Saturday, August 17, 2013

Fiction: The Old Bird of the Shackles

My gaming group, the Diplomancers, spent much of the last year meeting every Thursday night to play a Pathfinder adventure called The Carrion Crown. About halfway through, some of us actually wrote up the backstories to the characters we'd already been playing for months. This was the secret origin of Roy Raven, my bardish thief, who later found religion.

The Shackles are the home of pirate lords and smuggler kings, with ruined towers dotting its islands and rocky outcroppings, carved with images of cannibal cults and terrible tentacled things never seen by living eyes. With an unending hurricane and the lawless and savage Sodden Lands to the north, the harsh and unforgiving Terwa Uplands to the east, the Shackles are also home to those who are too helpless, too hungry, or simply too forgotten to live anywhere else.

Sandy was one of the hungry. A decade and more ago he had tried his hand at buccaneering, robbing, and raping, but quickly found that while his cutlass was willing, he simply hadn’t the heart of a ruthless ravager. His first time boarding a merchant vessel he puked over the side when he witnessed one of his fellows disembowel the other ship’s boatswain, and the second time he himself jumped overboard and swam to shore, either unnoticed by the pirates or mistaken for a drifting corpse. He drifted to shore on Motaku Isle, fell in love in the warrens of Quent, and took over an abandoned farm on the outskirts of the jungle, hoping to raise his new family there, astounded at the good fortune that had led him away from a murderous life and to one of love and stability.

Of course, nothing stays dry for long in the Shackles.

Sandy’s family grew to three children and a wife he adored, and worked hard for. But growing crops on the rocky Motaku Isle was ever a challenge, and more often than not the nearby Eye of Abendego, a hurricane that had been raging for centuries, would send hellstorms that would drown even the simplest, hardiest harvest.

“I’ve no skills,” he admitted to his wife one night, when the children were in bed and presumed to be asleep. “The only thing I’ve ever been good at escaping with my life when everyone around me was dying on a pirate’s blade.”

“You were absurdly lucky,” said his wife. “Maybe you can put that luck to good use?”

The islands and rocky atolls of the Shackles called to adventurers seeking treasure and heroic challenges. They also called to Sandy, who sought food and comfort for those who mattered to him most.

There was one particular atoll, difficult to reach due to rocky spires that lurked just below the water’s surface, but which was perhaps the last hope for a hungry man with hungrier babies at home. Sandy rowed carefully, his eyes always on the water around him. The rocks and ruins he glided over could end his trip if he skirted too close and one punctured his small skiff.

It was a thing of wood that Sandy had borrowed from one of his neighbors. Old Edward would already have discovered it was missing, and was no doubt cursing Sandy for a fool that would likely never return. But if Sandy returned with what he was seeking, Old Edward would be too busy eating to be angry. And if Sandy didn’t return, well, he wouldn’t have to listen to Old Edward shouting at him anyway.

He could see his goal in the distance, through the fog of the sea. It was a tower, slender and tall, rising above the waves. Not terribly tall, but straight and strong enough to have withstood wind and water and the terror of the storms caused by the Eye of Abendengo.

It was there that hope was said to still live.

Sandy had heard of the tengu, but had never seen one with his own eyes. They were said to be good luck on ships, if only because the birdfolk attracted all of the spare bad luck to themselves. And in Quent, the largest city on Motaku Isle, there was tengu rookery that was known to be a den of avarice and sin. He knew of taverns there that would occasionally serve tengu eggs, for a few hours raking in fistfuls of gold from the curious, and before a murder of tengu descended on the place to shut it down and run off those who had gathered to eat the tengus’ unborn. But here in this tower there was rumored to be a tengu nest unprotected by what passed for birdfolk warriors, and even if some civilized men (like Old Edward) would frown on eating the eggs of intelligent humanoids, Sandy had a family feed. And, if his conscience got the better of him again, he could sell the eggs to buy food that didn’t have its own part of town in several civilized cities.

Sandy’s boat bumped into a rocky shoal under the water, and the sound scraped against the bottom of his wooden boat. He would have to slow to keep his boat safe, using his oar as a pole that would propel him off of or away from the ruins under the waves. Sandy’s boat coasted to where the tower met the sea. It rose straight from the water, its base down below the sickly lapping waves. He pushed his way around and found a hole in the tower wall at the waterline just large enough to glide his skiff through.

It was dark inside the tower, and the sound of the water echoed around him. A spiral staircase, carved of stone from the interior wall of the tower itself, curved and rose above him, broken in places by time and the salty sea. More than sixty feet above Sandy there was a wooden landing, and sunlight broke through it in places. If there was an isolated tengu nest here, that was the most likely place for it.

He glided the small skiff to where the stone stairs rose from the gently lapping waves. The stairs were so worn -- and so wobbly and weak in places -- he had to move up them on all fours, hand over hand and foot over foot. He stopped every few moments to listen for evidence of his quarry up above, but he could hear nothing but the echoes of the water and his own guilty heart.

When Sandy reached the landing he was momentarily blinded by the sudden sunlight. The roof of the tower had been torn away -- by what, he couldn’t say -- and the landing itself was a tangle of rotten and sea-stained wood, moldering burlap sacks, and detritus gathered from who knows where.

There, in one back corner, under the last remaining vestige of the stony ceiling, was the shadowed form of what could be one of the birdfolk, the tengu. Over the sounds of the sea all around, Sandy could hear labored breathing and the wheezing of a creature most certainly close to death.

Sandy’s heart sank. What if there was a tengu here, and it was already spent and nearly dead? He didn’t know if he had the heart to put it out of its misery (which meant he surely wouldn’t have had the heart to kill it and steal its eggs), and then paddle his way home with nothing to show for his voyage, or this theft of Old Edward’s skiff.

“Hello?” said Sandy. He pulled a simple dagger from his belt, feeling quite rude and boorish for drawing a weapon in what clearly a stranger’s home. “I’m sorry,” he said, feeling immediately foolish for apologizing to a creature he’d not yet met, and from whom he’d intended to steal that which was surely most precious to it.

There was a rattle of breath from the shadowed corner, followed by a wracking cough.

“My doom,” said a voice unseen, “comes to greet me, it seems.”

“Hello,” Sandy said again, feeling quite foolish all over again. A vision came to him of his babies crying for food, and of Old Edward admonishing him for stealing his skiff. “I’m afraid I may have come to rob you.”

The shadows in the corner collected themselves and shifted and moved. Sandy took a step back and nearly dropped his dagger, so slick from sweat were his palms.

“You have come to kill me,” said the thing he still could not properly see. “In days past, when one came clambering up my stairs I would rain oil and arrows down upon the burglaring bumbler. But I am old now, and ill.”

The things shuffled into the sunlight, but the smell of it hit Sandy before the sight. It smelled of old meat, wet feathers, and rot. It smelled of something sick and dreadful, and it moved much the same. It was one of the birdfolk, true, but it had a broken arm (a broken wing?), and a hollow mess of red where one beady eye had once been. Its beak was cracked and askew, and its feathers were matted and torn where they weren’t missing altogether.

Sandy backed up further, and startled himself when he backed into the tower wall. He drew in a gasp of breath at the sight of the poor creature before him, and was flooded with pity. It’s why he made a poor marauder, and an even worse thief. He had no heart for killing or the taking of another’s property, and though he wasn’t particularly strong or especially bright, he would rather aid a helpless creature than take from it.

“What’s done this to you?” said Sandy.

The wheezing old tengu doubled over with a wracking cough that Sandy soon realized was a laugh.

“Time,” the thing said. “I am old, human-man. I am 64, and though I don’t know how long your kind naturally survive, that is a respectably lamentable age for the tengu. Age has inflicted much of the damage you see before you. The rest was courtesy of an especially brutish pirate band, the remains of which you see there.”

Sandy looked down and into another corner of the tower landing, where he saw the sunbleached bones of several canine-skulled creatures. They had been gnolls when they were alive, hyena-humanoids it was best to avoid whether on land or at sea. This tengu of the tower had been accosted by them, and they had undoubtedly planned to do precisely what Sandy had come to do: kill her, and take away her eggs.

“Is there anything I can do?” he said. “To help you, I mean. I don’t really have much, in fact, I --”

The tengu wheeze-laughed again, sitting down where she stood, as if the effort of walking and talking was altogether too much for her.

“You can put me out of misery,” she said, “as you no doubt intended to do when you broached my tower. I have lived here long, and I have defended this place from the likes of you just as long. You would come for my treasure, or my eggs, or simply the glory of killing a lonely sea-druid. Which was it that called you across the waves, pink one?”

Sandy shook his head, with every intention of denying the truth of her accusations, but he could not keep his eyes from flickering behind her, to where her nest must be.

She shuddered and coughed again. “My eggs,” she said. “You came for food, is that it? You have the look of a hungry one. But you come alone, which means you must have someone waiting for you back home. Little ones, perhaps? Or a nagging she-man who demands you provide?”

“She does not nag,” said Sandy. “She tries her best as well, but the truth is, neither of us are very good at, well. Anything. But there are little ones. They’re much better than us, or at least better than me. They’re good. They love hearing music. They love to play together, and they’re never cruel. But life here is so hard.”

“Is it?” said the tengu. “Is it hard where you live, on land, surrounded by fishable waters and lush green plants? By neighbors who would help you in hard times? By family and friends? Is it hard there, where you live among others, never driven off a ship when your good luck charms wore off? Or out from a settlement because the humans drew tired of your ways, of your strange smells, of your beady eyes? Is it a hard life for you?”

Sandy’s face grew hot, and he could not look her in her one remaining eye.

When he finally looked up, she had sagged even closer to the ground. Whether he put her out of her misery or not, this creature was not long for the world.

“There is something you can do,” she said. “I have little treasure, but if there is anything in my worldly goods that will help you, you may take them. I am old, but I and all of mine have been fertile all of our days. There’s many of my own kind who make the treacherous trip to this tower as well, to gain the favor of Ruk, the Feathered Druid of the Sea. I have a nest of eggs here, and you may take them as well. You may feed them to your little ones, you beast of a man -- all but one. One egg you must swear to hatch and raise as your own, and you must swear to treat the chick as equal to your little ones. You must not force it to lay its own eggs for you, should it be a maiden. Raise the little birdling as your own, but with full knowledge of who they are and from whence they come. Do that, and the rest of my eggs shall be yours.”

Sandy though it over for merely a moment. What else could he do?

“What’s to ensure I keep my promise?” he said.

“Do the men of the Shackles keep their word?” said Ruk.

“Not most,” said Sandy. “But the good ones do.”

“Then do, if you are a good one,” said the tengu. “If you are not, and you mean to trick me: tell me so, and kill me before I can curse the day you rowed to my tower.”

“And yourself?”

“Leave me be. I may have one last spell in me yet, and I would give myself to the gods under my own power, if I may.”

Sandy agreed, and gathered Ruk’s eggs into a sturdy burlap sack she provided. There was little else useful to him in her tower, though he agreed to take a momento from her that he would pass on to her chick when the little birdling was old enough to understand: a compass, seemingly normal and with no shine or sheen to draw attention to it, but tingly to the touch for reasons Sandy could not understand.

The voyage back to shore seemed even longer than the trip to the tower, and the sound of the tengu druid’s wheezing laugh would not leave Sandy’s ears.

Back home he apologized to Old Edward for the theft of his skiff, but as recompense he gave the old man the largest of the tengu eggs. “You can sell it if you want to,” said Sandy. “It will surely fetch a high price.”

“What will you do with yours?” asked Old Edward.

“Feed my family,” said Sandy. “For a little while, at least.”

He told his wife of the promise he’d made to Ruk, and within a week they were the adoptive parents of a small, screeching black-feathered boy.

“What will we call it?” asked Sandy’s wife.

“Him. At least, I think it’s a him. We’ll call him -- Roy, after an old uncle.”

“But -- he, he’ll not have our last name,” said his wife.

“No, that wouldn’t do,” said Sandy, remembering another part of his promise to the old tengu: that the chick should always know his own origins.

“What was his family’s name?” asked Sandy’s wife.

“I don’t know … he had the head of a raven.”

“Raven, then,” she said. “We’ll call him Roy Raven.”

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