I'm also not entirely happy with the ending. It feels abrupt to me, but I wasn't sure how to go about ending the story. I'll gladly take feedback and suggestions.
Also, yes, this species was roundabout-inspired by the Rito of "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker" but they a far, FAR darker people. I wanted to do a bird-people with a vulture-culture. Vulture-culture is brutal.
He had been hatched into the Southern Tribe of the
under a perpetual noonday sky. The chick was named only after he was out of his down. His fledge-feathers were mildly iridescent at their ends, so he was named “Shining-Tip.” The boy was called Shin as a nickname. His father was Longmane. Great Eastern Desert
The Vule race, particularly the people of the Southern Tribe, tended to give their surviving members names based upon their attributes. Sometimes an individual’s name changed throughout their life. Shin knew his father better than he did his mother. Bloodeyes fought in the wars while Longmane stayed behind at the aerie to rear their son, for the man had an injury to his shoulder that made flying difficult for long periods. Longmane could fly, just not well enough to survive battle. He hoped his fighting-fitness would return in time.
Shin played along the cliffs with the tribe’s other hatchlings and he watched several of his friends die when they fell from the cliffs in their first attempts at flight. This was the way of the vulture-people. They did not shelter their young ones from harsh things, for they felt that witnessing death while small made the hatchlings that survived tough in mind and not prone to make overly-emotional attachments. Most Vule children died before they fledged. The parents of eggs accepted this. Vule children that lived would spend their adulthood losing their comrades in battle or to the rigors of the desert. This was accepted. The Vule not only lived with Death, they made friends with it.
“Today, I am taking you to the Pyres,” Shin’s father said to him as he climbed out of his nest after his long-sleep in their small cliff-pueblo dwelling. In a land without night the division of days could be arbitrary. Just like in other areas of the Static-Lands, the fierce people of the desert had found ways to mark the time independent of the state of the sky. Some said that it wasn’t too hard an adjustment for them when the state of night and day became static because the desert was a bright place even in the ancient days. The Vule of the Southern Aerie had members asleep and awake at all hours, for it was necessary to maintain eternal vigilance against raids by their enemies.
“The Pyres? Really?” Young Shin exclaimed. The broad cliffside where the Pyres stood were an important place, a sacred place.
“Yes, son,” Longmane replied. “It is time. It is there that you will learn the nature of our kind… and of all kinds, really.”
All children saw the Pyres before becoming adults. Viewing the place was considered a requisite before one became a warrior. The pyre cliffs were away from the living areas and, strangely enough, away from the tombs. The pyres were erected of wood and covered in sheets. The area was heavily guarded.
When Shin landed upon the flat cliffs with his father, the smell in the air was overpowering. To young Shin, it was a favorable smell, one that caused his stomach to growl. A human being may have passed out cold or even been sent into cardiac arrest from the odor. Only one with the strongest of constitutions would have left those cliffs with the contents of his stomach still inside him.
The wind whipped one of the sheets on a loaded pyre. A feathered arm dropped over its side.
“Why do some go to the pyres and some go to the tombs?” Shin asked his father. “We were there for Irontalon’s funeral and for all the Unnamed Ones I knew before I fledged, but never here.”
Longmane spoke calmly. “The pyres are not for our own.”
“But they are Vule,” Shin pointed out.
“These are – or were, rather – people of the Northern Tribe.”
“Then why doesn’t the Northern Tribe bury them?”
“They were captured by us. Just as we allow dead beasts to ripen in the sun to our taste, we do not waste the battlefield dead.”
“We do not do this to our own… Why do the bodies of our tribe go to waste in the tombs?”
It may surprise, nay, even appall some that little Shin displayed no horror regarding cannibalism, but only a sense of loss at a perceived waste. Vule, even when young, are an extremely pragmatic and hard people. Since the beginning of Time, even before the stasis of days, they lived in the desert-lands. They wished for no other home. The Vule were of the desert and the desert was of the Vule. The drylands were harsh and bred hardness into whatever was native to it. The strong and the lucky survived there. It was a world that rewarded the practical and starved the picky.
The Vule, like their vulture brethren, ate the fallen. While they could eat fresh meat, the Vule had a taste for decay. They aged their meat like humans aged cheese and wine. That was something from the human culture that the Vule liked: Cheese. Shin was accustomed to eating flesh from deer, skunks, wild boars and the occasional human that wandered too far into the desert. He did not know that his people ate their own species – yet it made perfect sense to him. Carcasses were carcasses.
“We used to eat our own,” Longmane explained, “When my father was your age. That changed when we observed the humans. Our people – and the Northerners – used to visit their cemeteries seeking meat that was buried shallowly enough for us to get at it. When we saw their rituals and how much they respected their own, we decided to treat our comrades with similar respect. Our enemies, the Northerners, do not get such respect. They take our people off the battlefield, too. Sometimes, they raid our pyres, seeking to retrieve their dead for burial.”
“So, this is why we prosper,” Shin observed. “We have much meat because we take it as spoils of battle.”
“Precisely. It is time for you to get your first taste of it – food for adults.”
“If mother falls in battle, will this happen to her?”
“Not if I can anything to do about it. She’ll not become food to make our adversaries strong if I am allowed to fight!”
Longmane laid strips of rotten meat in a greased cast-iron skillet above the fire of the family cooking-hearth. The odor of decay was nearly drowned-out by the scent of garlic and hot chilies. This was typical Vule cooking – with garlic and peppers taken from the wild.
“Are you sure you are ready?” Longmane asked his son. Shin was playing with his toys on the floor – little dolls and soldiers carved of ironwood. His game was typical of Vule chicks constructing dramas; a narrative full of broken necks and eviscerations.
“Yes,” Shin replied, rising to sit at the table as his father plated food before him.
“Hmm,” Longmane said, “This flesh as aged a while. There is quite a bit of insect larvae. The tarps keep off the larger scavengers, but not the insects.”
“It’ll be extra sweet!”
“It may still be tough, being cut from the arms. I find it interesting that there are some among the humans and the venison-people who eat each other’s foods for sport – to experience what is unusual for them. They never try our food. What we eat would kill them.”
“They don’t come to the desert much,” Shin said between mouthfuls of his dinner.
“They are not of the desert,” Longmane replied. “I can show you the edge of the human country. It would do you good to know more about them as we may need to go to war with them someday.”
Shin and his father perched atop the great Gate Cliffs. They looked over a country filled with trees and of little clusters of houses on the hillsides. There was a large stone structure in the distance – a walled and fortified city.
“That is Fortissimo,” Longmane explained. “It is the central-place of the nation of Vale, like the Southern Aerie is our center. Beyond that, where the land starts getting dark, is the place of the deer-people. The humans think they are better than the deer-people and have them in an uneasy truce. It is little-better than enslavement, but the venison-folk are too divided to rise up and conquer those that take from them. Our leader, Gris, has vowed to never let that happen to us. The humans fear us, anyway, and they have ample reason for their fear.”
“Why do they all conquer each other?” Shin asked, “Is it for the same reasons why we fight the Northern Tribe?”
“No, but yes.”
“What do you mean, father?”
“The Vule have a purer war,” Longmane began. “Our motives are honest.”
“Humans and deer-people fight dishonestly?”
“The Vule fight for survival and because it is in our nature. The Others fight for the same reasons, but often do not know it because they pile complex things atop the true motives.”
“What kinds of complex things?”
“Differences in beliefs, appearances, political systems, the illusion each tribe has of being superior to others.”
“Aren’t the Northern Tribe people different from us?”
“By very little increments, little one. The Southern Tribe and the Northern Tribe are essentially the same. They live in cliffs like we do. They eat as we do. We believe in the same Deity and the same Afterworld, to which we all go – even beasts and humans. The people of the Northern Tribe fight with as much strength and ferocity as we do. We aren’t much different at all.”
“Then why do we fight as the humans and deer-people do?”
Longmane sighed deeply. “We do not fight as the humans do. We fight as beasts do. The Vule used to be one people. When the population swelled the desert could no longer support all of us. A divide happened and now we fight each other over resources – waterholes, hunting-grounds, space for our cliff-dwellings… those kinds of things. The desert cannot support us together, but it supports us apart and it supports us as long as our battles have losses. It may seem like it is to no purpose, an endless war that leads us and leaves us nowhere, but it fits with the brutal balance of nature. We care for our own families, our clan…that is all. Our wars need not be more complex than that.”
“Humans sound strange… if they don’t fight for survival like we do.”
“They do,” the father told his son, “But they are strange creatures, indeed. They have to have complex reasons to fight and to conquer so that they feel righteous. One tribe might try to wipe out or conquer another because of differing beliefs or politics, but when it comes down to it, they may be merely fighting for the fat of the land and space for their own. I find them pretentious.”
“It sort of makes sense,” Shin said. “It must be easy to fight those that are different. Gris has plans to keep the humans from hurting us, right?”
“Yes, little one. They think they are superior to all and to each other. That is laughable because we are the ones who are superior.”
Shin’s mother came home for a while and oversaw his training in the arts of combat. His principal trainers were a pair of brothers who were adept at hunting named Bunnykiller and Swinekiller.
They trained one day on a shaded cliff. Bunnykiller came after Shin with a short, curved sword. Shin sidestepped its swipe only to have Swinekiller come after him from behind with his prized Big Sword. Its blade was as tall as a grown man and almost as wide. Swinekiller grasped the massive hilt by both hands. Being such a heavy weapon, it was used only by men who kept to the ground as it was impossible to carry in flight. Shin did a back flip and landed feet-first atop the blade. He stayed there for a moment before jumping off with a mighty screech, flapping into the air and coming down on Swinekiller with his talons.
“Sonofa-!” Swinekiller cursed, dropping his weapon and wiping blood from his scratched face.
“Well done!” Bloodeyes said clapping. “You have gotten very good at your dodging, my son. Perhaps you are ready to join me for the next campaign.”
Shin bowed. He looked to Swinekiller. “I did not damage your eyes, did I?”
“No,” the large man assured. “Just got me in the skin. It’ll heal up.”
“Good,” Shin’s mother said. “We’d hate to lose you a soldier. Come with me. I’ll clean you up.”
Shin stayed behind on the cliff with Bunnykiller. “You’ll use a small sword, like I do… maybe even a dagger or just your own talons. You’ll be in the speed-troops, like me.”
“Do you enjoy battle?” Shin asked the older adolescent.
“There is some thrill in it,” Bunnykiller confessed, “but I cannot say that I take much enjoyment from it. Most of my comrades do. I have lost many friends, seen them die around me. The glory of battle is not so glorious after that, even as I avenge them.”
“My father says attachments are not wise.”
“Indeed, they are not, but one needs comrades to fight with and for. I’ll tell you a secret. I sometimes have thoughts of going off on my own and living alone, always from this life of fighting.”
“But we are the flock!” Shin protested, “All of the Southern Tribe are for the Southern Tribe!”
“I hope that you survive your first battle,” Bunnykiller said. “I must see to my brother.” His talons clicked on the stone cliff’s surface and left little clouds of dust as he walked off toward the medical-pueblo.
Shin survived his first battle. Members of the Northern Tribe were making nests and dwellings far too close to the eastern banks of the
for the Southern Tribe’s liking. Muddy River was one of the few places in the desert that was not contested over very much for most of its course, but the squatters were something that Shin’s tribe would not stand for. Muddy River
The fight was quick and brutal, lasting only two hours by the survivors’ estimate. Shin fought with a curved knife and with his own feet. The first Northerner he killed he did so by tearing his throat with his talons in aerial combat. Emotionally, it was not particularly difficult for him given his familiarity with death and the fact that he’d already eaten Northerner-meat. He pushed the similarities between him and his enemies to the back of his mind, instead focusing on the fact that they wanted him and his own dead and on their pyres.
Shin’s first battle was also his last. Two things happened in it to shatter his life. His mother had fallen. As the Northern Tribe warriors retreated, they took her and Shin pursued them. He met a warrior in the air and fought wing-over-tail with him until a short dagger found his gut. Shin fell among a copse of thorn-covered trees.
When he realized that he was in the dirt, he also recognized that he was still breathing. He tried to sit up, but every movement he made sent lightning-waves of pain through his body. He examined his wound. Everything that was supposed to be inside him remained there. Still, the wound was serious. He was sure that it would kill him in not too much time. The Vule had a very strong resistance to disease and infections. That immunity, coupled with strong gastric acids, allowed them to eat the things that they lived off of. Shin knew that he was unlikely to suffer from an infection, but the fact remained that his enemy’s blade had very likely hit something major and that he was bleeding out inside.
Even so, he hauled himself up. The cries of his comrades were distant. He attempted flight, but found the stretching of his muscles too painful to get himself off the ground. Also, he was quite dizzy. He started limping in the direction his adversaries had taken. Shin knew that he would likely die out in the desert.
If he were human, he might have thought his predicament unfair. A human might have even cursed or called out to a chosen deity if he had one or more. Shin was not a human. He accepted certain things as a part of Nature, including the prospect of his death. That which the Vule worshipped was a neutral god, indifferent to individual suffering if it did not affect the whole of the environment.
Shin, however indifferent to his own misfortune, was not indifferent toward his mother or to his fallen compatriots.
He reached the Northern Aerie after what would be measured as several days of travel by foot, the entirety spent under a hard noonday desert sun. Shin survived by doing what Bunnykiller did – taking young rabbits and hares as well as desert rodents and eating them fresh. He rationed his canteen and found water where he could. Vule could survive quite a long time without water compared to the humans that sometimes wandered out to these lands.
Shin spent time skulking around near the Northerner’s pyre-cliffs, but gave it up when his wound pained him too much. He found no way to get to them without being seen. He camped in the desert in a surface-cave that was out of the way. He watched his enemies day by day and he survived day by day. His living surprised him.
The young Vule found himself able to fly again after a while, but he refused to go home to his people. He knew that they’d given him up for dead and he found life alone tranquil. He snuck out to the place where the Northern Tribe took the bones from their pyres once they’d made use of all of the meat. Not knowing which bones had belonged to his mother, he embarked on a project to secret away them all, as many as he could carry without being caught. He buried them near his little cave, creating a secret cemetery which he watches over in vigilance and peace.