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WINGS OF THE FLIGHTLESS
(A Lost Isle Teaser—short story)
(Lost Isle is available for pre-order here)
I frequented bars and historical sites along the coast line. Went through Port Awadar, then south of the city within the smaller coastal towns, from Evastaur to Nowuldan. Traveling all the way down to Sasu Ilma, though I never took the ferry to Highmore.
Sailors spoke of their travels quickly enough, especially when I bought a round to loosen their tongues. Yet in all those tales, all those high-sea adventures, or doldrums as the case may be, I struggled to find a single man who could give credence to the story that the birds of The Flightless, that doomed menagerie vessel lost at sea, had ever escaped the storm to settle on the mythical Giant’s Whip Isles.
The first indication I had of the possibility of the Giant’s Whip truly existing came from a long retired sailor who had repurposed a fishmonger’s stall into an ale slanthouse. He had a rippling scar along his arm where a fire had caught within his prime years. A tattoo covered the scarring, but not well, the artist a hack and the ink long faded over the years after the man had ceased bothering to touch it up.
He had a garrulous nature, talking over his patrons and teasing his bar girl who laughed to cover her discomfort. The canvas-edged rooftop snapped in the wind above my head and my stool rocked against the stony ground. But the ale was decent and the mugs at least had the look of cleanliness, which was more than could be said for some such places.
On the other side of the repurposed stall stood a plethora of young dockworkers obviously taking a short break from their duties to mill about the slanthouse just out of the summer sun. Flies buzzed near the street gutter and a few mutts hovered behind me where the ale stall just about butted up against a fish-on-a-stick vendor.
“They come and run,” said the retired sailor. A man who’d professed himself to be Steppan Fares, once a rigging climber with a sharp weather eye and a cruel left hook. He’d rattled that intro off in a practiced manner, with a wink and a rippling of his arm as he flipped a mug and pushed up the spigot with one hand. “Ya hears all the news that way. Don’t have ta see the sails ta know which ship has put in or which captain is lookin’ to flesh out their crew. Ya see ‘em all. Stop by for a quick drain ta quench the thirst that salty air gives and ta uncork the news that’s been bursting for release.”
“Do you prefer it then, seeing the brunt of the crews ever passing rather than taking the risk of the high seas yourself?”
Fares snorted as he replaced the mug in front of another patron. “No limit ta the drink, no limit ta the fine ladies.” He winked at his helper and she gave a mockery of a simpering flutter of her lashes that spoke of a far easier camaraderie between them than I’d first assumed. “And the lee winds bring the smell of the sea. Yes, yes I prefer this life. Some call it easy, but I call it smart.” He tapped his temple where the hair had gone grey.
“Do they all pass by then? All the crews? Since you can tell who’s come to harbor by their faces?”
“Aye, know who’s due ta arrive back and who’s been gone for long enough they might be lost ta the leviathan.”
“Do you hear the stories of those lost?”
“Most of them are made up. Fun nonetheless. Ya here for stories, lad? Stick around and open those ears of yers and ya’ll hear plenty. From near misses with the Empire’s ships ta sightin’s of the misty maidens.”
I cracked a grin. “I’m sure the sailors have the time board ship to think up even more fanciful ideas, like making berth at the Giant’s Whip or seeing a passing nightmare during the moonset.”
But the returning grin I’d thought I’d receive did not come. Fares waved off another patron with a dismissive flick of a meaty hand, that tattoo a smear of black ink that did not resemble anything of any note. Then he leaned against the wooden deck board he’d claimed to have nabbed off The Rapture after she’d limped in with a rotten hull, collapsed decks and a shattered main. I’d politely not told him I’d never heard of The Rapture since I figured the ship meant more to him than it ever could to me.
The board creaked and the golden liquid in my mug tilted. “Ah, there be those kinds of stories too, but when they come in…” He paused in an overt attempt to impress me. “…they be not exaggerated.”
I made sure to make an appropriately astonished response. “Don’t tell me you believe such fancies? That nightmares aren’t just the dark clouds passing quickly or some island isn’t just one of the thousands in the great Serene?”
Yet my pulse quickened.
Fares leaned closer still, so much stale ale on his breath I might have saved myself some coin and gotten drunk from speaking to him. “Men with eyes haunted-like. Men who do not startle at the sight of steel, but yet cringe when the seagulls cry. Men who look to the horizon and jump at lightning no matter the distance. Aye, men who have seen the birds of the aviary and lived to tell the tale.”
“Now you’re just trying to scare me.” I picked up my mug and took a long, calculated swig.
The old sailor’s eyes twinkled. “All the young ones think them stories. But I know a man who’d been rattled by a storm bird soarin’ over their main. Got lucky, he did. Shock went to ground nearby and just jolted him with the intensity of the crack. Main weren’t so lucky, burst in two, split like a giant had heaved an axe down it. Others of his crew were cooked alive, like roasted ducks.”
“How do you know he wasn’t lying?”
Fares winked. “Because he were tortured by his merchant. They were furious over the loss of their wares, cloths all wrecked, torched and blackened and someone had ta pay. Heard it all over the streets. Some folks, like yerself, did nah believe the rumors. But think…would be a job of it ta ruin the seller’s cloth like that. And what for? Nah. Sometimes the truly unbelievable is what a crew wouldn’t be fool enough ta do.”
He abandoned me then to pay heed to patrons dragging their ale mugs across the weathered bar top.
“I hear ya swabs! Round for the blasted lot of ya and then ya’ll pay me in stories of the Serene.”
Someone shouted back that they’d pay the wench something long, thick and heavy. The bar girl laughed and told the poor young sailor she’d accept that brother of his anytime. They rambled on about nothing in particular, the weather—what good sailing sky it was—the girls—over-bloated boasts about their last shag—and the working conditions on board ship—quartermaster seemed to have gone a bit off on a power trip and would likely be replaced at next vote. Fares had a voice that turned tides and he used it to override them all, ragging on favorite customers and dragging out a tale or two that I suspected the rugged old sailor could likely spice up on the retell.
When Fares returned to top off my mug, he said, “Ya seem contemplative.”
“Just wondering about storm birds and whether the sailor you spoke of simply saw shapes in the cracking of the lightning.”
“Could be.” Fares nodded, then he gestured overhead where the crossbeams of the stall sat wedged together. “Then again, crew claimed it were broad daylight, blue sky, not a cloud till the horizon. Just lightning come from an unnatural beast.”
Above our heads along that crossbeam, someone had carved a bird. The detail had been worn off around the edges, but the figure had an elegant neck, a curved beak and bits of scraggly lines cutting jaggedly away from its feathery tail. Those lines butted up against another figure, this one of a fatter bird with a little round belly and a cocked head and tiny beak plus feathers that altered in detail midway. And beyond that someone had carved yet another, wings wide apart and burnt black, facial features indistinguishable, though the curve of its neck and the lifted pose suggested a swan.
Fares chuckled at my astonishment. “Birds and fish are the only creatures sailors see on a constant, least on the Serene.”
My gaze never left off examining the carved figures littering the crossbeams, each one slightly different than the last, every one seeming fanciful. A fiery inferno waging around one. A twisted swirl of air behind the wide-set eyes of an owl. A rainfall, or perhaps snowflakes, falling from the wings of a parrot-like creature. They riddled the wood, their details rubbed smooth, but the implication clear.
“The Ocean’s Aviary,” I murmured.
“That’s right. Aviary of the Serene. Birds of a feather. ‘Cept these ain’t no mallards or herons mindin’ their own business in the marsh.”
“They’re just a myth.”
Fares snorted. “What’s myth but reality told by a damn good storyteller.”
I’d been in and out of sailor bars, lingered on docks to eavesdrop, questioned authorities on marine biology and oceanography. Spoke to lowly crew members and traders running the shipping lanes. For months, I’d searched, though never knowing exactly what I’d been looking for. But now that I’d found it, I was filled with doubt.
“Have people—sailors—seen all these? All these…birds?”
“Seen ‘em. Heard ‘em in the case of harpies and the like. Felt ‘em too. Ice on your stays. Fire up your arms.” As he spoke, Fares ran fingers along his tattoos, ink messily hiding his scars from some burn. His eyes had gone glassy and his expression as weathered as the tattered canvas above our heads and the repurposed boards that made up the bar.
“You’ve seen one?” I leaned forward now.
“Aye, I’ve seen one. Littlest thing, bright as the sun, this burning ball of tweets and chirps. Wings all a flicker, eyes of the hottest blue. Never seen anything so small wreck so much havoc. Charcoal in its wake. Smoke so thick our wind whisperer could not clear it all. Steam that tortured the men on the bow.”
I breathed out an impressed sigh. “No one’s admitted anything like that before, and I’ve spoken to a great many sailors.”
“That’s cause a lot of folks are afraid to get called insane. But I don’t mind. They call me crazy as they drain my ale kegs dry, but we all know they come for my tales.”
For an awful moment, I thought that was all it was—tales. But Fares must have seen my crestfallen expression, for he laughed from his belly and gave me another wink.
“Ya talk to Hayden Lin. Works the south docks though is more than a little hard of hearin’. Or Shay Weathers, who bounces between jobs down on the shipwright streets. He’s the one who’ll tell ya ‘bout that lightning splittin’ his ship’s main. Tell ‘em Fares sent you. Tell ‘em ya’ve got the look of the believer in ya. The look of The Flightless. They’ll talk.” He winked. “They’ll talk.”
Lost Isle (The Ocean’s Aviary Book I) will be published on March 23rd 2021. Sign up for my Newsletter to be emailed when it comes out. There is also time to be part of my ARC Team in order to read this book early in exchange for an honest review.