The smell was terrible, rancid, foul, and the reason was not hard to descry. The walls were lined with nests and bird-infested niches. Their droppings dripped from grimy ledges, caking the walls and floor with a thick, white, crumbling mass—the bird shit of ages, mixed with feathers, twigs, seed husks, detritus of every description. If this was the treasure room the knights had sought, Gorlen thought they must be gravely disappointed.
But when his eyes adjusted to the late-afternoon light, he let out a gasp, for in every niche and nest were glittering colors and gleaming facets, as if the nightmare had converted to a fancy. As he jumped to his feet, the crumbling floor shifted and broke away beneath his tread, revealing itself to be an amalgam of jewels and guano, the foul and the precious inextricably blended as if in a precious, foul-smelling nougat.
Not all that glittered was mineral wealth, however. A great many beady gleaming specks belonged to the eyes of the thousands upon thousands of rooks that watched over them.
“Do you suppose,” Gorlen said, “that whatever lord once lived here, and created all the traps that plague this place, also set these rooks as guardians, and gave them the wits to contrive elaborate snares of their own?”
“I believe you speculate unnecessarily, and attribute perhaps too much power to supernatural revenants, when the truth is that the wit and cunning of birds is older by far than the works of man, and whatever lord came to the practice of snares, came to it late. The first man to weave a snare learned by studying birds, and humans have survived by dint of lessons learned in the sheltering shadow of the elder winged race.”
Gorlen considered this. “The knights believe they have found their lord.”
“The birds are clever indeed to have lured them with such a dazzling belief, yet I believe all they really wanted is the shiny baubles these knights represent.”
“If only we were half as clever, we might find a way out of this.”
Spar nodded toward the threshold, through which a wild-eyed Glaustus Apf was now wandering. His sword was drawn and gory, and he carried the severed head of the old knight Gorlen had drunk with that morning. Looking down, Apf appeared to recognize the head for the first time. He dropped it with a shrug of resignation that did not disguise his disquiet.
Behind him, the bloody and bedraggled remnant of his company followed. They must have been strong, resourceful men indeed, for it looked as though most had survived the paroxysm of madness. None had come through unscathed, but that they had come through at all was testament to their discipline.
Apf’s eyes caught the glittering of the treasure around them; he immediately grasped what lay underfoot. He began to kick at the encrusted white mounds on the floor, loosening explosions of gems, gold coins, shiny objects of every description—all of them small enough to be carried or eaten by a rook.
The other knights gasped, and the madness of moments before was forgotten. They rushed out across the turret floor, kicking and smashing at bird-shit stalagmites with their maces, hammers, and sword-hilts.
Toward the middle of the turret chamber was a lofty pile of twisted metal salvage, beaded with jewels, not nearly as spattered with guano as the rest of the eyrie. Gorlen thought the metal sheen was reminiscent of the accoutrements of the Knights of Reclamation; but what he thought ominous, Apf found reassuring.
“My brothers!” he cried, his voice casting echoes off the walls, disturbing the roosting flocks, which began to stir and grow raucous. “I have…a confession. It is this. In all our years of wandering, although I presented a countenance of faith and perseverance, there were times when I—yes, even I!—was overcome with uncertainty, and secretly feared we followed a perilous fabrication. But at this moment I know my fears were groundless. This is the place, the source of the story that has compelled us, the very end of attainment. I sense as you all must that this is our lost redoubt! This is the treasury of our lord, and the treasure we have borne is here to be joined with the hoard from which it was plucked. We are reunited! My brothers! Our order is a true and worthy one, no question! We shall gather our lord’s wealth, and with it rebuild this fortress to do his name honor—whatever that name may have been. Our wandering, our trials, are at an end! The next work of glory shall take place on this spot!”
Gorlen stepped forward. “Good Sir Apf, this being the case, I believe our obligation to you is discharged. Glad though we are to have witnessed the culmination of your travails, we have our own quest to continue, which we will do with your leave.”
Glaustus inclined his head. “Indeed, honored gargoyle guide and guest, there is merit in your words, but you are not schooled in the greater implications of this discovery. Secrecy is essential to our lord’s mission. Until we have made this place once more an impenetrable fortress, it would be a grave risk indeed to let word of it escape. The keep is too vulnerable.”
“Vulnerable?” said Gorlen with plain disbelief.
“You shall be our esteemed guests, ever shown respect, and eventually remembered with fine memorials and gleaming catafalques. But you shall not leave our august company.”
“If I may,” said Spar, stepping past Gorlen. “As to the secrets of your order I cannot say, but there is no secret as to the identity of the ones who have outwitted you, and brought you here to deliver all your treasure. Like you, they are drawn to shiny things—not only that which you carry, but you yourselves. If you would survive, I counsel one thing only: divest yourself of all your wealth, including your armor and even your dullest pinky ring; begrime yourself with this mud so that nothing on you gleams appealingly; and then scurry away, naked if necessary, saving nothing but your selves. This is what Gorlen and I intend. You are welcome to join us.”
“Bah,” said Apf. “You are nothing but stone—a tool, not a man. If you persist in troubling us with such fancies, you can be broken up like this floor.” Here he gave another sharp kick to loosen a handful of gems, which he picked up and leered at as if they provided their own dazzling light. “Dull stone is worth nothing to my lord,” he said dismissively.
The rooks had been squabbling, their cries steadily building, and with Apf’s last words they reached a deafening peak. They flung themselves from the walls and began to swirl overhead like smoke churning up through the turret’s walls as if it were a chimney, spilling out into the sky. Forming a cyclone, the beat of their wings fanned grey dust and detritus from the floor. Gorlen perceived that the focus of their funnel was the huge mound of metal and gems in the center of the floor. The suction of their beating wings was driving off the dust of ages, stirring it to motion.
In the midst of that cyclone, a huge yet beady eye blinked from the mound. A bird’s eye, but even colder. A vast faceted gem.
And then it blinked. A polished sheet of curved armor covered the eye for an instant, then retracted.
The mountainous pile of metal and gems creaked, shifted, threw off clouds of noisome white dust.
A sweeping skeletal wing unfolded and beat at the air, powerful but lame. It was a wing, but ragged and incomplete. Its bones were thin metal rods joined with hammered golden vanes, and every inch of it was crusted with jewels or pocked with dimples where jewels had once been set. The wing was so enormous that it shadowed half the floor, and the knights stood transfixed as it swept over them.
The bird to which that wing belonged rose hobbled, crippled, to its feet.
It only had the one wing; the other was a twisted frame where jeweled feathers might once have fluttered. Those were gone now, only a few sparse pinfeathers of gold and silver remaining. One leg was held up close to its body, shriveled and bent. It was clear that the bird was drawing on tremendous reserves, long held in patience, saved against the day when it would need to summon itself to life.
Gorlen saw the glimmer of a golden spring inside the gaping armature of its breast, along with the hint of moving parts, lustrous and oily. The bird cocked its head, proudly displaying that it still retained both eyes. In them he saw nothing at all but a cold machination.
It was the beak that captured his attention. Polished steel, edged like the swords the knights carried, burnished like the armor they wore. So he and Spar had both been wrong. And the knights were righter than they had supposed.
“Gorlen,” said Spar, “what of worth do you have upon your person?”
“Nothing at all. The knights took everything, even my eduldamer, for its silver strings. It’s all outside in the camp.”
“Then I doubt we are of any interest to this contraption, and it will not mind if we back toward the door while its attention is elsewhere.”
The enormous, dazzling fabrication took a crippled step, then stopped to peck at the bejeweled floor, scooping up a mouthful of gems as if they were scratch or seed. There was a sound as of clanking rain as the gems went tumbling down its hollow metal gullet. By some magic of engineering, the gems it swallowed were immediately transported and distributed, so that the wing feathers suddenly gleamed with a hundred new spots of color.
“Sir Apf!” Spar called, although Gorlen thought this was beyond the bounds of obligation. But then, Spar (as he was learning) was like that. “Remember my words! Your bejeweled armor attracts the bird’s attention!”
But Apf appeared not to hear the gargoyle’s words, and Gorlen saw nothing in his countenance but a fatalistic shock. His eyes now, at last, bore the dazed stare of other lost soldiers Gorlen had encountered along the roads in his long wanderings.
“Oh creature of my lord’s grand design!” the knight called, and in his voice was joy and weariness, comfort and resignation. “We are your own true knights! We serve the same master! You must know us now!”
The bird regarded Apf a moment from high in the wing-flurried air, one bright eye gleaming down on the gem-encrusted knight.
And then the great head pecked.
The beak descended, stabbed, reared back, gaped, and fed. The knight went down whole. They heard him clanging and screaming all the way into the gullet, where the next phase of the process took place with alarming speed. Apf’s armor was delivered out to take its place in the bejeweled but shriveled wing, furnishing feathers and armature. The wing straightened and began to beat the air. At the mere taste of promised flight, the bird threw back its head and let out a whirring screech. It was as if a door long rusted shut had suddenly swung free on titanic hinges. At the end of the cry, the creation thrust its head forward to disgorge a small packet of crushed blood and bones: the mortal remains of Glaustus Apf.
The other knights of that proud company, seeing the example set by their commander, shrieked and attempted to flee. But where flying was concerned, the natives of the rookery showed effortless superiority.
Always somewhat clumsy in their armor, they were no match for the lordly clockwork bird; and the smaller rooks, winging everywhere, blinded them, raked their eyes and faces, sent them staggering about in confusion. The great bird picked its way through the carnage, pecked and fed; and with every knight it devoured, its stunted wing spread into a broad and healthy fan. Its chest became covered with polished plate, delicately feathered and bejeweled; its steps rose high and confident, it hobbled and limped no longer.
Only when the last knight had been gobbled and regurgitated did the bird finally turn its enormous eyes to Gorlen and the goyle.
He had not wondered until then why they had been spared; but looking at Spar, he saw what the goyle had collected, like a talisman to keep them safe from harm.
Simple, small, humble, beige, and speckled: just an egg.
Spar held one in each hand, and now he gave one to Gorlen.
“While the knights were snatching precious stones, I helped myself to a couple of these. Take this one and hold it carefully in your hand of flesh—but make clear that you will crush it in your quickstone hand at a moment’s provocation.”
Gorlen accepted the warm, rough ovoid. It was heavy yet extremely delicate. He held it gingerly.
“Let us retreat, very slowly,” said Spar.
The clockwork bird took a step after them, but the rooks had spotted their precious eggs. The small birds dived down in a storm, harrying the great thing, casting a curtain of wings across its eyes. The monstrous mechanism fell back.
Gorlen and Spar left by the way they had entered. The birds followed but made no attempt to interfere. No traps were sprung along their retreat, no darts fired, no blades fell; no giant boulders rumbled, lava kept itself concealed, spiders and scorpids remained in their places, well behaved.
When at last the pair stepped into the outer yard of the keep, the birds were waiting for them, lining the walls and crags and filling the evening sky.
The remainder of the Knights of Reclamation, mostly those too young or old to have joined the infiltration, sprang to their feet when they saw the two returning.
“My eduldamer and my sack, if you please,” Gorlen said. “In exchange, I offer one of these eggs, which might well save your lives.”
None asked what their lives must be protected against, for at that moment a tightly wound metal screech came echoing down from the crags high above. It was clear they had heard the earlier one, and perhaps a hint of the screaming that followed.
“If you wish to escape with your lives, I advise you to leave all your possessions behind,” Gorlen said, quickly unstringing his eduldamer, stripping the silver wires and casting them on the ground, leaving only the strings of plain gut. “Whether they are yours by right is irrelevant now—they will all soon belong to the master of the tower.”
They heard a distant scouring howl, followed by a metallic clamor—and then saw high among the peaks, against the evening sky, a shape of gleaming gold and precious colors ascending toward the first stars of night, afire with the cast-off light of the sunken sun. The bird had not spied them yet, but its jeweled eyes were keen. Every loop of its spiraling climb was like a tightening coil, promising an ever more sudden and powerful descent.
“What remains of your company are remains indeed,” Gorlen pointed out. “They essentially line that creatures cage now. Should you wish to be one with them, stay as you are. Should you wish to live, you need take no permanent vow of poverty, but a temporary divestiture would be wise.”
He set one egg on the ground for them to ponder and moved closer to Spar, who held the other. “Take care not to break that. When you have reached the border of the rooks’ habitat, leave it in a protected place—a nest if you can fashion one. I wish you luck!”
And with Spar in the lead, egg held up before them, bard and goyle made their way out of the mountains. Gorlen didn’t know if the others would follow. In spite of the terrifying sight of the ravenous bird, for any of them to follow his advice would have required a tremendous and uncharacteristic amount of trust. Why should they believe him? His words were nothing compared to the weight of gold and jewels, and less than nothing compared to the weight of an egg.
* * *
“Rooksnight” copyright 2014 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014.