They are the inheritors of one of mankind’s oldest and fondest wishes: that we might join the birds we envy and fly with them in the unbounded vastness of the depths above. In leaving the ground they have lost none of their ancestors’ pride or taste for blood and the creatures are famed for their mercurial temperament and capacity to hold a grudge. In appearance Vaarnish harpies are man-sized predatory birds with vibrantly coloured feathers, possessing also the visages and hands of pale, aristocratic pre-Collapse humans. The creatures are generally cultured and speak eloquently, both in their own piercing court- and battle-languages and in Vaarnish, Hegemonic Standard, and Low Autarkic dependant on the social milieu. Their clawed hands are as dextrous as any true-kin’s, and they are quite capable of firing a bow while aloft.
Harpies are matrilineal, with all fledgelings considered the property of the Chatelaine in whose Roost the egg was incubated and hatched . Womenfolk are seen as creative and subtle, natural leaders, the daughters of Icara, Ostriel’s founding goddess. Menfolk meanwhile are viewed as dull and brutish, born for war and servitude.
Once they reach maturity, male harpies live largely as conscripts or consorts, depending upon their physique and disposition, either fighting for their Chatelaine’s honor in the vicious exhibition battles that are waged between rival Roosts, or else sold in marriage to an allied Chatelaine. Female harpies meanwhile are presented as courtiers to the Queen Beyond the Sky, given to one of the great temples of Ostriel to be inducted into the Mysteries, or are kept within the Roost as companions and servants of the regnant Chatelaine, one day (if they are cunning and ruthless enough) to succeed her.
Harpy Chatelaines are the political and military players in Ostriel, subservient only to the Queen Beyond the Sky and her courtiers (although it is understood that the Queen will intervene only rarely in the affairs of her devoted Chatelaines). Each Chatelaine has absolute control over her husbands, the children and grandchildren hatched within her Roost, and any daughters and nieces who have been kept in her service, as well as the hostages she has taken from other Chatelaines. Lesser Chatelaines command the loyalty of only a handful of mercenaries or hereditary guards, while great Chatelaines command legions of soldiers, both harpies and flightless underbeings, as well as armoured war-zeppelins and pre-Collapse siege engines. With such forces does Ostriel control much of the Wall, and settlements throughout the construct fear the shadow cast by a Chatelaine’s warships.
Perhaps the harpies would have conquered Vaarn long ago, if not for their chronic penchant for betrayal and revenge, making it impossible for Ostrielese armies to be deployed farther afield than a few days’ travel. Ostriel’s fleets might be able to wrest Gnomon from the grip of the Hegemony, but the Chatelaine that dared such a feat would be quickly deposed by her enemies in the City Unconquered, for the investiture of troops would leave her vulnerable at home.
The greatest shame in harpy society is to lose flight – this punishment is sometimes temporary (the clipping of wings) or permanent (severing of wings, the punishment for insults or threats against the Queen). Rank is all-important, and precedence is signified by elevation, with the most exalted Harpies perching highest within the hall while their dependents perch below and flightless underbeingsjostle for position on public benches. Another curious trait of the harpies is their disdain for commerce – it is unseemly for a Chatelaine or her entourage to pay for anything, and preferable to either receive gifts or take what is desired by force. Therefore Ostriel mints no currency and the Queen Beyond the Sky collects gifts in the form of pelts, meat, jewellery, ropes, or whatever else can be mustered by her subjects. This is not to say that the Ostrielese will not trade – their merchants are widely encountered in Vaarn, but the harpies who travel with these expeditions do not haggle themselves and will pretend not to be aware of the nature of the transactions their underbeings negotiate.
The visitor to Ostriel, then, should be appraised of two matters of etiquette: one is never to rise higher in elevation than a harpy, even by accident (it is safest to lie down when in the presence of highly-ranked personages). The other is never to refuse a gift, for this forecasts an intent to take the object by force, and the feathered citizens of Ostriel believe in eliminating potential threats swiftly and decisively.
All images are sculptures by Forest Rogers.