Jonathan Chesterfield strides along the road, the outstanding candidate for the vacant post at the Savoy Hotel. Smartly dressed in a crisp grey suit, shoes freshly polished. He checks his watch: forty-five minutes until his interview. Perfect amount of time – long enough that there’s no chance of being late, but not so long that he’ll be embarrassingly early and look as if he’s been preparing for nothing else for weeks. Time management is crucial. Plan for every minute. Well, he’s done precisely that for today’s interview: rising with his alarm clock at seven-thirty, showering for ten minutes exactly, eating a breakfast he pre-planned for slow energy release. One soft-boiled egg, three slices of toast with marmalade, two fortifying cups of tea. Then precisely an hour doing the same thing he’s done every day: rehearsing his answers to questions the interviewer, a Mr Allan, might ask.
What are your strengths?
(Modest laugh.) Well, this question’s rather a minefield, isn’t it! I suppose there’s my modesty, to start! (Mental note: judge whether it’s the right situation where a joke would be appropriate.) No, but seriously. I think I’m a good team player. I put my organisation before myself. That’s what I’ve proved at Lloyds, and before that at Butlins and Spar, my previous employers. I would also say that I’m well-organised and efficient. I’ve been to see this (insert flattering adjective here) hotel in action and noticed how smoothly it all runs. You need someone who can fit into that, who can become part of that well-oiled machine – an important part, but unobtrusive. I think that’s me. Also, I’m particularly proud of my time management, which I feel would be a huge asset to the team here at the Savoy.’
And any weaknesses?
‘Well, everyone has weaknesses, of course. I’d say that I often set myself unfairly high standards, and perhaps sometimes the same to people around me. At Spar I was occasionally told off – sounds funny – for working intimidating amounts of overtime, or for keeping my own department in such good order that other areas of the shop looked rather shabby. I’m always eager to learn from criticism, and I’ve learned from those experiences that you always have to make allowances for others in your team.’
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
‘In your chair, but asking better questions! (Deferential laugh.) No, but seriously. I’d hope that I’ll be doing what I’m doing now – operating at a high level while delivering great service – but within a position of increased responsibility. I’d like to think that by that time, I’ll have proved my worth to this hotel and, God willing, would be a major part of its hierarchy. I don’t see the Savoy Hotel as merely some sort of stepping stone to a bigger place. I see the next five years as being a great process of – ’
A woman rushes past, her folded umbrella snagging on his jacket. The two of them glance briefly at each other, annoyed; then she hurries on, out of his life. He looks down in case there’s a mark on his jacket. Nothing, so he settles back into his interview rehearsal as the sun spills over the brickwork of Charing Cross station up ahead.
What in particular attracts you to the Savoy Hotel?
‘Of course, I’ve been aware of the outstanding reputation of this hotel for a long time, like anyone interested in London life. (Mental note: try saying this as if you’ve lived in London for ages, rather than moved down from Coventry just two years ago.) I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that it’s an institution, a well-respected establishment not just to stay at, but do whatever you want. And I would love to be someone who can help guests to – ’
A double-decker bus swerves past; Jonathan instinctively flinches away as if it might lurch onto the pavement. He glances up at its gleaming red shell bathed in bright sunshine, and vaguely notices the banner advert for a romantic comedy ‘now showing in cinemas!’. He saw the same ad last week. No date. Had it been included, Jonathan might have remembered what day he last saw it, and perhaps realised that his Savoy interview was actually meant to take place then. And so he continues onward, the perfect candidate, mentally rehearsing his finely chiselled answers to questions that will never be asked.
While in the Savoy, now only a hundred yards ahead, the person who already got the job a week earlier is happily at work.
I HAVE A JOB PROPOSITION FOR YOU, the deep booming voice thundered through the filthy alleyway. It echoed the crumbling roar of ancient mountains, the bottomless depths of yawning chasms far underground. THREE MEALS A DAY, AND PROPER LODGINGS WITH GUARANTEED JOB SECURITY.
‘Erm, I don’t think that’s gonna work, mister,’ piped up a ghostly blue figure slumped against the slimy brick wall. The first speaker – a tall black-robed figure – straightened up, adjusting the monstrous scythe over one cloaked shoulder. Pale blue flames burned deep within eyeless sockets, revealing a white skull’s face frozen in a rictus grin.
WHY IS THAT?
The transparent man scratched his head, not far from the throwing knife embedded deep in his right temple. Torn packets of peanuts were scattered around him.
‘Well…’ He thought for a moment. All in all, a very, very weird day – especially if you considered all this accidental-knife-in-head business – so he tried again, aiming for casual, ‘…cuz that’s not what folks usually do. Usually y’say something like, “Here, kitty-kitty”.’
The skeletal figure appeared to consider this for a long while, then nodded and kneeled once more, aiming his words towards one of the trash cans. Behind it a small grey kitten eyed him suspiciously.
HERE. KITTY. KITTY. Dull, flat tones, the clashing of monstrous gravestones in worm-haunted crypts.
The cat remained unmoved. And unimpressed.
‘Maybe you should try some bait,’ the ghost offered. The black-robed figure appeared in deep thought, before rummaging through the folds of his cloak. Eventually he pulled out a tiny skeletal rat, also hooded in black and wriggling furiously.
I SWEAR I WILL PAY YOU WITH ADEQUATE CHEESE FOR THIS.
The Grim Squeaker stopped waving his fists, and jutted out a bony chin. SQUEAK.
The Grim Squeaker folded his arms and fixed the towering figure with something akin to a baleful glare. Green flames flared in eyeless sockets.
FINE. TWO AND A HALF.
After a few seconds, the rat nodded and cracked bony knuckles.
‘I was thinking more like a fish or something…’ the ghost began, but Death raised a hand.
DO NOT WORRY. HE’S GOT THIS. The robed skeleton placed the Grim Squeaker onto the cobbles. The hooded rat rolled bony shoulders, then slowly lowered itself into the traditional four-legged pose of a snuffling rodent. The kitten’s ears perked up, intrigued. The small robed figure sidled closer to the bins, mimicked sniffing around, then turned his back on them. Feline instinct took over: the kitten darted out from behind the bins and pounced. Mid-leap, a large bony hand scooped her up, cradling her into black folds. She hissed and scratched, but her claws only found hard bone and thick robes. Eventually she realised that: A: her attacks had absolutely no effect, B: the curious stranger didn’t hurt her at all, just cuddled her close, and C: it was a very hot summer night, and the robe had a pleasant chillness to it. She ceased struggling. Snuggled closer, and purred.
‘Good job, now you have a cat,’ the ghost shrugged. ‘Now you just have to feed it, buy expensive toys for it, and generally go crazy over it.’
The skeleton pauses its delicate stroking of the kitten’s head. REALLY? IS THAT COMPULSORY? The kitten nudged his hand for more attention.
The ghost scratched his gaping head wound. ‘Dunno, but I wouldn’t see it anyway else. Mind you, might be different with skeletons.’
I DON’T THINK SO, said Death, fondly watching the kitten nibble a bony fingertip. He reached down to lift the skeletal mouse up onto his shoulder.
SQU-EEAK. The Grim Squeaker glared at the kitten.
I WON’T FORGET. TWO AND A HALF WHEELS. With that the robed skeleton turned towards the ghostly figure, and the slowly cooling body that it had recently vacated. The corpse was slumped beside one of the trash bins, with half a dozen knives scattered around him, one in his hand and one deep in his own head.
YOU KNOW, YOU ARE SURPRISINGLY WISE, CONSIDERING… Death let his words hang in the air.
‘Yeah, well, it’s easier to be wise after the fact, y’know,’ the ghost shrugged. ‘So, this is it, then? I’m just…dead?’
MANY PEOPLE HAVE A HARD TIME ADJUSTING, BELIEVE ME.
‘All of my life wondering what’s beyond, and then just…this?’
Death shook his head. THERE’S NO BEYOND. THERE’S JUST ME.
‘But…but the Great Hereafter! Across the endless water, beyond the veil, what is there?’
STILL ME, I’M AFRAID.
‘Well…what happen next?’
Death stroked the mewing kitten some more, then paused.
JUST…BE MORE CAREFUL THE NEXT TIME AROUND. AND…MAYBE TRY LEARNING JUGGLING BY USING BLUNT OBJECTS FIRST. He jabbed a bony finger into the ghost’s chest.
‘WoooOOOOH…’ With that, the ghost shrank into a small white light, and flew away into the night at considerable speed. Death gazed after it. His white horse scuffed a hoof at the end of the alley.
SQUEAK? asked the Grim Squeaker, slowly inching away from the kitten’s claws.
WHAT? OH, YES, I FORGOT TO ASK HIM IF HE BELIEVED IN REINCARNATION OR NOT. OH WELL. Icy blue pinpricks flared in amusement. MUST BE GETTING OLD – NO. PUT THOSE BACK. YOU CANNOT TAKE THE PEANUTS WITH YOU.
SKQUEAF, the Grim Squeaker swallowed hurriedly.
COME ALONG, BINKY. Death swung up onto his waiting steed, the kitten nestled in the folds of his cloak as the Grim Squeaker clung onto his hood. The horse nickered, and with a clatter of hooves the four of them rode off into the darkness.
“Kate, what the hell d’you think you’re doing? Is that a dart gun!?”
“Your bloody menace is harassing my Stephanie.”
Josh wilted under Kate’s glare. “Will you relax? She’s an orphan eaglet, just like him. Give the kid a minute with her.”
“Why, so he can claw her eyes out?”
“He just wants to say ‘hi’. Trust me, we’d all know if he were spoiling for a fight.”
Kate grudgingly knew that was true: Archie was already much closer to Stephanie than usual, but his posture was deferential, his attitude more curious than aggressive. Josh squinted through binoculars. Whistled. “Smooth charmer, too. He’s got a present for her.”
Kate frowned, but sure enough Archie dropped a plump trout in front of the other juvenile’s tree. Stephanie eyed him cautiously, then flapped to earth and edged towards the newcomer’s offering. When she looked up warily, Archie shuffled another step away. He was still watching closely when she dug her claws into the fish, but as soon as she took her first bite he stretched his wings and flapped off.
Josh’s face was as smug as Kate’s was stunned. “Archie’s a classy gent, Kate.”
She snorted. “What kind of name is Archie for an eagle?”
Josh rolled his eyes. “It’s short for Archibald. As in Archie Buchanan? First World War fighter pilot. Who names their eagle Stephanie, anyway?”
“I think it’s pretty,” Kate muttered. Before her, Stephanie was digging into the trout with relish.
Archie was back the next day with another fish in his talons. By day four, Stephanie would leave her tree as soon as she saw him approach. They danced around each other at first, but Archie stayed longer every time. Eventually, Stephanie was so used to her frequent caller that she let him stand close by while she ate. Josh and Kate exchanged incredulous looks when Stephanie defied all kinds of eagle behavioural norms by pushing one of her visitor’s prizes back towards him, obviously willing to share. Even Archie looked unsure, but when he lowered his head to take a tentative bite, Stephanie piped cheerfully at him and returned to her meal with gusto.
Josh blinked. “You know you’re way too young to be this into her, right?”
Kate muttered darkly about men who spoke more kindly to birds than other people, but Josh decided he could take a lesson in chivalry. Even if it was being taught by a juvie bald eagle.
“At least he’s got taste — she’s a lovely bird.”
A long silence. Then Kate grinned. “Your aviator’s not too shabby either.”
It all changed on the crisp winter morning Archie appeared with something furry squirming in his talons.
“What the hell, ace? Steph doesn’t even like mice.”
“I think he wants to teach her to hunt.” Kate’s tone was curious.
Josh made a monumental effort not to scoff. “Don’t get your hopes up, okay? He’s a bald eagle, not a dolphin — they’re not really wired like that.”
But Kate was right. Archive landed with his usual grace, caught the waiting Stephanie’s eye and released his victim. Stephanie watched, confused. Archie snagged the mouse before it could escape, stared his companion down, then released his prey again. This time, Stephanie made a clumsy grab for it. Missed. Archie snatched up their snack, patiently released it again. Stephanie caught the pathetic creature on her third attempt, but didn’t seem to know what to do next. After some hesitation she offered it back, watching closely as Archie killed it with a single jab of his beak. He shuffled a few feet away, letting her edge closer to pick at it. When Josh glanced over, Kate was smiling warmly.
“Your Archie’s well ahead of the learning curve.”
“Oh please. Do you think I’d waste my time on anything less than the best?”
Archie’s little masterclass progressed well, Stephanie quickly learning to pursue their small prey as soon as it scurried towards her. In no time at all she’d catch Archie’s partially stunned victims on her second try, then her first. On the fifth day she finished off an unfortunate baby rabbit for herself, jabbing at it with her beak just like Archie had done. Kate threw her arms around Josh and whooped.
Before long they were soaring together, chasing and diving like a mated pair. They still ate together more often, and remained the only birds Josh had ever seen share their kills without squabbling.
“These kids are completely nuts,” he complained, watching Stephanie present a small salmon to Archie with what looked like bashful avian pride. “I’d write a paper on the childhood betrothal of bald eagles, but I don’t want all North America’s ornithologists thundering up here to gawk at them.”
Plenty of juveniles would construct twig nests long before they were mature enough to find real mates — playing house, researchers called it — but there was an unusual degree of gravitas to the way Steph and Archie went about it. When the lovebirds actually settled down in their junior eyrie-to-be, Josh just sighed.
“They can’t be thinking about — no! What am I saying? They literally can’t do that yet, they’re still juveniles. Ugh. Look at me talking like they’re gonna run away together if their parents don’t approve. Kate, the eagles are making me crazy.”
She squeezed his shoulder sympathetically. “It’s incredible. You sure you don’t wanna write your paper?”
“No way,” Josh grinned. “We’re not letting any nosy parkers cramp Archie’s style this year.”
The next time Kate yanked Josh bodily out of sleep, her eyes were red from crying. The storm howled above.
“We’ve lost her,” she sniffled. “There’s just…nothing.”
An unexpected late blizzard had devastated the area. He followed her out into the lab half-dressed. Some of their coworkers still awake; most looked away discreetly, trying to give them some privacy.
“…Maybe the storm’s just messing their beacons up?” an intern piped up hesitantly. Kate looked hopeful until Josh found Archie’s still-flickering light, frozen in place. He reached for the keys to his truck, but Kate’s hand closed over them.
“Don’t you dare.”
“We’ll lose them both. He’s not going to leave his girl.”
“If you go out and get yourself killed we’ll lose them both and you.” She shoved him backward sprawling into his chair. “You know I love him too.”
He nodded reluctantly as she hung up his keys.
For the next agonising two days they watched Archie’s heartbeat slow as the snow howled down. As soon as the tracks were declared passable Josh leapt to his feet, ready to fight Kate if he had to. Instead he found her waiting for him, field jacket already on and a bulging case of medical supplies in hand.
When they reached Archie’s flickering coordinates, they feared the worst. The eagles were a tattered mess of wings and bloody snow, Stephanie sprawled at impossible angles with her protector draped over her like a tragic Persian quilt.
“She hit the cables,” Kate whispered. Full-grown, their wingspan was a serious liability when they strayed fatally close to electrical wires. Josh flinched — a horrid way to go.
“And of course you stayed with her, you poor sap.”
He reached out gingerly to smoothe Archie’s icy head-feathers back, a last gracious dignity…and nearly jumped out of his skin when Stephanie lifted her head to snap feebly at him. He stared at Kate, beseeching. Kate peered closer, a slow dawning smile. The shock had fried Steph’s tag, but hadn’t take their brave girl out of the fight for good. Even better that her fearless defender had given everything to keep her still and warm against both injury and cruel wind.
With Archie still motionless and Stephanie’s wing broken in at least two places, they were more than justified in moving the birds. But Stephanie began keening unhappily as Kate slipped the travelling hood over her eyes. Her claws clenched unyielding over her mate’s, her undamaged wing beating miserably.
“Hey,” Josh crooned, wrapping his arms around her before she hurt herself. “Don’t freak out, honey. He’s still right here.”
“Still won’t budge an inch,” Kate murmured once the pair were safely in the truck. If Stephanie hadn’t been hooded there was no way they’d ever have been allowed close enough to swaddle the half-frozen male in warm towels and insulated blankets.
“Smart girl,” Josh nodded. “If I ever find a woman as keen on me, I’m going to cling onto her just like that.” Stephanie burbled in reply as Kate smiled, stroking her head.
“He’s quite something, isn’t he?”
“I told you months ago, Kate: our Archie’s got class.”
Thankfully, the centre’s on-site vet announced that Stephanie’s wing fractures were her worst injuries: even they were clean and easy to heal. Her mate had arrived “practically deep-frozen, honestly,” but all he really needed to recover was time, warmth and sympathy.
Josh grinned. “So what you’re saying is: we just give them food and shelter and then leave them to hang onto each other?”
The doctor nodded. Kate laughed. “That’s been our strategy for close to a year now.”
“You two are still completely nuts,” Josh groaned. “I should just write that damn paper. We could make a whole documentary about you and people would convince themselves it was all CGI. I’ve seen sock puppets behave more like proper regal eagles than you.”
Stephanie, having ripped apart Kate’s gift salmon, nudged a good portion of it towards her mate and loomed over him, almost menacing, until Archie nibbled at it.
“We oughta move you south to New York — I think the cold’s messing with your heads.”
“Says the man who regularly talks to bald eagles.” Kate joined him, watching Stephanie pick her way through her own share. From time to time, she peered over to make sure her mate was still resting quietly to one side.
Archie offered Stephanie a length of bright white twine as she finished her meal. She inspected it, clucked her approval, and laid it carefully with the twigs and other scraps they were gathering for their future nest.
“They really are odd,” Kate admitted fondly. Josh turned away, grinning.
“Josh! Josh, look!” A hand clutched his arm. He turned.
“I’m looking,” he assured her. “What am I looking — oh. Yeah, okay, now that’s flying.”
Archie had scrambled into flight, executing a playful spinning dive that had Stephanie chuffing reprovingly as she gave chase above the bare treetops.
It wasn’t just a courting ritual — it was the courting ritual. They soared into the clouds, Archie circling his mate as Stephanie called to him. They locked talons.
The pair careened wildly towards the earth below, entwined in glorious free fall. They broke apart close enough to shiver the treetops, both screaming with joy. Kate gasped with relief. Josh grinned through his tears.
Mice aren’t clever. Despite what men in white coats eagerly scribbling on clipboards think, mice live simple, uncomplicated lives. They don’t worry about sin. They’ve never coveted their neighbour’s Cheddar. Mice aren’t good at passing on warnings down each generation. Young mice aren’t taken to famous trap sites and solemnly told, ‘Here’s where your Uncle Ernie passed away, thanks to some three-month-old Gouda and a Pratt ‘N’ Sons Big Cruncher Number 2.’ All they know is, what the hell, here’s something tasty to eat on a wooden board with wire around it. And before long it’s sniff-sniff, scurry, nibble SNAPdead.
Besides, any rodent who’d survived a clawing hissing ginger-furred monster and thought “Y’know what’ll fix this problem? A little tinkly bell” was clearly a few sandwiches, three folding chairs, a tablecloth and a whole winding trail of ants short of a picnic.
Rats, though . . .
Rats are smart.
The magical waste had helped. The dump they called ‘home’ and also ‘lunch’ was behind the University, and the big bearded men in pointy hats were always tossing stuff over the wall after they’d finished with it. All the battered spell-books and the stubs of dribbly candles and the grease scrapings from cauldrons ended up on the rubbish dump, along with the rusty tin cans and kitchen scraps. Oh, the wizards had put up warning signs saying DANGEROUS and TOXIC, but the rats hadn’t been able to read in those days, and anyway they liked dribbly candle wax . . .
If asked to describe what they did most days, the rats in Cheez Bitz’s gang would have given each other knowing grins of ‘This ‘n’ that’ or ‘Whatever we fancy’, although Chunky would’ve probably settled on ‘Hurrgghh?’ They were, in the eyes of an uncaring society, vermin, although they wouldn’t have thought of themselves as such and couldn’t even spell words like ‘disgusting’, ‘ravenous’ or ‘pox-ridden’. What they generally did was move things around. And yes, sometimes the things were on the wrong side of a locked granary door, say, or in the wrong larder up on a very high shelf. But if you didn’t have a celebratory widdle in the cream after a theft well done and leave a smelly calling card on the flour sacks, well . . . what kind of rat were you?
Cheez Bitz squeaked the signal to halt. The stick wobbled under his weight.
‘I’m right over the cheese,’ he said. ‘Smells like – yep, Dorset Blue, Extra Mature. Pretty mouldy, too. Move me in about two paws.’
The stick bounced up and down as he was pushed forward, hanging like a seesaw above the trap’s steel jaws.
‘Steady now,’ he muttered. Both counterweight rats and Chunky – the enormously fat rat acting as pivot – gave him pleading looks. Cheez Bitz ignored them. Dumb muscle was good for some things. Intelligent debate on workers’ rights wasn’t one of them.
‘Careful, sir,’ called one of the younger rats crowding the tunnel behind Trap Disposal Squad Three.
Cheez Bitz grunted, peering down at the monstrous teeth an inch below his nose. He pulled a sliver of wood from his belt, a tiny shard of mirror glued onto one end.
‘Bestbefore, Inbrine, move the candle left a bit,’ he commanded. ‘Your other left . . . That’s it. Let’s see, now . . .’ He pushed the mirror through the steel teeth and turned it gently. ‘Ah, thought so . . . it’s a Smyth and Jenkins Little Snapper, sure enough. One o’ the old Mk. Twos, but with the extra safety-catch. New-fangled stuff. Okay. We know all about these, don’t we? Cheese for tea, lads!’
Nervous titters from the watchers, then someone snickered, ‘Oh, they’re easy—’
‘Who said that?’ growled Cheez Bitz.
Silence. Cheez Bitz glared behind him. The young rats had shuffled aside, leaving one looking very, very alone. And very, very embarrassed.
‘Ah, Nutritious,’ Cheez Bitz nodded, turning back to the trap’s trigger spring. ‘Easy, is it? Glad to hear that. Easier than being back in Light Widdlers Platoon Four, hm? Good to know. You can show us how it’s fixed, then.’
‘Er, when I said easy . . .’ Nutritious began, glancing frantically around for assistance. None came. ‘I mean, Useby showed me on the practice trap and he said—’
‘No need to be modest, Nutritious,’ grinned Cheez Bitz, eyes gleaming. ‘It’s all ready.’ He winked at her. ‘I’ll just watch, shall I? You can get into this harness and do it all yourself, right?’
‘—but, but, but, I couldn’t see too well when he showed us, now I remember, and — and — and—’
‘And Light Widdlers Platoon Four thought you’d be good at trap disposal, did they?’
Nutritious blushed. ‘Er . . . not really, sir. Said I couldn’t be any worse than I was at widdling, sir.’
Sniggers from the ranks. Cheez Bitz frowned. ‘How can a rat not be good at that?’
Nutritious buried her face in her paws. ‘It’s just so . . . so embarrassing, sir.’
‘Right, right. Tell y’what,’ Cheez Bitz smiled. ‘I’ll work on the trap, shall I?’
Nutritious sighed with relief. ‘Yes, boss.’
‘And you can tell me exactly what to do,’ Cheez Bitz finished.
‘Er . . .’ Nutritious hesitated. Now she looked like a rat prepared to rejoin the Widdlers very shortly.
‘Jolly good,’ nodded Cheez Bitz. He carefully put his mirror away and pulled a thin length of wire out of his harness. He prodded the trap carefully; Nutritious shuddered as metal screeched. ‘Now where was I . . . oh yes, there’s a bar here, a little spring and a tripcatch. What do I do now, Miss Nutritious?’
Nutritious gulped. ‘Er, er, er—’
‘Things are creaking here, Miss Nutritious,’ Cheez Bitz’s voice echoed from the depths of the trap.
‘Er, er, you wedge the thingy . . .’
‘Now which one is the thingy, Miss Nutritious?’ Cheez Bitz sing-songed. ‘Take your time – whoops, this bit of metal’s wobbling but don’t let me hurry you along in any way . . .’
‘You wedge the, er, the thingy, er, the thingy . . . er, er . . .’ Nutritious’s eyes rolled wildly. Rabbits in headlights would have looked down on her with withering scorn.
‘Or maybe it’s this big—’ SNAP ‘–aaarrrrgh . . .’
Cheez Bitz slipped out of the harness and dropped onto the trap. ‘All fixed,’ he grunted. ‘I’ve clipped it firm, it won’t go off now. You boys can drag it out the way.’ There was a smattering of polite applause. He walked back to the squad and dropped a lump of mouldy cheese onto Nutritious’s quivering stomach. ‘It’s very important in the trap business to be certain, y’see. You’re certain or you’re dead. Don’t be like the first rat. Now let’s — yes, mister . . . ?’
A weedy little rat had raised a paw. ‘Halfprice, sir. Just transferred from Number Two Heavy Widdlers, sir.’
Cheez Bitz nodded. ‘New meat, eh?’
‘Yessir. Erm . . . why not be like the first rat, sir?’
Cheez Bitz drew himself up to his full height – all five inches of it – and stared down at the young rat. He felt a grudging respect that Halfprice stared back, instead of cringing away. ‘Squad! You know the drill. We don’t wanna be like the first rat, do we?’
‘No, Cheez Bitz!’ they chorused obediently.
‘We don’t wanna rush in like a skrllk idiot, do we? Not like Pinto, eh?’
A collective shudder; several rats cast mournful glances back toward the tunnel bend, where the late Pinto was mouldering in a snapper trap. He’d been a good rat, if a bit smelly. Loyal. Plucky. Upbeat can-do attitude.
Hadn’t saved him. And the stink was only getting worse.
‘No, Cheez Bitz!’
‘Why’s that, mates? Because the first rat who rushes in gets . . . ?’
‘And the second rat gets . . . ?’
‘The cheese!’ they roared; dust showered down from the ceiling.
Cheez Bitz smiled proudly around at them. They were a good crew, all of them – scarred, bitten, ragged and greasy-furred – some with stubs for tails, others missing half an ear or a few claws. You had to be a special kind of rat to last a long time in the Clan. You had to be slow, patient, wary, and thorough. You had to have an excellent memory. Tread carefully. Check everything twice. Never rush in blindly and miss a trigger. And be extra, extra cautious.
Of course, you could join Trap Disposal Squad Three if you were fast and hasty and slapdash and overconfident. You could. You just didn’t live very long. Ten minutes, usually. An hour, tops. A rat who isn’t cunning and shifty and suspicious doesn’t become an old rat. These scabby veterans always trusted their noses. And you didn’t need to tell them where to widdle.
‘And don’t you forget it, mates.’ He patted Halfprice’s back. ‘Squad motto, Halfprice: “The second rat gets the cheese”. It’s your friend down here, pal!’ He turned as two more rats came squelching up the slimy tunnel. ‘Ah, Pilchard! That poison two bends back. Did your lot handle it?’
‘Buried and widdled on, Chief,’ Pilchard saluted. ‘The grey No. 3 type. Nasty stuff. Thought we was runnin’ low on ammo before Peaches found that nice trickle in the wall. All loaded up ’n’ ready for more, Chief!’
‘Good work. Marinade, how’s your warehouse squad doing?’
‘Six grain sacks gnawed through ’n’ marked safe, guv – just two more left!’
‘Well done.’ Cheez Bitz turned to the assembled rats and raised his voice. ‘Everybeast! In front of me, in your platoons, now!’
Quickly the rats shuffled into three large huddles. They’d had plenty of practice.
‘All right, gang, I want to see lots of cheeky stuff. Stealing the grub out of cats’ bowls, pies from under cooks’ noses—’
‘—false teeth outta old ladies’ mouths—’ smirked a small grey rat.
Cheez Bitz rolled his eyes. ‘That was a fluke, Gherkin, I betcha can’t do it again. And don’t keep on telling the kids how you went for a nice paddle in someone’s bathtub. Yeah, we all know you did, but I don’t wanna be losin’ anyone who can’t scramble out of a slippery tub. Anyways . . . if I don’t hear ladies screaming and running out their kitchens within ten minutes I’ll know you ain’t the rats I hoped you are. Now get to it. Cranberry? You lead ’em out.’
Amid muffled giggling, a big scowling rat sergeant stomped forward. ‘Nah then, yew ’orrible scruffy layabouts. You all know the drill; First Platoon, you’re on widdling duty. Go have a good long drink. Nothin’ puts humans off more than seein’ we’ve been around already. Second Platoon, you’re the Squeakers today.’ There was a hearty cheer – Sergeant Cranberry grinned. ‘Yeah, yeah. Settle down, lads. Run around under the floorboards and behind those wainscots makin’ all kinds o’ noise! That’ll drive ’em nuts! Third Platoon? It’s yer lucky day, buckoes – you’re Sneakers! Remember this ’ere’s a new neighbourhood, so we dunno what we’re gunna find. They might be using traps ’n’ poisons we ain’t never seen before, but we learn fast, don’t we? Go slow, go careful. You see any suspicious trays, anything with wires or springs, mark it ’n’ send a runner to me. Understood?’
‘Yessir!’ They roared. Cranberry saluted to Cheez Bitz. ‘All present ’n’ correct, Chief. Squads, on the double – waaait fooor it – by the left, for’ard . . . MARCH! Hup two, hup two . . .’
The three squads trotted away, Cheez Bitz proudly watching them leave.
‘Oh, and . . . Gherkin?’
‘Easy on the swimmin’, all right?’
‘I’m like a duck to water, boss!’
Cheez Bitz shook his head, grinning. ‘And no dancin’ on ahead of the trap squad!’
Gherkin pouted. ‘Aw, boss, can’t I have any fun?’ He waddled off into the hole.
Halfprice tugged on Cheez Bitz’s paw. ‘Shouldn’t we wake up Nutritious now, sir? Only it’s just . . . well, she’s . . . eww.’
Cheez Bitz sniffed the air, wrinkled his nose and frowned down at Nutritious. And what was slowly spreading around her. ‘Ugh. No wonder the Light Widdlers kicked her out. Well, if any humans come by, they’ll sure know there’s rats around now. Off we go then – Chunky, don’t lick that . . .’
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