’
‘I know it well, High Vultress.’ The owl rips the head from the squirrel and tosses it casually to the branch to be enjoyed as dessert, or maybe just to be left there. ‘Though you may have no cause to worry.’
Vultress sends silence embedded with sad laughter. ‘You have faith in our Lord of The Sticks?’
Lúaloch pauses for a moment, his beak open at the cusp of the squirrel’s sealed belly. He can feel the ganked landwalker’s fading heat. It makes his stomach growl. ‘I wouldn’t send that. His decision may not matter, High Vultress; the tides churn as they will, regardless of what floats in the waters. The keep of Monksville is wide and offers many places to roost.’
‘My flock will not leave The Sticks, Lúaloch.’
With the rich taste of rodent blood warming his heart, Lúaloch sends, ‘Time will tell if you send true. Now sleep, High Vultress, and flap wing through the place of dreams, for our work with the osprey is done and I have many lifecycles to complete.’
Deep in the bowels of The Sticks, The Vultress grants herself a small smile. ‘Hunt well then, High Lúaloch. May Mother Monksville provide you many morsels before the great shine rises come morn’.’
‘Aye,’ Lúaloch sends. As he tears off the squirrel’s first leg, the channel quietly shuts, and The Vultress falls into slumber.
The final days of the cycle are bitter and cold. More hawks come and go through The Sticks; not a single one of them is felled, despite uproarious protests both sent and received through the channel. Many gulls give in to starvation and provide a hearty meal for that beastly thing which ever lurks below the surface.
The turkey vulture flock, headed by The Vultress without fear in her flap, deserts The Sticks and leaves the petrified jungle to Hilaetos and the pair eagles. Some gulls flee for the Southern Expanse on the tail feathers of the vulture flock, but the captain of the dayguard ensures some numbers remain behind. The nightguard enters a deep hibernation, and The Early Birds keep far, far away from the Northern Leg.
Autumn gives way to winter. The first days of the seventh cycle are deceptively mild as a rogue warm front blows through the mountains, but still the food supply grows thinner with each rise and fall of the great shine. The osprey makes himself scarce during most days and the pair eagles keep to the forests east of The Basin, near the grassy shore where giants lay on blankets to bathe in the rays of the great shine during the summer season. The game is not plentiful but the eagles eat well enough, though they’re sure they won’t be participating in The Hatching come springtime. If they make it to springtime, that is.
One day, the pair eagles are drawn back to The Sticks from the forests around The Basin by the shrill sound of a pained croon, a sound which could only be made by one certain bird.