Today, the vulture is best known for the lack of feathers on its head, but it was not always bald and once was known for much more dire reasons. Long ago there was a single king of the wilds and the sky, one wing under which all beasts bent knee. The vultures' savage rule rained down from roosts in the highest cliffs and tallest trees. They were the fiercest of predators and demanded all their subjects pay tribute. Their rule stretched back farther than any could remember, but ended in a flash and has been almost forgotten. This is the story of Archibald the First, the last vulture king whose reign lasted but a single day and forged a new destiny for their crown.
Just as soon as the boy had thrown the stone, he regretted it. Not because his aim was true, or because the stone struck the largest of them, or even because it sent all seven of the vultures hopping and screeching into the trees and away from the remnants of the fallow deer Rout had felled and he had helped clean.
No, the boy regretted throwing the stone because almost as soon as he had let it fly, Rout struck him swift and hard in the back of his head and his cousin nearly doubled over with laughter.
"That's not funny!" Stick shouted at Lily who in turn, smiled and playfully stuck out her tongue at him as she bent to gather up their remaining tools. Nearly twenty years old, Lily was twice Stick's age. Where as Stick was still learning the ways of the forest and the hunt, Lily was almost a huntress herself.
"I warned you to leave them alone Stick," Rout said as he shouldered his pack
"Stupid vultures don't deserve our deer," Stick complained, rubbing the back of his head. "They're creepy."
"They aren't creepy and the deer isn't ours," replied Rout. "It's the lord's deer. Besides, we have taken all we can use from the beast; its meat will fill stomachs, its hide will bring warmth, and its horns will decorate the great hall and honor its sacrifice. Let the vultures have the rest."
Rout was already moving off into the forest with his daughter close on his heels. Stick glanced up at the seven large birds staring down at him and waiting patiently for him to follow his uncle. A shiver ran through him as the largest vulture, the one he had struck with the stone, craned its neck, shook its featherless head and shrugged its big black wings. Stick grabbed his pack and muttered under his breath as he hurried after them, "I still says you're creepy."
They had been following its trail for hours and came upon the buck in the late afternoon. Rout had an arrow at the ready and it was over in an instant. The deer fell without a sound and almost no reaction. Though it had taken several hours to harvest the antlers, hide and meat, the vultures appeared almost as soon as they began. At first a single bird circled slowly in the sky, but their numbers quickly grew. It wasn't long before the scavengers had drifted down to settle in the branches above them as they worked.
Now as the sun was setting and they were working to make camp, Stick couldn't stop thinking of those dark, hunched figures looming over them, watching them. Any shadow could be a vulture and darkness could hide any number of tiny black eyes.
Stick was glad when Rout got the fire lit and the shadows were pushed back a bit. His uncle cooked some of the deer meat along with tubers and roots that Lily had found and they ate like the lords and ladies at the long table in the great hall. Their full stomachs and the warm fire comforted them against the chill night.
The rest of the meat along with the hide was salted, wrapped and hanging from a high branch over their camp where it would be safe from any animal seeking to share their dinner. Tomorrow the meat would be delivered to the kitchens and the hide and antlers to the lord's game warden, but tonight they alone enjoyed the spoils of the hunt.
Rout was one of very few men given license to hunt in the lord's forest. When word came that the lord had unexpected company and meat was needed for a feast the following day, the game warden summoned Rout because he never returned empty handed from a hunt.
Lily and Stick always went with Rout when he hunted. Rout's sister, Stick's mother, was widowed and Rout was more of a father to the boy than an uncle. After they had eaten, Rout took up the antlers and began cleaning them. Turning to Stick, Lily broke the silence.
"Why are you afraid of vultures anyway? They're just big dumb birds. They never hurt nothin' that was livin'."
"I ain't afraid!" growled Stick. "It's just...they're creepy."
"They're not creepy," sighed Rout.
"But, they are!" Stick argued. "They gots big, bald, wrinkled heads. A bird should have feathers! And they're always creepin' round after we hunt. Lookin' to steal what ain't theirs!"
"Well, they are ugly," agreed Lily. "And they don't have much use, but that's no reason to be scared of 'em."
"I ain't scared!" Stick insisted, crossing his arms and glaring into the fire.
Rout looked up from the antlers and set them aside. "You're wrong, Lily. They do have a use. Did you know they weren't always bald? Vultures were once the fiercest of predators and most certainly deserving of fear."
Lily and Stick exchange a quick and excited glance. Despite their difference in age, they both loved when Rout told stories and this was one neither had heard before. They held their breath until Rout spoke again.
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