THE VULTURE, by Justine Niogret
To the vultures we gave him.
He was dead and already cold, but vultures don't care about cold.
His wound killed him. A slender thing, this wound; nothing bigger than an ant hole in the sand. A foe had stuck something of a blade in his back, but the hole was so small, nobody cared about it, not even him. But as ants do in the dark of the soil, this hole dug deep in the crimson of his lungs. His breath became a bird's whistle. It was almost pretty; small notes, small breaths. Small death. Before the end, he stank of shit.
The rot took him in a handful of days. His nose, his mouth, every breath, smelled like horse milk gone bad, lumpy and yellow. Even I stayed away from him.
I found him dead and cold in his tent. The grass was dancing on the wind, the wind was dancing on the grass. And he was still and heavy as a stone.
To the vultures we gave him.
Our vultures, they go ahead of us, ahead of the caravan. They're sharp, aggressive. They search in worry. They're nervous, nothing but skin and bones. They have to earn their food. But at the end of the caravan, there are vultures too. Those, they walk like princes. They're confident, proud, as if laden, heavy with gold. They're not. They're replete with fat from the corpses. They eat so well.
They ate him, and I watched it.
I grew up without him, but his absence wasn't painful. All fathers die, but not all fathers have a fistful of days to see themselves go, to say goodbye, even in the shit-rotten milk of their dying breath. But he didn't say goodbye. He was looking at the vultures. The fat ones. The princes. The flesh-pukers. He wasn't afraid. But why be afraid ? All ends are already written.
Many years after his death, I found the jewel knocked in the sand. After a battle charge, flattened by hooves, rusted by blood. The jewel wasn't ours. I never saw one like it. A claw, a golden talon. A vulture's hand. The weight of the horses didn't even crush it.
I took it, I looked at it. It made me think of my father, of course. Of our vultures. They were tied together; he was part of them now.
I sewed the jewel in my waistband, hidden. I couldn't stand for others looking at it.
This very night, I dreamt I was flying, high in the wind. The huge plains were unfolding under me, their splendor, their violence, their inhumanity. We're wanderers in the harsh grass, this place isn't ours, never will be. We just go through. Only the vultures stay.
I was an unknown warrior. My horse was strong-willed, but small. My arms were hard, but not enough to fight in the sand; those friendly fights, at night, nearly killing each other for fame, for hearing the winner's name sung for a brief moment. I was too frail to survive those brawls; the other warriors would have broken my teeth and made me walk in shame at the back of the caravan, with the too old and the too ill. My ears are not cut, my lips are not burnt, I didn't break my nose with a stone until it became a gaping hole in a nightmare's face. I don't like pain, it repels me. I'm too soft, I always knew it.
But I knew how to kill. Every foe I killed only saw a little woman riding a little horse coming at him. Some of them even giggled. Those ones, I hacked their hands and sewed their mouth into their cheeks, hiked up in a forced smile for them to remember, even in death, to remember who took their life; a little woman riding a little horse.
I used to touch my jewel, more and more. Between halts, between riding. Before the fights. It reassured me. And I was dreaming, more and more, that I was flying high above the horde, seeing the world with yellow eyes.
And, one day, we attacked Tameth. Again. It was a small fortified town in the middle of the big nothing, built around its three wells. They fear thirst in Tameth, they dread it. They have big hessian sails outstretched over their walls, to catch the humid winds, the thin rains, the dew. Tameth is like a dead ship, shattered, unable to move, too heavy to go. An enormous thirsty thing lost in the grass ocean.
They fear thirst in Tameth. So, we go there sometimes, knock the sails down and throw some corpses in the wells. We, too, have to laugh.
This night, this very night before the attack, I dreamt. My first real dream. I was flying over Tameth, my yellow eyes seeing everything, knowing everything. We never striked Tameth in its core. I couldn't say why; I am not a scholar, I don't plan the attacks. Maybe scholars think that to laugh is enough; taunting this big stupid thing incapable of movement, this big stupid thing looking for water where there is no water. Tameth is a reward between two real wars, a honeycomb to put ours fingers in. And I have to say, too, that the walls are very thick, even for us. We never entered Tameth. Never.
But this night, I dreamt. I was going in circles around the city, I was flying silently, invisible to the guards. I grazed them with my hand, or my wing, I didn't know anymore. Their cheeks were soft, their hairs were standing on end as I was touching their skin. They were looking around them, surprised, because there was nothing to be seen but the wind. The wall was the same as always, sunken deep into the ground, his base so wide nothing could make it tumble. I went high in the sky. I went to get drunk on the stars. I looked at Tameth again and suddenly I laughed, a piercing sound. A section of the wall had crumbled into the town, and the inhabitants had just concealed the wound by putting some stones together, a thin shell of rocks, delicate and frail; and a door. A huge, blue, wooden door. I laughed again, and I woke up.
The next day, just before the charge, I did the war-gestures. In war we speak without voices, we listen in spite of the weapon's sounds and the cries for help. The warriors around me frowned, unsure of what to do. I was nobody, nearly nobody; just my father's daughter, and my father died of an ant's hole in his back. I touched my jewel and something went into my eyes, because they nodded and did the war-gestures to tell; « We follow you. Show the way. » We went to the wound in the wall, this painted door, blue like the sky, blue like a poem, and fragile like a maidenhead. We killed the guards, we threw the grapplings tied to our horse's saddle. We tore apart this hollow facade, we tore apart this virgin, and we entered into Tameth. There, we gorged ourselves. Vultures puke because they cant stop feeding, and that's what I was feeling. For once, I was somebody, for once, I was giving orders.
The other warriors had sensed something and were coming at us. We know so well the scent of blood, the odor of warrior's sweat, this peppery smell speaking the joy of killing.
We gorged ourselves. I was touching the jewel hidden in my waistband and I was killing and I was laughing. Seeing them dead wasn't good enough, I needed revenge for the giggles, for this small horse, for the ant's hole who had eaten my father. Few Tamethii were still alive, and they took refuge in their tower, in the center of the town, their old tower, heavy and impregnable. I ordered my warriors to take their dead out, out of their tombs, out of their small peasant's cemetery, and I put them on spikes for them to stand, for them to watch the tower, for them to watch the living.
I ordered my warriors to dress them with armors, to put weapons in their rotten hands, and big fat ropes around their decaying flesh. I ordered the dead to lay siege on the living. And I stayed there, looking at the few living Tamethii, hearing them scream names I didn't know.
Some of them got out. I ordered them dead. I ordered more spikes. They lay siege too. And when the very, very last tried to escape, I put oil on them and put fire to their flesh. They ran in the harsh grass, more and more slowly, lower and lower. They were shouting, but it wasn't words anymore. We razed Tameth to the ground. Everything but the tower, and the spikes, and the dead, and the door. We closed it with care, with kindness. It gave us Tameth after all. We left, and we closed the door after us.
Tameth was the first town. My first town. I know, every night before the charge, I know the weakness in the walls, the city's plan, where the guards are, and where the women and the children are. I know where they put their food and where to throw shit and chunks of corpses to infest their wells. I know everything.
Now, my horses are tall, well braided, bone beads in their hair, saddles of the best leather. My warriors call me She-Vulture, and they say my father died in combat, proud and strong, and nobody can count the towns I burnt to the ground.
I killed my small horse. To the vultures, I gave him. There is nothing left from my other life, but my jewel. My jewel, and my yellow dreams. The vultures didn't blink when they ate my horse, when they tore apart his bones. They didn't blink, they were staring at my waistband, and my jewel, sewn in its folds.
- Justine Niogret
And now you know what the Gamemaster Screen is about. Maybe your adventurers will find their way to Tameth, or what is left of it!