Eggs popped and squished under the hobnailed toe. Goo and bits of pink embryo ran onto sticks and yellow needles. Under the darkening pines, someone cursed.
"Bugger it, Bertholdt, watch it. Those are delicious."
The bearded Bertholdt lifted his foot, stared at a remnant of egg and nest sticking to his steel toe. "Well, Daetne, I've gone and stepped in delicious, then. Not my fault the idiot birds lay eggs on the ground."
Daetne shook her cropped, scarred head, ducked behind a nearby log. "Keep doing that and there shan't be enough grub for the lot of us."
"But we do have more tree bacon" said Strickland. *
"Oi, no more of that shite. I've still got five eggs. And Daetne's found plenty of shrooms" said Bertholdt, frowning.
"Aye" called Daetne, raising a hunk of gilly mushroom. "We'll boil 'em with the eggs and salt and have a broth."
"That's if Strick ever picks up enough fuel."
"Listen" said Strickland, clutching a meagre bundle of kindling. "I don't understand why there's no sticks. Its a bloody forest. They usually have sticks." He looked about the oddly-sparse hills of pine mulch. "I'll head down the valley a bit, see if it's better."
"Brilliant idea, mate. You do that. I'm hungry" said Daetne.
Strickland started off, disappeared down the orange hill. Bertholdt watched him go. "You ever venture with him before?"
Daetne shook her bald head, tugged a chunk of fungus from a soft log. "Nay. Thought you had."
"If I had, wouldn't make it a repeat affair. Bit of a prick, really" said Bertholdt. "And none too bright."
"Well, we've got to be a bit off in the head to do this job."
"Suppose. Don't look forward to this raid."
"Me neither" said the woman, standing. She brushed needle-mulch off her knees. "Say, that sun's dipping fast. Might as well make what fire we can. Strickland can find his way back."
A half hour later, the sun had well sunk below the treed hills. A bare scrape of moon did nothing to brighten the deep-orange dark of the wood. Only a mean, wheezing fire of twigs and dry needles lit the cutter' faces. All about, the long shapes of trunks formed a sort of cage about the camp.
"Where could he have gone?" muttered Bertholdt, peering past the lines of trunks. Across the fire, Daetne shrugged. She leant into the smoke, busily shoved more meagre fuel under their cookpot. "He'd better get back with some proper wood. This shan't take less than a century to boil, at this rate."
Bertholdt squinted into the night. Close by, an owl hootedfrom the canopy. Something shuffled in the mulch.
The cutters brightened up. "Bloody finally" grumbled Daetne. "Strick, you'd better have some shite to burn" she called.
Strickland was dragging something. "Yes, I do" he said. "Found a bunch of these down the hill, and they're all quite dry."
"Well, get it here then" frowned Bertholdt.
Strickland dragged a brown, flakey mass next to the fire. He dropped it. It produced a crunch and a small scattering of dust.
"What in the good world is this?" said Daetne, scowling at the thing. She nudged it with a toe.
"I've no idea, but it looks fairly burnable."
Bertholdt gave Strickland a sour look. He knelt, picked at the mass. "Eesh, smells of rot." He cracked at its muddy skin. "What is this, hair?"
Daetne knelt as well, pulled a dusty chunk away. "You're sure this isn't something dead?"
There was a crunch, a puff of dust. Bertholdt tugged his hands away. "Shite, it is. Look, there's bones." Daetne stuck her tongue out. "What is this?" She brushed aside some flakey, red-brown dust. Abruptly, she recoiled. "No, no" she said, standing, pointing.
"That's human teeth!"
Bertholdt's bearded visage contorted. "Strick…" He looked up. Strickland didn't react. He ignored the pair, stared into the dark between the trees. There was a soft hoo, hoo, very near.
"Strickland" barked Daetne, then silenced. Bertholdt did too. Between the lines of trees, low to the ground, two humongous yellow eyes shone in the firelight. A hooked beak glittered between, large as a plow, slightly agape.
Softly, the thing hissed. The eyes began to rise, slow. Each cutter crept back, slow. Pine mulch crunched softly. The eyes drifted closer, ever higher. Its hefty, feathered bulk floated atop long, thick legs clad to the scaly knee in down. A foot, talons long as human arms, set down in the mulch. Three more followed.
The cutters froze, watched the beast rise to the extent of its eleven-foot legs. From high, the beak produced a tiny hoo.
"Stryge. Freeze." murmured Bertholdt.
For a silent half minute, they stood. Were it not for the fire, the stryge's legs would have been mere hidden trunks amidst many pines.
Strickland produced a small sob. The stryge snapped to face him. Its pupils contracted. The beak gaped wide, screamed, high and atonal. Strickland's eyes bulged. He dug in his heels, bolted.
Instantly, the stryge stepped the length of the camp. It loped off in pursuit, shrieking. Its call faded into the benighted pines.
Daetne and Bertholdt kept still. There was another scream in the pines, human. Bertholdt winced. "How about" said bertholdt, trembling. "We run in the opposite direction?"
Daetne produced some sort of laughing sob. "Away from the giant death-bird? That sounds like a bloody brilliant idea."
In the Dark Ages, folk feared owls. ** These feathered monsters were said to be drinkers of blood; snatchers in the night who swept up good folk from forest paths and village roads, left them days later as dry and mangled wrecks.
All knew the strange terror of the owl. In daylight, such birds perched asleep, small and innocuous. Only in night did they grow to monstrous size, turn their bogeley yellow orbs on Litoran lands. From high above, they'd take people up in long talons, spirit them away to be devoured. Only by chance would the taken be discovered, likely in some gulley. They'd be unrecognizable, half-sized lumps of cloth, bone, and hair.
Thus, the call of the owl became a most deadly omen. A solitary hoot or a shriek at sunset was sufficient to keep cottages shut all the night long and far into the morning. ***
Some four hundred years past, folks' reckoning of the owl changed. One day, a knight-hunter of the House Oldaren emerged from the Rolvian Wood with a strange carcass in tow. It was a terrible sight: A burly, feathered hulk, larger than a buffalo, with the head of an immense owl. Four legs like tree trunks connected the thing to saber talons.
It was, for a while, thought to be an owl killed in the night. The knight, however, insisted it wasn't: He and his men had found and killed the monster during the day, as it slept in a great nest. He said it must be a separate species.
A magician was called to settle the matter. She arranged an experiment: She and the knight would venture into the Wood to find an owl. They'd trap it and keep it for observation. If it did not transform into a monster like the one caught, it would be declared a distinct species.
A long trek and a lot of wing-flapping later, an owl was produced. They locked it up, and, after one trepidatious night under guard, it failed to transform into anything. The King of Oldaren declared owls to be goodly birds and had the fowl freed.
Meanwhile, the owly monster was dubbed "stryge." † Its head was mounted in the knight's hall. Said knight went on to marry the King of Oldaren's daughter, thus becoming Crown Prince. Over the ensuing years, he lead countless hunts into the Rolvian Wood, killed many a monstrous stryge. Some thirteen generations later, the crest of Oldaren still displays a four-legged owl.
A stryge is an invasive predator from the Otherworld, a towering bird of prey which makes its nests in the pine hills of the Coast. Such terrible fowl stalk the nighttime trunks on interminable legs. They snatch up prey in long claws, ferry them off to fortress nests.
These nests are truly enormous. By some madness, stryges are driven to collect and utilize all detritus in their territory. The domain of a stryge is nearly devoid of twigs or underbrush. From this bulk of material, the birds craft cave-like, domed nests. Therein, they sleep away the day, safe in a fortress of twigs.
While the stryge may dine inside its nest, and even keep imprisoned food there, it will never excrete where it sleeps. Stryge droppings take the form of large pellets, quite like the scat of an owl. These are dry, compact things filled with anything the monster's hasty digestion finds difficult. Stryge pellets are lumps of hair, sinew, and bone. If they contain human remains, as they so often do, they will also contain undigested man-made items. †
While the owl was long ago declared a blameless bird, it still shares some connection to the awful stryge. The call of that Otherworldly avian resembles in all ways the hoots and screams of its Coastal cousins. For this reason, the cries of owls yet summon the same fear they begat so many hundreds of years ago.
* Overtly hungry folk in conifer-filled areas will eat the soft layer of flesh under pine bark. They fry it into something entirely less tasty than bacon.
** Especially Firls. Where Northerners have no space for faith, they have room aplenty for superstition.
*** And often still is. People fear that call for good reason.
† From an old phrase meaning "to scream."
†† There is a brand of grimy-nosed cutter who will glady dissect pellets in hopes of finding coinage or antique armor bits.