‘Sam! Come back here and leave those nuts alone!’
‘Nnnnope! Sammy gonna play! Yeeheehee!’
Holly dashed after her infant son, but too late: Sam vanished out the window with a flick of his bushy tail. Holly gazed around at the jumbled mess of her home, the hollowed trunk of a broad oak. A willow-cane chair lay broken in the corner and her acorn cups were strewn across the floor, while an emptied bowl of honeyed hazelnuts mocked her from the windowsill. Holly sat down amid the wreckage and buried her head in her paws, cheeks wet with hot bitter tears.
How had it come to this? Barely three seasons since her family had arrived from the Northlands to their new forest home, building a fresh life amid the treetops. Then a pitiless winter that smothered the land in snow and ripped her dreymate Barkjon from their lives, leaving Holly to raise their son herself.
A distant ripple of birdsong made her look up. Shuffling to the window she gazed upward through teary eyes. Swallows darted through the air twittering to each other; high among the clouds, a distant skein of honking geese glided in formation.
Holly sighed. How glorious it would be to glide above the forest, light as a feather, free from all cares and worries? Instead she was trapped here, harried morning, noon and night by her insatiable son and his ravenous appetite for food and fun. Even the roomy hollow among the tree roots below was a meagre kitchen itself. She gazed around her humble home, the rough walls decorated with numerous feathers. A kingfisher’s turquoise-blue tailfeather. The glossy black wingtip from a starling. A robin’s fiery orange plumage.
She froze. Was that rustling leaves? Branches snapping? Holly hurried to the window, peered out…and leapt back in shock as a massive dark shape flashed past with a fearsome screech, careering down to earth. A muffled crash. Holly peered down; a bedraggled heap of golden-brown feathers lay groaning amid the churned-up leaf litter. Sam was swinging from branch to branch, giggling as he dropped earthward. Holly craned out the window, fear shivering through her. ‘Sam, come back here this instant!’
Too late; Sam was nearing the forest floor, ignoring her frantic cries. Holly gave chase, scaling down the trunk as fast as she could. Far below the monstrous feathered creature had righted itself and was shuffling towards the bushes.
Wth her son dashing straight towards it!
It was a huge male eagle, a gigantic skyhunter with fearsome curved talons. The mighty bird flopped about, right wing dragging limp as it crawled towards the shelter of the dense undergrowth. Sam cut off its escape and crouched before it, holding out a friendly paw.
‘Aaawww, poor birdie, is your wing ‘urted?’
The eagle drew itself up to its full height, fierce golden eyes bulging as it hissed a warning through its dangerous hooked beak: ‘Kaarrhzz! Impudent liddle puffball. Outta my way, or I’ll gobble you up!’
The little squirrel chuckled and tossed a honeyed hazelnut in front of the savage bird. ‘Awww, Sammy won’t ‘urt you. ‘Ave some food, yum-yum!’
The eagle hopped to the nut and devoured it hungrily, just as Holly arrived panting on the scene. Her infant and the deadly eagle were far too close for her to safely intervene. Holding her breath, the squirrelmum inched forward. The fearsome predator turned its scornful golden eyes upon her. ‘Ach, stay back, bushtail!’
Holly bristled, baring her teeth. ‘Not that you care, bird, but that’s my little babe there and if you dare harm a hair on his head, I’ll kill you!’
The eagle glared back. ‘Careful, branchbounder. You dare insult Rorak Bloodbeak, skylord and Ruler of the Icepeaks? None have called me bird and lived!’
Holly folded her arms. ‘Aye, and I’m called Holly by those with any manners. None have dared call me bushtail and lived – er, that includes branchbounder too!’
Holly stepped back as Rorak loomed over her. She thought the monstrous eagle might lunge upon her, but then the miraculous happened: Rorak dipped his head and smiled.
‘Krakarrr! You don’t lack courage, missie. Your enemies must be few indeed or deadbeasts, methinks!’ He jabbed his beak towards Sam, who was holding out another pawful of nuts. ‘Erm…beggin’ yer pardon, o’ course, but you wouldn’t begrudge a brawny hunter his vittles, would you?’
Holly clenched her paws. ‘Only if you promise not to harm my little one, sir!’
Rorak folded his uninjured wing over his breast and nodded. ‘Upon my honour as crag-king, only son of Laird Mactalon, I swear!’ Then he blinked as Sam shook a stern paw under his beak.
‘Silly Wowack. We don’ swear. S’not nice t’swear, y’get sent t’bed! Holly sez so!’
The great eagle threw back his head and screeched with laughter, almost buffeting Holly flat as he flapped his good wing. ‘Oh mercy, we’ve got a fierce lassie here, ain’t we?’
Sam stormed in and began wrestling with the golden eagle’s leg, or at least one hefty talon of it. ‘You leave Mizz Holly alone, ya big bully. Sammy fight ya!’
One of Rorak’s formidable talons looped through the squirrelbabe’s smock and swung him aloft, facing fierce golden eyes. ‘Fur ‘n’ Thunder! You wouldn’t kill a poor defenceless bird like me, would ye, liddle tyke?’
Sam swung a paw at the eagle king. ‘Sammy knock ya beak off if you ‘urt Mizz Holly!’
Rorak dropped him into Holly’s arms, chuckling. ‘I don’t know what your mamma’s feeding you, but it must be mighty fine food to raise such a brawny beastie! Best surrender now, before I’m slain by the pair of you!’ Then he scowled at his crooked wing. ‘Agh, couldn’t even harm a fly now. Still got my beak and talons, mind, so I’ll be sure to handle meself even to a bonnie lad like him!’ He squawked and began preening himself.
Holly set Sam down, smiling as the eagle eagerly munched more nuts. ‘Truce, then. You don’t hurt us and we won’t hurt you.’
The eagle nodded to her. ‘Fair’s fair. Got blown here by the wind some days back. Took shelter in those pines yonder, when some crows mobbed me. Tchah! Spineless cowards, they were. Took ten of ’em to best me – that’s how I hurt my wing.’
Holly moved closer, eyes creased in sympathy. ‘D’you mind if I take a look?’
The eagle turned away, ruffling his feathers. ‘Ach, it’s no concern o’ yours. I’ll be just fine, lass.’
Holly folded her arms. She recognised stubborn pride when she saw it. ‘If your wing doesn’t heal, you’ll die.’
Rorak flexed his wing feebly, winced, then turned a sullen eye skyward.
‘All right,’ he grumbled. ‘Help me.’
Holly moved close and began gently probing his injured wing. Rorak turned his head away haughtily. ‘This is so embarrassing…Ow!’
Holly pinched a tailfeather. ‘Shut up. Had plenty of practice raising Sam here. Hm, no breaks or fractures – looks like you’ve sprained the joint, that’s all. Wait here while I fetch some things!’ She streaked up the trunk towards home, leaving Sam giggling as he tossed more nuts for Rorak to catch.
Soon Holly returned with her medicine bag filled with bindweed, pine resin and motherwort. She crushed them into a compress and bound up Rorak’s injured wing, using a willow twig and wild rhubarb fibres to bind the dressing tight.
‘There! Once that resin sets firm, the wort ‘n’ weed’ll do their work. Don’t try moving your wing much, sir. The more you keep it still, the quicker it’ll heal. Three days should do the trick.’
Rorak gaped at her. ‘Ugh, you mean I’m earthbound for three full days, and can’t fly?’
Sam patted his back in commiseration. ‘Awww, poor Wowhack, you’s grounded jus’ like me. Heehee!’
Rorak snapped at the cheeky squirrelbabe, who fled behind his mother muttering, ‘Choppa off y’tail if ya do dat again, Mista Wowhack! I’s on’y a likkle squiggle!’
With the help of Sam’s nursery rope ladder, Rorak eventually hauled himself aloft with talons and beak. Dusk was falling as the curious trio began supper, Rorak perching outside craning his head through the window. Redcurrant tarts, hazelnut toast with blackberry jam, russet apple slices, fruit scones – the ravenous eagle guzzled them all down, fixing a stern eye on Sam whenever he tried stealing second helpings.
As the moon rose they retired to bed, Sam swaying in his hammock with Rorak roosting outside his window. Holly lay on her bed, smiling as the mighty eagle had his patience sorely strained by the chattering squirrelbabe.
‘Good ol’ Mista Wowhack. You my bes’ matey, ain’tcha?’
‘Oh aye, y’liddle terror. Now you git t’ sleep an’ stop gabbin’.’
‘Righto, I goes t’sleep now. G’night, Mista Wowhack.’
‘…See you inna mornin’.’
‘Aye, now be quiet.’
‘I quiet now. Sammy quiet.’
‘Well, I should ‘ope you are, squirrelmite!’
‘Oh I are.’
‘Shush, d’you ‘ear me. Be quiet!’
‘Sammy quiet. You da one makin’ alla noise, Mista Wowhack. Heehee!’
Three days later, and Holly’s larder of candied hazelnuts was noticeably lower. Still, Rorak had proved an unexpected kitchen helper, wafting his uninjured wing to fan the flames while keeping a stern eye on her mischievous rascal. Already Holly had turned out a superb cauldron of mushroom soup that the eagle guzzled down eagerly and pronounced excellent.
But now Holly had brought him to a sizeable forest clearing, he looked decidedly anxious.
Morning sunlight streamed down as Rorak drummed his claws. ‘My wing still twinges. You sure it’s fixed?’
Holly patted his flank. ‘Sure I’m sure. It’s bound to hurt, just stiff through being idle. You’ll have to try using it. Go on!’
Rorak spread his wings, flexed them experimentally and broke into a shambling run across the clearing. Launching himself off the ground he flapped madly for a short distance then stumbled to rest on the forest floor. Holly hurried after him, applauding. ‘Well flown, sir! Great effort!’
The eagle clacked his beak. ‘Ach, nearly there. I must say, this ‘ere splint’s done a world of good.’ He held out a talon and Holly shook it. ‘My thanks to ye, lass. Oh, look out – ‘ere comes trouble!’
With a whoop Sam dashed by, arms outstretched as he flapped two oak leaves. ‘Heehee, Sammy fly now. Yahoooo!’
Rorak chuckled as the little rascal vanished among the trees. ‘Never a moment’s peace with that ‘un, eh?’
Holly laughed as she unpacked her lunch satchel. ‘Goodness, no! Still, got you to thank for pulling him into line. Fancy some plumcake that he hasn’t stolen yet?’
The eagle munched it eagerly. ‘Bless his liddle heart, ‘e means well. Erm, bring any o’ those nuts with ye, perchance?’
Holly shook her head, smiling as she cut an apple into quarters. ‘Sorry, just Sammy’s cordial and some fruit. Fancy a piece?’
Holly sprang to her feet, horrified. ‘Sammy!’
A dark wriggling mass rose above the treetops. Sam wailed as the squabbling crows lifted him higher. ‘Waaaaaaaahhh! Mummyyyyy, help meeeee!’
Holly raced into the trees, brandishing her daggers as Rorak trotted gamely behind. ‘Wait for me, lassie! It’s too dangerous!’
But Holly was deaf to his warning cries. She streaked through the treetops after them, leaping from branch to branch with her satchel thumping her back. Whenever she lost sight of them above the dense foliage, her youngster’s pitiful sobs spurred her on. Soon she glimpsed a broad green hill rising above the woodland. At its summit was a thick pine grove. The wriggling mass of fur and feathers disappeared into the gloom with a blubbering wail.
Bursting out of the trees Holly stormed up the slope, a dagger in each paw. ‘Mummy’s coming, my liddle scrumpet!’
Harsh raucous squawks echoed through the forbidding darkness as great winged shadows flapped amid the branches. Far behind her Holly heard Rorak’s anxious voice. ‘Wait for me, Holly! Don’t go in there alone!’
Yet Holly was beyond reason. Wild with motherly rage she charged into the grove, yelling the time-honoured battlecry of northern squirrel tribes.
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