Instantly the air became thick with screeching black birds diving down upon her. Holly jabbed upward with both daggers as beaks and talons slashed down. She thundered through the murky green twilight, footpaws pounding the thick floor of pine needles as her infant’s tearful sobs echoed high above. Holly gasped as cruel talons raked at her ear. Thwacking away at the squawking culprit, she scrambled up the lower branches of a towering spruce. ‘Hang on, poppet, Holly’s here! Ralakkaaaa!’
Soon a dozen crows lay groaning on the forest floor, overcome by the brave squirrelmum’s ferocity. But there were too many. Ragged squawking shapes clouted her, beaks pecked and talons ripped savagely at her fur and paws. One dagger was knocked spinning into the darkness below; then Holly lost her second blade into the gaping beak of a diving rook. As her gurgling enemy plummeted earthwards Holly was forced to retreat, flailing her satchel with aching paws at any that swooped too close. Battered and bleeding she stumbled down the grassy hillside, the crows’ mocking laughter ringing in her torn ears. Twice she ducked into the grass as a dark shape swooped overhead, its bubbling chuckles washing over her. Finally reaching the safety of the forest fringe, she climbed into the sheltered fork of a gnarled hornbeam, tearing strips from her jerkin to staunch her wounds as she wept bitterly.
Coward! Her son was in the clutches of those vile bullies, yet she’d turned tail and run like a frightened mousebabe. Couldn’t even save her own son from a bunch of rotten featherbags…
‘Heh. Lookit wot we caught, Chigga – a blubberin’ branchbounder!’
Scrubbing a paw across her eyes, Holly scowled down. Four potbellied weasels – three males and a female – grinned up at her, their tunics filthy with food smears.
Holly ground her teeth. Just her luck. A lone weasel was no hassle at all, but a gang spelled trouble. And they could climb trees. Better drive them off boldly on the ground than hide among the branches.
She vaulted down to earth, bag hanging from her paw as she nodded to them. ‘And what d’you want, lady ’n’ gents?’
The largest weasel nudged his neighbour. ‘Aww, lissen to ’er, willyer? She called us gents, Chigga. Laa-dee-dah!’
His crony sniggered, licking his lips. ‘Got ourselves a posh bushtail, Scragg, Heh heh!’
Holly tutted. ‘Afraid not, I’m a squirrel, not a bushtail. Now repeat after me: Got ourselves a posh squirrel, Scragg!’
Chigga spat into the dirt, then pointed a grimy claw at her satchel. ‘Empty yer bag on the ground!’
Holly smiled icily at him. ‘I’d rather not, cully. Takes me half the afternoon just to get this silly thing repacked!’
The leering female swaggered forward. ‘Then show us wotcha got inside…an’ don’t say it ain’t nothin’!’
Her sorrow quite forgotten, Holly rolled her eyes. ‘You mean “don’t say it isn’t anything”. Dearie me, I bet you never attended woodland school.’
Chigga spat on the ground again. ‘Do as we sez, treehopper, or we’ll gut ya!’
Holly eyed him disdainfully. Her mother had lectured her about rude creatures who used foul language and spat a lot. Only one proper way to treat such beasts: withering contempt. She glared down her nose at him. ‘Disgusting habit, spitting. Whatever would your mammas think, hm?’
Sensing Holly was no easy pushover, the female tried a whining tone. ‘Now be reasonable, friend. We ain’t lookin’ fer no trouble. Yeh wouldn’t begrudge some poor starvin’ creatures a bite, would’yer?’
Holly bared her teeth in a dazzling smile. ‘Begrudge a starving creature a bite? Not me, marm. Come ’ere and I’ll bite you anytime. Now clear off an’ leave me alone!’
Scragg growled, pawing a long dagger at his belt. ‘Jus’ open the bag, bushtail!’
The squirrelmum wagged a stern paw at him. ‘There y’go again with that bushtail error. Did I call you a weasel? ’Course not. It’s obvious to anybeast you’re a fat mudfaced toad. Oh sorry, the bag…Here y’go!’
Crack! Her bag thudded down onto Scragg’s head, laying him out flat. Holly whirled upon the others, a dangerous gleam in her eyes. ‘I can forgive bad grammar and petty insults, but that was a good flagon of strawberry cordial, a present for my little babe, an’ that oaf’s just broken it with his fat noggin. Disgraceful! Ah well, only one thing left to say to you lot…Ralakkaaaaa!’
The fearsome warcry of fighting squirrels rang out as Holly hurled herself upon the would-be robbers, swinging her bag left and right as she kicked out fiercely with powerful footpaws.
From the upper branch of a nearby oak, another creature chuckled at the raging mêlée. The squirrel was doing marvellously. Holly had floored Chigga and was about to knock the female’s front snaggleteeth out when Scragg snared her footpaws in a noose. Holly slammed into the ground as the others swarmed over her. Scragg circled his fallen victim, waving his dagger and snarling, ‘Turn ’er on ’er back an’ stretch ’er out, so’s I can get a stab in. ’Old ’er still, ye blitherin’ oafs!’
Pinned helplessly, Holly snapped at Scragg’s footpaws, forcing him to hop back. ‘Put a paw near me and lose it, barrelbelly!’
Something swept through the foliage overhead, rustling the leaves. Chigga glanced up nervously. ‘Wossat, chief?’
Scragg shrugged, looming over Holly with a wicked sneer. ‘Oo cares? Gonna make ye scream ’fore we guts ye, bushtail!’
Holly’s gaze slid beyond him. She smirked. ‘Wouldn’t count on it, snotface!’
A thump behind them. Not a nice gentle sort of thump – like a sleeve of snow gently sliding off a frozen branch, say. It sounded rather as if a large forest tree had been uprooted and tossed casually aside, or a gigantic mountain boulder had violently crashed to earth.
Scragg’s gang suddenly became aware of the sunlight being blocked out.
‘Pardon me, folks,’ boomed a great terrible voice somewhere above them, ‘but I believe the good lady asked you to leave her alone.’
Cowering, they turned to look.
The colossal eagle towered over them, rooted on lethal taloned legs as thick as twin oaks. Holly scrambled upright as the cringing weasels shrank back. Rorak’s staggering canopy of outstretched wings blotted out the sun, casting the trembling gang into darkest shadow. He winked at Holly. ‘Lucky I dropped by. These scumbags cause you any harm, miss?’
Holly caught onto his game immediately; scowling murderously she strutted up and down. ‘Lord Bloodbeak, these scum aren’t fit to live. They’re robbers and bullies; I say you kill them!’
The weasels sank onto their knees and grovelled, wailing and snivelling piteously.
‘Waaahaaahaaagh! Let us go, yer ’onner!’
‘We was just sportin’ wid yer, missie! Don’t ’urt us, please!’
‘Spare us, Lord, we meant ’er no harm!’
The eagle clacked his beak. ‘Hmm, if I slay ’em here it’d be an awful mess, then there’s all that digging holes and burying carcasses…What do you think, miss? It was you they ambushed.’
Hiding a smile, Holly stroked her chin pensively. ‘Thankee kindly, sir. If you hadn’t come along, these blaggards would’ve done me in. P’raps you’d best take them somewhere secluded and finish them off, best thing for ’em.’ She curtsied daintily.’But I leave the decision to you, Lord Bloodbeak.’
The weasels’ blubbering rose to a crescendo, and Rorak spread his wings wide as he roared. ‘I think I’ll start right now if this racket continues!’
Quaking with fright, the dumbstruck gang pressed their bodies into the leaf litter. The mighty eagle paced back and forth, his golden eyes roving over them.
‘Right, you ’orrible lot. I save my beak and talons for proper combat with real warriors. Cowardly scumtripe like you would only dishonour them. But if any of you are still within my sight by the time I’ve counted to three, I’m happy to make exceptions. Remember, Rorak Bloodbeak always keeps his word…One!’
Holly was nearly bowled over in the mad scramble. Before the eagle king had counted two, Scragg and his snivelling cronies had vanished into the woods, their wails fading among the trees.
The eagle clacked his beak in satisfaction, like steel striking rock. ‘Layin’ down the law with a firm claw – best way to deal with bullies!’
Bullies! Those hateful crows! A fresh wave of sorrow overwhelmed Holly and she slumped onto her haunches, head in her paws.
Rorak draped a huge wing over her. ‘Heyyy now, what’s the matter, lass?’
Still weeping, Holly shook her head. ‘I was frightened, Rorak, s-so frightened!’
The mighty eagle chuckled. ‘Goodness, so was I, nearly scared out of me wits seein’ you chargin’ in like a raging thunderstorm! A true warrior, you are!’
Holly flung a pawful of earth from her. ‘You don’t understand. I’m a filthy coward! I abandoned my son, left him in the clutches of those wicked birds. I left him all alone, and ran!’
Rorak gave her a playful shove and sent her sprawling. ‘Oh, I never. I stayed and got killed defendin’ ’im!’
Holly clenched her paws, glaring teary-eyed at him. ‘Oh, don’t talk stupid!’
The eagle smiled, gently wiped away her brimming tears with a wingtip. ‘I will if you will, lass. You did the only thing you could: you escaped. Would’ve been a huge help to ’im if you’d stayed and got yerself gallantly slain, eh?’
Holly sniffled. ‘Didn’t take much bravery to run away, though, did it?’
Rorak rolled his eyes and prodded her sternly with a taloned foot. ‘No, just took a bit o’ common sense, Holly. You’re still alive ’n’ kickin’, see, and now we’re headed back there to rescue yer liddle rogue from those mangy featherbags. Together. C’mon, lass, there’s better things to do with those paws than throw dirt about!’
Holly wiped her nose with a paw and stood up, smiling. ‘I’m glad I’ve got you for a friend, Rorak Bloodbeak. Now let’s go scare some crows!’
Squirrel and eagle hurried through the forest until they reached the woodland edge. Rorak murmured, ‘there lies the carrion stronghold, Holly. Careful now – we’ve been spotted!’
A mob of black crows fluttered out of the grove like ragged dark scraps of windblown cloth, alighting on the grassy knoll before the pines. Their harsh cawing chatter filled the air as they strutted forward to meet the interlopers, wings folded, beaks jabbing forth aggressively. Holly gulped; these savage birds tolerated no trespassers on their domain.
Rorak drew himself up proudly. ‘I know this rabble’s carrion tongue. Wait here!’
He strode out, erect and disdainful. A large crow, far heavier than the rest, waddled forward to meet him. Both birds halted eye-to-eye, beaks almost touching. The crow chieftain plunged his beak into the soil several times, as if showing contempt by digging for worms.
‘Kraaaw rakkachakka krawk karraaaaak?’
Rorak’s fierce golden eyes narrowed. ‘Arrakkaurraka!’
The crow gestured dismissively with one wing, shaking his head. ‘Nakraaaak!’
Wrong answer! Charging forward Rorak slammed the crow into the grass with a ferocious screech and began hammering him ruthlessly with beak and talons. Hopping about, the crow gang cawed encouragement to their leader, but he did not possess the warrior’s heart or ferocity of the eagle. It was over in an heartbeat. A few tattered grey-black feathers drifted earthwards and the crow chieftain lay defeated.
With sharp pecks and talon scratches, Rorak forced him upright. The eagle rapped out a command at his beaten foe. ‘Kreeyaahh! Chavaaragg!’
The crow turned to his gang with a miserable croak, spreading his drooping wings so they trailed upon the grass.
Holly stepped up beside Rorak, wide-eyed. ‘What did you do?’
The eagle clacked his beak triumphantly. ‘Ripped out that scoundrel’s pinfeathers. He’ll never be able to fly again. I forced him to bare his wings as a warning to the others. Wait here, I’ll fetch your liddle tyke! Kreeeeyakaaaaaaarrr!’
The eagle soared into the air. Sailing over the crows’ heads he winged upwards, finally landing in the biggest nest atop the highest tree. A female crow tumbled out with a terrified squawk. Rorak dipped his beak into the nest and lifted out an egg. He put it back. Spreading his wings he flapped wildly, screeching harshly at the crows. Then he ripped a chunk from the nest with his powerful talons and flung it down to earth. Pandemonium broke out below; the crows scrambled into the pine grove, cawing and hopping about in terror. Holly gasped; Rorak was threatening to rip all the nests to shreds, starting with the leader’s, unless they brought out Sam.
Swooping down to land alongside her, Rorak nodded towards the grove. ‘Won’t be long now…just wait!’
Suddenly a wild yell of delight echoed among the trees.
‘Holly-wolly! It me, Sammy, here I are!’
Dashing out of the pines with crows shooing him on, Sam cartwheeled helter-skelter down the hillside, giggling. ‘Yeeheehee! Nyaah nyaah, ol’ fedderybums!’
Holly swept him up into her arms, kissing him fiercely. ‘Such language, Sam! Thank the seasons you’re safe. Why’d you go wandering off like that, eh? Oh my sweet babe, you had me scared to death!’
Sam flung his paws wide, grinning. ‘See, it me, mummy! I norra hurted, big birdies frykkened o’ me. I smacks der bums wiv big sticks, ho yiss!’
Holly hugged her son, then shook a stern paw under his nose. ‘You little fibber, smacking crows with big sticks indeed. Listen, see what Rorak did to that bully’s nest, eh? Well, any more fibs an’ runnin’ off when you’re told to stay home an’ you’ll get the same from me!’
Sam buried his face into her shoulder and sulked. Rorak chuckled. ‘Big ol’ softie, I’ll wager you wouldn’t have the heart to smack ’im, eh?’
Holly ruffled her son’s headfur fondly. ‘He’s a little terror, for sure – but he’s my little terror!’ She looked up as Rorak flexed his wing, golden eyes gleaming as he gazed to the treetops.
Holly’s spirits sank. With his wing mended, Rorak had no further need to stay. He would fly home to the far north, leaving them for good. She plastered on a cheery smile as Rorak turned to her. ‘What d’you think, miss? Fancy a show?’
Sam hopped about with excitement. Holly smiled encouragingly, even as her heart ached with regret. ‘G-go on, Rorak! Fly!’
With a joyful screech Rorak launched himself into the air, circling around the clearing as Sam cheered below. Holly swallowed down the grief clawing at her throat, turning her head away to hide her tears. The eagle did not belong here. His fierce independence. His solitary spirit. He belonged to his own wild self, and the lonesome skies of the far north.
Landing gracefully, Rorak chuckled as Sam ran up to hug his leg. He draped a wing over the giggling youngster, their foreheads pressed together as Sam snuggled close.
Holly watched them fondly. Gently she pulled Sam away, wiping a tear from her eye as Sam whimpered with longing. ‘Heyyy, Sam. It’s all right…’
Rorak bowed his head. ‘Thank you, Holly. For everything.’ Squaring his shoulders he turned away to face the clearing. Sam buried his tearful face into Holly’s tunic. Holly hung her head, her heart crumbling…
They looked up. Rorak was smiling back at them, one wing lowered to the forest floor. He nodded to his broad back.
‘Well? You coming or what?’
Sam squealed with joy and wrung Holly’s paw, his eyes shining. Holly’s breath hitched. ‘But – but we can’t join you! This is our home now. We belong here.’
Rorak nodded. ‘The north’s your home too. Besides, we’ll be back by autumn. What about your family? Bet they’d love to see you again!’
Holly chewed her lip. ‘I don’t know…’
Rorak shook his head, smiling. ‘Just five days’ flying time. You, Sam, some rations for the trip…what more d’you need?’
What did she? What would she be leaving behind, if she left now? A winter larder full of nuts, safely locked tight. Old clothes, a few halfhearted wood carvings, several clumsy attempts at pottery.
Nothing she couldn’t easily replace, should the need arise.
Hope blossomed within her as she hurried home to pack. A batch of honey-soaked oat farls stuffed with dried fruit, two flasks of cool water, a change of clothes, two bedrolls and – of course! – a bulging pouch of honeyed hazelnuts. All the shutters were barred, the kitchen stores locked away. Carrying her haversack outside, Holly turned for one last look at her forest dwelling. A fresh wave of longing welled up, and she blinked back tears.
Sam hugged her knees. ‘C’mon, mummy!’ Holly swaddled him securely in a long length of linen, hoisting him onto her back before knotted the bindings around her waist. After looping the haversack straps around Rorak’s neck, she clambered up onto his back as he smiled encouragingly. ‘Knees either side of my neck, lass. Hold onto the haversack in front of you – that’s it!’ He spread his mighty wings and crouched low. ‘Brace yerselves, mates!’ Sam giggled in Holly’s ear, safe in his makeshift cocoon.
Suddenly they launched upward, streaking like an arrow through the forest canopy. Holly shrieked, hugging Rorak’s neck for dear life as Sam whooped with joy. Every downbeat heaved them up into the sky, higher and higher as Holly shut her eyes tight against the howling wind.
‘All right, all right! You’ve had your fun, Rorak, now please slow down!’
With a sudden lurch they levelled off, gliding slowly through the air.
‘Open yer eyes, lass!’
Holly cracked open one timid eye…and gasped. She gazed out over a world she’d never dreamed of. Mossflower Wood sprawled below them, a vast carpet of lush greenery with the sparkling blue snake of the River Moss winding through the trees. They drifted among towering crags of billowing white ablaze with golden hues. Awestruck with wonder, Holly reached up to trail her paw through the clouds as Rorak chuckled below her. ‘Now this is the way to travel! C’mon, you two, let’s give these woodlands a proper warriors’ farewell, eh?’
The curious trio flew away northward into a golden afternoon, their thunderous roar echoing over the treetops.
Dedicated to Brian Jacques, the best childhood storyteller I’ve ever known
For warrior mice, tyrant rulers and vermin hordes,
For noble quests, island forts and legendary swords
For sumptuous feasts, perilous hares and Badger Lords
© 2020 | Tom Burton