Out on the moor, there stood a red deer.
A fuzzy-antlered buck. It surveyed the rippling moor. Veritable waves of purple heather and gold wheatgrass under a cathedral of driving clouds. It sniffed languidly. The moor smelt of honeycomb and alfalfa. It chewed, kept back to munching the floral scrub.
There was a whistling in the breeze. An angry, nearing whine. No sooner had the deer's ears pricked, than a bladed ash shaft stove deep and wet into its side, passing through. The buck bolted two dozen meters, muzzle frothing red. Abruptly, it staggered, went to its knees, tipped over.
"A fair shot," said a voice over a distant heathered rise.
"Ah do believe so," nodded another.
On a hill, some ways off, there crouched on the scrub and heather two men in leather jackets and twill traveling cloaks. One had a crossbow in hand. The other: a bundle of kindling. They stood, cloaks and unshorn locks whipping in the wind. "Aye, Wheelan," said the bowman, a blond, raspy fellow, shading his eyes. He nodded, satisfied. "Ah believe e's right stuck 'n scarpered."
Wheelan grinned, started off down to the kill. "Waste no time, then, Garles." He scampered down the rustling hill. "I've an intention to smell venison before the sun's full down."
They walked. Wheelan retrieved the crossbow bolt where it had stuck, bloody, opposite the buck; and Garles, with a length of rope, tied the buck's legs for transport. Together, they dragged it over the soft earth, trekked a few hills over.
There, in the forested lee of a great glacial rock, they'd put up a camp. Wheelan quickly struck up a match, began to coax fire to life. Garles produced a knife, and, with a hank of their rope, dressed and strung the deer up to bleed. In little time, the mingling smell of smoke and spilled iron filled the sheltered spinney.
Some time later, as a few lingering gold rays faded round their rock, Garles was carving healthy cuts of backstrap. He worked his curved knife through the flesh with gusto. “Been awhile since Ah've put a shot to anythin',” he commented. He slapped a heavy cut on a rock beside, kept cutting.
Across the fire, Wheelan squatted, teased cherry coals together under a cast iron pan. “Aye. No' since that nest o’ wretches, few weeks back.”
Garles grunted, satisfied, slit another good and bloody cut off the back. "Plenty pleased to be shootin' deer, 'nstead o' them bastards."
“Rather enjoying life. Without summuch necessary violence, ye know?” With a knife, Wheelan carved a pat of butter from a jar, slid it spitting into the pan. "Maybe it's the hunter's life, for us? Maybe leave cuttering behind?"
"Could be. Might do." Garles stooped, proffered the bloody steaks. "Can't be makin' decisions onna empty stomach, tho', can we?
Into the burbling butter went the venison, along with a handful of marjoram and a pair of quartered leeks. Wheelan seared the lot, turning with a big fork, sniffing eagerly. "That's the stuff."
"'Tis, indeed," said Garles, buffing a steel plate with his sleeve. "N' the rest'll fetch us a fair bit."
"Aye. Fair bit. Hold that out, now, it's ready," indicated Wheelan. He forked up a steak. Butter sizzled into the coals.
Wheelan divied up the grub, and they tucked in with their knives. But they managed not even two scant eager bites before a peculiar sound gave them pause: A faint clacking and a clattering, like dry shims, beyond the trees.
Garles froze, a speared bit of meat halfway to his lips. He looked to Wheelan, eyes white. Whelan had hunched as if someone pinched him between the shoulder blades. He whispered: "Whot was tha'?"
"A rum sound, fer sure," muttered Garles. He put down his knife, looking about.
"Wha…" Wheelan started, trailed. Garles raised a finger to his lips.
For the rattling came again, dry and overlapping; like chimes of hollow bone. Not loud. Passive, as if swayed by wind, or by the gait of a stalking creature.
Wheelan's eyes widened. He hunched further, frowned. "No. Couldn't be. We don't kill that much. And it's not been so long since we have. Couldn't be. Couldn't be…"
Garles waved at him. "Shoosh."
Wheelan piped down. "Could it?" he repeated, small.
Their eyes tracked over to Garles' crossbow; to the hanging, bloody buck. "Couple 'o weeks is long enough," said Garles, low. "Bloody well could be."
Wheelan looked at his steak. He looked to the hanging buck, longingly. "Than wha' do we do with these?" he said.
"Only one thing ta do." Garles tucked back into his food with haste, shaking his head. "We finish up, and we leave the rest for it."
He wolfed down the leeks. "We leave it for the rattleshake."
For every predator, there's a scavenger not far behind. With the wolf come the ravens. After the shark follow the hagfish. Following the lynx: the worms.
And behind the venturesome cutter* waits the rattleshake.
A rattleshake is a monstrous scavenger from another world. Where, precisely, none can say. Only that the monster was never ago known in the time of Noren.
It is an osteophage. An eater and collector of bones. It desires not animal flesh. Only the rich sponge of marrow. This it obtains by cracking, gnawing large bones with its substantial, molared beak. The empty bones, gnawed to long splinters, it collects. It lodges them away in the stiff, deep, gummy folds of its skin, where they protrude, stuck fast, like the needles of some dreadful porcupine. This coat of bones protects the monster, and lends its stooping gait a hollow, rattling clatter: the source of its name.
A rattleshake will ply its scavenger's way for many decades. Gnawing and cracking and collecting the bones of man** and beast alike. It grows steadily larger, more ensconced in prickling bone. Its grossly-folded skin grows ever wrinklier, every tackier; cementing its rattling bone quills, and permitting the creature to affix favored skulls as armor upon its beaked head.
Many who've spied a rattleshake will describe a small, bristling haystack of rattling bones. A huge cloak of quills wrapped round a cow-pelvis mask, or some other large bone for a face, with a hooked and nibbling beak below.
A rattleshake is not partial to exertion.
In lieu of the effort required to sniff out carcasses,*** it will prefer to "haunt" a reliable source of kills, usually an apex predator. It follows at distance, waiting. When said predator makes a kill, the parasitic rattleshake patiently awaits its bony share.
Cutter bands naturally risk acquiring the haunting of a rattleshake. † Given the level of violence inherent their profession, even moderately lethal cutters produce a trail of corpses easily sufficient to attract and keep a bone collector pleasantly fed and growing. And, if their trail continues apace, cutters may not even notice the haunting, so occupied might the rattleshake be, several killings behind. If they do notice, it will be by dint of backtracking. Of returning to where they left carcasses behind. There, they will find only bone flakes and curiously pallid dung.
Of course, if they stop their killing, a band of cutters will indeed come to notice their trailing haunt.
Most scavengers are also hunters, if need be, and the rattleshake is no exception. If a haunting grows unfruitful, stops yielding kills, it becomes the hunter who appeals as the rattleshake's next prospective meal.
Cutters who do not kill for a time may come to notice the circling, rattling monster; though they may not see it, for rattleshakes are adept at hiding. The nearing, clattering mantle of bone splinters grows loudest at night, when the thing nears to survey its prey. To prospect its ambush.
Though a rattleshake is loth to exert itself, it will, if immediate food presents itself. And it can do so terrifyingly. With wiry muscles laden with potent phosphate stores drawn from digested bones, a rattleshake may move with explosive force and speed. Striking from ambush and armored with layers of spiny, anchored bone, it is a woefully challenging combatant. Worse yet are its skull-crushing beak and its propensity to house a retinue of deadly grues in its layers of bony spines.
Many an unwitting band has stopped to rest, after long weeks' venturing, for a warm bed and a proper meal. Rest, until there grows, out of sight, but not out of earshot, the rattle of the haunting rattleshake.
"The gang acquires the interest of a rattleshake," is an entry on my wilderness encounter tables. Here's how it works:
Here are my recommendations for statting the rattleshake:
* Cutters are the world's venturing class. Part mercenary, part outlaw; all perilous ambition.
** Many a plagued human body has had its gruesome transformation forestalled by a hungry rattleshake. Despite this, a rattleshake will not eat a grue.
*** Rattleshakes have an uncanny sense of smell.
† Or even a mating pair.