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The Story of Iceglint Broadwing

This story was originally written for a different world, so the details of setting are not applicable (except for Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows). However, all of the sociological and psychological details still apply. You can find an illustrated version of this story on my DeviantArt page, here, or in the Cityscapes section, here.  

Prologue

  Iceglint (whose real name is a sequence of chirps, trills, and warbles that is unpronounceable by humans) was a border warden and hunter for the Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows clan, a settlement that is situated on a forested mountain. It is a very large settlement by aarakocra standards, comprised of around 120 members.   The rookery itself is a collection of caves and crevices, widened and deepened as necessary, filled with comfortable nests and storage areas, which dot the 400' tall cliff face. The cliff is curved around one side of the lake, and is perhaps 600 or so feet wide. Many of the caves have wooden landing perches, which take the form of simple logs projecting a few feet outward, which allows the dwellers to fold their wings before entering to avoid fouling them. Clan banners and pennants, in the clan colors, hang from these perches. In some cases, colorful fabric canopies shade the perches at the entrance to the nesting caves.   The clan pennants, which also are placed around the clan's borders, are sky blue over six colorful stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.   Individuals are constantly coming and going, flying from one cave to another, moving equipment and supplies to where they are needed. The nests are communal; privacy isn't really a thing with the Aarakocra, nor is the idea of ownership. So no one "owns" any specific nest or cave; people just use one that is currently empty. The following day they might use a different one. If the nest is big enough (and there are several caves big enough for a large nest) it might be shared by a few family units at the same time.   At the base of the cliff and following the edge of the lake is a little-used trail that is just slightly more than a pair of wagon wheel ruts. This "road" is used by outsiders to get supplies up to the rookery, on those rare occasions when they trade with the clan.   At the cliff top are three cranes that can service enough of the storage areas to handle cargoes too heavy to be flown in. Mostly these cargoes come from the trade with non-avians, and the aarakocra have found it expedient to lift said cargoes to the storage caves where they are then distributed to the clan. They also offer just about the only way for non-avians to access the rookeries, using bosun's slings. Accessing the cranes from the top would require some serious climbing skills, and the approaches are routinely patrolled by sky wardens.   Iceglint had been one of those skywardens, entrusted to patrol their hunting grounds and ensure that the clan was kept safe from intruders. Those intruders were mostly goblins, who, being rather small and sneaky, thought that they could encroach into the clan's hunting areas and poach some game. They never really had any chance of attacking the rookery itself, due to the logistics of getting enough of a force up to it to do it any real damage, but taking game and sniping at the occasional aarakocra hunter was considered a sport by the wily goblins.   There have been many goblins that have been snatched up, carried to a height, and dropped to their deaths. This is considered a sport by the more mobile aarakocra.   But the threats against the clan don’t include only goblins...there are plenty of other threats as well, such as bandits, beasts of various kinds, and the occasional reprisal for theft, due to the aarakocra's rather relaxed concept of ownership.   If an aarakocra sees some attractive object, they have an urge to take it. Most actually do; the ones who don’t usually are the skywardens that have some contact with outsiders, and have a better idea about what "ownership" is. If the original owner or their agents come and ask for it back, there is a good chance it will be returned, as the lack of a concept of ownership goes both ways. This is helped if another object is offered that pleases the "thief" at least as much, regardless of the object's monetary value. It’s not the value of the object that is important to the aarakocra, it is it's perceived beauty.   However, if a group comes to take it back by force, then all of the might of the aarakocra will be leveled against them (often from outside of their enemies' attack range). This doesn’t happen very often, but it’s not unheard of, either.   But Iceglint is a bit of a curious soul, and simply patrolling and hunting isn't enough for him. He rather likes outsiders (the word in Aarakocra translates to "groundbound"), and, since he didn't have a mate, he decided he would venture out into the wider world, and protect the realm from the incursions of the chaotics from the north, side by side with the groundbound.   He made his way northward, and joined the fighting along the northern border, eventually being stationed in a border fort in the northeast of the realm. This took a little getting used-to; both for Iceglint and for the groundbound that manned the fortress. Aarakocra were rare this far north, and it was even rarer to see one actually living with non-Aarakocra.   He was assigned a lot of scouting and patrol duties, something that suited his avian nature well. His tactics tend to emphasize altitude to avoid attacks, mobility to put him in range of his own attacks, and occasionally picking up smaller opponents and dropping them from heights. Even if the enemy survives the fall, they are often left out of position, giving allies a chance to better combat them.  

Chapter One: Basic Aarakocra Racial Notes

  Aarakocra resemble humanoid birds. The average specimen stands about five feet tall and has a wingspan of twenty feet. Halfway along the edge of each wing is a hand with three human-sized fingers and an opposable thumb. An elongated fourth finger extends the length of the wing and locks in place during flight. The hands cannot grasp while flying, but are nearly as useful as human hands when an aarakocra is perched and its wings folded back. Their powerful legs end in four sharp talons that can unlock and fold back to reveal another pair of functional hands. These humanoids have hollow, fragile bones. Their faces combine the features of both parrots and eagles. They have gray-black beaks and black eyes. Plumage color varies, but males generally have red, orange, and yellow coloration, while females tend towards brown and gray.   Aarakocra inhabit high mountains.   Aarakocra live in small tribes of about 11–30 members. Each tribe has a hunting territory of about 10,000 square miles (26,000 km2) with colorful banners and pennants marking the boundaries.   Each tribe lives in a communal nest made of woven vines with a soft lining of dried grass. The eldest aarakocra serves as the tribe's leader. In tribes of more than 20 members, the second oldest aarakocra serves as the shaman, leading simple religious ceremonies involving the whistling of melodic hymns at sunset on the first day of a new month. Males spend most of their waking hours hunting for food and occasionally for treasure, such as gems and other shiny objects. Females spend eight months of the year incubating their eggs, passing the time by fabricating javelins and other tools from wood and stone. While resting on their backs, aarakocra can use all four hands at the same time to weave boundary pennants, javelins sheaths, and other useful objects from vines and feathers.     Aarakocra have little to do with other species, including neighboring aarakocra tribes, and leave their home territory only in extreme circumstances. They rarely encounter humans except for an occasional foray into a rural community to snatch a stray farm animal; this is not an intentionally malicious act, as aarakocra are unable to distinguish between domestic and wild animals. A human venturing into aarakocra territory may be able to convince one to serve as a guide or a scout in exchange for a shiny jewel or coin.   Aarakocra are extremely claustrophobic and will not willingly enter a cave, building, or other enclosed area.  

Chapter Two: Leave-taking

  Iceglint banked, tipping a wing down and shifting his tail to fall into a gradual curve, his four foot long primary feathers vibrating in the wind that his forward motion caused. He was flying patrol with his friend Allbright Blackfeather, whose yellow-headed black body followed Iceglint in the banking turn. They were soaring, their twenty foot wingspans providing all the lift necessary to glide for hours without needing to flap, hundreds of feet above the ground. The summer sky was a bright blue, with scattered clouds and a light wind out of the south. The forested hills stretched beneath them, a lumpy green carpet, and extended as far as they could see until the haze obscured the details. A river, it’s course a series of twists and turns, ran beneath them.   Both were skywardens, and, like many of their other decisions, joining had been done together. They were of approximately the same age, and learned to fly at the same time, often turning their lessons into impromptu competitions. Allbright, it turned out, was marginally the better flyer. This was demonstrated by Allbright’s better finishing time during the final flight test, which every young aarakocra of Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows had to pass. The final flight test consisted of a series of suspended hanging bags stuffed with straw at various heights that the flyers had to fly through without touching. Some of the bags were set swinging, and the rules were that you couldn’t touch the obstacles. They were coated in fine, white chalk dust, so if they were touched, it left a mark on the feathers. This course helped to train the avians to avoid hitting things while flying, such as trees, poles, buildings, and anything else that wasn’t simply air.   The two of them were about four miles from their rookery, guarding against threats and keeping an eye on the deer and elk that roamed the forest, in case they wanted to do a bit of hunting on their way back when their patrol was done. They had sighted some deer through the trees in several places, so they had a decent chance of coming back with some meat.   They were flying over foothills, which were covered in an uneven forest canopy of mixed conifer and deciduous trees. The river, glinting in the bright sunlight, was flanked by a dirt road that saw occasional traffic, enough to make wagon ruts and keep the plants from overgrowing it, but not enough to warrant much attention by road crews. That road eventually led, through a series of switchbacks, climbs, and dips, to the rookery, a ground distance of about ten miles with an altitude change of over 4000’. In the other direction, the road lead six miles to Fallriver, a town inhabited mainly by humans, with a few dwarves and gnomes rounding out the population. Not many traders liked sending goods over that brutally rugged road, despite the panoramic vistas and beautiful scenery. But the sky folk were good customers, and they had long-standing agreements with the town in the valley, so the teamsters made the trips when they had to.   Aarakocra tended to be rather isolationist. This didn’t mean that they were totally insular, however, and they had good relations with the groundbound in the mill town of Fallriver, which straddled the river that wended it’s way through the valley. The triple falls of the eyrie fed one of that river’s tributaries. In exchange for security services via the skywardens, woven goods, game, and animal products, and a popular variety of mead brewed with honey made from mountain flowers, the town traded metal finished goods, lumber, milled grains, and crops grown in the valley. It was common to see an aarakocra trader in town two or three times a month, arranging an exchange of goods. Sometimes a human trader would make the arduous climb up the trail and make a sale at the rookery, but this was rare, since it was trivial for an avian to go to the town instead.   But at the moment, Iceglint and Allbright were hunting prey other than simple game: they were after goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, or orcs. Fallriver had run up a yellow banner on it’s church steeple, a signal worked out long ago that said “someone thinks they saw signs of possible intruders”. Usually that meant one of the more chaotic races that hailed primarily from the northlands, although it was certain that enclaves of them still existed in the southern lands despite the Paragons’ efforts. If it had been a red banner, the message would have been more certain. As it was, it was rumor. Unless Iceglint and Allbright saw something….   The sky was scudded with cirrus clouds, with occasional puffs of cumulus that the pair of skywardens flew around, over, under, or through, as their mood took them and the rising thermals permitted. But mostly their keen eyesight was aimed downward, looking for signs of the intruders that might be in the area.   A couple hours of zigzagging over the forest canopy later, Allbright saw movement, just for a second, through a gap in the trees.   “There!” he called to Iceglint, and indicated with a wingtip where he had seen something, and the pair of them tucked in their wings and arced downward toward the suspect movement, snapping their wings open and sweeping across the tops of the canopy, scanning the area. Iceglint reached forward with his dark grey talons, and grasped his hand crossbow, cocking it with his other foot. He loaded a bolt, then grabbed a javelin with his open talon. Allbright clutched a javelin in each talon.   Iceglint saw them first, three goblins, moving through the brush. One glanced up, seeing the pair of aarakocra skimming the treetops above them. “Fliers!” he shouted in Goblish, and jumped to one side as he readied his bow. It saved his life, because Iceglint’s bolt shot into the bushes harmlessly. The other two goblins were a bit slower, despite the warning, and one took a javelin to the calf as Allbright threw both of his javelins at the short, quickly moving beings. Iceglint circled around, trying to acquire a new target.   The first goblin had a bow out, and his first arrow went wide as Allbright evaded by tucking his wings, dropping suddenly, then flaring a single wing, causing a sudden turn and spinning his body around to face a new heading. “Missed me, Shortie!” Allbright mocked, as he readied his bow, nocking an arrow and seeking a target.   Iceglint circled around, saw the wounded goblin, who was slower than his companions, and threw his javelin. It slammed into the goblin’s chest, penetrating the chainmail, cut between ribs, and lodged itself in the goblin’s lung. Blood oozed from the wound and spurted from his mouth in a convulsive cough. He fell to its knees, then toppled over, dying. “One down!”   By now the third goblin had readied his bow, and loosed an arrow. It clipped through the ends of Iceglint’s primary feathers, trimming them a bit, but otherwise doing no damage. “Bastard!” Allbright shouted, and loosed his arrow at the goblin who had had the audacity to take a shot at his friend. It hit, but not before the second arrow shot by the quick little goblin slammed into Allbright’s abdomen, penetrating the gambeson he was wearing. It wasn’t fatal; gambeson is fairly arrow-resistant, but it was enough to hurt. A spreading stain of blood slowly formed around the arrow as the many overlapping layers of linen and cotton soaked it up.   Clenching his beak angrily, Iceglint reloaded his crossbow, loosing the bolt at the goblin that was lining up another shot at Allbright. Hitting him in the arm, the goblin dropped the bow with a cry of pain, the arrow flying off and thudding into a tree trunk harmlessly.   The goblin turned and ran, trying to find cover under the canopy of the trees. He pulled out a knife with his uninjured arm, and waited for a good target to show itself so he could throw it. He didn’t think that either of the avians had any intention to meet him face to face and hand to hand. “Cowards!” he spat in Goblin, as he pulled the bolt out of his bicep. He hated the feathered freaks and had chosen to volunteer to gain information about their home that could be used for a possible invasion later. Hopefully, he thought, to get rid of them forever.   The other goblin loosed another shot at Allbright, and despite his speed and maneuverability, was struck at the base of the wing. He cried out in pain. The head poked up through the tertiary feathers, and the sudden shock and pain of the arrow made Allbright lose flight control for a moment. He dropped and slewed sideways, then recovered control, but not soon enough. He wasn’t able to get completely out of the way of a tree trunk, and he clipped it with his right wing before he could tuck it in. Hollow bones snapped, and he hurtled to the ground in a twisted mass of feathers, skidding through the undergrowth with a scream of pain and a cloud of fallen leaves.   Iceglint caught the crash out of the corner of his eye. “No!” He screamed, in anger and defiance. He pulled out Bloodchaser, his scimitar. In his other talon was his buckler. He dived at the goblin who had downed his friend, and the scimitar licked out, cutting a red line across the goblin’s chest from shoulder to shoulder through the leather jerkin he was wearing. The goblin spun from the hit, losing his footing in the moist leaves and falling to the ground. Iceglint rose and arced around again, lining up on the goblin with the throwing knife.   The goblin glanced at his fallen companion, and saw him trying to get back up. Blood was covering his chest. But he was alive. He let loose with his throwing knife and started to pull out his short sword.   Iceglint blocked the knife with his buckler as he flew over the goblin’s head, striking upward with Bloodchaser. It was a good hit; Iceglint could feel and hear the crunch of bone as the scimitar cleaved through goblin’s jawbone and into the upper maxilla. The goblin’s head snapped back with the blow, and he flew back and fell into a bleeding heap, his wishes about killing all of the “feathered freaks” dying with him.   The last goblin, on his feet now, tried to ready an arrow, but discovered that he was finding it difficult with both shoulders wounded. The pain was intense, but he steeled himself with a grunt and tried again, nocking an arrow and drawing back the bow with a grimace of pain. Only to have a crossbow bolt thwack through his cheek and lodge itself in his jaw. His head jerked to the side from the impact, twisting his body as he fell, fatally wounded.   The goblins dead, dying, or otherwise out of the fight, Iceglint flew to Allbright, who was breathing, but only just. He didn’t have long, and Iceglint could do nothing for him. Hitting the tree, and then the ground, had caused too much injury in addition to the wounds caused by the goblins. Iceglint knelt, and held his friend as he lay dying. Bright red blood spattered his black feathers, followed by Iceglint’s tears.   “Did…you get them?” Allbright said in a pain-choked voice.   “Yes,” Iceglint replied, “They are all dead.”   “Take…care…of….” and Allbright died. Allbright hadn’t had a mate, nor any offspring. That left Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows as being the unspoken subject of his last words. Or, at least, that was what Iceglint assumed, although the last word could have been “yourself” just as easily. He wept for his dead friend, agonized by the fact that he couldn’t save him.   Wearily, he examined the goblin bodies, for they were all corpses now, moving over the ground with a series of low, gliding hops with wings half spread. Mismatched armor, second rate weapons, a little pocket change…not much worth anything, and no information about what they were doing here except for a scout’s unit badge on each of them. He took a cloak off of a dead scout’s body, and carefully rolled the remains of Allbright Blackfeather in it. He didn’t want to have his talons dig into his friend’s body as he carried it back to the rookery, but he didn’t care if the goblin’s cloak ended up with talon holes. It was a bit of an effort, but Allbright, and all his gear, only weighed a shade over 120 lbs, and Iceglint found he could lift that with only a little difficulty. He flew his sorrowful cargo back home, the wind of his passage blowing the tears from his eyes.   Two days later, the death rituals done, Allbright’s body had been placed on the mountain’s peak at the Gates-of-the-Infinite-Air, and Iceglint had his mementos of his best friend, a set of yellow and black feathers.   He also had a new goal: to take the fight to the enemies that had caused his best friend’s death. He needed a break from Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows; there was still too much Allbright there, and the memories were just a little too painful at the moment for him. If Iceglint had had a mate, perhaps she could have helped him deal with them, but he didn’t. So he would leave, for a while at least. His plan was to head north, into the lands of the groundbound, and hopefully join with them and fight the goblins where they were most plentiful. He had no idea how he would do that, but he figured he could make it up as he went along.   Iceglint’s parents didn’t think it was a good idea; they thought it was suicide. “It won’t be like a skywarden patrol,” his father Sharpeye Fairtalon told him. “The groundbound do things very differently.”   “You are needed here!” Jewelbeak Warmwing, his mother, declared.   Iceglint brushed a tear from his eye with his wingtip. “I miss him, mother. He was like a brother to me. Being here reminds me of him constantly, and it’s all I can think about. Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows doesn’t need a distracted skywarden.” He shifted from foot to foot, distraught. “It won’t be forever. I just need some time to move past it.”   “But why go so far away?” Jewelbeak asked. “Why leave our hunting grounds? Surely you could find somewhere close by!”   Sharpeye chimed in, “Whatever you do, you will have to clear it with Chief Razorbeak and Shaman Raintail.” He cocked an eye at his mate, “So it’s possible our son will not be leaving anyway.” Jewelbeak hoped that was going to be the case. As it turned out, she was wrong.   Everything he had told his parents was true, but it wasn’t the entire truth. There was also a sense of vengeance, although it pained him to admit it. Before Allbright’s death, goblins had been a threat, sure, but something of an impersonal one. Now, though, it was anything but impersonal. When he thought about their dusky yellow faces and their sneering countenances all he felt was anger and rage. There was a part of him, the logical, thoughtful part, that knew that he would be hunting the goblins any time he was on patrol, instead of protecting the clan’s territory. The two things were very different, despite being somewhat related. He knew that the Eyrie couldn’t afford for one of their skywardens to be distracted: that led to mistakes. Dangerous mistakes.   The inevitable meeting between Iceglint, the Clan Chief, and the Clan Shaman took place the next day, the three of them circling on thermals high above the rookery. There Iceglint made his case, claiming that his anger at the death of his friend compelled him to take a more active part in fighting the northern goblins and their allies. “It’s all well and good to stay here,” he opined, “picking off occasional goblins and kobolds that have managed to sneak by the border forts. But I feel I could do more to protect the Eyrie by stopping them at their source, and prevent them from getting this far south in the first place.”   “Your father,” Chief Razorbeak said, “mentioned that you were too distracted to be an effective skywarden. Is this true?”   Iceglint felt embarrassed. He hadn’t thought his father would have mentioned that; indeed, it had never even occurred to him that he would have repeated that to the Clan Chief. But he couldn’t lie to his Chief, or to the Shaman, for that matter. His head drooped down, and he stared at ground far below. “Yes,” he replied simply. “I am worried that I won’t be able to do my job effectively.”   Shaman Raintail spoke up. “We should give you time to grieve for your comrade anyway.” He looked at Razorbeak. “How does a week sound?” The Chief nodded agreement, and the Shaman continued. “You will have no duties as a skywarden for seven days. At the end of that time, we shall revisit this request of yours to leave. If you still want to leave, we will consider it.”   The Chief clacked his beak, a sign that signaled that a decision had been made. The meeting was over, and Iceglint had a week to see if he got over his pain and grief…and anger.   If he was being honest with himself, he knew that he would be able to focus at the end of that time. But he didn’t think he would change his mind as far as wanting to head north was concerned. He really was driven to take the fight to the enemy. Part of that, he knew, was because he was going to have more opportunities to combat goblins, and vengeance was definitely part of the motivation. He wasn’t particularly proud of that, but it was what he felt, and he couldn’t honestly deny it.   As expected, at the end of his grieving week, the initial shock and loss of Allbright’s death lessened, replaced by the emptiness of loss, and Iceglint was indeed able to focus properly on his tasks. He was ready to go back to his duties as a skywarden. He just didn’t want to. It was too reactive, and he needed something proactive.   He had spent some of that week convincing his parents that leaving was a good idea. Not that they could have stopped him; he was an adult, and had been since the age of three. He was a full eleven years old, and not a fledgling any more. But he still wanted their blessing, and if he did manage to actually leave, didn’t want to leave with any hard feelings or remorse. He had enough of that kind of baggage already.   And he had to plead his case to the Clan Chief and Shaman again. He launched himself from the perch outside the home cave he had used last night, flapping his wings for altitude. He could see the other two high above, gliding on thermals in figure-of-eight patterns. He spiraled up to meet them, rising on those same thermals, his mind set.   The discussion with the heads of the clan had gone well; better, in fact, than he had ever hoped. It had seemed like Razorbeak and Raintail had been discussing the plan earlier in the week, and had made the decision that he was to head north before the second meeting even occurred. As it so happened, that is exactly what had happened. They had realized that this was an opportunity, one that came but rarely to the insular avians: an aarakocra that wanted to interact with the groundbound. So they let him go north, entreating him to show the groundbound that the sky folk didn’t always ignore the other races they shared the planet with. He was to be, in a way, a kind of ambassador. It was an extra level of responsibility that Iceglint hadn’t even considered, and he could feel the weight of that responsibility resting on his wings.  

Chapter Three: Paragon City

  He left the next day, after a tearful goodbye to his parents Sharpeye and Jewelbeak. It hadn’t taken him long to pack: weapons, including his scimitar “Bloodchaser” and his spear “Thorn’s Vengeance”, his gambeson, some supplies, some coins, and his leather helmet, which he had decorated with Allbright’s feathers, two on each side of the helm, yellow and black.   Iceglint Broadwing flew northward, over the forested hills to Fallriver, where he figured he could get directions to the most appropriate place to join the fight at the border towns. He spiraled down into the town, alighting on the central meeting hall’s porch roof. He folded his wings, and removed his helmet to allow his crest to spring back up. He fluffed his feathers, then settled them again. They itched, and he figured he should do something about that. He looked around, but there was no one nearby going in or out of the building. There were people walking up and down the street, most of them staring at him, including a human female leading a pair of younglings. Seeing one of the sky folk in town was still a rarity, despite the occasional trading missions. Iceglint waved at them with a wingtip. The lady stopped looking, turning her head away in embarrassment in being caught staring, but the two younglings waved back, and this pleased the aarakocra.   While he waited, Iceglint preened his feathers. He wasn’t particularly dirty, but settling his feathers and getting rid of any unwanted passengers was as much habit as necessity, and besides, his skin itched for no good reason.   After a quarter hour or so, a tall, dark-haired man walked out of the building, and went down the four steps that lead from the porch to the ground.   “Excuse me,” Iceglint said politely.   “By the Paragons!” the man exclaimed, startled, as he peered around, looking for the source of the voice.   “Up here,” Iceglint added, helpfully.   The man spun around, and looked up at the perched aarakocra. “You scared the willies out of me!”   “I apologize.” He cocked his head to one side. “I didn’t mean to, and will aid you in trying to recover your ‘willies’. Whatever those are.” This got him a confused stare.   “What? Uh, never mind. It’s just an expression.” By now his nerves had calmed, and was starting to realize that he wasn’t in any danger. “What can I do for you, uh, I don’t know your name.”   “You may call me Iceglint. I just need…advice. And your name, since a proper greeting requires a certain symmetry.”   Another confused stare. “Uh, I’m Travis Tate. I’m the mayor of Fallriver.”   Iceglint ducked his head in a bow. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Travis-tate, mayor of Fallriver. I am a skywarden from Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows. Well, was, technically. Now I am…something else. I am trying to travel towards the border forts along the northern reaches. I wish to be a skywarden there. Or whatever the equivalent is, I guess.”   “Alright. This isn’t the way I normally schedule my appointments, but I have a few minutes. What, exactly, do you require of me?” Travis asked.   “Ah, I apologize for being…what is the word…ambiguous? I seek directions. To whomever I need to talk to in order to join the forces stationed at one of the border forts.” He paused for a moment. “I am thinking I can’t just show up and say ‘here I am, put me to work’.”   Travis smiled and replied, “No, that probably wouldn’t be appropriate.” He thought a moment. “You should probably head for Paragon City. Look for either the Paragon’s palace, or the military headquarters. They should be able to help you. I don’t know how they will treat a skywarden. They will likely recruit you like any other soldier. I don’t really know if they will give you any special dispensation for your work here in this area.”   “I have never been farther north than a day’s flight from here. Where is Paragon City? How will I know it?”   “Yes, well. Follow the Kalarant River northwards; it will lead you to a lake with an island in the middle. The city is on the island. You won’t be able to miss it; it is a very large city, and the only one on the island. Once you are there, someone should be able to direct you further.”   “Thank you, Travis-Tate.”   “Hey, good luck, and good travels.”   Iceglint bobbed his head in acknowledgment, then launched himself into the air, circled the town gaining altitude, then headed westward towards the Kalarant, then northward following it. He made good time, soaring on thermals, covering about 90 miles a day and sleeping on the winds with his wings locked, circling above a small, marshy lake. When he woke, his shoulders ached from sleeping with his pack on. After that he started stashing it in the treetops when he slept on the wing.   A few days later, Iceglint saw that Travis-tate was right: Paragon City was indeed obvious. It sprawled atop an island in the middle of a large lake, all stone and clay and wood. Red clay tile roofs marched in staggered rows, looking like they were piled on top of each other in a haphazard mass. Smoke rose from innumerable chimneys, staining the blue sky with a smear of grayish brown. Walls surrounded the city, rising some sixty feet and topped with crenelations. Towers were placed every two hundred feet or so all around the city, rising up another twenty or thirty feet above the walls. Wooden mantlets gave the guards posted up there both shade and protection from falling rain and arrows. Roughly in the center of town, and built upon the central hill of the island, was what appeared to be a palace.   As he got closer to the immense walled city, he could see several aarakocra circling in small groups above the city. Sometimes he would see one or two of them drop down into the city, and sometimes he would see some rise up and join the ones circling. They seemed to be sky folk who lived here, somehow. Personally, Iceglint thought the air smelled too much of smoke and sewage. He hoped he would get used to it, and not miss the clean air of the Eyrie too much.   He was a mile away from the city, flying high over the water when he saw two of the sky folk break off from the group they were flying with and come toward him. One gained altitude, climbing above Iceglint, the other came straight at him. These must be their skywardens, he thought. The high altitude skywarden had a composite bow ready, an arrow nocked. Iceglint’s talons remained weaponless. After all, he wasn’t here to start any fights.   “Orbit!” the incoming skywarden commanded in Aarakocra, meaning to circle each other to make conversation easier.   Iceglint complied, and the two avians spun about each other at a distance of about thirty feet. The sky and world appeared to spin around them.   “Hello, traveller!” the skywarden said. “Who are you, and what is your business here?”   Iceglint replied with his true name, a series of warbles and whistles, followed by “But I am called Iceglint Broadwing by the groundbound.” He then added, “I am here because I would like to join the fighting at the border forts.”   The skywarden’s eyes widened in surprise. “That is an unusual request for one of the sky folk. Why do you want such a thing?”   “I was a skywarden at the Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows. I lost a friend to a goblin raid, and I want to keep the goblins as far away from my home as possible. It seemed to me that stopping them hundreds of miles away is better than stopping them in our hunting grounds.”   The skywarden seemed to consider this. He whistled to his partner, who dove down to their level. “We’ll escort you to the city,” he said, ceasing the orbit and curving toward the city. “Follow.”   The second skywarden dropped into place on the other side of Iceglint. The three avians soared toward the city, and, as they neared it, rose up on the thermals created by the sun-baked stone city. Iceglint noticed that the second skywarden had stowed his bow. Apparently, they no longer considered him a direct threat.   “You are a brave one,” the first skywarden said. “Not many of the sky folk choose to live with the groundbound. I am Farsight Eiderdown. My partner over there is called Bridge Dodger. We will take you to the military garrison, since you wish to become a part of it.”   “How long were you a skywarden?” Bridge Dodger asked.   “Five years, not including the training period.”   As they flew over the city towards the garrison, the two skywardens pointed out various points of interest. One of those points of interest were the bridges that arched over streets and culverts. According to Dodger, there were races flown by aarakocra that involved flying under a certain number of them within a certain amount of time. “And that is how you got your name,” Iceglint asked. “By dodging bridges?”   “Nah,” Farsight said with a laugh. “Of course he got it by not dodging one!”   Dodger looked embarrassed, but it went away soon enough. He had lived with that little incident for a long time now, and seemed to accept it, if not quite as a badge of honor. “Yes, what my colleague says is, alas, true. I took a turn too sharply, and clipped my wing on an abutment. The broken wing grounded me for a week. It was horrible, having to spend so much time down there. Haven’t hit one since!”   From what Iceglint could see, some of those bridges had very little space under them, what with all of the people, carts, and draft animals filing under them. He had spent a great deal of time flying under the forest canopy dodging tree trunks, and was rather good at it. But some of those bridges looked positively dangerous to fly around.   Soon they came to the garrison, and dove out of the sky, flaring into a landing on the ground outside of what appeared to be some kind of two story administration building. A groundbound walked out of the door, carrying a ledger, and although he glanced at the three aarakocra, he turned and continued whatever mission he was on without a backward glance. He was obviously used to seeing the avians.   Farsight hopped over to the door in a low glide, opened it, and stuck his head inside. While he was probably used to going into buildings by now, after so many years living in Paragon City, he still preferred not to, despite the nine foot ceiling. “Hey, Doros, come out here for a minute,” he called to whomever was inside.   “Hey, flyboys!” the man called Doros greeted as he walked out of the building. “Hi Dodger, hi…whoever you are.” The last was directed at Iceglint. “What’s up, Farsight?” he asked the skywarden. Doros was an average sized human male, wearing a military uniform. He had a rather impressive blonde mustache which gave him a walrus-like demeanor.   Farsight cocked his head to one side, looking at the sky. “Two clouds, some sky folk, the usual amount of smoke, and a flock of geese. Why? Is it important for your auguries?”   “Why, yes, yes it is!” the man said, furthering the joke. “As a matter of fact, those omens tell me that today will be a fine day, with no rain!” He laughed, and patted Farsight’s shoulder. He stepped back, put his hands on his hips, and asked, “So what can I do for you today?”   “This one,” he flicked a wingtip to point at Iceglint, “wants to fight in the border forts.”   Doros looked startled. “Whatever for? Is there something wrong with him? One of the “touched ones”, perhaps? You sky folk don’t usually mix with us ground folk.”   Dodger spoke up. “We do. We tolerate your slow moving progress from place to place just fine.”   “Yeah,” he said, turning to face Dodger with a grin, “but you guys are, like, defective or something. This guy,” he cocked a thumb at Iceglint, “looks pretty normal.” He faced Iceglint squarely, squinting a little. “You get hit on the head one too many times? Why would an aarakocra want to go to the border forts? There aren’t any of your kind up that way. There are fewer than a few dozen here in Paragon City, and we have one of the larger metropolitan populations of sky folk.”   Iceglint puffed up a bit, his feathers fluffing. He wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed. Brag? Be confident? Just tell the truth? He opted for the last, flattened his feathers, and stated, “I wish to join because I want to protect my clan in the most effective way I can. That means stopping them at the border, instead of in Eyrie lands.”   Doros considered this for a moment. It was somewhat similar to the reasons that many of the aarakocra were here in Paragon City. Many were here out of a larger sense of duty than to just their own homelands, and the newcomer’s reason for being here sounded very much like that. “Okay,” he said finally, “What is your name, and what kind of experience do you have?”   “I am Iceglint Broadwing, and I was a skywarden for the Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows for five years. I have hunted for food, and hunted interlopers. I have also killed them. I am a trained observer, and skilled at scouting and reconnaissance. I have quelled arguments and borne witness in disputes.” This last was in reference to the police-like duties that skywardens occasionally performed.   Doros directed his attention to the two local skywardens. “Thanks for bringing him to me, you guys can go back to your duties. I will handle it from here.”   Farsight and Dodger nodded at him, then launched themselves into the air, the wind of their beating wings kicking up dust from the hard packed ground. Doros coughed, swore under his breath, and said, “I think they like to do that on purpose!” He looked back to Iceglint. “All right then. I am Lieutenant Doros. I am in charge of the training facilities here, and those who use them. That is going to be you, apparently. Well, as much of the facilities that aarakocra use, anyway. If you are anything like those two,” he pointed up, at the two circling aarakocra gaining altitude, “then most of the basic training you already know from your skywarden duties. What you won’t know are the procedures used by the people who man the border forts. Some of that will apply to you, but you will need to know all of it because it’s what everyone else will be using. Can you read Common?”   “Yes. We were taught Common letters as younglings.” He looked away from Doros, embarrassed. “But I was a little slow; I didn’t learn to read until I was two years old.”   “Huh.” Doros shook his head. Sometimes it took him a while to remember that aarakocra were adults at age three, and rarely lived past thirty. “How old are you?” The question just popped out without him thinking, it really wasn’t relevant.   “Eleven.”   “Huh,” he said again. “Okay, kid…and yes, to me, eleven is a kid, regardless of how adult you actually are. Let’s get you settled in. You will have a space in the barracks while you are here, but I suspect you will rarely use it. Besides, it might be safer for you if we store your storage chest on the roof under the eaves. Recruits can be unruly, and there is no reason for them to get out of hand and accidentally break your bones.”   Iceglint wasn’t sure whether to be appreciative, or insulted. He wasn’t a weakling, and he could handle himself, but aarakocra bones were hollow, and wings, with their long bones, were rather fragile. Besides, if someone did break his wing, he would probably rip them to shreds with his talons in retaliation. So, Doros was probably anticipating something along those lines, and was heading it off before it became a problem.   Which was just as well, because as Iceglint found out over the next few weeks, the varied collection of humans, half orcs, half elves, dwarves, and gnomes were as rowdy as Doros had predicted, as recruits will be. He managed to get along with them, although he ended up always being somewhat of an outsider as he didn’t always join them in their shenanigans. Some of that behavior was a little outside of his comfort zone. And, despite their inverted difference in ages, many of their actions seemed rather juvenile to him.  

Chapter Four: Social Graces

  The weeks passed slowly, mostly because most of what he was learning was administrative, rather than practical. He already knew how to fight, how weapons worked, how armor worked, how to repair and take care of armor and weapons, and how to follow orders. What he had to learn was protocols, ranks, specific rules on how to comport himself with all of the other races, and, most importantly, how they did things. He understood the logic, so it made sense, but some of the things he had to learn seemed rather stupid. But he learned them, and learned that even the stupid stuff made a certain amount of sense, at least to the groundbound.   He also spent a lot of this time learning about cultural norms, so he wouldn’t make false assumptions. A lot of this was in regard to property rights. As aarakocra didn’t really have any, this was something that Iceglint made sure he understood. He didn’t want to take something that someone thought was theirs without asking first. It didn’t feel right to him, as it implied that sharing was a bad thing, but he realized that the other races thought it was important. This also taught him not to just give things away, as well, at least to a point.   One thing that made the time pass more easily was the fact that Farsight and Dodger seemed to like him. Enough to sort of take him under their wings and show him not only the city, but how the aarakocra lived in it. It was a much flatter lifestyle, despite the groundbound thinking that their buildings were “tall”. Most of the buildings were only two stories, even the tallest were only four or five at the most. The palace, situated on the top of the island’s central hill, had some tall towers, but even they were merely sixty feet above ground level. In comparison, Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows utilized a vertical cliff four hundred feet tall, situated above a second cliff face over two hundred feet tall. All at an altitude of around seven thousand feet.   It took Iceglint a few days to imagine rotating the cliffside so that it was horizontal, to simulate what the aarakocra of Paragon City had to live like. And then surround it by crowds of groundbound by the thousands. The amount of people of all kinds within the walls astounded the provincial ex-skywarden. He had never seen so many compressed into so little space. The thought almost made him abandon his plan to fight at the border forts. He had never been in a situation where demophobia was a danger. In fact, the huge number of jostling, noisy, smelly groundbound literally had him shaking anxiously for the first few days. Aarakocra weren’t herd animals; they barely flocked, and even then, their idea of personal space was measured in wing lengths, not inches. And their average settlement size ranged from a dozen to thirty individuals. By this standard, Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows was a huge metropolis, but it housed fewer people than an average tavern in Paragon City.   Farsight and Dodger’s example of living in the city made the transition easier for Iceglint. They urged him to enter buildings, and fly between buildings instead of over them. It wasn’t quite the same as flying amongst trees, despite a similarity in skillset, and doing so wasn’t really necessary from any regulatory perspective. But it did get Iceglint to become more comfortable flying in confined spaces and near others, and get him used to being surrounded by a sea of groundbound while doing it.   A couple of days into his “visit to the big city”, they took him to see their clan home, if “clan” is the correct word for what amounted to an ad hoc collection of sky folk from various different clans living together. They called it the Paragon City Communal Nesting, usually shortened to “The Nesting”. They had been given a warehouse to live in, which they had promptly modified for their use by removing much of the flooring that separated the upper from the lower floor, leaving only a rail-less “balcony” around an open central space. They had also cut what amounted to a skylight in the roof, to allow egress. Communal nesting spaces were made on the balcony, while their equipment and supplies were stored on the ground floor. Most of the doors, save two, a man-sized door and a loading door, were boarded up. They didn’t get many groundbound visitors, but there were some, and there were too many of them that assumed that because the aarakocra had little sense of property that they could just steal from them without any of the avians getting upset. And while it was true that they didn’t have a great sense of personal property, they did have a strong sense of communal property.   There was always someone acting as skywarden inside, for two main reasons. The first was the necessity to protect their supplies from thieves. The second was due to the fact that there were dozens of aarakocra living here, from a large number of different clans. A community of choice, instead of blood, as it were. Although there had always been “adopted” clan members in just about any aarakocra settlement, here everyone was “adopted”, and the clan was sort of a “manufactured legal construct”. But it worked, helped by the natural communal nature of the avians and the fact that they were surrounded by the communities of the groundbound. But that didn’t mean that there weren’t disagreements among the members of this motley group, and the second primary reason for the skywarden was dispute resolution.   After showing him around the Nesting, Dodger and Farsight took Iceglint to a tavern. “Iceglint,” Farsight stated, “you are going to have to get used to being shoulder to shoulder with the groundbound. We have found that a good draught of ale helps.”   “Hare on the Ass?” Dodger asked his partner.   “Absolutely! Come on, Iceglint.” And with that, the three aarakocra arced over and dove toward the southern portion of town, where the tavern was located.   The Hare on the Ass was on the corner of Dyer and Third Street, and had both inside and outside seating. It was a two story building, stone on the first floor, white painted timber on the second, with a reddish clay tile roof. Two chimneys, one on each side of building, one for the kitchen, one for the common room, belched smoke. Above the door hung a sign decorated with a picture of a rabbit riding a donkey. Following the two locals’ lead, Iceglint landed on the roof, then hopped down into the courtyard, where tables and chairs were set up. It was a nice day, so most of the tables were occupied, but the three avians made their way to one of the two open tables and Iceglint again followed his companions’ lead and squatted on the chairs. They perched on the chairs with the chair backs to one side, their tails hanging down behind them. Comfortable enough, despite not being a proper perch and being a bit high, they scanned the patrons as they waited for the serving girl to take their orders.   Iceglint was anxious; he wasn’t used to being this close to non-avians. They seemed to be right next to him, and he thought he could feel them touching his wings. He kept shuffling and refolding his wings, trying to keep them out of the other patrons’ way. The seat back, while not particularly high, interfered with both his tail and his wings. His head swiveled from side to side, trying to make sure he knew where his wings were relative to the other patrons. Farsight and Dodger seemed calm and still in comparison. Farsight let him fidget for a minute or so before he clapped his beak in exasperation. “Cut that out!” His tone softening, he said “Your wings are fine. People can make their way around them just fine. You aren’t knocking over anyone’s beer. Just relax.”   “This is why we brought you here,” Dodger added. “Next time, we sit inside!” He cawed in laughter.   “For now, my rural friend,” Farsight said, “being out here is a good start. It will allow you get used to being close to other kinds of people.”   Most of those other people were humans, although there were a few dwarves, two half orcs, a gnome, and a halfling, most of which barely glanced at the newly arrived feathered sky folk before turning back to their discussions. Dodger suspected that the few people that stared at them were tourists. Aarakocra were common enough in town for the residents to not pay much attention to them, but they must have been quite a sight for the visitors.   Soon a dark haired human serving girl came out of the tavern carrying a tray with four steins on it, which she deposited on a nearby table before coming over to the three aarakocra. “Hi,” she said with a smile. “Good to see you two again,” she addressed the two local skywardens. She nodded toward Iceglint and asked, “Who’s the new guy?”   “That, my dear Sofie,” said Dodger, “is Iceglint, newly arrived from the Swanson Paragon, from some…rainbow place. Go easy on him; he is still getting used to crowds. Hence the nervous tics, excessive blinking, and restless wings. He needs a strong ale. Actually, make that one for each of us.”   “Sure thing, Dodger,” she winked at him, and went back inside the tavern. Iceglint spent the next few minutes trying to not jiggle, twitch, or squirm. He didn’t succeed, and when Sofie came out with the three drinks in bowls, she glared at Farsight. “You didn’t show him the chair trick?” She could see that Iceglint was agitated and uncomfortable.   Farsight gave her a grin, beak open. “Nope.” His eyes sparkled in amusement.   She set the three drinks on the table, went over to Iceglint, and told him to get off of the chair. Once he did so, she tipped the chair over onto its side, and said, “There, now it’s more like a perch. Try that.”   Iceglint hopped onto it, shuffled about a bit, and found that it was much more comfortable than squatting on the flat seat. And the seat back no longer interfered with his wings and tail.   “Spoilsport,” Dodger shot at Sofie. She stuck her tongue out at him and went to check on another table. Farsight and Dodger did a bit of a hop, tilting the chairs over to their sides and settling down on them in a single graceful motion with only the barest of clattering thuds as the chairs hit the flagstones.   Iceglint missed most of it, since the table obscured exactly what they did with their talons. “You’ll have to teach me that little maneuver.”   “Yeah, otherwise you will end up tossing the chair into a customer, start a bar room brawl, and get yourself in big trouble!” Dodger claimed. “Avoid those. The groundbound are pretty beefy and tend to want to grab bits and pieces of you in painful ways. I’ll risk bridges instead. It’s safer!”   They lapped their ales from the bowls into their bills, then tilted their heads back to swallow. “Ah, that’s good ale,” sighed Dodger.   “All ale is good ale, to you,” stated Farsight.   “Yup, it’s all good!” agreed Dodger. “I’m easy.”   They enjoyed their beers, and ordered some grilled lamb sausages, since Dodger said they were house made and very tasty. Iceglint had to admit that he preferred roasted or cooked meats to raw, although raw was good too. It just lacked a certain complexity of flavor. Raw was certainly easier in the field, however, since there was no need for a cookfire, and it could often be eaten on the wing. They ordered a second round of beers.   The beer helped, and with the two locals regaling him with tales of their adventures in Paragon City, Iceglint soon relaxed and forgot about being surrounded by all kinds of people. Until they brushed against his feathers, at which point he jumped, startled. He wasn’t sure he was ever going to get used to that. He looked down, at his feathers, which dragged across the floor, picking up straw, dust, and peanut shells. Dismayed, he knew he was going to need to bathe and preen and make himself presentable. He closed his eyes, determined to deal with it, however discomforting it was.   Later, after making a visit to the lake and splashing around trying to dislodge the majority of the detritus inhabiting his wings and tail, he perched on the crenelations of the wall around the city, preening his feathers and removing the more stubborn debris. Most of the city guardsmen who wandered by on their rounds glanced at him, determined that he was more-or-less harmless, and moved on. Only once was he asked for his identification, which he gave readily enough, and the guard moved on, satisfied.   Two days later, after drill, Farsight and Dodger took him to a bridge race. They circled above the center of the city, along with many other aarakocra, many more than usual. It seemed lie the entire Nesting was aloft. Below them Iceglint could see several bridges, each bedecked in bright red pennants, twelve in all. The first bridge in the route had but a single flag, the second had two, and so on up to the last bridge which had twelve. Dodger was not competing today, wanting to spend the day showing Iceglint the races, although he fully intended to participate in the next set in two weeks. Looking down, Iceglint could also see crowds of groundbound, also watching the race, clustered along the sides of the road along the route. Many were in balconies, to better see the action, and a few had climbed onto the roofs, so they could see even better. But none of the groundbound had the view of the entire course that the sky folk had.   The participants were perched in a line on the ridgeline of the roof of a warehouse. There were six, four males with their fiery colors and two females in cream-breasted speckled golden brown. All six paced from side to side in excitement, eager to get started.   The race was set up like a loop, each flier raced against the clock, and the endpoint was near the starting point. This was to coordinate with the timekeepers, who lit candle clocks to start the race, and blew them out when the contestant crossed the finish line; they had to see both the start and the end.   A trumpet sounded, and the crowds, while not becoming silent, hushed in anticipation. There was a pause, then an aarakocra, fluttering his wings to stay hovering above a rooftop off to one side, waved the red flag he was holding, signaling the start of the first flier’s trial.   The first contestant leaped off the roof ridge, wings cupping the air and propelling him forward toward the first bridge about fifty yards down the street. It was a wooden covered bridge joining two buildings over a well-travelled street some twenty or so feet wide. Beneath the bridge hung a lantern, lit at night; on one side was a sign denoting a bakery, and on the other, a sign denoting a cafe. These reduced the width of the space beneath the bridge to some twelve feet. People stood on the street, watching the avian swoop towards them. At the last moment, he tucked in his wings in order to clear all of the obstacles beneath the bridge, going ballistic, and snapped his wings out as soon as he cleared the bridge, arcing upward to gain altitude and room to maneuver.   He spotted the next bridge, a graceful arch over a culvert through which flowed one of the artesian springs that gave the huge city its water supply. He dove toward it, gaining speed. Due to the way the course was laid out, he came in at an angle, and had to course-correct at the last second to go through it. It was narrower than his wingspan, so he tucked his wings in about halfway to not lose all of his lift and used his tail to steer himself under the bridge and out the other side.   Climbing upward again, he flew to the next bridge, and the next, and the next….The finish line was a rope, strung across the street from building to building, with dozens of ribbons tied to it, all fluttering in the wind. He flew at rooftop height, his wings pounding the air for velocity, and dove under the line and up onto the rooftop, where he landed with a short series of hops. The candle that was timing him had been blown out when he crossed the line.   The trumpet sounded again, and the second contestant hunched down into a prelaunch position, then took off when the starter waved the red flag. Each racer flew the course, bobbing and weaving and diving and climbing, dodging obstacles and speeding to the next one. As each racer crossed the finish line, their candle was snuffed, and their time recorded. The winner, with the least time at four minutes, thirty-seven seconds, was Dewcrest Skydancer, one of the two females that had participated. The purse was twenty gold coins and bragging rights. Most of the money that changed hands was from wagers in the crowds, and from concessions from street vendors.   “So, are you going to try to race?” Dodger asked, as they escorted Iceglint back to the barracks.   “I don’t think so,” Iceglint replied. “I do well enough dodging trees in the forest, but some of those places they flew through were pretty tight.” His imagination ran too many “what ifs” that involved colliding with stone walls, slamming into street signs, or bouncing off of the ground in too many painful ways. Memories of Allbright’s collision with the tree and subsequent impact with the ground were all too present in his mind. In addition, while for the most part the groundbound were pretty respectful, he couldn’t help thinking that a prankster might stick a rake up while he was trying to fly under a bridge. It was petty of him, perhaps, but the thoughts scampered through his mind like mischievous tree monkeys.   The next day, at midday, and between training sessions, Farsight and Dodger took him back to the Hare on the Ass. This time, they made him go inside. It wasn’t very easy; Iceglint really didn’t want to go in there. He knew there were lots of people in there, and tables, and chairs, and wall partitions, and a low ceiling with iron chandeliers with oil lamps on them. In short, all kinds of things built to foul wings. After five minutes of cajoling, they finally grabbed him by his wings and pulled him in through the door.   Inside was dim, despite the lamps the hung from the ceiling and decorated each table. Dark wood with leather upholstery was the decor, with brass hooks at the ends of the partitions that separated the booths along the edges of the room. At one end was a fireplace, at the other was the bar, and behind that, the kitchen. A musician, strumming a lute and singing bawdy songs, sat on the hearth. Several of the patrons had joined him in song.   Farsight looked for a table towards the middle of the room. He wanted to surround Iceglint with people. Much like learning to swim by diving into the middle of the pond. Dodger saw the table first, and in a series of skips and hops claimed it for the trio. Farsight and Iceglint followed. Tipping their chairs onto their sides, they perched. Dodger raised a wing, getting the serving girl’s attention. It was Sofie again, and she nodded to them, finished dropping off a drink order, and came over to their table.   “What can I get you guys?” she asked.   Farsight and Dodger both looked at Iceglint, who, taken unaware that he was going to be doing the order, stammered a bit before finally asking for three ales and a skewer of roasted pork. He was even twitchier than when he was seated outside. The walls seemed to be closing in around him, and despite the chandelier being five feet above his head, he kept thinking he was going to hit his head on it. The mass of people around him didn’t help either. He kept detecting movement out of the corners of his eyes, which, of course is completely normal, because people were alive and thus didn’t keep still. Iceglint just wasn’t used to that motion, and everything else, being so close to him all the time. His head kept swiveling about as his eyes and brain told him of potential threats.   His nervous actions were starting to draw attention; patrons were glancing over in their direction, trying to figure out what all the commotion was. Farsight focused on Iceglint and said, “Iceglint, look at me.” He held the other aarakocra’s eyes with his own. “Don’t pay attention to the room. Just me. And Dodger. You can pay attention to him too, if you must.”   Despite himself, Iceglint chuckled. “Thanks for letting me be included,” Dodger said sarcastically, his eyes rolling.   Iceglint closed his eyes, willing the rest of the sensory information about the room out of his head. He had to get used to this. Had to. His eyes closed, the room became primarily an audial environment with an olfactory overlay. Conversational hubbub, stale beer, groundbound body odors, and an aroma of roasting meats became what he sensed. The odors were easy to get used to, despite some patrons desperately needing a bath. The noises, coming from all sides, were mixed and muffled enough to lose most of their coherency unless he concentrated on them. Slowly, his nervous agitation calmed down, at least for now.   He jumped when Sofie set the three bowls of ale and the plate of skewers on the table, and the room flooded back into his consciousness again. He gripped the table with his grey-skinned wing hands, trying to steady his nerves. He drank some ale, thinking it would help. Farsight and Dodger helped themselves to the skewers, nibbling pieces off with their beaks.   “You are doing fine,” Farsight told him. “Have some lunch,” he suggested, nodding at the plate. Iceglint reached out and took one, then started eating, tearing off pieces with his sharp beak.   He had been about to ask them how they stayed so calm in here, but he knew the answer was “practice”. He would just have to do this a great many more times until he could handle it, if he ever could. And if it didn’t cause heart failure before then. It helped that his new friends were here with him though. If they could manage it, he thought, so can I, by Narashal!   Soon enough, he had to report back for the afternoon session of training, for which he was grateful. As they left, Farsight and Dodger mentioned that there would be a lot more of that kind of thing in his future. He wasn’t thrilled to hear that, even if the more logical part of his mind knew it was necessary. Dodger called it “confrontational therapy.” Iceglint thought it was a pain in the cloaca.   His training, both on the practice field and in the city, progressed apace. The panic in crowded rooms finally subsided to a background uncomfortableness, although it never really went away. With effort, he could almost appear comfortable, although truth be told, he never really was. It was worse when he had limited space, such as when he had to sit right next to someone. That limited his movements. Due to his anatomy, keeping his wings fully folded limited the ability of his hands to reach things. If he wanted to reach across the table to grab a drink, the tip of his wing would drag across the table. This, unfortunately, happened all too often, and caused some rather embarrassing, messy, and expensive incidents involving spilled drinks and ruined dinners as his wing feathers swept across the table, knocking over glasses and dragging through plates of food. Not having a lot of coin to begin with, paying for other people’s drinks and dinners ate into what little he had. And he really couldn’t blame them for wanting him to pay for their food, as he would have demanded the same of them had they pawed their grubby hands through his meal.  

Chapter Five: Deployment

  After eight weeks, his training was done, and he graduated. His fighting technique was a bit better, as was his archery, and his set of soldier skills were a bit more rounded. Much of the basics of those he had learned previously in order to become a skywarden, but the refresher course was certainly helpful. But mainly he felt comfortable being able to integrate into a mixed-race battalion. Due to his abilities, he was, as he expected, put into the scouting role most often, although many times he was the one choosing the targeting priorities, since he had a “bird’s eye view” of the battlefield.   Shortly after that, he got his deployment orders, and the military had been kind enough to take his goals into account. He was to escort a senior cadet of the Order of Turlund to Coastwatch, one of the easternmost forts along the northern border of Paragon-controlled land. With him were two other recent graduate soldiers, a dwarf soldier by the name of Kayspar Almondine, and a burly human warrior by the name of Kerr Newcombe. They were to meet at the Monastery of the Order of Turlund, where the senior cadet would join them. The three of them had their orders, and they set out to meet up with the senior cadet, a certain Elitheris, a half elf trained as a paladin.   The monastery was an imposing set of structures sitting in the middle of training grounds and gardens, surrounded by a tall wall of stone. The main building looked to be the meeting hall and cathedral, with a smattering of smaller buildings forming barracks, training rooms, storage facilities, a smithy, chow hall, and an infirmary.   Elitheris met them at the northern gated entrance to the Monastery of the Order of Turlund, fully kitted out and ready to get on the road. She was a blond half elf, dressed in mail, her helm off and tucked under her arm. Her expression was one of pleasant urgency: she wanted to get on the road, but looked like she was having a nice day. She seemed very eager to leave. As it happened, she was very much looking forward to getting away from the more devout of the cadets; their fervor struck her as naive and simplistic, and she didn’t feel like she had the depth of their devotion to the paragons. She was more pragmatic than that, and while she worshiped the gods, she didn’t think that the paragons should be treated as gods. Revered, to a certain extent, yes, but not worshiped. They were only mortal, after all, even if they were heroes to be looked up to as potential role models. Her eyes flicked from Kayspar to Kerr, then to Iceglint as he landed with a hop on the cobblestone street behind the other two.   “I was told I would be traveling with three others,” she stated, “and that must be you all. Let’s be off.” She strode into the street, turned right, and headed to the eastern gate, where a boat waited at the docks near there to take them from the island to the mainland. “I am Senior Cadet Elitheris. Who are you guys?”   Kayspar and Kerr hurried to catch up to the quickly walking paladin. Iceglint flew above their heads, just above roof level, which here varied from twenty to thirty feet. The two groundbound soldiers stated their names, and Kayspar added, “The flyboy up there,” he cocked a thumb upwards, “is Iceglint. He comes from the south, and was a skywarden before he joined our little crew.”   She looked upwards, at the brown and red avian speculatively. “Well, we have a scout, then. Good. With any luck, he should be able to warn us about any ambushes we might be stepping into. And you two, judging from your equipment, look able to fight our way out in case he doesn’t see the ambush.” The two soldiers glanced at each other with a bit of uncertainty, what with being new recruits, but both nodded with some confidence. They wouldn’t have been posted to a border fort if they weren’t at least “competent”. Elitheris was blunt, straightforward, and no-nonsense. They could work with that.   The boat was indeed waiting at the marina, a simple, single masted sloop with a crew of four. The three groundbound boarded while Iceglint flew circles above them. As his companions cast off, he saw Farsight and Dodger drop out of the crowd of aarakocra soaring circles over the city and fly towards him. He had spent time with them during his training; they had shown him the city and had become good companions and friends. They had also been responsible for most of his “social training”. Now they came by to say farewell.   “Thank you for seeing me off,” Iceglint said. “You have helped me survive here in the city, and understand the groundbound much better.” He very much appreciated their mentorship.   Farsight replied, “It took me quite a while to become accustomed to how they function. Much of it still makes no sense to me, but I just soar with it, and try not to get into trouble.”   “Their attachment to things still makes my head hurt,” Dodger added. “If they aren’t using something, why would they be upset if someone else did for a while?” He shook his head, still bewildered after all the years he had been in Paragon City.   Iceglint considered, as the three circled above the sloop as it made its slow way to the mainland shore. “I must admit that the groundbound often make little sense. But even I have a couple of things that have…sentimental value…that I wouldn’t want others to be using. Bloodchaser, my sword, and Thorn’s Vengeance, my spear. My helmet, but only because of my friend’s feathers. I realize that is a bit selfish of me, but there it is.”   “Maybe there is a bit of groundbound in you,” Farsight commented. “That should help in the border fort when you are there. Another thing to keep in mind though: Paragon City is very different from just about anywhere else. It’s just about the only place with a lot of us sky folk living amongst the groundbound. Other places will be a bit more difficult, in the sense that you will likely draw a lot of attention. You aren’t in Swanson Paragon any more, where the sky folk are plentiful.”   The two local skywardens kept Iceglint company until they neared the shore, at which point they said their final farewells and peeled off, heading back toward the city on the island.   A coach, drawn by four horses, waited for the four travelers on the mainland, part of the military’s communication and transportation system.   “Hey, at least we don’t have to walk the entire way,” Kayspar commented gleefully.   “Don’t get used to it,” Elitheris said. “It’s only until we reach Turlund’s Heart. After that, we walk.”   “I am still appreciative of the ride,” Kayspar replied. “And I will enjoy it for as long as I can!”   Kerr didn’t comment; he just stowed his gear on the luggage rack on the roof. He then helped the much shorter Kayspar get his gear up there as well.   The carriage would take them and a courier escorting a bundle of missives as far as the city of Turlund’s Heart, a journey that would take a week. If Iceglint had been traveling alone, he could have made that leg of the trip in about two days. But he wasn’t alone; he was part of a squad now, and had to travel at the pace of the others. He stored his pack on the roof with the rest of the baggage, and flew ahead of the coach in wide S-curves in his usual scouting role.   Once they got to Turlund’s Heart, they would have to make their own way to Coastwatch, with a travel time of an estimated six days on foot.   The journey from Paragon City to Turlund’s Heart was uneventful, mostly due to the amount of traffic on the road. It was well-travelled, with what felt like a constant stream of caravans, farmers, couriers, and guard squads. The landscape was a patchwork quilt of farmland, separated by small copses of trees and the occasional hedgerow. Small settlements every few miles catered to the needs of the local farmers and the population that supported them.   Traveler’s waypoints, little more than pole barns at widened spots on the road, were situated every ten miles or so for the use of carriages and their passengers. It provided shelter from the wind and rain, but it wasn’t an inn by any stretch of the imagination. Most were just outside of settlements, and would often have the riders of several coaches stretched out in sleeping rolls or by the brick fire pits that were provided. Sometimes, the local village stocked it with firewood, but this was uncommon. But there was a certain safety in numbers, and protection from the elements was also appreciated by travelers. But a predictable stopping point for carriages was also a draw for brigands, so the guard patrols that wandered up and down the roads made it a point to check in on the waypoints to discourage such behavior.   Turlund’s Heart was a walled city, roughly rectangular, surrounded by tilled fields and groves of orchards. A forest stretched off to the east, extending all the way to the coast hundreds of miles away. Mountains were barely visible in the distance, making a north-south fence of peaks. It was in those mountains, at the northern end of the chain as it curved westward to demarcate the border of the Savage Lands, that the three border forts were situated. The fourth, Turlund’s Oath, had been destroyed some four centuries earlier, and the pass it guarded made unnavigable.   Elitheris and the two soldiers debarked from the carriage at the garrison post. Iceglint flew down, his wings cupping the air as he alit on the carriage roof. The courier took his bundle of mail and messages and went off to the commander’s office. “Come on,” Elitheris said. “I should be able to get us some lodging at the Order’s facilities here. Hopefully, they will be a bit more comfortable than the waypoints we’ve been sleeping at.” She looked up at Iceglint and added, “I suppose you’ll just sleep on the rooftop, or on the wing, like usual? Or would you like a bed?”   Iceglint peered around, assessing the geography and local weather patterns. “On the wing will be fine. Although if it isn’t too much bother, if one of you could care for my gear, I would appreciate it.” While he could sleep with his gear on, it wasn’t comfortable, as he found out the hard way when he had first set out.   The three groundbound made their way to the monastery run by the Order, in the south part of town, near what appeared to be a large estate. As predicted, they were able to get bunks in the barracks there, once Elitheris vouched for the other two. Iceglint followed them into the barracks in order to drop off his pack and several other pieces of his gear. He kept his hand crossbow, scimitar, and gambeson, but the rest he left with Kayspar. By the time they had their gear stowed, it was sundown, and they were hungry.   Kerr, practical as ever, called over to one of the local cadets. “Where is a good place to eat?”   The cadet, fresh from a loaded march, dumped his pack by his bunk, then fell into it, breathing hard. His feet felt every one of the eighteen miles he had just traveled. “Turlund’s Rest is good, but you might like Turlund’s Joy better. The crowd is a bit livelier. Wish I could go with you. What they serve there is better than the swill we get here.” He started unbuckling his armor in preparation to hitting the chow hall. “Turlund’s Joy is at the corner of the main crossroads. You can’t miss it.”   “Thanks, friend,” Kerr replied, and turned back to his companions. “Joy sounds nice! Let’s eat!”   Elitheris nodded, and Kayspar just said, “Aye! And drink.” They filed out of the barracks, and Iceglint flew upward to see if he could locate the inn. It didn’t take him long to find it, as the monastery wasn’t too far off of one of those main streets that the inn was located on. He was disappointed that there wasn’t a courtyard. He was going to have to go inside. He could already see people looking up at him. He could feel himself getting anxious, but he knew he had better keep a lid on it. It wouldn’t do to expose his weaknesses to the paladin, especially if he was ever going to impress her. And he needed to, being the only aarakocra in the area that he could see. Unlike Paragon City, none of the sky folk flew above the town; there were no local skywardens as far as he could tell.   He circled back to his companions, and gave them directions, then proceeded to circle over the inn, stretching his wings and enjoying the feel of the wind over his feathers while he could. While indoors, he wouldn’t get to feel any of that.   It was a two-story building, stone and wood construction, with a shingled roof. There were quite a few windows on the second floor, but only a few on the first. He could see Kayspar, Kerr, and Elitheris approaching from the cobblestone street, weaving their way through the throngs of people, animals, and carts, stepping over the inevitable piles of manure and garbage that marked city streets.   As they approached Turlund’s Joy, Iceglint landed on the edge of the roof, then glided down to them as they got to the door. He steeled himself, folded his wings, and with a deep breath and a shiver, followed them inside. He tried to keep his breathing steady, and concentrated on that to keep from focusing on the more uncomfortable parts of the experience. Anything for a distraction….   It was dim, and filled with tables with long benches. The wooden plank floor was strewn with straw, peanut shells, and puddles of various liquids. Iceglint was not thrilled that his feathers were likely going to be dragging through the mess that lay about the floor. Most of the spaces at the tables were inhabited by the various kinds of groundbound, with humans predominating, as they usually did. But there were half orcs, and halflings, a few dwarves, and even an elf, although the elf was dressed in motley and was playing a flute on the little stage in the corner. Several of the people clustered up against the stage were clapping in time to the music she was playing.   Elitheris and Kayspar managed to get some people to shift down and make enough space for the four travelers at one end of a table. They sat, followed by Kerr, and then Iceglint. He was between Kerr and a stranger, who turned and stared at him for a moment before sniffing and shifting even farther away. The aarakocra tried not to take it personally, and concentrated on not bolting out of the building.   Kayspar shouted for the barmaid, and she came over wiping her hands on a rag tucked into her apron. She was older, with grey hair and a slender frame. Her eyebrows rose when she saw the aarakocra, but it was sitting with a paladin of the Order, so it must be all right. “Can I get you some drinks to start?” she asked, holding a waxed wood tablet and stylus, ready to record their orders. “We have an amber ale, a wheat, and cider. And wine or whiskey if you rather.”   Kayspar spoke first. “Wine.”   Elitheris nodded and said, “I’ll have the same.”   Kerr asked, “Whiskey.”   “Ale, please,” Iceglint said, “in a bowl.”   “In…a bowl. Okay.” She wrote on the waxed tablet. “And food?”   Kayspar smiled, his grin mostly hidden by his beard, but his teeth glinted in the oil lamp light. He rubbed his hands together. “Oh yes! What do you have?”   “Vegetable soup with ham. River eel, potatoes, and greens. Pork roast with roasted vegetables.”   Moments later, she had an order of the soup, eel, and two of the roast. “I’ll be by with some bread and cheese in a moment, along with your drinks,” she said as she turned towards the kitchen.   Iceglint tried not to move. There wasn’t much room for maneuver here, and it made him anxious. He did his best to ignore the strange human to his right, who kept sitting on the tips of his feathers. Fortunately, the man did his best to ignore Iceglint. A small part of his mind registered the fact that he wasn’t drawing a huge amount of attention. This told him that the patrons here had at least some experience with his kind. So maybe there were some of the sky folk here after all. He would have to look into that before they moved on towards Coastwatch.   That thought helped to put his mind at rest, or at least as close to rest as it was going to get.   His revery was interrupted by the barmaid, who placed a wooden board down on the table, laden with a dark loaf and a wedge of yellow cheese. She followed this with three glasses and a bowl.   “Brilliant!” said Kayspar, as he tasted his wine. Elitheris used her knife to cut a piece of bread off of the loaf, and a piece of cheese off of the wedge. She took a bite of each before sipping her wine. Kerr sniffed his whiskey, smiled, then sipped. He closed his eyes and savored the smoky taste of the liquor. Iceglint dipped his beak into his ale, scooped up a swallow of liquid, and drank. He closed his eyes too, trying to will the room to disappear. It didn’t.   Elitheris gave him a look, frowning. “You okay there, flyboy?”   His eyes popped open. “I’m, um, fine. Just a lot of people here.” He tugged his wingtip from beneath his neighbor’s bum. “And not a lot of room.”   “Crap, Iceglint,” Kerr said, “I should have let you sit on the end.” He got up suddenly, saying, “Let’s switch places.”   Grateful, Iceglint wasn’t going to let his pride get in the way, and he agreed immediately. He shifted over, and Kerr took his place. “Sorry, buddy,” he said softly, putting his hand on Iceglint’s shoulder, “I should have been more thoughtful.”   “Thanks, Kerr,” the avian replied. Being on the end of the table gave him a bit more room, and would allow a little more freedom of movement. And he wasn’t sitting next to a stranger, either, which helped quite a bit. And both Kayspar and Kerr were used to eating with him, so they had some reflexes built up so that when his wing swept towards their food, they deftly deflected it with their hands. Most of the time, anyway.   The food arrived shortly. Iceglint picked up the fork and knife in front of him., and pulled his plate to the edge of the table in front of him. Normally, he would just bite off parts of the roast using his sharp beak, but everyone else used utensils. So he cut his roast pork into bite size chunks. The plate being so close to the edge allowed him to reach it without having to spread his wings very far; he could keep them folded back and out of the way.   Elitheris spoke up, after a few spoonfuls of soup. “The plan for tomorrow is to get an early start. We will leave at dawn, and take the main road eastward. I would like to make good time. I’ve been told it’s a six day march to Coastwatch.” She took another spoonful of soup. “I want to do it in four, five at the most.”   Kayspar looked over at Kerr. “And me with my stubby legs.”   “Ha! You can out march any of us,” Kerr replied, chewing on a piece of eel. “We will need to laden you with all of our gear just to slow you down!”   “Besides, Kayspar,” Iceglint spoke up, “we all know how much you want to see the ocean. All that sea and sky.”   “Yeah,” Kayspar said quietly. His companions didn’t know it, but he missed the tunnels and the comforting feel of stone above his head. It only really got to him on clear nights, when he felt he could look up and see infinity.   “Have you been to the ocean, Iceglint?” Elitheris asked.   “No. But I imagine it is much like the lake around Paragon City, except much bigger. And salty, from what I understand. Paragon Lake is the largest body of water I have ever seen. I’m from the mountains, where the lakes aren’t that big.”   “Salt means more equipment maintenance,” Kerr mentioned, chagrinned.   Kayspar laughed. “So don’t go swimming in it unless you take off your armor first!”   “I meant the air. It will have salt in it, from the ocean. I don’t have to go swimming in my armor for it to require more maintenance. Keeping things polished will be a bit more time-intensive as well.”   “I have heard tales of giant monsters living in the sea,” Elitheris stated. “If you go swimming, try not to get eaten.”   “Are those monsters good eating?” Kayspar asked. “If so, we will eat them!”   They finished their dinners, went back to the barracks, and turned in for the night. They had a few very long days ahead of them.   As the sky lightened in the predawn, Iceglint came fully awake as he circled in the air far above Turlund’s Heart. Or, more specifically, above the region around Turlund’s Heart, as his flightpath took him over the surrounding farmers’ fields as he slept. He altered course, and made a beeline for the Order’s facilities in the city. It only took him a few minutes to get there, and by that time Elitheris was up, shaking Kayspar and Kerr awake in their bunks.   The avian landed on the ground outside the door, then walked inside to gather his gear. Elitheris was sliding her mail over her head already, while Kerr was pulling on his leggings and Kayspar was splashing his face with water from the basin. Iceglint pulled his pack onto his back, and set his weapons into place. He was ready to go, and preened his feathers as he waited for the rest of them to finish their preparations.   Before the first arc of the sun became visible over the distant mountains, they were on the road. Elitheris had consulted maps after dinner the previous night, and was familiar with the route. Not that she was at all worried about becoming lost, as she had the advantage of an aerial observer, but it was a habit instilled within her by months of training. She liked to know where she was, where she was going, and how she was going to get there. The aerial set of eyes was just a bonus.   Elitheris set a quick pace, and the roads were good, so by the end of the first day they had traveled twenty six miles before they needed to find a way station to camp at. The terrain was, at first, mostly tilled fields supporting the city, but that changed to rolling hills with occasional trees, and then to more-or-less full forest. The canopy was starting to get pretty thick, and Iceglint was beginning to lose sight of his companions. He was going to have to drop altitude and fly under the canopy if he wanted to keep an eye on them…and to be able to see potential threats on the ground.   According to the maps that Elitheris had studied, the road curved southward before swinging back toward the north. The rest of the way was supposedly forest as the road headed north along the coastal range of mountains. At some point it wended it’s way through the pass towards the coast, although, as it turned out, Coastwatch wasn’t actually on the coast, it was several miles inland on the bank of a river.   The next day’s travel took them to a town by mid afternoon, so they stopped at the inn there for the night. It had beds, and food that wasn’t trail rations. Iceglint, as usual, slept on the wing, circling above the town as the others slept in their beds.   The next day had them on the road again at dawn. It was chilly, and there was a light rain sluicing down through the gaps in the tree canopy. Iceglint considered flying above the clouds to avoid the rain, and he would have, had he been flying solo. But he had his companions to consider, and he needed to do what he could to watch over them. So he flew low, merely two hundred feet up so he could scan the road and forest below for any signs of danger. This worked until the areas logged by the townsfolk to provide lumber and firewood became fully forested again. Then he dove under the canopy, slowed down quite a bit, and dodged between tree trunks. While he was very good at it, he was designed as a soaring avian, and the amount of wing flapping that he had to do to keep flying was fatiguing. He interspersed his sinuous flight plan with gliding hops from tree branch to tree branch.   The morning was uneventful; after taking a break to eat some food they continued on. The road twisted and turned through the forest. They were glad they weren’t in a carriage, for the road was so full of potholes, ruts, and rocks that the journey would have been a bruising one. Above their heads and a hundred yards ahead, Iceglint swooped in lazy S-curves ahead of the group, the wind’s fingers ruffling his feathers as he streaked between tree trunks. When the forest canopy allowed it, he popped above it to get a better view of the area.   It was around mid afternoon when Iceglint noticed a caravan a half mile ahead of them. It was stopped, and he could see frenetic movement around the wagons, but at that distance he wasn’t able to tell what was going on. He called down to his companions, “There is a caravan up ahead, and some kind of activity. I’m going to see what is happening.” With powerful beats of his wings, he sped upwards, accelerating in a beeline towards the cluster of wagons.   It wasn’t long before his keen eyes could tell that the caravan was under attack. He had seen enough; he spun on a wingtip, reversing course back to his companions. A moment later he flared his wings, landing in front of the trio of groundbound. “The caravan is under attack by brigands. Humans, from what I can tell. Quite a few of them, but I didn’t stick around to count them.”   Elitheris broke into a run as she called to Kerr and Kayspar, “Come on!” Elitheris’ reaction was predictable; she was a paladin of the Order of Turlund, after all, and it was her calling to take care of problems like this. Being a ex-skywarden, it felt to Iceglint like it was his calling too.   Kerr grinned wickedly as he followed, and Kayspar unlimbered his axe as he pumped his legs to keep up. “I am really wishing we had horses right about now!”   “You and me both!” Kerr replied as he ran, sword in hand.   Iceglint launched himself into the air, readying his hand crossbow and clutching a javelin in his other talon as he prepared for battle.   Iceglint flew just above the treetops, using them as cover and trying to stay out of sight for as long as possible as he approached the caravan. There were eight wagons, each drawn by four oxen, stretched out in a ragged line along several hundred feet of road. At the front end of the line he could see that the brigands had dropped a pair of trees across the road to halt the caravan’s progress. Iceglint couldn’t be sure exactly how many brigands there were, but it was at least a dozen. They had bandanas over the lower parts of their faces as a means of disguise. They were being engaged by the six caravan guards, who were making a good show of themselves, despite being badly outnumbered. The caravan drivers and merchants were also trying to fight, although their actions were rather clumsy in comparison to the professional warriors. They obviously had not just given in to the brigands’ demands, and had decided to put up a struggle.   The aarakocra cleared the treetops, skewing sideways into the open space above the roadway, and fired his crossbow at one of the bandits who was threatening a merchant and what could have been his mate. The bolt struck true, lodging its six-inch length into the man’s neck. He dropped with nary a sound, surprising his two victims who looked around wildly as Iceglint’s shadow sped over them. He threw his javelin as a pair of brigands realized he was there, and only a spastic attempt to block the javelin with an arm saved the brigand’s life. Instead, the javelin lodged in the bandit’s forearm, and he screamed with pain. Iceglint pulled out his other two javelins.   It would be another thirty seconds or so before his companions could get here. He arced out over the treetops to the side of the road in an attempt to come at the bandits from an unknown direction. He reversed the turn in order to make another attack run, this time from the opposite direction as before. He loosed both javelins at a bandit who was fighting with one of the caravan guards; only one hit, the other thudding into the side of a wagon. The one that hit lodged itself in the victim’s thigh, and blood ran down the man’s leg. He pulled up as he saw two of the bandits pull out longbows in response to the new aerial threat.   Crap, Iceglint thought. He had rather liked being out of reach. But all good things come to an end, and he started flying erratically, dodging and weaving in the air as arrows whistled by. Out of javelins, he pulled out his hand crossbow again, reloading and getting ready to fire it into the face of one of the archers as soon as he could see him through the tree foliage. He had to keep the archers guessing which direction he was coming from. His hand crossbow’s range was very inferior to that of the archers’ longbows, but the foliage would work in his favor, somewhat.   He could see his companions running toward the melee, their weapons out, as he turned again to make another attack run. This time he came in low, skimming across the surface of the road. At the last moment he popped up over the rearmost wagons, snapping a shot off at a brigand who was winding up to plunge an axe into one of the wagon drivers. The bolt took him in the shoulder, and he dropped the axe with a curse.   The two bandits with the bows spun to face the avian threat, but Iceglint had continued up and over the forest canopy before they could line up their shots properly, and the two arrows whizzed harmlessly far behind him.   “Guardsmen! Attack!” Elitheris shouted, as she, Kerr, and Kayspar came around a curve and saw the rearmost wagon. Beyond it, they could see the fighting. Two caravan guards were down, as were four bandits. They could see a few other bodies on the ground, although whether they were dead, injured, or just too scared to move they couldn’t tell. “For the Order of Turlund!”   The three nearest bandits turned towards the noise. “Shit!” one called out. “A paladin!” He slammed his shield into the caravan driver, knocking him back against the wagon, and turned towards the greater threat. One of the others called to his fellows farther up the line to alert them about the reinforcements that were pounding up the road towards them.   This resulted in a momentary pause as, along the line, the bandits processed the new information. It didn’t last long, and the brigands fighting the caravan guards didn’t pause at all. The others, engaged with the drovers and merchants, could afford to turn and look. That gave Iceglint an opportunity to loose a bolt at one of the momentarily distracted bandits, putting it into the small of his back. The bandit reached back with his off hand, but his armor restricted his mobility such that he couldn’t get to it. But that gave the merchant an opening, and he took it, clubbing the wounded thief with his mace, and the brigand went down with a whimper.   The two archers had been waiting for Iceglint to become visible, and they loosed their arrows. One missed, the other punched through the trailing edge of his wing, resulting in a minor flesh wound. The point protruded up through the upper surface of the wing, and the wind loading on the feathered shaft made the arrow wiggle painfully in the wound.   Clenching his beak in the aarakocra version of a grimace, he flew up and over the forest canopy, putting space and trees between him and his attackers. Once he was high enough, he folded his wing and used his talons to break the arrow and pull it out, falling ballistically, then snapped his wings out again to regain lift. Iceglint readied his spear “Thorn’s Vengeance”, and his buckler as he came around again to rejoin the combat.   Elitheris charged into combat, shield first. She slammed into the first brigand, knocking him reeling, and engaged the one a few paces beyond, parrying the expected blow that came in due to her shield being out of place because of the bash. Her sword flicked and slid down the steel as she gracefully moved it aside before plunging it into the bandit’s sternum in a smooth counterattack. The bandit went down, groaning and gurgling as blood fountained out of his mouth in a convulsive cough.   Kerr swept past Elitheris and the dying bandit, striking at a third bandit with his broadsword. It wasn’t as elegant as Elitheris’ was, but it was effective enough to make the bandit go on the defensive as he hurriedly parried the blow. The bandit’s counter attack glanced harmlessly off of Kerr’s kite shield.   Kayspar, his dwarven legs shorter, followed his companions into the fight, cleaving the bandit made off balance by Elitheris’ shield bash. His axe bit deep into the stumbling man’s thigh, and he fell screaming onto the road in front of a four oxen team, blood spurting from a severed artery all over the two leading oxen. The oxen, startled by the spray and smell of blood, got restive, and one of them stomped onto the fallen bandit’s foot with a sickening crunch, causing a fresh scream of pain. Kayspar couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across his face as he turned and moved farther down the line of wagons towards the bandit Kerr was fighting.   Iceglint barely registered what his companions were doing, aside from the fact that they had engaged the enemy. His focus was on one of the archers, who was currently lining up a shot at him as he dived toward him, buckler tracking the apparent aiming point of the arrow. The archer loosed the arrow, and Iceglint could see the fast moving projectile approaching and his trained reflexes shifted the buckler just enough to make the arrow glance off and tumble into the undergrowth by the side of the road. His spear licked out, the razor-sharp head slicing through the bowstring and hitting the brigand in the chest. Most of the blow was stopped by the mail, but the sudden release of the tension in the bow caused the man to drop the weapon as the impact knocked him stumbling back. The avian used his momentum to climb for altitude in order to line up another target.   One of the drovers took advantage of the stumble, and swung his cudgel at the back of the bandit’s legs, and the guy went down with a thud and an oof. He followed it up with a strike to the bandit’s head, but his shaken nerves and lack of proficiency with weapons made the strike less ideal than it could have been, and it glanced off of the man’s helmet. That didn’t stop him, however, as he frantically rained blows upon the fallen man, the brigand holding his arms in front of his face to protect his head. Fear and rage powered the wagon driver’s blows as he beat the man’s head and arms into a bloody, still mass before the brigand could recover enough to fight back.   Elitheris strode towards her next target, a burly, gambeson-wearing thief brandishing a nicked broadsword that had seen better days. Regardless, it was dripping blood, and a dead caravan guard lay at his feet. He had a long, wicked dagger in his left hand, and he grinned cruelly at the advancing paladin. “You don’t scare me, Paladin!” he shouted at her. “I’ll kill you like I killed this poor guy! You shouldn’t have gotten involved!” He spat in her direction, the gobbet of spittle landing at her feet.   “You talk too much,” Elitheris stated, as she struck with her longsword. He parried, but only just, and his smile wavered a little. His counterattack nicked her shield, and she pushed his sword out of line with it.Using the momentary opening, she struck with her sword, but he managed to partially move her sword so that it hit his arm instead of his chest. Blood welled, dripping off of his elbow.   “Bitch!” he cried, and stepped into close range to bring his dagger to bear. He was too close for the blade of her sword, but she stepped behind his leg and shoved with her shield. He toppled backward, tripped by her leg, and she quickly reversed her sword and drove it down through his stomach. He screamed as the sword parted the layers of linen, epidermis, and muscle, slicing into his stomach just below his sternum. His eyes widened in fear as the realization that it was a gut wound penetrated his mind and he knew he was a dead man.   The four surviving caravan guards cheered as they realized that the tide of battle had turned, and that two thirds of the enemy were down and out of the fight. Morale boosted, they redoubled their attacks, and two more brigands fell before the remaining bandits turned and ran into the forest.   Elitheris saw the last three brigands bolt, routed. “Flyboy! Follow them!” she ordered.   “Aye!” Iceflint shouted in response, and turned in the direction of the fleeing bandits. He readied his crossbow, knowing that he wasn’t likely to be able to use his spear and buckler. At first, the three bandits fled in the same direction, but their panicked flight made their paths diverge rather quickly.   He chose the center one, knowing that it would be impossible to follow them all. At first, he could track them by the noise they made, but soon the ones on either side drifted off, and he lost track of them. But he was able to follow one of them, mostly by hearing his progress through the bushes, but every once in a while being able to see him through gaps in the forest canopy.   He tucked his wings, and dove through the foliage, spreading his wings and pulling up before hitting the ground. He skewed sideways past a tree trunk, and curved around a second one. He saw the bandit running up ahead of him, twenty feet away. He loosed his crossbow, the bolt zinging into the running man’s upper thigh. He went down, hard, and tumbled down a short slope, slipping and sliding through the forest duff, leaves flying everywhere. He groaned as he pulled himself upright using some convenient tree roots, swore, and pulled out his fighting knife.   Iceglint landed at the top of the slope, and stared down at the man standing at the bottom of the gully. “Give up?” Iceglint asked hopefully.   “Fuck off, featherhead!” was the response. He brandished the fighting knife, willing the aarakocra to come and fight him. “Come and get me!”   Iceglint tilted his head, looking at the defiant bandit. “I don’t think so.” There was no way he was going down there to fight him. He pulled out his crossbow again, and attempted to shoot him in the shoulder, but the damaged leg altered the bandit’s dodge, and the bolt caught him in the lung instead. He coughed up pink froth and fell over, gasping, trying to breathe with a collapsed lung.   “Crap,” Iceglint whistled in Aarakocra, having wished to injure the bandit, not kill him. He flew down to the fallen bandit to see if his limited medical training could do anything for the man. A quick survey of the man’s wounds made it clear that he could do little. He said, in Common, “I can’t do anything for your wounds. I am sorry.”   The bandit stared up at the red-headed aarakocra. Grimacing, his hand fumbled in the fallen leaves, reaching for his knife. Iceglint stepped on his forearm, pinning it in the muddy earth, and used his other talon to rake his face. The man stopped moving, dead.   He peered around, making sure that the other two bandits weren’t lurking around, and then looked through the man’s clothes, looking for any evidence that might tell him who he was or who he worked for. Besides a few coins, the fighting knife, and a locket with a girl’s portrait in it, he found nothing. He circled the area, in the hopes of picking up the trail of one or the other bandits that had run off, but he didn’t find anything. He flew back to Elitheris and the caravan.   The surviving drovers, merchants, and caravan guards were still trying to tend their wounded and put the caravan back together again when Iceglint got back. Landing on a wagon next to Elitheris, Kerr, and Kayspar, he told them what had happened, apologizing for killing the brigand instead of taking him alive.   “While I would have preferred him alive,” Elitheris said, “in truth, it doesn’t really matter. There were two survivors from the brigand band, and we were able to get some information out of them. They had been led by that guy over there,” she pointed at a sprawled figure on the ground, “and had been harassing caravans and convoys for the last few months. This time they got unlucky. They hadn’t expected us to be here. We will escort the caravan the rest of the way to Wick’s End, where we will deliver the two surviving members of the band to the town guard there. They can do with them what they will. The two out in the wilds…well, if we see them again, we can take care of them. Otherwise, I don’t think that they will be much of a threat any longer.”   Kerr spoke up, “As thanks for our help, the caravaners will share their fires and viands with us.”   “Gold would be better,” Kayspar grumbled. “But hot food is better than trail rations, and to be frank, the supplies in these wagons are just common goods. None of these merchants are rich, more’s the pity!”   “It will rain tonight,” Iceglint mentioned, “I think.” His weather sense was decent, as it should be, since he lived in it. “You will appreciate the fires.”   “Yeah, and you will just be flying above it all tonight, won’t you?” Kayspar snorted. “Having wings must be nice. Besides, you think I haven’t noticed how water beads off of those feathers of yours? Maybe you should spread them over me and be my tent tonight!”   “Sorry, Kayspar. You are not the nice warm body I want to share a nest with!”   Kerr guffawed. “Too lazy to set up your own tent, Kayspar? I’d help you, but it would set a bad precedent.”   They went back to helping get the caravan going again, and by the time the two trees in the road had been dealt with, they continued onward toward Wick’s End, a small town near the coast about fifty miles south of Coastwatch.   The following few days with the caravan were uneventful, and upon reaching Wick’s End, were gifted with a modest purse of gold coins for their assistance. As Kayspar noted, the merchants weren’t particularly rich, but they were grateful, and had all contributed to the reward. The two wounded bandits had been given to the town guard, and the wagons unloaded in the warehouse, where their cargo was distributed to their final destinations.  

Chapter Six: Coastwatch

  The road from Wick’s End went east, through a pass in the mountains towards the coast. The road turned northwest, following a river that lead from the mountains to the sea, and according to the maps Elitheris saw, was the river that Coastwatch was situated on.   But they were only a few miles from the ocean, and none of them had seen it before. So they made the detour, each of them smelling the briny air. Of course, Iceglint saw it first, since he was flying hundreds of feet high.   It was massive. It was the horizon. There was haze there, and couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the sky began. It was a vast carpet of blue green with moving hints of white. He could see tiny specks that must have been sea birds flitting about back and forth. And soon he could hear it, a sizzling rushing susurration of sound that reminded him, oddly, of a heartbeat. It certainly didn’t sound like a heartbeat, but it just seemed like one, somehow.   The forest, which had been thinning out for a while before becoming patchy and sparse, ended at a series of sand dunes covered in sea grass and scrubby, twisted bushes before flattening out into an expanse of sand. Waves flowed in and out, expending their energy in an attempt to erode the beach. Sandpipers ran along the waterline in groups, pecking at the sand and looking for tasty morsels. Seagulls flew about in vast clouds of white and grey, and pelicans made strafing runs capturing fish in their pouches.   Iceglint flew low across the beach, paralleling the line of waves before curving out to sea just above the waves. It felt exhilarating as the sea wind blew past his feathers. Smaller birds got out of the large avian’s way. The wing-in-ground-effect made it seem like he could soar forever.   His companions had emerged from between two dunes, and strode onto the beach. He turned back towards land, still skimming the wave tops. Spray wet his feathers, but he didn’t mind. He flared up and landed with a hop next to his squad.   Kerr spoke to Kayspar, “What do you think?”   Kayspar looked around. The sky felt pretty big here. But there was a pair of rocky promontories out about fifty yards from the shore, so he focused on those. “It looks quite wet. And it makes a pretty noise, but I am ready to head to Coastwatch now.”   “What?” Kerr replied. “You’ve got to be kidding.” he bent down and unlaced his boots, removing them and his socks before wiggling his toes in the warm sand. “Ah, that’s more like it.” He placed his pack with his discarded boots and socks, and wandered over to the wet sand and waves.   Elitheris doffed her pack as well, leaving it next to Kerr’s pack. She left her boots on, though as she, too, wandered toward the waves. She looked out, across the waves, but she didn’t see any large sea monsters. A part of her was disappointed.   They camped there, in the lee of a dune, listening to the sounds of the waves and birds. The sand made a pretty comfortable bed for the three groundbound. Iceglint, as was his wont, slept on the wing. However, the prevailing wind blew him a few miles southward during the night that his subconscious course correction couldn’t compensate for.   Elitheris wasn’t very pleased about having to wait for him. “A little late, Iceglint,” she said, gruffly.   “Sorry, ser,” he replied meekly. “There was a bit of a wind and it blew me several miles down the beach.” To be honest, he didn’t feel all that badly about the incident; after all, he had to wait for the groundbound to catch up all the time. But he felt it was impolitic to mention that.   Elitheris seemed to accept his apology and explanation with a curt nod. “All right, let’s head out.” She started back towards the road that lead along the river northwest toward the fort. Kerr and Kayspar followed her, and Iceglint flew above and ahead of them.   Later that day, they arrived at Coastwatch.   The fort sat on the southern bank of a river. At this point in the river’s course, it flowed eastward, toward the sea. The fort was built using the river as part of its defense, effectively treating it as a moat. The valley walls were steep, the product of millennia of the river carving its way through the landscape. Were the barbaric tribes of the north to break through here, they would be forced toward the sea and around the end of the coastal mountain range before they could reach any of the southern, more civilized lands. The fort was placed in the one relatively flat space within this area of the valley, where the river bent in almost an S-curve.   It was irregularly shaped, with thirty foot walls and fifty foot towers every sixty to eighty feet. It filled the flat space all the way to the river’s bank, and climbed up the slope to the south in terraces carved out of the rocky landscape. The forest, spotty on the slopes but dense along the river, was kept cleared away from the walls to a distance of sixty yards or so. The lumber from all of those felled trees had provided a lot of the building materials for the extensive garrison facilities. The fort housed a full brigade of over three thousand soldiers. The terraces provided for several rows of catapults, in addition to all of the barracks, administration buildings, training grounds, and other vital services. There were also a series of underground chambers burrowed into the wall of the slope. Leading across the hundred foot or so wide river was a stone bridge, with a series of drawbridges, providing access to the other bank. It wasn’t straight, but zigzagged a few times to make it difficult to get a ram into a position that could attack the gate.   But it wasn’t the primary defense keeping the hordes of orcs and goblins out of the southern lands. Or, rather, it wasn’t the first defense.   North of the fort was a mile-long stone-paved road that lead up to a pass, via a series of switchbacks. It was only about a quarter mile up the north slope as the crow flew, and the fortress was visible down in the valley from the pass. At the highest point of the road was a pair of great walls that stretched across the one hundred fifty foot span between the two stony outcrops that formed the pass. The walls were forty feet high, and twenty feet wide at the base, and were constructed of stone blocks and cement. In the center of the northernmost wall, between two sixty foot high towers, was a pair of steel-shod doors made of wooden beams ten inches thick and barred closed by steel beams bolted into the walls. They were not really supposed to be able to be opened, but were put there in case there was ever a time when the forces of the southern lands would sally forth into the barbaric north.   Behind that lay a second forty foot wall, also with a pair of towers. Between the two walls was an open courtyard, designed to be a killing field if intruders ever breached the first wall.   Mantlets, crenelations, and machicolations ranged across the top of the walls to protect the defenders and fight off the assailants. Catapults were placed on the tops of the towers, and a pair of trebuchet sat in the courtyard. One of the towers in the second wall doubled as a signaling tower. It used semaphore and heliographs during the day, and shuttered lanterns at night, in order to communicate with the fortress below.   On the southern side of the second wall were the barracks for the soldiers stationed here, as well as the mess hall, which doubled, when necessary, as the infirmary and triage center. There was also a stable and carriage house, primarily used for ambulance services and resupply from the fortress downslope and across the river. Garrisons rotated up from the lower fortress every week.   Iceglint landed next to his companions when they reached the gate at the end of the road. The soldiers stationed there had been watching them come up the valley for the last two hours. They were met by a half dozen soldiers who were probably glad that something different was happening for a change. Besides, the four newcomers were an interesting looking bunch, since they were a collection of different racial types, including a feathered avian.                     There is some trouble integrating with the ground bound at the forts. The ground bound are not used to working together with aarakocra. But soon the wrinkles are ironed out and he becomes an important part of the fighting force, fulfilling a scouting/recon/courier role. Soon he starts learning how to be a Ranger (there is an Elf ranger stationed at Coastwatch). For the most part, the northern savages don’t attack the fort at the pass. Occasionally, the fort will send scouting parties into the northern lands to check up on the savages. Iceglint is used as a high altitude “spy plane” to see what the orcs/goblins are doing He sees an increase in training grounds, increase in food and weapons stores, and an increase in traffic between settlements. All this indicates that they are planning some kind of attack. Iceglint teaches the squad he works with Aarakocra numbers, and the clock-face equivalent. This is for calling out enemy positions using the squad leader (Elitheris) as the center point. “1 (at) starboard bow, 40 feet”, or “2 (at) port, 50 feet”. “High” and “low” can be added if they are on roofs or something. This was worked out in conjunction with Kerr, who suggested using naval terminology, something that aarakocra don’t have much experience with. (Note that they don’t need to speak it, just understand it when it’s called out by Iceglint…if the enemies don’t know Aarakocra, they won’t know they have been spotted.) Coastwatch high command decides to preemptively attack the stockpiles of food and weaponry and destroy the smithies in the hopes to stave off the future attack. The idea is to inflict few casualties, but eliminate their ability to wage war in the near future. Meanwhile, they are sending couriers to let the higher mucky mucks know about the buildup of war supplies.   Notes:   Modify the design of the upper fort in the pass to be a little larger, and have more ability to sortie into the North. Also, adjust for the use of magic by attackers. Garrison size: Brigade of 3600+ soldiers, run by Colonel Travis Fleetfoot (Hobbit). Under him are five Lt Colonels: Josua Harwood (M human), Grell Mancrusher (M half orc), Sybelle Willowby (F human), Krynne Aldamar (M elf), and Goreshi Brakazar (F half orc) Iceglint’s company is run by Captain Lavendulan Niter (M Dwarf the four lieutenants running the four platoons of that company are: Jurha Wildgaze (F human), Jesper Heartbreaker (M human), Dorwen Valtor (M gnome), and Lindria Vilana (F aasimar). Iceglint’s platoon is the one run by Lt. Dorwen Valtor. Iceglint’s squad is commanded by Sergeant Lysander Pasquale. Elitheris, Kerr, and Kayspar are also part of the squad, since they already have experience working together. The other six people in the squad are the leftovers from three other squads that had received casualties from a skirmish. 25 Companies: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, etc. all the to Zulu, and Thorn. The upper fort is typically manned by a single company, which is rotated out weekly.   Company notes: Colonel Travis Fleetfoot (Brigade) > Lt Colonel Goreshi Brakazar (Battalion) > Captain Lavendulan Niter (Echo Company “Raking Talons”, standard is a striking hawk) > Lt. Dorwen Valtor (2nd Platoon) > Sergeant Lysander Pasquale (Third Squad) > Corporal Elitheris (Bravo Group)   The platoon is made up of two groups of four soldiers (Alpha and Bravo), two corporals, and one sergeant. One soldier from each group acts as a runner/courier to act as a communication channel between the sergeant and the two groups. Iceglint, Kerr, Kayspar, a new guy (Fyren Zathrick, M human), and Corporal Elitheris comprise Bravo Group.   Echo Company had been the victim of heavy casualties two months ago when a large raiding party of orcs had filtered through the mountains using climbing gear in an attempt to form raiding parties on the southern side. Fortunately for the southern paragons, Echo Company had been deployed to patrol up and down the valley, and discovered the orcs. Due to the fact that the company had been scattered over a wide area, the orcs initially did major damage to the platoons when they would hit the platoons with greater numbers. Only when the remnants of the company was able to regroup were they able to eliminate the orc threat. This left them with only 65% of their original number, prompting Coastwatch to send for replacements. These replacements, gathered from several different training camps, filtered into Coastwatch in dribs and drabs. Echo Company, at the time that Iceglint arrives, is, for the most part, almost fully restaffed, both from new recruits and the recovery of the surviving soldiers wounded in the orc attack.   The Orcs, Goblins, and Kobolds of the Northern lands would probably realize that trying to go through the border forts with an army is a losing/damaging proposition. Instead, they would try to filter people through lesser known paths, although due to the landscape, this is obviously difficult. But not impossible, and they might even try to make the paths more manageable, at least on their side of the mountains. The brave trails of Horizon Zero Dawn come to mind, which would also act as a training ground for their warriors.   This implies that attacking the fort at the pass would not be the best course of action (except as a diversion). The effective way to get their troops into the southern lands would be to carefully sneak their troops in via a series of other methods: sneak through/over other areas of the mountains, and sail them around and amphibiously drop them off along the east coast in areas where they can get into the southern lands more easily. That also implies that the southern lands have a strong navy to prevent the aforementioned amphibious landings.   Argentavis, the largest bird   Another article about Argentavis   Wing loading maximum for avian flight: 25kg/m^2 Wingspan: 6.5m, Wing chord length: 1.25m This gives a max wt. of 203kg (446lbs) Iceglint’s weight is 95lbs, plus 75lbs of gear. This leaves 276lbs of cargo, in a pinch. Might not be very fast, and probably be stamina-limited.   video describing unihemispheric sleep in Frigate birds: Frigate birds and sleeping on the wing Or, how they sleep one hemisphere at a time while flying.

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