by Adrian Diglio
Grindor awoke atop a bed within a wooden cabin that swayed back and forth. The smell of salty ocean air filled the room. Heads of beasts and serpents were mounted along the walls like trophies. He was no longer in his merchant linens, but was wearing a clean tunic and trousers. A splint was strapped to his leg and his kukri was missing. Crutches lay beside him. They were long sturdy sticks with a Y shape on one end. He grabbed them and hobbled across the wooden floor boards toward a mirror. His eyes looked as if they had seen one too many battles in their time. His black hair hung to his shoulders and no longer smelled of dust. His sunburns were gone. He raised his hands to his face; his skin felt cool and smooth. He turned to the cabin door and threw it open.
He expected to see open ocean; instead, all he saw were massive tree branches surrounding a small porch. He hopped onto the porch and found Ocamyr leaning against the railing. All around him were more trees like this, each with a wooden cabin nestled in their branches. The swaying was not from waves: the trees appeared to be… walking. He did not believe his eyes as he peered down below to see the great roots of his tree crawling atop the land.
Many questions raced through his mind, but the first words that escaped his lips were: “Why am I not dead?”
Ocamyr gave a slow exhale. “When you are ready, I want you to tell me how you came about that ring. You know which one I speak of.”
Grindor blinked in confusion and then studied the golden ring upon his right hand, staring at its insignia of three talons as if recalling the memory. “Where is your flock?”
“I sent them on ahead to sell their wares. I figure you will be more comfortable telling me the truth when the others aren’t around.”
Grindor gave a slight nod. “What is this place?” he asked as he held onto the railing to stay his balance.
“It is the home to a nomadic tribe of torgers.”
“Torgers? I thought you were taking me to my own. To a human city with apothecaries.”
“We were, until help came to us. We knew you would be in good hands when we saw these trees approach. Torgers are generous and most are worshippers of Syrepha. They applied herbal remedies to your burns and bruises, and stopped the swelling in your leg.”
Grindor cleared his throat. “Syrepha?”
“Oh, you must be a worshipper of the Old Gods, like your king. What’s his name? Tenoble XLIII? Anyway, you probably know her better as the Gaia Smith, wielder of the divine forging hammer that has control over trees and nature.”
“I swear fealty to no king,” muttered Grindor. “A true king should serve his people, not have his people serve him. For his sake, I hope he realizes this before his wars cause the people to rise up against him.”
“Then you are a vagabond like me, with no place to call home.”
Grindor thought about that for a while. His possessions and his riches were all gone. He looked at his broken leg and then watched from his perch in the swaying tree tops as the tangled roots continued to crawl over brush and dirt.
“Did you make this?” Grindor said as he held out his leg wrapped within the splint.
“I did. How does it feel?”
Grindor smiled at his attempt at kindness. “You must really want to know the story behind this ring.”
The magnificent avian gave a slight nod. “It was the Fates that crossed our paths. And I intend to find out why.” Ocamyr was primed for combat. Two sharpened sais were tucked into his belt. They were the length of long daggers and looked like the heads of tridents, the middle spike twice as long as the outer two.
“So, where are we headed, then? Nolta Tenoble? Dreskin Tenoble?”
“Wherever these land-sailors take us,” answered Ocamyr.
“We’re not headed to a human city at all?” cried Grindor. He took a moment to calm himself. “I guess it doesn’t matter. If I even attempt to tell the king, well, I’m a dead man either way.”
Ocamyr’s head cocked to the side. “Tell the king about what?”
Just then, a stout hominid approached from around the corner. He was thick and looked solid as iron. His skin was a dry black and he stood a head shorter than Grindor. His head was more animal than human, with beady eyes, small ears, an elongated forehead, and one horn that stuck out above wide-set nostrils, crowding his mouth. He carried a staff twice his height, thicker than a broomstick and capped with a metallic pinecone-shaped macehead.
Grindor and the torger stared at each other for a long while; it was the first time Grindor had seen one up close. The torger gave a grunt and tapped his staff at the floor by Grindor’s leg. Grindor was perplexed and looked back at Ocamyr for help.
“They don’t speak in the common tongue,” squawked Ocamyr. “He wants to know how your leg is.”
Grindor faced the torger and nodded, gave a thumbs-up, and said, “Yes. It’s much better. Thank you.”
After an awkward stare, Grindor continued, “Can you take me to one of the king’s cities?” He drew a half circle in the sky, signaling turning around.
The torger was motionless, so Grindor kept talking. “Do you have something to eat, then?” He followed his statement by pointing to his mouth.
The torger reached behind his back and offered forth Grindor’s kukri within its scabbard. Grindor was hesitant to retrieve his blade at this juncture in the conversation. Again, he looked back at Ocamyr, but this time Ocamyr was riddled with delight. Grindor took his weapon and unsheathed the curved blade to inspect its condition. The torger walked a few steps toward a rolled-up rope ladder and kicked it over the balcony so that it unfurled as it descended. Grindor hopped over to the railing to view where the ladder would take him, but it just dangled to the base of the tree. The torger turned to look at Grindor as he pointed at the rope ladder.
Grindor met his stare in utter disbelief. “Me?”
The torger first pointed at the kukri, then mimicked Grindor’s hand gesture by pointing to his mouth and then grunted as he pointed at the rope ladder again.
“You want me to hunt? You haven’t any food here?”
“Grindor the Ravenous. The name fits you still, though you wouldn’t be pleased by their cuisine. They only eat vegetation. Grass and twigs.”
“This is ridiculous. Forget it. I can wait.”
“It’s in the latter part of the day. Once night falls, it will be pitch black out here. You won’t have a chance to hunt until the morning. Are you sure you can wait?”
Grindor looked dumbfounded. “But I have a broken leg! How do they expect me to get down?”
Ocamyr guffawed in his eagle-voice, which startled several buzzards resting within the canopies of the walking trees. It was the first time Grindor noticed them and an unsettling feeling crawled over him. They all seemed to be watching him with an eerie fixed stare, eyes bright and dead as black pearls.
Grindor focused on the one nearest him in the shadows of the treetop, inspecting the tainted red skin that covered its head; its stare recalled that of the man that stood over him after the landslide. Then he heard the gruff voice. He couldn’t believe his ears—or eyes—as the voice emerged from the buzzard’s moving beak: “Tell the king what I have done.”
Hairs stood up on the back of his neck. Grindor swallowed hard and looked at Ocamyr. The avian was still beaming with joy and seemed oblivious to what Grindor had just witnessed. Grindor glanced back at the vulture in the shadows as if expecting more, but none came. He felt tension mount around his shoulders as he began to look at each of the carrion birds with paranoia. They sat motionless; their remorseless gazes seemed to burn holes into his flesh. Grindor’s mouth fell agape in dismay as he backed toward the ladder.
“Alright… I changed my mind. I’ll go down,” he said.
Grindor threw the crutches over the railing and sat down. He scooted in an awkward fashion to grip the edge of the balcony and then descended the ladder with just the use of his arms. He could tell Ocamyr was impressed as he maneuvered downward with newfound enthusiasm.
Grindor was short of breath as he touched solid ground. Wincing, he hobbled on his good leg to locate his crutches. The walking trees, slow as they were, made a sudden stop as their roots plowed into the earth like anchors. The heavy sway of their canopies jerked to a halt, causing a brief shower of leaves.
“This is insane. What am I doing? What did he expect me to hunt out here?” he asked aloud.
Grindor took note of the evening sun and how the temperature was beginning to cool. A nice coastal breeze came from the south, though no beach was in sight. Grindor rested against his crutches as he looked around at the dry brush and brambles surrounding him. Then his eyes went wide: a cobblestone road lay just in the distance down the hill. I’m near civilization, he thought.
Grindor whirled around to find his avian companion behind him. Ocamyr relaxed his wings and grinned. “What’s that look in your eye? You’re not thinking of making a run for it, are you? On that leg?”
“Make a run for it? Am I some sort of prisoner to you?”
“Quite the contrary. I saved your life.”
“Then you had one of your lackeys almost kill me.”
“Fair enough,” said Ocamyr. “I apologize for that. I guess he didn’t know his own strength, but I must know the truth about that ring.”
Grindor looked at him with a critical eye. “If I just give you the ring, will you go away?”
Grindor wiggled off the ring and held it out to Ocamyr. The feathers about his neck puffed in surprise. He gave his wings a single flap while he blinked his hawk eyes in contemplation. At last, Ocamyr withdrew a step, as if sensing some sort of trick. “If I do, where will you go?”
Grindor looked at the ring and shook his head. “To safety. When you’re in my line of work, you are a dead man walking. Staying alive is as much a skill as killing. So I figure, as much as I despise the king, I’ll be safest within the walls of one of his crowded cities.”
“Then why are you trying to get rid of me?”
“The sooner you return to your flock, the sooner I can go back about my business.”
“Your business of killing?”
Grindor paused and readjusted his crutches. “Who did this ring belong to? Your father? Brother? Friend?… Enemy?”
Ocamyr gave a long silent stare, so Grindor continued. “Trust me. It’s best you don’t know the story about this ring.”
Grindor slipped the ring back on. It fit snug over the pale band of skin that marked its place on his finger. Ocamyr drew in a long breath. “The insignia upon that ring was the family emblem of my old sword master, Vynex. His fame and fortune earned him many death threats. Though I can tell just by looking at you that you could not have bested him head on. Hell, I doubt you could even beat me… so how did you do it? Poison? Or was he asleep?”
Abruptly, the ground beneath Ocamyr’s talons began to tremble, then part. Ocamyr took to the air as an enormous claw breached the surface where he’d stood. Grindor backed as rapidly as his crutches allowed—to where, he had no idea—as sandy dirt sloughed away to reveal a carapace big as a carriage. Out of the corner of his eye he could see several torgers sliding down ropes from their tree-top village, staves at the ready, as the giant crustacean hefted itself from its burrow to tower above him.
“A krodder,” Grindor mumbled in horror.
Ocamyr drew the twin sais from his belt, soared atop the krodder and thrust both blades through its exoskeleton. The krodder crouched in pain from this unexpected attack, as it scuttled to the side on its many legs. One bone-crushing claw reached upward toward Ocamyr. He pulled his weapons out and rose in haste, dodging the jagged pincer. The torgers circled the creature and began battering its legs with ferocious swings of their bulbous staves.
Tiny arms surrounding the krodder’s mouth reached outward as it opened its jaws. In an instant, an elastic tongue shot forward, wrapping around the head of a torger. The tongue retracted, pulling the torger in; the feeding arms pushed his entire body into the behemoth’s gullet before he had a chance to react. Terrifying screams of pain emerged, then stilled, as the krodder’s mandibles ground down on its prey. The tribe froze in shocked dismay at the sudden loss… not long, but long enough. One oversize claw slashed forward and latched around the torso of a second victim, who gave his fellows one last look of horror before his ribs and spine splintered and his body fell limp within the grip.
The torgers backed away, grunting to each other, staves extended in a warding stance. The other claw reached, clipped one staff in half; then the tongue whipped forth again. The torger was drawn toward the mouth, but he turned his staff crosswise, bracing himself against the exterior of the maw. His sturdy limbs resisted the tongue’s pull; the feeding arms tried to buckle them. Another torger—the one deprived of his weapon—lowered his head and charged, the black horn jutting from his face piercing the shell near one of the leg joints.
Ocamyr closed his wings and dropped from the sky, driving a sai into the krodder’s shell right between its eyes. A reflexive swipe of a claw batted the avian off, leaving the sai embedded in its shell. Ocamyr slammed into one of the trees, the wind knocked from him.
The entrapped torger continued to wrestle for his life. His cries rose in pitch as the krodder brought both claws to bear against his forearms. Just as the bones broke between the bite of the claws, the rest of the tribe surged forward from all sides with fresh determination, delivering a brutal wave of repeated strikes to the joints of the monster’s legs. Two of these folded inward under the crushing force of the bulbous heads. The krodder released its maimed prey and hobbled away from their assault, using one pincer to support its vast bulk.
Grindor continued backing away from the creature. He glanced at the welcoming cobblestone road behind him, tempting him with the eventual safety of city walls. This is my chance, he thought. An avian shriek made him look back. He turned to see the elastic tongue wrapped around one of Ocamyr’s legs. The avian clung to the trunk of a tree with all of his strength, resisting the drag of the krodder’s tongue.
Grindor looked at his ring. It won’t happen again, he thought as he dropped one of his crutches and yanked his curved, machete-length blade from its scabbard. With a furious war cry as pain seared through his leg, he hurled the kukri at the krodder. It flew end over end until it buried itself in the back of the shell. The krodder shifted around to face him. Its tongue released Ocamyr and retracted, then immediately shot forth and wrapped itself around Grindor’s chest. In the split second before he was tugged off the ground, Grindor gripped his remaining thick crutch in both hands. He went flying through the air toward the beast. The jaws gaped open, feeding arms stretched outward in anticipation. Grindor could see mangled bits of the dead torger still clinging to the serrated grinding ridges within. Injured as he was, he knew he’d stand even less chance than the burly torger in resisting being drawn in and crushed by those mandibles. So he didn’t try.
Instead, he extended his crutch along the retracting tongue’s line. The protection of its exoskeletal armor did not extend to the creature’s gullet. Adding at the last instant all the force his arms could muster, Grindor drove his improvised weapon like a lance into the back of the krodder’s mouth.
Then he was on the ground, released and shoved away as the surprised creature sought to expel it knew not what it had unwisely tried to swallow. He watched as it tried to backpedal, but its injured legs buckled on one side, and it collapsed nearly on top of him. Still not mortally wounded—or not realizing it was—it rose up on one side with its remaining legs, one claw snapping at assailants, the other shoving in futile attempt to steady itself, feeding arms probing its mouth to remove the offending splinter. Ocamyr’s sai was still embedded at the crest of its shell, within Grindor’s reach if only he could stand up. Somehow, he managed. He pulled the blade from the shell and plunged it back in, foining the sai through the krodder’s thick protection. Again. And again. And again.
Around him, the torgers continued their attack, each blow filled with vengeance. More legs broke beneath their strikes until the great bulk slumped to the ground. Pinecone-shaped tips hammered the krodder’s eyes. Eventually, Grindor’s efforts found their way into its brain. The claws fell limp, devoid of life, and the torgers shouted to the sky in victory.
Gasping for breath, Grindor dropped to the ground to reprieve his leg and crawled away from the corpse. Above him, the sky was filled with circling carrion birds. With the torgers still gathered around the kill, they descended with ambitious courage. They landed atop the ravaged shell and began pecking away at any exposed area. Grindor laid upon his back in the dirt as the torgers began to break off the claw for another trophy.
“You saved me,” said Ocamyr. “I thought that I was going to be krodder food. It seems the Fates did cross our paths for a reason… I owe you.” Ocamyr handed Grindor the remaining crutch and helped him to his feet, then exchanged the latter’s kukri for his sai.
“Seems like the Fates want you to keep me company for a little longer.”
Ocamyr’s facial feathers tightened back, the avian equivalent of a grin. Then he panned to the view of the carrion feast. “Quick, or you’re going to lose your meal,” he exclaimed.
“Bah. I never liked seafood anyway.” Grindor clapped him on the shoulder and added, “Bet you’re glad now that I never tried to best Vynex head on, huh?”
Ocamyr’s neck feathers ruffled at his words being returned in such an unexpected fashion. Just then, one vulture glared at Grindor with a stare that raised bumps along his flesh. As the sun was dipping in the sky, the vulture’s elongated shadow resembled that of a man. Then the brusque voice sounded once more. “Tell the king what I have done or we will feast on your flesh!”
“Did you hear that just now?” asked Grindor with utmost concern.
“Hear what?” Ocamyr was still distracted by his previous remark.
Fear snuck into Grindor’s eyes. He looked at Ocamyr with worry. “I need to get out of here now.”
“Grindor, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Are you alright?”
“I’ll tell you how I got this ring if you hide me. Hide me… somewhere…” Grindor looked around at the dead krodder and then at the crater that it emerged from. “Somewhere underground!” he exclaimed.
Ocamyr spread his wings. “Does it look like I know of any underground hiding spots?”
“No, you’re right. That might be too difficult anyway. You said you owe me. Do this for me. Take me to a human city. One with walls. Just promise me.”
“And you’ll tell me the story of Vynex’s ring?”
Grindor nodded as they walked away from the carrion feast and the torger village. The greater the distance he put between himself and the vultures, the more at ease he felt. Finally, he said, “Vynex wasn’t dead the last time I saw him… though he probably is by now. Not all my jobs involve someone’s execution. I was hired to guard his daughter while he was away. Sophie. He didn’t say who he expected to come after her, but like you said, he had his share of enemies.
“There had already been one attack earlier that day, which I fended off, but they retreated too easily for my liking. I figured they’d be back. So I made the decision to move to a safe house in the dead of night. We traveled on foot so no one would notice—no one expects avians to walk anywhere—but they must have had eyes on us the whole time. We were almost there when they sprung the ambush. I fought with all of my skill, slaying five of them, but they still bested me; left me for dead, I thought. Next night, I learned I was wrong. A man approached me, gave me Sophie’s ring, and told me to take Vynex a message. From the king.
“I killed the man. But I took the message to Vynex anyway. I thought he’d have my head, but at that point I didn’t care. I’d failed, and failure in my line of work generally involves dying. And I didn’t want the memory to keep replaying night after night in my mind. The week it took to reach him was plenty.
“Imagine my surprise when Vynex told me Sophie was alive and well half a hundred leagues away, and I’d been protecting a decoy.
“Which left only the problem of my failure. He hadn’t set me up. Now there was a girl who was supposed to be his daughter being held by the king, and he had to react appropriately or give the ruse away. He had no intention of doing what the king wanted of him. But if it became known he’d left his daughter to the king’s mercy, he’d lose all respect, and his flock would desert him.”
Ocamyr nodded grimly at this summation of his people’s ways.
“So the only thing left was for him to die valiantly in a rescue attempt. Which is the last I ever heard of him. I wasn’t allowed to go along. There was too much chance I’d give the ploy away. I’ve never even tried to find out what happened. It’s too dangerous for me to ask.
“He told me to keep the ring. I’m still not sure why.”
“Why do you still have it?” asked Ocamyr. “Do dreams no longer trouble you?”
“Because I want to remember him. And what the king did. And because I never heard of Vynex again.”
“So you said. I don’t understand.”
“Someday, I’d like to put a name to the face I remember every night. The only one from all my jobs I don’t know is alive or dead.”
Ocamyr let the news sink in. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have misjudged you. I—”
“You needn’t apologize. I’m no knight, and you aren’t the first to make that mistake,” smiled Grindor.
Ocamyr smiled in return. “You wear an awful lot of rings. Are those all failures as well?”
“Are you kidding? I’d never have another job if that were the case,” laughed Grindor.
As their feet touched the road, he looked over his shoulder and saw the carrion flock still atop the krodder at the edge of the shadows of the setting sun. They were all immersed in devouring their dinner like it was their last meal, except for a lone vulture, perched atop the shell, watching Grindor and Ocamyr depart.