Blood. Sweat. Pain. Hunger.
Each new hurt layered on top of another until Brother Hawk had nothing left in his mind but anger to feed him. How long had he been trapped in the cage? Days? Weeks? Months? After centuries, his perception of time was clouded, and with no window to the outside world he had nothing to go on. He only knew that he hadn’t been fed since being locked in. His feathers were dull and grimy, dragging his skin down with layers of dirt. His tongue rasped along the dry roof of his mouth, trying to find saliva and failing.
“You! Fetch water,” a voice demanded outside the gray bars.
More torture, Brother Hawk thought. Not a new torture, either. Dangle the water, or the choice bit of flesh just outside the bars. Get the bird to scramble, clawing for it. Then take it away. An old torture. The only time he reacted to it now was when he could not claw down the savage hunger burning in his throat.
Today he could. Today he lay listless on the floor, his tongue rolling in dust. His wings spread out as far as they could in the cramped cell. Today they would find no reaction. Not until they brought the pokers, and knives.
The grating of metal on metal roused him enough to look, still moving nothing but his eyes. The door creaked open, the sound tearing into his ears. The door hadn’t been open in so long, but he was too tired to try to do anything about it. Not that a mad dash to freedom would have ended well. The curse saw to that.
A white-robed figure stepped through the door, a blurry shape against the dark background, a blob of brown swinging at his side. The smell of good, clean water, not the festering miasma of rotting slime the acolytes usually brought, made his nostrils flare, but still Brother Hawk would not succumb to the torture. He fought down the urge to drink. The urge to lunge for the pail.
The white shape knelt beside Brother Hawk and slowly lifted the brown blob closer. Water sloshed inside, the sound assaulting his ears with hope.
“Drink, Brother Hawk,” the man said. “You will not be denied this time.”
Brother Hawk blinked, the figuring getting a little less blurry. A mat of thick red hair. A bushy beard. Piercing black eyes. Were they black? They seemed black in his addled state.
Brother Hawk sucked in a deeper breath, his beak clacking together as the chains rattled around him.
“Get these chains off him,” the voice said, harsh and forceful.
“But, sir,” a plaintive voice called. Halbend. The jailer. Putrid slime that he was, Halbend didn’t ever want to let Brother Hawk free. Not as long as he lived.
“What did I say?” the white robe asked, his voice hard as steel.
Another figure entered the room. Keys rattled. Chains moved. The heavy weight lifted from him, then another chain slammed down on his back, a small squawk of surprise exiting his beak.
A sudden rush of movement, and a large weight slammed against the far side of the cell. Brother Hawk blinked again, clearing the fog enough to see the white robe towering over the prone form of Halbend.
“I have been sent to be keeper and master of Brother Hawk, and if any of you filthy swine so much as lay a hand on him or damage a single feather I will make sure that your last days are spent in the same cell he once occupied, carrying the same chains. Do I make myself clear?”
“Y-yes, sir,” Halbend cried, scrambling back against the bars.
“Now get a stretcher in here, and food. Fresh meat, not that filth you swine eat.”
Halbend scrambled up, bowing and scraping as he exited the chamber, leaving the white robe all alone.
Brother Hawk could have attacked then. Tortured and broken he might be, but there was still some kick left in him. The curse saw to that. Never dying, yet always wishing for death.
Something about this young white robe told Brother Hawk to use caution. He wasn’t like the jailers, or even the high priest. Not prone to beat first and ask questions later. How long would that last?
Curiosity more than anything kept Brother Hawk from attacking. He wanted to know what this white robe would do.
“I was chosen to care for you,” the man said as he knelt beside Brother Hawk’s beak. “I mean to do it.”
The man began ladling water from the bucket over Brother Hawk’s beak. Pure water. No taint, or piss, or foul dead thing to be found. Just water. His tongue lapped at the rivulets. He wanted to dive into the bucket. Suck it down.
“Not too quickly,” the man said. “I’m sure it’s been some time since you’ve had decent food and water, but take it slow. You’ll make yourself sick. The curse can only protect you so much.”
Brother Hawk squawked, his beak clacking together as the water was taken away, but it returned, slowly dribbling down his parched throat. He stilled, sucking down the life-giving water.
Something touched Brother Hawk’s head, and he flinched before steeling his nerves. It was never good to flinch in front of the enemy. His moment of weakness could be his undoing. But the gentle pressure returned, stroking his head, accompanied by soothing words and trills.
“You’ve been poorly treated, Brother Hawk,” the voice said. “I’m sorry. They have no excuse for the cruelties leveled on you. Now that I’ve been tasked with your care, that will change.”
Boots tromped down the stairs. The water was taken away only to be replaced with rough hands lifting Brother Hawk onto thick canvas. A stretcher. He was hoisted up then carried out of the jail cell under the watchful eye of the white-robed acolyte. The disdain of the men carrying the stretcher radiated out from them. It ran deeper than blood, but their fear of the white-robed man ran deeper.
The stretcher bounced and jostled, carrying Brother Hawk up the long flight of stairs. The same stairs that once brought him to his prison, a journey he scarcely remembered after years of being locked in the dark. The ride through the darkness gave the curse time to work on his body, using the water he’d been given to hydrate dry muscles, and lubricate joints. His eyesight started to improve, giving him a clearer view of his captors. Figures swam into focus, their angry faces studiously focused ahead while the white robe led the way.
Did the journey down the stairwell seem like such a long walk? He couldn’t remember. Time played tricks with his mind, faded some memories while making other things sharp. He could still recall the dull echoes of boot heels on stone steps, their faint shuffling pinging from every surface around them, as they did now. Still smell the blood of his jailers, ripped apart by beak and talon as they tried to subdue him.
At the top of the stairwell the large wooden door lay open. The faint scent of fresh sea air made his nostrils flair. Dim sunlight cut like a knife through the doorway, dust falling through the still air in little white streams.
As they carried Brother Hawk out of the stairwell and into the upper chambers, the air seemed to lighten around him. A weight being lifted. The air lost the staleness that he had come to find normal. The fetid, rotten odors that assaulted his senses however long he’d been down there were gone.
The white robe did not stop in the antechambers as Brother Hawk thought he might. He kept going, into the courtyard where sunlight brightened the earth and summer winds danced through tree limbs. Brother Hawk could see it through the windows. Smell the leaves, grass, and flowers. Taste the salt in the air. And while he wanted that, wanted the sun on his body and the warmth of the earth around him, wanted freedom, part of him balked. It was so open beyond the door. So vibrant.
The acolytes carried Brother Hawk across the threshold and into the courtyard. Sunlight assaulted his great orbs, the pain lancing through his skull. He screeched, and flailed on the tiny canvas stretcher, causing the men to drop him to the ground.
“You idiot!” the white robe called. “Be more careful with him. It’s a bird, not a demon.”
“They’re one in the same, ain’t they?” one of the acolytes asked.
There was a thump, and Brother Hawk blinked, adjusting to the light, only to see one of the acolytes sprawled on the floor, his hand pressed to a growing bruise on his face.
“Go get him some ice,” he said to one of the men nearby then turned to another acolyte, jabbing at him with a large meaty finger. “You start feeding him. Slowly.”
“But sir,” the plump acolyte cried, “the bird’s dangerous.”
“No more so than I am. Now see to your brother. Go, bring hot water.”
They scrambled off in different directions, leaving the hurt acolyte to crawl to his feet and wander off on his own.
The white-robed acolyte came closer, kneeling beside Brother Hawk to look him in the eye.
“I’ve been told something of you, Brother Hawk. They say you’ve been bound by the blood of the kraken. That you’re a man trapped in a bird’s form. I think we can be of service to one another. As you see, I have some standing among the brothers.”
The acolyte withdrew a leather thong with a single green stone on it.
“As you can see, I hold your bond. The high priest left you to my charge. He’s lost all interest in your plight, but I still think you can be useful. However, I am not a cruel man. No creature deserves to be caged and tortured for years on end. Especially a creature with a gift of the kraken. Like you, Brother Hawk.”
The acolytes returned, burdened with heavy buckets of hot water, towels, soap, and smaller pails of fresh meats cut into small cubes.
Brother Hawk had lost sense of time long ago in the deep dark of the dungeon. Now the sun slowly crossed the sky while the white-robed priest washed each of his feathers in between handfuls of raw meat. Minutes stretched into hours during his careful ministrations.
Brother Hawk stretched, his wings snapping and straining against long disuse. Each joint cracked as he moved, his muscles burning as the curse brought them back to health. Lighter without the years of grime and muck. Deep black feathers, glistening in the last of the sunlight. All the while he could feel the curse working to restore his withered body.
The curse. Any other creature would have died, lost and forgotten in the pitch black of a dungeon. While Brother Hawk felt the gnawing hunger, and his body slowly shut itself down over time, the curse would not allow him the mercy of death. He kept lingering, the hunger gnawing at his bones, unable to move. Unable to seek freedom.
Once clean and fed, the white robe sent the acolytes away again then sat beside Brother Hawk. They contemplated each other, black orbs of the hawk reflecting back from the dark-brown eyes of the acolyte.
“We are not so different, you and I,” the acolyte said.
Brother Hawk snorted but did not move.
“It’s true,” he protested. “We are both bound to the acolytes, bound to serve the kraken. We are both forced to do the will of the high priest, whatever he may ask. It’s true that your curse leaves you no option, but my only option is death if I fail to serve.”
Brother Hawk tilted his head to the side, blinking at the acolyte, unable to disagree but unable to comment with more than a squawk.
“You wonder why I bother with you?”
Brother Hawk nodded.
“I think we can help one another. I think that there is much we could learn from each other. High Priest Nagiz is old; his time grows short, and no one knows who will take his place. But any change in the head leaves an opening for the body to shift, yes? There are things about the acolytes that even the most diehard adherents cannot stomach, like torturing defenseless birds for pleasure. Perhaps, together, we could change at least some of that.”
Brother Hawk blinked.
The white-robed man chuckled. “It is difficult to have a conversation with a bird. Perhaps it is time for us to change that. Brother Hawk, it’s time that you were set free from your prison. Be a man.”
The change grabbed ahold of him before he had time to prepare, rippling through his body like fire ants on the hunt. Muscles spasmed, pulling tight as feathers faded away. Wings shrank into fingers and arms. Legs grew, thickening and lengthening. The beak shriveled back into his skull, replaced by soft skin, pale white and threaded with bright lines where he’d been inflicted with cuts and welts by his captors.
Lying on the ground, panting and shivering, the naked man that was once a hawk gasped for breath.
“Be careful now,” the white robe said as he knelt beside Brother Hawk. “You’ve been locked in the hawk’s form for almost thirty years now. Take some time to find your legs again before straining yourself.”
“Thirty?” Brother Hawk’s voice sounded rusted and dry even to his own ears.
“Yes, thirty years. I only found out about you five years ago. It’s taken me this long to get enough seniority to take you into my care. As far as High Priest Nagiz is concerned, you are my charge from now till the end of time.”
Brother Hawk looked up at him, blinking with two brown eyes larger than any man had a right to have. Being cursed to be a hawk had marred his body over the centuries in more ways than he knew.
“Who…who are you?” the man, once hawk, gasped out.
The white robe smiled as he helped Brother Hawk to his feet, steadying him as he wobbled.
“My name is Alistir.”