The Story of Iceglint Broadwing in the Tondene Empire
Artwork: Steven Hanly
PrologueIceglint (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 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.
There have been many Orcs that have been snatched up, carried to a height, and dropped to their deaths. This is considered a sport by the more mobile Aarakocra. The typical Orc weighs about 300 lbs with their gear; an Aarakocra can lift this much, but not for long, and not very fast. The technique would be to fly the Orc down slope, using wing in ground effect to stay aloft and gain speed and altitude, and drop the squirming Orc as soon as practicable.
But the threats against the clan don’t include only Orcs…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 its 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 Windsong translates to "groundbound"), and, since he didn't have a mate, he decided he would venture out into the wider world, and protect the Empire from whatever enemies it may have, side by side with the groundbound.
He made his way southward and eastward, and eventually joined the Rural Watch at Port Karn, at the mouth of the Altasirya River. This took a little getting used-to; both for Iceglint and for the groundbound that lived in the area. Aarakocra were rare this far from their own territories, and it was even rarer to see one actually living with non-Aarakocra. Port Karn, a city with a population of over 48,000 people, had a grand total of 14 Aarakocra living there.
He was assigned a lot of scouting and patrol duties, something that suited his avian nature well. The Rural Watch protected the farmlands and the farmhands from danger. The jungle that surrounded the areas clearcut for farmland were filled with dangerous and hungry creatures. If a pack of flickerbugs attacks a group of pickers during harvest, the farm workers need to know that they will be protected. And the first line of defense were the sharp eyes of the Overwatch. Of the fourteen Aarakocra that lived in the Port Karn nesting, seven were employed by the Rural Watch. They spent their time being the eyes in the sky, looking not only for specific dangers, but also watching for the signaling flags or torches that would tell them where a trouble spot was. Then, with their speedy flight, they could coordinate the ground units that would converge on the trouble spot and take care of it.
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.
Artwork: Claudio Pozas
Chapter One: Basic Aarakocra Racial Notes
Artwork: Jeff DeeAarakocra 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. The muscle fibers in the talons have, like hawks and eagles, ratcheting fibers that allow the talons to lock in place, to better hold onto prey and other objects. 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. They are able to sleep on the wing, much like a frigate bird, resting one hemisphere of the brain at a time. This allows for a basic amount of “autopilot” while they sleep.
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 km^2) with colorful banners and pennants marking the boundaries. Larger settlements exist, but are fairly rare. Larger settlements started increasing in number once the Aarakocra joined the Tondene Empire, as the amount of trade with the groundbound increased. Effective wealth increased, and fledgling mortality decreased with the increased amount of food that the trade allowed.
Each tribe lives in a communal nest made of woven vines with a soft lining of dried grass, or in shallow caves hollowed out of cliffsides. Aarakocra, being claustrophobic, don’t usually handle caves well, so the caves are rarely deeper than twice the opening size. 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. They spend most of their waking hours hunting for food and occasionally for treasure, such as gems and other shiny objects. Couples spend eight months of the year incubating their eggs, with one spouse incubating while the other works at their profession. While incubating, they pass 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.
Artist: UnknownAarakocra 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. It is possible for Aarakocra to eventually get used to entering small spaces, but it’s more a matter of mind over matter and willpower than it is a “cure.”
Artwork: Christopher Moeller
Chapter Two: Leave-taking (875 AFE)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 partner Allbright Blackfeather, whose yellow-headed black body followed Iceglint in the banking turn. Black feathers were rather rare in Aarakocra; it was one of the many things that Iceglint loved about him since most Aarakocra had mottled brown feathers. In the Eyrie, Allbright’s black feathers was unique, since his father, who also had black feathers, had died a couple of years ago. This loss had made Allbright and Iceglint’s relationship even deeper; what had begun as close friends evolved into life partners. 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 of the eastern edge of the Northern Expanse 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 out for 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, Goblins, and Orcs rounding out the population. Not many traders liked sending goods over that brutally rugged road, despite the panoramic vistas and beautiful scenery. But the skyfolk 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 its 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 a gang of Goblin brigands that had been preying on traders and travelers. Fallriver had run up a yellow banner on its church steeple, a signal worked out long ago that said “someone thinks they saw signs of possible intruders”. Usually that meant a threat had been seen in the area, often a dangerous animal such as a hydra or terror bird, but it sometimes meant dangers of a more criminal sort. 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.
Artist: Unknown“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 Mekiitagi, 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, a scimitar he used often. In his other talon was a 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….yourself, my…love,” and Allbright died, his last word a whistling trill. Allbright hadn’t had a mate, nor any offspring, and Iceglint had been the closest thing he had to a mate. 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.
Artwork: Chase StoneTwo days later, the death rituals done, Allbright’s body had been placed on the mountain’s peak at the Gates-of-the-Infinite-Air for the sky goddess Starbright Smoothfeather to enfold and carry away, and Iceglint had his mementos of his best friend and lover, 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. Allbright had been the closest thing he had to a mate; they had been very close, and although they had never made an official pair bonding agreement, they had been effectively mated. So he would leave, for a while at least. His plan was to head east, into the lands of the groundbound, and hopefully join with them and fight the brigands 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 closer than 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 fledgling 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, the Goblin brigands had been a threat, sure, but something of an impersonal one. Now, though, it was anything but impersonal. When he thought about their dusky olive 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. And not all Goblins were brigands, or intruders, or criminals, and Iceglint knew this. But at the moment, it didn’t matter. His rage and grief and sense of loss were too great. He knew that the Eyrie couldn’t afford for one of their skywardens to be distracted: that led to mistakes. Dangerous mistakes of a political and diplomatic nature.
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 against the criminal elements that seemed to be everywhere in the Empire. “It’s all well and good to stay here,” he opined, “picking off occasional brigands and gangs that have managed to keep away from the authorities. But I feel I could do more to protect the Eyrie by stopping them at their source, and prevent them from getting this far into the mountains 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. I am not proud of this,” he continued, “but I think that I wouldn’t be focused enough to be a proper skywarden.”
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 east 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 the Goblin brigands, 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. Little did he know the extent of the criminality that suffused the whole Empire. It wasn’t just a brigand group made up of a few Goblins, it was vast networks of crime families whose wings shadowed entire duchies.
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, despite what his parents still called him. 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 east 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 east, into the areas of the Tondene Empire inhabited by the groundbound, entreating him to show the groundbound that the skyfolk 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: LakekeepHe left the next day, after a tearful goodbye to his parents Sharpeye and Jewelbeak. It hadn’t taken him long to pack: weapons, including the scimitar he usually carried called “Bloodchaser” and the spear “Thorn’s Vengeance”, the gambeson he wore, some supplies, some coins, and his hardened leather helmet, which he had decorated with Allbright’s feathers, two on each side of the helm, yellow and black.
Iceglint Broadwing flew eastward, over the forested hills to Fallriver, where he figured he could get directions to the most appropriate place to join a group that fought against brigands and the like. 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 skyfolk 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, in his Windsong-accented Imperial. Windsong, being a language of whistles, trills, and musical notes, gave Iceglint’s speech a breathy, whistling tonality.
“By the gods!” 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 seek to join the Emperor’s fighting forces, but I don’t know where to go to do that. I wish to be a skywarden there, wherever there will be. 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 of the Empire.” He paused for a moment. “I am thinking I can’t just show up somewhere 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 Lakekeep. Look for either the Duke’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 east than a day’s flight from here. Where is Lakekeep? How will I know it?”
“Yes, well. Follow the Werecelusindi River southeast; that’s the river that our town is built on. Just follow it downstream. 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, following the Werecelusindi. It flowed eastwards, then curved into a more southeasterly direction, snaking its way through the jungle. He made good time, soaring on thermals, covering about 250 miles a day and sleeping on the winds half a brain at a time, circling above a small, marshy lake. When he fully 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.
He had never seen jungle before; his experience with forests had been the alpine forests of the upper altitudes of the Northern Expanse. The carpet of green beneath his wings was dense, with few, if any breaks in the canopy. And when he did see those breaks, the closeness of the tree trunks triggered his claustrophobic tendencies. He wondered if it was even possible to fly between them and not slam into something. A few times he saw the shapes of large animals in the river, but he didn’t know what they were., except big. On the horizon to the east, he could see another mountain range that seemed almost as high as the Expanse he was used to. They were the Zirinibar Mountains, although Iceglint didn’t know what they were called. To him, they were just a series of snow-capped peaks.
Every couple of hundred miles, a town, surrounded by tilled fields, emerged from the carpet of dense green trees: Nenraume, Doublestream, Nazdûg, Ushak Dûsh, Gorgûm, and Duirro. There were several smaller settlements as well, often not more than a dozen buildings. At each town of sufficient size, he landed on a roof and asked a passerby the name of the town, so he could learn about the area. Most of the time, people answered his questions, although there were a few that Iceglint considered rather rude, and they shouted at him to “fuck off!” While it disappointed him, it wasn’t a big deal, and usually the next person would answer him.
A few days later, Iceglint saw that Travis-tate was right: Lakekeep 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, although in most places the walls weren’t that far from the shore of Parson Lake, which surrounded the town like an immense moat. Roughly in the center of a secondary island, and built upon the central hill, was what appeared to be a palace. Bridges arced over the spaces between the islands, linking the smaller islets to the main one.
The islands themselves appeared as if they had once been a single, large island, but had split apart somehow, now looking like the shards of some piece of pottery. Many had steep cliffs for sides, in some cases rising up over a hundred feet. The set of islands looked vaguely like a triangle, with the bulk of the city on the central islands, which tended to be higher in elevation. The islands at the periphery often had farmed fields taking up most of their area.
As he got closer to the immense walled city, he could see a few Aarakocra circling 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 skyfolk 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, fresh 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 skyfolk 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 Windsong, 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 Imperial Army.”
The skywarden’s eyes widened in surprise. “That is an unusual request for one of the skyfolk. Why do you want such a thing?”
“I was a skywarden at the Eyrie-Above-The-Rainbows. I lost my mate to a brigand raid, and I want to keep the brigands 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. I am also filled with a need for vengeance, and I feel I can hurt them the most if I can take care of as many of them as possible. Something I can’t really do in the Expanse.”
The skywarden seemed to consider this. “You realize how crazy that sounds, right? Brigands aren’t some monolithic army. If you catch them out here, it doesn’t really help stop the ones by the Expanse. You know this, right?” He looked off towards the horizon, thinking about what the newcomer said. “You might be better off skipping the army and trying the City Guard or the Rural Watch. The army doesn’t really do anything about brigands and criminals.”
Iceglint didn’t really know what those were. He knew the words, and had a basic idea on what they seemed to mean, but he was ignorant of the institutions. “The City Guard guards the city?” he asked.
“More or less. They are like a city’s skywardens, except they are mostly groundbound. The Rural Watch is sort of the same thing, except they watch over the farmlands around a city.” He paused, considering. “Okay, think of it this way: in a city, the dangerous people are criminals. They break the laws, and the City Guard capture or kill them. When they can find them. In the rural areas, it’s a bit different. The dangers include some criminals…brigands…and wild animals. Wild animals don’t usually go into the cities, but they might eat the crops or attack the farmers. The Rural Watch protects them from not only brigands, but from dangerous animals as well.”
He continued, “The Army, on the other wing, protects the whole Empire from enemies outside of the Empire. Usually. Sometimes they are called in to quell uprisings within the Empire. But that hasn’t happened since before my lifetime.”
Iceglint nodded. “So you are saying that I am better off joining one of those two groups?”
“Based on what you said, yes. The Army will teach you how to fight, and follow orders, and be a soldier. They won’t tell you how to catch brigands. They will teach you how to kill them, though.”
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 skyfolk 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, or the City Guardhouse. There is no Rural Watch office in the city, since there is no need for them on the island. They have offices scattered about the small settlements surrounding the lake. You can choose where you want to go from there.”
“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. The ones between the islands had columns supporting them barely larger than the wingspan of the average skyfolk. 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.
Farsight peered at Iceglint as they circled above the streets. “Have you figured out what you want to do?”
Iceglint had been thinking about it. His initial sense was to forego the military, and go for the policing bodies. But upon giving it some thought, he figured that the military training might come in handy. In any case, he would be a member of one of those organizations for a significant fraction of his life. He spoke up. “I think I will join the Army. It was my original plan, and I figure I can learn a lot from them. More than from the Guard or the Watch.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Bridge Dodger said. “Farsight and myself are members of the Guard, and we learned quite a bit. We even know what end of the sword to hold!”
Iceglint felt that he had unwittingly insulted the two skywardens. Guardsmen. “I’m sorry, I meant no offense!” he hurriedly apologized.
“Don’t worry about it,” Farsight said. “Dodger is just being a cloaca. Your choice is your choice. The Army will make you serve a minimum of two years, though.”
Iceglint had a feeling it would be something like that. “I understand.”
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 Lakekeep, 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. He wore a khaki uniform with olive green trim. “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 skyfolk, 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 join you guys for some reason.”
Doros looked startled. “Whatever for? Is there something wrong with him? One of the ‘touched ones’, perhaps? You skyfolk 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 join the Tondene Imperial Army? There aren’t many of your kind in the military. There are fewer than a two dozen of the skyfolk here in Lakekeep, and we have one of the larger metropolitan populations of skyfolk. And most of them aren’t in the Army.”
“Most of us skyfolk are in the Guard and the Watch,” Dodger said. “Where we aren’t just couriers and messengers. It’s not like the Empire is at war with anybody.”
Doros cocked an eyebrow at the City Guardsman. “We aren’t at war right now.” He shrugged. “That could change. But I want to hear what the new guy here has to say.”
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 the enemy 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 Lakekeep. 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 soldiers in the Imperial Army. Some of those will apply to you, but you will need to know all of them because it’s what everyone else will be using. Can you read Imperial?”
“Yes. We were taught Imperial letters as fledgelings.” He looked away from Doros, embarrassed. “But I was a little slow; the knot-nets we use for Windsong were easier to learn. I didn’t learn to read Imperial 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.
“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, Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, and Goblins 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 GracesThe 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 coordinating with others, formations, maneuvers, protocols, all of the oddly-named ranks and who outranks whom, specific rules on how to comport himself with all of the other races, and, most importantly, how they did things. Surprisingly to him, they also taught some basic construction skills, since the soldiers were often sent to build roads, bridges, and fortifications.
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. And some of it he could do, and some his body wasn’t built to accomplish.
But it wasn’t easy. The military wasn’t used to the skyfolk any more than the skyfolk were used to the groundbound. Some of the military exercises were completely irrelevant or even downright dangerous for Iceglint. Marching on foot, for instance. Aarakocra legs weren’t made for that; there was physically no possible way for him to march ten miles on foot, not and stay in formation. He could do long distance marches on foot only by hopping/gliding, and there was no way he could stay in formation doing that. Some strength-based exercises also didn’t really work for him, either. While pushups were easy (Aarakocra chest muscles are huge), climbing a rope wasn’t, because it required the arms to bend in ways that Aarakocra wings couldn’t go. Crawling or getting through tight spaces was difficult for him as well. It only took a couple of weeks for the drill instructors to modify their drills for his particular physiognomy.
The downside of this was that they really tested his flying skills: endurance, speed, maneuverability, and carry-weight capacity. Not to mention his ability to fight while airborne. So while the groundbound had to fight primarily using their arms, Iceglint had to fight with all four of his limbs, since most of his fighting capability relied on his legs and dextrous feet and toes. Some of the soldiers rigged up a harness that they would put on in order to have Iceglint grab it and carry them around. They called it “Air Cavalry” and while serious thought had been put into trying to make it a viable tactic, it only really worked for the lighter races: Hobbits and Goblins. Anyone much larger than that was too heavy to carry very far, and were too slow to be anything but a target. Some of the soldiers joked that at least Iceglint could ferry them down a cliffside, effectively using him as a living version of the Spell of Slow Falling. While it might be a useful tactic to use in commando raids, it wasn’t terribly useful in the battlefield, except under some specific circumstances, such as battlefield casualty evacuation.
On the other hand, his drill instructors used the idea to use carried soldiers as weight lifting exercises, and the instructors took what seemed to be great pleasure in making Iceglint carry aloft large soldiers to see how long he could keep flying. The answer was not as long as they would have liked. He was really only able to lift himself, his gear, and an extra hundred pounds at the most and still fly.
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 tried to make sure he understood. He didn’t want to take something that someone thought was theirs without asking first. The idea of property exclusivity 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. But the concept still didn’t perch well with him, and it took a long time to begin to think in those terms. Because of this, there had been…incidents. Nothing major, but Iceglint suffered several chewing out sessions with his commanding officers, which did nothing for his self esteem. Despite him repeatedly trying to explain his own cultural norms, it took a while before the other recruits stopped calling him “klepto”.
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 Lakekeep 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 be in the Imperial Army. He had never been in a situation where demophobia was a danger; he had never realized that he even suffered from it. 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 Lakekeep.
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 legal 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 skyfolk from various different clans living together. They called it the Lakekeep 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 and introducing him to the inhabitants that were there, 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 Orcs, a Goblin, and a Hobbit, most of which barely glanced at the newly arrived feathered skyfolk 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 Northern Expanse, 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, tongue sticking out. “Nope.” His eyes sparkled in amusement.
She gave him a look of disapproval, 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 Lakekeep, 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 like 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 skyfolk 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 used sand-glasses to time the race; 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 sand-glass that was timing him had been marked with a grease pencil when he crossed the line, denoting his time.
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 sand-glass marked, 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 two hundred royals 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, a horrible memory that kept popping up frequently. 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, then light them on fire. 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.
Farsight continued, “And sometimes he even has good ideas! Sometimes.” He grinned, but his mirth bubbled out in an Aarakocra laugh that sent a whistling “ah-ah-ah-ah!” ringing throughout the establishment.
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 the enfolding wings of Starbright Smoothfeather!
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. Continued in Part 2
D&D 5e ruined the Aarakocra. They gave them an extra pair of arms. And yeah, I have a problem with this. From an anatomical perspective, it just doesn't work. Look at a bird. Do you see the shape of their body? Their chests are huge, compared to the rest of their body. Take a look at their skeleton. Do you see that thing in front, the sternum? It's often called a "keel", since it looks like one. There is a very good reason it's shaped like that. It's to attach the flight muscles that connect to the wings--basically, they are some large pectoral muscles. When you compare those muscles to the total body weight, you realize that a significant amount of their body's mass goes to those flight muscles...even for small birds of nearly negligible weight. So where on that basic body plan are you going to be able to fit another pair of limbs? You can't. It doesn't work. And if you notice the artwork, they don't even try. The chest muscles shown are for the arms. There aren't any muscles for the wings at all. The wings are stuck on like an afterthought. They don't have the musculature (let alone the skeletal structure) to lift themselves, never mind the rest of the body. Personally, I think that the Guys In Charge over at D&D Central don't really understand biology. Or they don't care, or they think that their market won't have the education to notice. "It's fantasy!" they say. "It doesn't matter!" Actually, I think they did it to make it easier for miniature companies to make figures. It was a cheat. Yes, it does. It matters a lot. Stories, even fantastic ones, still need to hold together. There is this thing called verisimilitude. It means that even if the rules have changed, they have to be consistent. There are consequences. If A, then B. Every time. The original body plan (which is still the only body plan that I will acknowledge) was fine. They had a pair of legs, with manipulable digits, and hands on their wings, much like a pterodactyl. They could use those hands when on the ground, but obviously couldn't when in flight. This made sense. While they can use bows with their feet just as easily as a human can with their arms, there are still some significant structural and logistic issues involved. How to they carry a quiver? What sort of contortions need to happen for them to pull an arrow out of it, nock it, draw it, and loose it? Most armor can't be worn. At all. And it's not really about weight, either. A 100lb Aarakocra can have a 70 lb cargo capacity without much trouble; it's well below the maximum wing loading for winged flight. So, weight wise, an Aarakocra could wear a full 45lb plate harness. Except they can't. First of all, anything on the wings is a non-starter. Second, depending upon the physical characteristics of the armor, they may not be able to wear it at all. Two words: Aerodynamic stability. Their body has it's shape so they can fly. Varying it, with bulky, wind draggy armor that gets in the way of their aerodynamic processes will cause them to fall out of the sky, and they aren't any better at lithobraking* than a human is. Just because some wings are glued onto someone's back, doesn't mean that they will be able to fly. This goes for hawkmen, angels, and demons, too. Same issues, same problems. The only way it works is if the wings are for minimal, inefficient propulsion, and the being that has them is actually levitating. At which point, you might as well have stupid little cupid wings...it makes a smaller target, while serving the same function. End rant. Thank you for listening.
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