Chapter Two

Birth and Death

 

Harpies are classified as mammals rather than birds. They bear live young. Their mothers do not produce milk.

                                 The Anatomy of a Harpy: Grollen’s Collected Anatomies

 

Generally speaking, the harpy would always prefer to find a home on the side of a mountain. The air is always fresh, and having a good view of the surrounding areas makes hunting so much easier. Occasionally, when the number of villages outgrows the amount of desirable space on a mountain side to the extent that the only room left is on parts of the mountain that are either too cold or otherwise not really optimum for the species, a village might leave the security of the mountain in search of a new home somewhere on another distant and as yet untouched mountain.

When a village leaves a mountain, the harpies like to take refuge in dark and well hidden places, such as the middle of a forest. They might well spend several weeks in one place while they send scouts out into the world to find them a new home. Sometimes the village might stay in one place for so long that the harpies stop searching for a home. They become forest harpies, identical in every respect to mountain harpies except for where they have chosen to live.

 

Morning broke over the village. The village had no name; that wasn’t the harpy way. They would be more likely to name their favourite bow than they would the village in which they lived. Everything seemed peaceful. There were a few noises about the camp: to the north some practise targets had been set up and harpies aged between four and ten were busy practising their skill with dart-throwers. Actually, there had been a little bit of luck for those practising. Just yesterday evening, a group of human hunters had ventured too close to the village. They had been captured by the village’s huntresses. It was always nice to have live targets available.

Their meat wouldn’t go to waste either. Near the centre of the village, a group of young girls who hadn’t yet reached maturity were busy turning no fewer than eight spits. There was a variety of different meats on offer: stag, pig, fish, rat, horse, seagull, and dog, as well as the meat from one of the humans. These spits would continue to be turned all day, the girls taking it in turns to keep the meat cooked. Harpies didn’t stand on ceremony as to when to eat, and it took a lot of food to keep their metabolisms happy. Watching over the girls at the spits was an old harpy by the name of Gonneta. She was thirty-two years old and beyond the age at which most harpies were considered useful to the village. Fortunately there were always a few jobs that were considered beneath the average huntress. These jobs were always left for the old to do, and Gonneta had been lucky enough to have fallen into this one. It might not be a good job, but it was better than having her throat cut one night because she was no longer considered to be of any merit to the village.

Just to the north of the food pit stood the largest of the huts. This was the hut of the male, and it perpetually had two young huntresses standing guard at the only door in or out. It was rare for the male to venture out of his hut. Why would he need to when the females of the village would bring him everything he needed, including company? The two young huntresses had been specially chosen, as they were two of the best huntresses in the village. On this day, though, one of the normal guards was absent from her post. She had been temporarily replaced by the next best huntress available.

The missing guard went by the name Gaggara, and she was still in the village; she just wasn’t currently in any state to stand guard over the male. She was in one of the huts just to the south of the food pit. She was lying on her back on a heaped pile of straw that had been placed there to take the pressure off of her wings and tail. She leaned back and gritted her teeth and proceeded to give birth.

<Okay, dear,> said Joneth, the midwife. She was thirty-seven years old. She had done well to survive so long, but just last year, while they had still been living on the side of a mountain, she had begun to show the first few signs of senility. It wouldn’t be long before the leader of the village decided it was time to remove her. <I can see her wings.>

It maybe should be noted that the chief was just the male. Humans tended to assume the chief was in charge, likely because being a male-dominated society themselves, they couldn’t imagine anyone taking orders from a woman. However, the true ruler of any harpy village was usually a capable female huntress, chosen by the chief. Her official title within the village was simply leader, or occasionally she might be known as the war-leader if circumstances demanded. It was the leader who decided which females should be sent to the male. It was also she who judged when a huntress was past her prime and whether she should be retired or given what amounted to a babysitting job inside the confines of the village. Although she was the best huntress in the village, Gaggara wasn’t the current leader.

<Good,> commented one holding Gaggara’s hand. This was Gaggara’s best friend in the village, Lagnoth. It was of somewhat less importance to the harpies themselves that Lagnoth also happened to be Gaggara’s half-sister. In a village such as this, most of the harpies were related in some way. They usually had the same father. Lagnoth had felt a little pang of jealousy when Gaggara had been summoned to the chief’s hut, but now she too was heavily pregnant and was due to deliver any day.

<Her wings are coming,> Joneth said excitedly. <Now I can see her head!>

<Let me see.> Lagnoth tried to lean in closer.

Harpy tails weren’t prehensile, something Lagnoth should have been happy about, because as she leaned forward to get a better view of what was happening, she rested a hand on Gaggara’s stomach, making Gaggara quite uncomfortable. Had her tail been prehensile, Gaggara would probably have whacked Lagnoth in the face with hers. She hissed, <Get off me!>

<The worst is over once the shoulders are through,> Joneth commented.

<This is exciting,> Lagnoth said. She looked at Gaggara and asked, <You’ll be there for mine, won’t you?>

<Of course,> Gaggara groaned painfully. She could feel the baby emerging faster and faster.

Joneth pulled the baby free and held it in her arms, cradling the baby. It may have been her age, but it took a few seconds to notice that something was wrong. <Oh!>

<What is it?> Gaggara asked concernedly. She tried to sit up. It took quite an effort, but with Lagnoth helping her she managed it.

<She is male!> Joneth told her. The harpy language was very limited in some ways; it had few male pronouns.

<Oh no!> Lagnoth exclaimed.  <Oh, I’m, I’m so sorry!>

<No, she can’t be,> Gaggara refuted.

Joneth handed the baby to Gaggara. <See for yourself.>

Gaggara took the baby, and all it took was one glance to know that Joneth was right. She had been through so much pain, and the chief was no doubt hoping to hear news of his new daughter. This was bad. This not only meant that her entire pregnancy had been for nothing, but that she could actually lose face over this.

Joneth petted her gently on the leg and said, <If you want, I can take your baby and smash her brains out against a log for you. No one need ever know she was born male.>

<Yes,> Lagnoth agreed, <we can claim she was still born or something.>

Gaggara shook her head and said, <No, I must do this. She is my problem.>

<Better do it quickly then,> Lagnoth said. <Best if she is dead within the hour.>

<In case the chief should find out,> Joneth agreed.

<Take her to the river,> Lagnoth suggested. <Drown her. It’d be kindest.>

Gaggara handed the baby to Lagnoth. She then climbed awkwardly to her feet. She was tired and still in pain from having just given birth. She’d give anything to be able to lie down on a nice comfortable bed and sleep the rest of the day away, but this child was her responsibility. She had to kill it as quickly as she could.

Once she got to her feet she immediately staggered against the hut’s central support, causing the hut to shake. She rested there for a moment, using the support to prop her up. Then after a minute or two, she felt ready to try and stand on her own.

There was a moment’s doubt where she thought her legs weren’t going to support her after all. Then she reached out her arms to take back her baby.

<You’re sure you want to do this?> Lagnoth asked, returning the child to his mother. <I could always go for you.>

<I must do this,> Gaggara replied insistently. She then staggered to the doorway that led out into the sunlight and the rest of the village.

No one seemed to notice or even care as she emerged from the hut, babe in arms. She half expected to be mobbed by nearly every female in the village, all wanting to get a look at the new-born. Fortunately everyone seemed to be far too busy.

She didn’t stay there long. She headed south, straight out of the village, where the only others she might meet would be those actively participating in a hunt. With so much meat in the village thanks to the humans who had happened across them yesterday evening, the chance of getting caught was very small indeed.

It wasn’t far to the river, but she was a creature of the air. Her legs screamed with the pain of the unusual stress they were being put under. Ideally Gaggara would have preferred to have flown to the water’s edge, but she felt so tired after having given birth that she doubted she had enough energy to flap even one wing.

<I’m sorry,> she said to her baby as the river came in sight. She ceased hurrying so much and began to walk slowly to the water’s edge. She knelt down by the side of the river and began to submerge her baby.

<Humans!> The scream came from the village. It was loud, and there was panic in the voice. <We’re under attack!>

Gaggara sighed. Her first thought was to finish off her child first. It was doubtful they would need her help to deal with the humans. Chances were that they were just a mob from one of the nearby human villages, come to seek revenge for the deaths of their hunters. Nothing they would need her help with, and besides, in her weakened state what good would Gaggara be?

The scream repeated again, <Humans! Help us!>

Gaggara might still have ignored it, were it not for the sounds of fighting that could clearly be heard coming from the direction of the village. Turning her head to see towards the village, she could see flames pouring black smoke into the atmosphere.

Gaggara retrieved her child from the river. The child caught a heavy breath; he was still alive. For a moment Gaggara was torn between finishing her child off and going to the aid of the village. She didn’t have any weapons with her, but how hard could it be to kill a few humans?

Then a thought struck her. She would much rather her child lived. She had the same feelings for her son as she might have had should she have given birth to a daughter. She only wanted to kill him because custom demanded it. Wouldn’t it be better if she could arrange things so that instead of killing her son, she made him chief?

It should be simple. The village was currently under attack by humans. All she had to do was sneak back to the camp and remove the chief and his heir in the confusion of battle. She kissed her child on the cheek and uttered, <Don’t despair, there’s hope for you yet!>

First thing, though, was to find somewhere safe to put the child. If she was caught in the village with a male baby, she could still lose a lot of face. She looked around for a landmark, something that would stand out so she could find him again. There was a stump not too far from where she stood. A tree had at one time or another fallen from natural causes. It had probably fallen into the river and been carried away by the water.

Gaggara quickly secreted the baby behind the stump. She worried that the child might be a little exposed, but hopefully he’d survive until she came back for him.

Then, with little more than a casual look of concern, she headed back into the forest towards her village.

The human attack was more than just a mob of local villagers seeking revenge for the loss of a few huntsmen. They had come in force. They had brought mounted knights, soldiers, and most dangerous of all, archers.

The village floor was covered with the dead. Not just harpies—a large number of soldiers had also met their end in this melee. Even now she could see a small group of huntresses pouring in from the far side of the village to take a group of men-at-arms in the flank. It was true that the claws and the talons of a harpy could rip through steel. Likewise, the harpy dart-thrower could be fired with so much power behind it that it could skewer a fully armoured man and sometimes even continue on to the man behind. For a few seconds there was slaughter. Once they had dealt with their immediate prey, the harpies were left dangerously exposed. Some tried to take to the air to get to safety. The arrows of the human archers found them all.

Everywhere Gaggara looked there was devastation. Every hut was burning. In the centre of the village, the young had been cut down without mercy. They had gathered close to Gonneta at the first sign of trouble, and they all lay dead in the centre of the village. To the south, the hut in which she had so recently given birth was also on fire. Joneth had been decapitated just outside. Lagnoth was nowhere to be seen. Gaggara hoped she had escaped to safety.

Even the chief was dead, lying out in the open with his two guards. That was one little detail solved, but even if she found and killed the heir, there wasn’t enough of a village left for her child to take over.

She shook her head and disappeared back into the forest. She would retrieve her son and head north back into elven lands. She couldn’t return to the mountains, not with a male child, at least not until he had grown a few years. Then maybe they could return and he could challenge the chief of a village and claim what she felt was rightfully his.


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