A note from the author:
Sometimes stories get away from me. Once this one started unfolding, it was all I could do to keep up!
But this one is my gift to the enigmatic Rook. I hope you enjoy it!
(Text of a note from the Watch, to Acting Commander Richard Petri:
Sir, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the Titans. As their attacks upon the Stronghold and the Corellian Peninsula become more frequent, so does their ingenuity. We would be amiss to think they are just random creatures acting on instinct, and that we are just ‘in the way’. Their strategies are becoming more complex.
My messengers have seen pattern and intent, in their behaviour. The last thing we need - and I admit this worries me - is if they were to find a way to infiltrate the Stronghold, not just brazenly attack it. We need to be increasingly wary.
“A birthday party? Really?” Layla’s young face lit up with exhuberance. “Who for?” she asked. Her assorted knives and daggers glinted in the sunlight as she followed Quintus up the steps into the main castle.
“I’m not really supposed to be telling anyone, it’s a secret, sort of,” the older man said, “so don’t spill anything.”
Layla mimed zipping her mouth closed and flicking away an imaginary key.
“Right. So Richard says to me yesterday, he says, he wants to see what it takes to get Tiburtus to smile. Call it a challenge. We bet on it.”
“Tiburtus?” Layla said mockingly, “if that fellow tried to smile, his face would shatter. Ain’t seen him smile since, well, ever!”
" 'Zactly. So Richard, heck he runs this place as much as matters, him and Elena, he wants to give Tiburtus a surprise birthday party. Just to see his reaction."
“Y’know,” Layla said as the pair trotted along a stone pathway, “it never occurred to me that he’d even had a birthday! I mean, he must have had one, he’s alive, so he popped out of a woman’s belly on some day.” Layla paused to briefly consider Tiburtus as a young boy. All she could imagine was his chiseled face, wavy hair and dour expression, plastered onto the face of a four year old boy. She let the image slip from her mind.
As she followed the wild-eyed wizard through the castle, she saw Gormek and Prisca arguing over a box full of ribbons and birthday garland. Just the notion of that stern and bitter woman doing anything remotely pleasant made her stifle a giggle.
“Not gonna be much of a secret is it,” Layla commented, watching Prisca wave a deflated balloon in Girmek’s face. “Once she starts into her screeching and stabbing, even the ghouls in Morgovia will know we’re up to something.”
“Oh, that’s the beauty of it,” Quintus said with a wink, “technically it’s not his birthday party. I mean it’s his birthday as well, but Richard and Viv have been spreading the word that it’s for one of the watchers. He thinks he’s just invited to it.”
“Watchers?” Zudak asked, joining the conversation. He slid his axe into his belt.
“Watchers,” Quintus nodded, “We sort of take them for granted, you know? They stand vigilant at the watchtower, on the parapets, and they see everything. Without the watchers, we’d have been overrun by Titans ages ago.”
“Huh, I never really thought about that. All I ever see in the watchtower is those black birds circling about. Not the geese, the other ones. Not as vocal.”
“Those black birds have a lot to do with our birthday surprise, you know? - we depend on the watchers, they depend on the black birds as their messengers from the reaches.”
“So, spill it old man,” Layla said, “which watcher…watch witcher… heh that’s funny - are we honouring?”
Quintus paused and pointed at a lone figure high in the watchtower parapets.
“Come to think of it, considering her relationship to the old guard tower - watchtower,” he said thoughtfully, "and the birds who roost there, her name is quite fitting.
“She calls herself Rook, like the birds upon whom we all depend.”
It wasn’t everyday that the whole Stronghold got involved in birthday party preparations, but it also wasn’t every day that someone as stern and stoic as Tiburtus was involved.
It had been impossible, naturally, to keep the affair a secret from everyone, so bright-eyed Kunchen had suggested letting him take part in the preparations of a birthday party for someone called Rook. Tiburtus had, only somewhat politely, refused.
Elena and Richard had both agreed - just to up the ante - to throw the doors open to the public, so whichever heroes weren’t out in missions, troops still at the barracks, cooks and farmers and miners and staff were all welcome, as well as residents of the few villages nestled with the shadow of the Stronghold. What had started as a bet to see what it would take to get Tiburtus to smile, had seemingly spiraled out of control into a local festival complete with merchants, minstrels and mayhem.
Valen found himself rubbing elbows with Greymane and Sharan, and Brand almost crashed into Belith as the walls filled with people excited to be part of a unique event.
A few days later the streamers were finally hung, garlands strung, the sausage rolls were rolled, the cakes baked and the fruit punch dutifully spiked.
All that was needed now, was for a tall, sinister battlemage and a reclusive watcher to become the center of attention.
In its time as a bastion of defense, the Stronghold had seen many strange characters come through the doors, from green skinned Orcs and orange furred Simasa to walking fish, people made of stone and winged elves. So nobody really paid much attention when three figures were seen clustered together, humanoid but for red reptilian faces, sinewy arms and huge metallic claws. They spoke to each other in a gravelly, grunting language and made their way through the crowded Stronghold, their dark, slitted eyes continually scanning the surroundings. After a few moments they blended into the bustling, diverse crowd eager to enjoy the festivities.
In a small room far from the raucous throng, Tiburtus sat with his back to the window. The tall man listened to the rabble with half an ear, frowned and returned to his reading. Birthday party, indeed.
“Knock knock,” said the ever-jubilant Layla, letting herself in, “busy?”
“I thought I was, but apparently not.” He slipped his thumb in the book and held it closed to save the page. “There’s a reason you’re here,” he continued. It was neither a question nor a statement, but somewhere between.
“We just wanted to know when you’d join us,” the purple-clad sprite said, bouncing in her heels, “for the party. Everyone wants you to join in!”
“Hmp. It’s an outlandish festival, honouring an inevitable, annual occurrence,” he said coldly, “for someone who barely deserves notice. The world will continue to turn if I decline your invitation.” And he turned his back on her and returned to his reading.
“Oh no you don’t, mister!” Layla tugged at his sleeve, miming lugging a heavy weight, until he flicked his arm away in disgust.
“Have it your way then, sourpuss,” she said, “I’ll just have to tell Joon that he won the bet.”
“Joon? Bet?” Tiburtus asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Oh yes. Joon and Boldtusk wagered that you’d be too stubborn to even poke your head out the door. Joon said you’d stay hidden. Says you’re as reclusive as Gill Ra. Looks like the lightweaver knows you better than you realize.”
The tall, dark haired figure set his book down, stood and brushed his hands down his sides.
“Tell that shining imbecile he’ll earn no coin on my account. I’ll be down shortly.”
Layla grinned and backed out of the door, and nodded to the olive skinned girl in yellow who was waiting behind the door with rope and tackle. They chatted as they walked back to the courtyard.
“He’s, what would you say, arrogant?” Dawa said.
“Some call it arrogance,” her friend replied, “I call it confidence. He’s confident. In his own ability, anyway.”
Dawa considered this before replying. “I’m not one for simplifications,” she said, “but he just has this air about him. Like he just knows he’s better than everyone else in the room. It’s the sneer.”
“He’s, and I’ve seen this before, he’s handsome and he knows it.”
“He’s actually not, really,” Layla said, “he’s only, what, five five, five six tops. But it the body language. It 's - have you seen this, when he stands up out of a chair, it’s like he unfolds, like a snake, and he keeps on unfolding until you just assume he’s towering over you. When in reality he’s at maybe eye level.”
“I never noticed that, if I’m honest,” Dawa said thoughtfully, " but tell you what. “Attitude, confidence, whatever, he’s good looking. The hair with the shock of white, the eyes. The slender frame. The scowl. It shouldn’t be appealing but it is? And he’s got a, how do I say it…” she mimed reaching out for something with both hands, a little below waist height. “…buns?”
“Well there,” Layla said, “I gotta agree. You just wanna grab hold with both hands and hold on till you start giggling uncontrollably!”
The crowd had grown from a few dozen to over a hundred, and more were flowing in through the Stronghold’s gates. A stage had been erected in front of the castle, where Richard and Elena stood before an expectant crowd.
“My friends, my compatriots, and my people I haven’t had a chance to meet yet, I bid you welcome! This is indeed an auspicious day! We celebrate not only the continued good fortune of our military strength and allies, but those special moments that are too often overlooked. Welcome!” Richard spread his arms wide, a big smile on his face.
“Today,” Elena said, stepping up, “we have opened the gates and invited everyone in to celebrate not one but two significant birthdays, as well as honouring those warriors and mages who venture into battle time and again to ensure our safety.”
As she spoke, she was scanning the crowd to see if she could identify the two celebrities-du-jour. She saw one, cloaked in black, aproaching the foot of the stage.
“The Stronghold, under the steady hand of Richard and myself while our Commander is indisposed, is enjoying a time of unprecedented growth and good fortune. Even as the Dark One -” she didn’t say Lord - “believes his might is superior, we know that we have allies all across the Reach. Let me tell you, that knowledge wouldn’t be possible without help from many different sources. Including our beloved birds who roost upon the Watchtower.”
There was polite applause through the crowd, but most people were just eager to see who she was talking about.
“We’ve had many people earn of title of Watcher,” Richard said, stepping up, “but few have been as loyal, resolute and stalwart as our first Birthday Celebrity. We rarely see her in person, but I doubt this place could function with her keen eye and steady hand. She bears the name of the birds who keep us all safe - and indeed shares the name with the watchtower she so resolutely defends. Please welcome, Rook!”
There was scattered applause as a cloaked figure took the stage. She appeared tall and slender, but all anyone could say with certainty was that her large, pale eyes shone like beacons from within the confines of her hood. A large, black bird flapped its wings and landed gently on her shoulder.
“I… Richard, Elena, this is unexpected. I knew you were planning something, but I had no idea I was…” she paused mid sentence, and cocked her head in silence. The bird on her shoulder flicked its wings and bobbed its head. “.…going to be honoured in such a fashion. Because the task of a Watcher requires vigilance and awareness, as you know.”
She glanced at the Watchtower, and the birds now circling its roof.
“Because should any Titans, or other minions of Darkness venture their way to our reaches…” she nodded at Richard and jerked her head toward the Watchtower, “…we need to be on guard.”
Richard followed her gaze, to where three red, clawed figures were scaling the outside of the Watchtower. His eyes grew large and he nodded, imperceptibly. He knelt and whispered something to a soldier, who nodded and dashed into the crowd.
“Rook,” Elena said, taking her hands, “it is always a comfort to know that we are under your protection.” With a flick of an eye she glanced at the figures scaling the tower, who were pounding away at the brick with their huge claws. “Human-sized Titans?! If the watchtower falls…” she thought. She held the audience’s attention, to avoid letting worry escalate into chaos.
“Yet while our Rook keeps us secure within the walls, there are many who keep our foes at bay without. One other of note shares a birthday with the Rook. He is known to many, understood by regrettably few, but no less welcome in our ranks. Please, join me in welcoming the unique fellow known only as Tiburtus!”
The tall, stark battlemage’s reputation had apparently preceded him, because the applause filtering through the crowd was generally muted. He strode purposefully through the crowd to join Richard, Elena and Rook on the small stage. His reaction to the fanfare was only a small grimace, his eyes a mask of sullen resentment.
Elena greeted him warmly, her famous smile in welcome contrast to Tiburtus’ grimace and Rook’s shadowed, unreadable expression.
“Well now,” she said brightly, “this is a merry moment!” The three small Titans had succeeded in penetrating the wall of the tower, and were tearing chunks of brick away and letting them fall. They had exposed a small landing on the staircase within the tower.
Richard wore a mask of bright civility, even as his eyes narrowed to see Quintus and Melendor quietly move people away from the base of the tower.
“Even - or perhaps especially - in times of great conflict,” he said in his booming voice, “we need to remember that we are not defined by war, but by the human compassion that brings us together. The simple celebrations of life should define us, not the great scale of conflict or the sacrifices we make.”
Tiburtus shook his head slightly, his mane of hair waving. In doing so, he caught sight of the three Titans attacking the tower and his manner immediately changed. The sullen, resentful character was replaced by a man with calculating efficiency.
Elena took a step forward to continue the dialogue, but it was too late.
“The tower’s under attack!” someone cried, and a wave of commotion swept over the crowd. Any attention people were giving to the stage was lost as the crowd surged against itself in a scramble to be clear of the tower.
In the frenzy, Rook saw Greymane and Domitia trying to fight their way through the crowd.
“They’ll never make it,” she said to Tiburtus, pointing, who nodded in assent.
Rook considered the situation, then turned to the slender battlemage.
“Put me on the landing,” she said.
“Put you…” Tiburtus said slowly.
“Concussive blast. You push air. I’ve watched you work. If you can reduce a rock golem to rubble, you can put me over there.”
“My force is used to kill…” he said hesitantly.
“Yes, and it can be metered to push someone through the air. I know you can do this. There’s not time to argue! If the watchtower falls…”
“Rook,” Richard said, “are you sure you know what you’re d --”
“Not a dam clue. Now, man!”
The robed woman held her cloak tight around her body and hunched down, eyes closed. Tiburtus stepped back, held his arms out, drew into his aura, and pushed.
And the black cloaked woman was sent hurtling through the air. The blast knocked the wind from her lungs, but in the few seconds she was airborne she opened her cloak enough to roughly control her flight.
She reached out for the rough, broken stone around the landing, almost missed her grasp, and clung to an exposed wooden handrail. A red reptilian claw grabbed at her ankle and she kicked it away savagely as she clambered onto the landing.
With a shout she summoned a wave of black, feathered wings who flapped and beat and pecked at the attackers. One swatted at the rooks, lost his grip and fell away with a yell. Another tried to reach through the hole in the wall, but a swift strike with a loose brick sent him falling, clutching a broken wrist.
Rook stood up and peered up into the recesses of the tower. Far below, she heard screaming as civilians battered at the fallen Titan.
There was another scream, the sound of stone grinding on stone, as chunks of the watchtower wall cracked and weakened.
“It’s coming down!” she heard somebody shout, “get away!”
“What about Rook?!”
“She’s going to have to --”
She never heard the rest of that, as stone shattered and screamed through the tower. She felt the entire structure sway against its foundations.
She kneeled and grabbed hold of the remaining Titan, and looked out to see Tiburtus standing with his arms out, waiting to fire another blast.
“The tower! Push it away from the people!” she screamed, “into the canyon!”
“You’ll be killed --!”
In the chaos, he glanced at Elena.
“Better it fall than let them breach its resources,” she said quickly, “Rook understands. Do it.”
Rook saw Tiburtus close his eyes, and felt it as the wave of air smacked into the weakened stone. She was knocked backwards, and closed her eyes as brick, rocks and beams from the top fell towards her.
In the span of half a heartbeat, she saw herself, clutching to stone and rubble, falling –
– and standing on the parapets, her hair blowing in the breeze, birds swirling around her –
– and standing with her hands balled into fists at her hips, yelling at a black-haired man with a blue shield and a sword –
– and talking to Richard for the very first time, feeling intimidated by the scale of the stone edifice looming above her –
– and as a young girl, arms out and balancing as she walked along a stone wall, her grandfather holding her left hand and a bird perched on her right –
– and very small, crying for comfort as ghouls battered at the front door of the cottage –
– and in a flash she felt herself weightless, surrounded by stone and rubble, suspended in mid air. People far below were calling her name, but she felt completely at peace as a blanket of air lowered her to the ground. She saw Tiburtus, his arms outstretched, gently bringing her down He was monitoring his concussive blast, using small reductions of force to float the woman to the ground, his face awash with sweat, concern and apprehension. Rook stepped away from the rubble, ran to the dark-haired battlemage and wrapped her arms around him.
“You saved my life, my friend.”
“You… deserved it,” he said, awkwardly returning the embrace.
“I knew you could do it.”
“We still need to rebuild the watchtower, granted,” Elena said, “but if not for the quick thinking of our Captain of the Watch, things could have been so much worse.”
Rook nodded in agreement, then processed exactly what Elena had said.
“Oh, no question. Look what you did, and were willing to do. No other recognition is worthy. Richard, and Melendor, and Tiburtus all agree.”
“I…” she started to protest, then accepted that she welcomed the recognition.
“Thank you, I accept. I’m…”
There was a pause as everyone turned to look at the cloaked Watcher.
“I’… I’ve not seen that silly man in ages,” Rook said, “where does he get to?”
“Oh, he keeps a private room here,” Melendor replied, “it’s a luxury not everyone can afford.”
“Well bring him out here,” Rook said, “I still need to thank him properly!”
Two days later, as scaffolding and foundation began to take shape, another small ceremony was convened on the steps of the castle.
Richard, Elena, Rook and Tiburtus were present, as were Joon, Gormek, Quintus and.
Skittleskull, who regarded the proceeding with an eye for the absurd.
“Tiburtus,” Elena said, “you not only followed Rook’s orders, you did so with precision and dedication, despite your instinct to preserve the tower. I know that we see in you a friend, a man who can be trusted in crisis. I honour you, sir. We would all be worse off if you hadn’t assisted.”
The faintest smile crept across Tiburtus’s face, and Richard and Quintus shared a nod.
“You know the real reason why he wanted to help destroy the new Titans?” Skittleskull asked in his reedy, singsong voices.
“Do we really want to know, Tiburtus? Some things are best left unsaid,” Rook commented, taking his hand. His smile grew slightly wider at being regarded without apprehension or reserve.
“Because,” the diminutive goblin said with a cackle, " they wouldn’t call him Mr. Tibbs!"
The smile vanished.