Of Talons And Quills
Monsters come in different shapes and sizes, and don’t have to look only a ‘certain way’. More importantly, there is a difference between being a monster and being monstrous. This short fiction tells the story of just that- what exactly makes a monster. You’ll come across two characters- one who is a good-looking young man, and another who is old and scarred. After you read the piece you can decide for yourself which of the two is the real monster.
Dawn began in the servants-quarters a little sooner than it did for the Masters on the estate. The servants began their daily chores at the first tweet from the birds and the anguished howls from the kennels. As the head-servant of the house, it was up to Jiles to ensure that all activities on the estate proceeded smoothly and efficiently. While head-servants could usually be divided into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, Jiles was exceptionally in the middle; neither too stern, nor too lenient, neither happy nor sad, neither domineering nor subservient. He remained stubbornly in the centre. Which made him the ideal head-servant as his Masters preferred to live their lives in the extremes.
Jiles roused the younger, more amateur servants out of their indulgent slumber and set them to their tasks for the day. He then strolled out into the misty morning and fed the hounds their morning portion of meat. The sight of the War-Hounds tearing into the cuts of meat did little to break Jiles’ passive gaze and neutral expression. There was meat enough for each of them, but they fought over every scrap as if it were the last. The Masters liked their pets aggressive and violent. To Jiles’ mind, this was merely an extension of their personalities.
Finally, came perhaps the least enjoyable of Jiles’ morning chores. He entered the enclosure that housed the progeny of the Hounds; they were famished, filthy and emaciated. He then proceeded to beat them with a stick. One could never be certain if Jiles felt any remorse or pain. His emotions were known only to him.
Within a few weeks, only the most resilient and most violent pups would survive. They would then be reared to serve the Young Master; his own War-Hound bodyguards. Just like his father’s. The punishment meted out, Jiles then retreated to the manor and began supervising the breakfast preparations along with the travel arrangements that were being made for the Young Master. Today was the day that he left to seek tutelage under the great Quill.
Jiles led the entourage of breakfast trolleys towards the Young Master’s bedchamber. As he approached, he witnessed the rather hasty exit of two of the newest servants from the bedchamber. The young boy was badly bruised and clearly wincing in pain; yet, through his pain, he found the strength to wrap his arms protectively around the girl next to him, who unlike him appeared untouched, except for the harrowed and haunted look in her eyes as she stared at the floor. The boy bit his lip and bowed his head as is the protocol when in the presence of the head-servant. Jiles responded with the slightest of nods, and without an ounce of sympathy.
With a customary knock, the entourage entered the bedchamber and Jiles perceived its occupant relieving himself in the chamber-pot whilst enjoying the sight of the misty landscape outside his window. All the servants except for Jiles averted their gaze as they were not permitted to look upon the naked forms of their masters. Only Jiles was permitted, and to this day he didn’t know if it was a privilege or a burden.
“Your breakfast, Master Drake,” Jiles announced and waved the entourage out of the room while he removed the cloches that covered the lavish and excessive spread. The young man having relieved himself turned around with a satisfied and sleepy grin on his face as he announced, “Jiles, that girl from last night. I like her.”
“So I perceived, Your Grace.” Jiles efficiently laid out the breakfast on the appropriate plates along with the cutlery and waited for his ward to begin eating, “I must remind you, Master Drake, that today is the day you….”
“Yes, yes, you needn’t remind me I’ve heard of nothing else for the past week,” Drake responded with a dismissive wave of his hand and stood with his arms stretched out while Jiles, having anticipated the gesture, was already slipping the robe around his shoulders and fastening it at the front. “How long will my tutelage last?” Drake asked sullenly as he walked over to his breakfast plate and began chewing.
Jiles cleared his throat and answered, “Well, first we must persuade The Quill to take you on as his ward. It is my understanding that he has made a habit of refusing royal heirs, preferring to teach commoners.”
Drake made a face of distaste, “What’s the matter with him? He wrote the story of our Empire. He’s the most important person after the First Men. And he chooses to turn away the heirs of the First Men?!” Jiles noticed the stray bits of meat and saliva that flew out of the mouth and positioned himself just out of reach.
“Yes, Your Grace, it would appear The Quill is eccentric. I’ve only heard rumours about what goes on at his estate and I’m not sure if he’s best suited to teach someone of your…. elevated stature” The servant girl’s face from moments ago flashed in front of his eyes and he prayed that the sarcasm was sufficiently masked. Thankfully, his ward was too busy devouring an extra helping of food to care. “Father says that he’s the best.” Drake continued, “And there can be nothing but the best for our House.” He ended his statement with a loud burp and emptied a goblet of watered-down ale.
“Well articulated, Your Grace,” Jiles crooned and began clearing away the messy plate and the leftovers. “You’re coming with me?” Drake inquired and looked at Jiles with a mixture of anticipation and predation. Jiles suppressed a shiver with an avuncular smile, “Of course, Your Grace. It is my duty.” The grin across Drake’s lips brought to Jiles’ mind the hounds he had fed this morning.
“Excellent. And are we taking something for The Quill? As you said, he’ll need persuasion. And Father will not suffer any excuses. So, be sure to take ample gold discs and, as back-up, take a few of Father’s hounds. They can be very persuasive; I’ve seen them,” Drake chuckled and sauntered off towards the baths. Jiles looked at the back of his ward’s head with a slight tremor on his upper lip.
Drake sat next to the carriage window and gazed proudly at the expanse of his family estate. As the line of carriages passed through the final stretch of the gardens, the royal heir took in the fragrance and sighed blissfully before turning to Jiles, “Do you think my tutor will have the same species of roses on his estate? If not, send some over from here. I like the scent of these flowers in the morning.”
“As I’ve already mentioned, Your Grace, we must first convince him to take you under his wing.”
“Oh, he will be convinced. I’ve yet to meet a person who’s refused my proposals.” Drake gazed out of the window and looked upon the squalor that surrounded his estate menacingly, as a desert does an oasis. He pulled the covers over the window and leaned back in his luxurious seat, “You’re on edge, Jiles. Is something the matter?”
Jiles shifted uncomfortably in his seat and cleared his throat, “Not in the least, Your Grace. I’m merely anxious to leave the house unattended. Although your father is away, it is my duty to ensure that things keep running smoothly.”
“You worry too much, old man. But I suppose that’s why we keep you around.” Drake’s boyish face broke into the same grin as Jiles witnessed in the bedchamber, “What’s the name of that girl? The one that attended to me last night.”
“I wasn’t aware that she called on you, Your Grace.” Jiles suppressed another shiver as he looked at his ward.
“Well, she didn’t call on me to warm my bed. Not initially. But I persuaded her,” Drake chuckled and squirmed in his chair in excitement, “I’m like Father, quite persuasive with the ladies.”
“And the boy?” Jiles asked.
“He interrupted me. The girl took some convincing and let out a few screams. The boy thought he’d be the hero of the hour. He was soon put in his place.” Drake met Jiles’ eyes and began looking for a defiant gleam. There was none to be found in the eyes of his head-servant.
“How appropriate, Your Grace,” Jiles replied in a voice that was like rubber stretched to its limit. Drake nodded and lay back in his seat, “Wake me up when we get there. I need some sleep.” And so, he slept. Under the watchful eyes of his servant, whose hands trembled as they formed fists with which he dreamed of pummeling his ward’s handsome face.
Their arrival at their destination was rather anticlimactic by the young heir’s standards. There were no servants waiting to greet them. No refreshments at the gate. Not even a carpet on the steps leading up to the manor’s doors. Instead, Drake found himself surrounded by what he termed as ‘a wasteland’ when he stepped out of his carriage and took in the predominantly farmed estate. Neat rows of fruits and vegetables adorned the landscape and supervising these fields were men and women who normally would not be allowed to glance in the direction of The First Men or their descendants. However, The Quill was given enough freedom to apply his own rules to the lands he owned. “Who would farm their land, Jiles?” Drake asked with a particularly venomous emphasis on the word ‘farm’.
“It is how the people feed themselves, Your Grace.”
“Yes, I know that but who would farm their own land? He’s wasted what could’ve been a magnificent garden or even a lush landscape. This Quill certainly is eccentric.”
Their attention was then captured by the creaking of the doors and the arrival of a rather powerfully built man in modest habiliments. His face bore the scars of his now legendary duels but the eyes, like storm-clouds, were a deep shade of grey, a hallmark of his personality. It was, indeed, The Quill who had come to greet them.
“Welcome, Young Master Drake.” Jiles flinched slightly at the somewhat informal greeting. His ward had never been addressed by any words other than ‘Your Grace’. He cast a sideways glance towards his ward and found the monstrous gleam in his eyes. The man known as The Quill, however, seemed oblivious and sported an amicable smile.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Drake gave the slightest of nods in Jiles’ direction and bade him to speak, “His Grace would like to hire you as his tutor. His father, and my Master, has tasked us with convincing you to take on His Grace as one of your pupils. In exchange, we have brought a fee that should comfortably cover for His Grace’s room and board.” Jiles motioned to the footmen who carried a small chest and placed it at the Quill’s feet, opening it to reveal an obscene number of gold discs.
The prospective tutor glanced at the chest and then back at his guest, “And if I were to refuse?”
Jiles was prepared with an elegant and efficient means of negotiation. He was stopped, however, when a gloved finger from The Quill rose in the air, “I would like to hear from my potential pupil how he would handle my rejection.” The Quill’s emphasis on the word ‘pupil’ was no less venomous than his ward’s use of the word ‘farm’.
Drake stepped forward with an arrogant flick of his hair and addressed the question, “If you refuse, then I have also brought my hounds.” A gentle clicking of the boy’s tongue caused two War-Hounds to leap from the carriage and stand by his side with their fangs bared, ears pinned back and emanating a menacing growl that would frighten the most seasoned of gamekeepers. Drake’s smirk conveyed the rest of his intentions.
Jiles took a few steps back in order to protect himself from the carnage that might follow. He was already trying to think of an excuse as to how he couldn’t prevent the killing of a prominent figure such as The Quill, the man who fought alongside The First Men but refused to be included in their class. Dedicating his life towards the education of commoners, of people like Jiles. For the briefest of moments, Jiles looked at his ward with a murderous expression. His attention, however, was seized by a sharp hiss emanating from The Quill.
Jiles, Drake, and the footmen looked on in shock and awe as The Quill advanced towards the hounds with a sound that dwarfed their growling. His grey eyes took on a more ethereal quality as he stood above the hounds and continued to hiss. Drake struggled to hold his ground under the weight of his presence. The hounds too soon ceased their growling and sat down like two obedient pups, their eyes absent of their former malice and noses sniffing at The Quill’s legs in expectation of appreciation. They received it in the form of a gentle petting by a gloved hand.
“Beautiful creatures you have there,” The Quill remarked casually and stood above Drake. The aspiring pupil was now drained of all wit and reason as he gawked upwards at the scarred face of a man unlike any he had ever met. “I have not yet decided if I shall take you on,” the teacher told his wannabe pupil, “Please, step this way.” He led them into his dimly lit manor and towards the library. The hounds sat still and, for the first time in years, enjoyed the calm bestowed upon them.
The First Men, as a rule, were not drawn to books. They instead chose martial pursuits. So, for Drake, being surrounded by an expansive library was a novel and ultimately repulsive experience. His previous fright long vanished, he tried once again to dominate their host. “You’ve read all these?” he asked as he made himself comfortable on a chair. Jiles looked at their host, who in turn glanced back at him with an annoyed expression as he took his seat behind a table. The centrepiece on the table was a large, elegantly crafted, metallic quill.
“So, this is why they call you The Quill?” Drake reached forward and plucked the writing instrument off the table and examined it closely. “Not much to look at. You must admit. No gold, no jewels; merely a shiny hunk of metal with a pointy tip.” He casually placed it back onto the table and looked at his host. Undoubtedly expecting a reaction that would avenge the submission of his hounds and more importantly, his own. His host merely nodded and restored the quill to its position of prominence on the table.
“It was a gift. And the name stuck,” he offered in response, “Why do you wish for my tutelage?”
“Apparently, you’re the best. And we always have the best,” Drake grumbled.
“I see. Based on that irrefutable logic you’ve come seeking an education?”
Jiles suppressed a smirk but their host was free to indulge in smirking.
“You mock me, Commoner?” Drake retorted.
“No, I merely am astounded at your depth of reasoning.” The chuckle that followed pushed Drake to breaking point as he gnashed his teeth. Before a flurry of expletives could rent the air, the gentle tapping of paws on marble broke the tension. For Drake and Jiles it was a day of shock and awe as they witnessed the slender and lithe body of a tall feline trot into the room and take its place next to their host. Its azure eyes and black fur revealed its species. “Is that a….,” Drake whispered.
“A Nightshade? Indeed.” A gentle stroke of his gloved hands filled the library with a soft purr.
“I want it,” Drake blurted out, “Name your price. Keep your damned tutelage. I want that thing.”
The Quills grey eyes once again changed their nature. “Would you please excuse us?” he asked of Jiles. The Nightshade too ambled out of the library along with Jiles.
Drake looked on in anger as he saw Jiles obey an order from someone other than himself. He then looked at his host with the same fury, “How dare you order my….”
“I think, Young Master Drake,” The stern voice of The Quill cut through the heir’s words, “I shall indeed tend to your education.” His host stood up and gently removed the glove off one hand to reveal a heavily scarred wrist attached to an equally scarred hand. He then slipped off the other glove to reveal a hand that wasn’t human but was scaled and ended in five silver talons.
The scream emanating from Drake would have shattered a few delicate glasses if they were present.
“You’re a monster. Jiles! Jiles! Come in here, you traitorous bastard!” The Young Master screamed.
“An apt observation, pupil!” Quill mused, “We will begin our first lesson by differentiating between ‘monster’ and ‘monstrous’.”
Jiles prided himself on his ability to maintain a straight face even when confronted with his master’s basest of deeds. But on this day, in the company of a loving Nightshade, he allowed himself the luxury of a smile as his ward’s pathetic screams finally matched his monstrous nature.
Arjun hails from the city of Nagpur and comes from a long line of teachers and academicians. He holds a Post-Graduate Degree in International Business from San Francisco and has been writing poems and short-stories on/off since 2011. You can follow his Instagram page, where he reviews books and movies, here.
You can read his articles, here.