Hunger will drive a bard to unusual lengths: playing of illicit tunes with ill-considered lyrics, ludicrous capering, and sometimes, as now, dangling in a gargoyle’s clutches from the edge of a stony precipice above a deep gorge lined with rocks like gnashing knives.
“A little…bit…lower,” Gorlen said through blood-swollen lips, his eyes pounding with the pressure of hanging upside down.
As the goyle lowered him another tiny fraction, he finally spied the object he had known must await him in the crannies of the cliff face: a nest, and in the nest a clutch of three dull beige speckled eggs. Nothing spectacular, simply food, to be boiled, poached, scrambled, or sucked.
He made a weak swipe at the nest with the nearest hand, his hand of flesh, and missed but managed to get purchase on the edge of the ledge in which the nest rested. It occurred to him that while this was not the first time he had robbed a nest in such conditions (though never before aided by a gargoyle), it was different from those other occasions in the silence that attended it. Normally, protective flocks of screeching winged terrors mobbed him, or at least flew about helplessly shrieking and protesting. But here on the rugged cliffside, there was no such fuss. The birds, black rooks of various sizes, simply squatted in their eyries and watched him with interest. As a bard he could instinctively recognize an audience, and these birds appeared to be waiting for him to provide some amusement.
“Spar,” he said loudly, that his voice might carry to the clifftop, “do these birds seem strangely unconcerned about the threat to their nest?”
“Perhaps they find you innately unthreatening,” said the goyle. “Most souls do.”
“A little lower, if you please. Still, if I’m a threat to anything, you’d think an egg would qualify.”
“Given your concern, I would proceed with greater caution,” the goyle advised.
And yet the eggs lay exquisitely vulnerable, and the parents showed no sign of flapping to their defense. He examined the nest as best he could, upside down and swaying slightly and with his head pounding, and in fact it was a very simple collection of twigs and grasses, fronds and dried fibers. He felt a bit of remorse, considering how something so trivial for him would be so life-altering for the unhatched chicks.
Still, he was careful to make the grab not with his human hand, but with his other appendage, which was a black limb of gargoyle stone—the very same stuff that clung effortlessly to his ankle.
“Here goes,” he said. “Hold me still, now!”
“‘Still as a stone’ is a phrase my people coined.”
“And an imaginative lot they are,” Gorlen said to himself.
He inserted his arm into the niche, black stone fingers merging with the shadows, and stiffly pinched his thumb and forefinger around the first and largest egg. The moment he lifted it, as the weight of the egg shifted, he heard a creaking click and then a snap!
“Your worries were not unfounded, I take it.”
“I appear to be caught.”
“Caught? As in a trap of some sort?”
“The nest itself turns out to have been a snare.”
“Clever, these rooks.”
As he examined his hand—grateful that Spar would never tire, his grip never loosen—Gorlen saw that the nest was more than a mere trap. The fact that he remained caught in it was due to the fact that he had made the attempted robbery with his hand of quickstone. Otherwise he would have been released instantly, when his hand was severed clean through at the wrist. The dry twists of twig and fiber, the innocuous makings of the rook’s nest, had been cleverly woven to conceal the presence of a tightly coiled, knife-edged frond of razorfoil, a leaf Gorlen knew from much warmer, sunnier climes and would never have expected to find amid the northerly rooks’ nesting materials.
The wily birds, which he swore never again to underestimate, must have traded for the damn stuff.
The weakness of the plan, from the point of view of someone who had not lost his hand, was that he was free to retrieve the entire nest and extricate himself at his leisure. This he now did, wrenching his arm back and forth to loosen the twigs’ dense edges so that he might tear it clear of the cramped niche.
“Pull me up!” he called to his companion.
And with no grunt of effort other than Gorlen’s own, he was quickly brought up and righted on the brink of the precipice. He lost no time in throwing himself well back from the edge, inviting Spar to help him tear and snap twigs and grasses until the nest was reduced to nothing but its measly trove of three eggs and the firmly entwined coil of razorfoil.
Spar held his own pale hand of human flesh—the mirror of Gorlen’s—well away from the dreaded frond and worked at the fibers with his stone fingers. After a moment, the frond reversed its tension, springing free of Gorlen’s wrist and flying over the edge of the verge, where it was lost in the depths.
During this display, the only commotion was that raised by Gorlen and Spar. As the coil of razorfoil fell, one rook dived down after it, and moments later reappeared on the edge of the rock, where it dropped the lethal fiber and regarded them with bleak hostility. It gave a raucous croak, as if reminding them of its name, and then carefully stepped on the frond, spreading it between its feet while pressing on the center with its bright orange beak to hold it open, exactly like a poacher setting a trap.
“What is it doing?” Gorlen asked. “Rebuilding its nest?”
“I believe it means you further harm.”
“Somehow I have lost my appetite for eggs.”
And indeed, the three salvaged eggs, rescued from the nest and cradled in a dimple on a flat rock, looked quite unappealing. Gorlen leaned forward and rolled them gently toward the rook. If it appreciated the gesture, it gave no sign of accepting his apology.
“Perhaps we should restore them to the ledge, to show our intentions,” Gorlen suggested.
“Our intentions? It was not I who thought to eat them. You are the only one with intentions regarding those eggs.”
“I’ve never felt such hatred from an avian source. Henceforth I will choose my eggs with more regard for the feelings of the parent.”
“Look,” said Spar, “it has finished its work.”
Indeed, the coiled spring had been twisted into an unexpected new form—a bundle of compressed tension, quivering with danger, waiting to be unsprung. The rook pecked lightly at a corner of the packet and it launched itself straight at Gorlen’s face. Were it not for Spar’s intervention, he might have lost his nose to the flying trap.
The bird gave a dismayed caw and flapped to a higher scarp, there busying itself with other elements of nesting concealed among the rocks.
“Considering the narrow defiles that await us, we are going to be at the mercy of these birds for some time. Shall we restore the eggs and see if they are intelligent enough to take that as an apology?”
“By all means,” Gorlen said. “Dangle me once more and let’s be done.”
Three eggs were quickly put to right, and two friends were soon hurrying down through rook-haunted crags toward wide green highland meadows mercifully clear of overhanging heights.
The rooks dogged their trail for a bit, but eventually wheeled back to their eyries. From here the pair made good progress, descending to lower slopes and thence into thickening greythorn woods—progress that quickened when they saw clouds of smoke from cookfires and smelled the roasting aromas that meant an end (at least temporarily) of hunger (Gorlen’s).
A communal camp, made of small parties of travelers and a number of fires, had sprung up at the convergence of several roads and footpaths. Here, near a dark and sluggish stream, merchants and peddlers had thrown out their stalls, set up their carts, and were selling viands smoked and jerked, fruits soft and dried, and various starchy tubers, along with beverages of all varieties and alcohol content. Gorlen and Spar were hesitant to stride openly among them, for as they had learned in similar gatherings, reactions to vagabond gargoyles could be…complicated. Eventually, with no outbreaks of anti-stonewight sentiment, they felt confident in sharing a fire with a group of strangers, and it wasn’t much longer before Gorlen felt secure enough to leave Spar alone. The gargoyle had fallen into a trance before the fire, not warming himself but looking for omens in the embers. (Wood fires bore only slight kinship with the stone fires of the earth’s core, whence Spar’s prophetic powers issued, but he clung to them with touching faith and perhaps a bit of desperation, a reminder of the deep, molten realms from which he was currently and perhaps eternally an exile.)
Gorlen set off to visit the various provender stands to see if there was anything tantalizing enough to outweigh his dread of indigestion or more debilitating digestive drawbacks. He browsed from booth to booth but the offerings were poor; the food itself looked road-weary. As he considered a pickled trotter that appeared to have trod a harder path than his own, a gruff throat cleared beside him and a matching voice enquired:
“What would it take to let us borrow your gargoyle for a night or two?”
The voice belonged to a surprisingly shiny knight.
“Ask him yourself,” Gorlen replied. “He’s my friend, not my property.”
The elaborately moustached soldier gave a stiff bow then clanked off down the way to where Spar’s black form gleamed with firelight.
As the knight addressed Spar, Gorlen wondered how they had given the impression of being anything other than companions. It was true that in every country through which they’d travelled, gargoyles were regarded with some degree of suspicion and hostility. In most places they were actual chattel, put to work guarding turrets and towers, shrines and fortress entrances. Spar’s courteous demeanor made no difference, for those who mistrusted animated stone rarely came close enough to read the lack of evil intent in his admittedly frightful features.
The knight showed no fear of Spar, and yet he seemed to find nothing to like in their conversation either. After a brief exchange, there was more clanking conjoined with an even deeper bow, and the knight retraced his path, giving Gorlen a slight nod as he passed.
“No luck?” Gorlen asked.
“He declined,” said he of the extravagant whiskers. “I thank you both, regardless, for your consideration. In fact, that there be no hint of resentment, please accept an invitation to join me and my fellows at our camp this evening. You two appear to travel with little in the way of accoutrement, while as you can see, we Knights of Reclamation are not an ascetic brotherhood. Far from it! Our order exists in a state of perpetual adventure, and since this is our business, we see no reason why we should not conduct it in comfort.”
The knight pointed at an encampment just down the road, settled in among the skeletal greythorns in the deepening evening. More caparisoned knights like this one moved through the trees, and Gorlen could see their campfires beginning to play across racks of polished armor and weapons that looked ornate enough to be purely decorative. It resembled a fair, or traders’ purveyance of luxury wares, far more than a military bivouac. Curious.
“Perhaps we will join you at that,” Gorlen offered, plucking a string or two of his eduldamer. “But only if you will allow me to trade a few tunes for your courtesies.”
The knight forwent the bow this time, but one was implicit in a slight tip of his head. Off he thunked to rejoin his fellows.
Spar looked up from the embers as Gorlen approached. The brightness in the goyle’s eyes owed less to the reflected firelight than to an intense and visionary intelligence, which flared up in moments like these as if the spirits of combustion were speaking to him.
“An offer of employment?” Gorlen asked.
“I suspect only your presence here caused it to be presented in those terms. In other circumstances, I might have found myself compelled to enter their service.”
“What was the job?”
“I did not inquire. I learned only that it would take us back the way we came. Something to do with a fortress among the peaks we have only just put behind us.”
“I remember nothing but ruins, and ruins beyond those.”
“My recollection is the same.”
“The knights offered us hospitality for the night. Would you rather forgo it, and press on?”
“It matters not to me, but you have not eaten or rested well for weeks, and I believe a night of rest and replenishment would pay for itself by allowing us to quicken our pace on the morrow.”
“The priest is closer, then? Did you see that in the coals?”
“Nothing so precise. Wooden embers are recalcitrant, if not deliberately misleading. Still, there is no volcanic activity in this region, so I must make do. A night’s respite will hardly make a difference.”
“If you change your mind, we can journey on at any point. Let me just replace this string…”